Authors: Stuart Stevens;
The outside groups saw McDaniel as a good bet based on their polling that showed Republican voters in Mississippi overwhelmingly favored cutting federal spending. In the Cochran campaign, we had the same numbers. But I never believed it. And if it was accurate, Cochran had no chance. So we decided to throw out the polling and run a very traditional message that Thad Cochran could deliver more for Mississippi. Instead of trying to convince voters that Cochran really wanted to cut government spending, we focused on the specific benefits he had delivered for Mississippi through federal funding. Instead of running against “earmarked” spending, we bragged about all the bacon Cochran had brought home to the poorest state in the nation. From schools to roads to military installations to shipbuilding on the Gulf Coast to grants for local law enforcement, we made ads with specific examples of why Mississippians were better off with a powerful senator who would fight for every dollar. About 40 percent of Mississippi’s state budget is funded by the federal government, as high as any state in the country.
It was a brutal race. After my firm was hired, I went down for a few days to help out and ended up spending six weeks. While the outside groups were focused on attacking Cochran for spending, McDaniel was running as racist a campaign as I’d seen in Mississippi since the 1970s, including ads that carefully focused on the part of the state flag that was a near replica of the Confederate battle flag. In Mississippi a candidate must win a primary with at least 50 percent, or the top two go into a runoff election three weeks later. The race was so close between Cochran and McDaniel that the 1.6 percent of votes cast for an obscure candidate threw the race into a runoff. Starting with his first run for Congress in the early 1970s, Cochran had always refused to play to Mississippi’s dark side, never using the dog-whistle rhetoric that was standard for white politicians. He was a gentle, kind man whose parents had been schoolteachers and stressed racial tolerance. More than any other white Republican Mississippi politician of the era, Cochran had developed a reservoir of goodwill with the African American community, including the endorsement of Charles Evers, brother of the slain civil rights advocate Medgar Evers. In the runoff election, we made a concentrated effort to bring African American voters into the primary. It was a matter not really of getting new voters for Cochran but of trying to identify and motivate those who had voted for him in previous elections. Much of the federal aid Cochran had brought to Mississippi had helped those most disadvantaged economically, and the contrast with McDaniel, who was promising deep cuts, played well with these voters.
Few gave Cochran a chance in the runoff election, the thinking being that if you have been a senator since 1978 and can’t persuade enough voters to push you over 50 percent in a primary, what are you going to do or say in the next three weeks that you hadn’t done or said in the last forty years? But Cochran won by more than seven thousand votes. Hardly a landslide, but as Chris Cillizza of
The Washington Post
put it, the race was “like watching someone pitch a political perfect game; you’ll not see a victory like this one any time soon.” Cillizza correctly understood the counterintuitive direction we had taken the campaign:
Look at Cochran’s message on TV in the closing days of the race. It’s a Republican message circa 2004: I have tons of seniority in the Senate and that means good things for the state. Vote me out and you can kiss all of that goodbye. (Hell, he brought Arizona Sen. John McCain in to campaign for him in the final days of the contest!) There is absolutely no evidence—before this victory—that a longtime incumbent running on being, well, a longtime incumbent could win in the modern day Republican party. And especially not in a runoff! It did in this case.
After his loss, Chris McDaniel refused to concede and blasted Cochran for winning with “Democratic” voters. In Mississippi there is no party registration—“party is a state of mind” is the classic description—so what McDaniel was really saying was that Cochran had won with black votes. While Cochran did increase his support with blacks in the runoff, it’s doubtful it made up the seven thousand plus vote margin. But the race did illustrate the deeply contradictory attitude of conservatives toward spending. At the end of the day, Mississippi Republicans, as conservative a bunch of voters as you will find in America, came down on the side of supporting a man who could help deliver more dollars to their state. And had no problem still insisting that federal spending was out of control. In my thirty-plus years of working in Republican campaigns, I can’t think of a single instance where the message of cutting spending really moved numbers toward a Republican. Attacking a Democrat for wasteful spending—the “bridge to nowhere” was the classic case—can work, but like in the Cochran-McDaniel race there seems little upside to promising to cut specific spending that benefits a constituency. If the deficit is ever going to be cut, Republicans (and Democrats) have to be willing to take steps that are not immediately popular, and that includes real spending cuts combined with “revenue enhancements,” which is what tax increases are called when no one wants to admit they are tax increases.
In a Washington increasingly divided by ideology, one of the few places where right meets left is the concurrence that the vast majority of farm subsidies are a wasteful scam. The left-leaning Environmental Working Group and the Union of Concerned Scientists praised the conservative Heritage Foundation, which opposes gun control and considers the Democratic Green New Deal a vast left-wing conspiracy, for its call to end farm subsidies. After a withering Heritage report deconstructing the need for farm subsidies, the Environmental Working Group agreed with Heritage: “Today’s report confirms how our so-called farm safety net has strayed from its original purpose—to help farmers weather the ups and [downs in] agriculture, not to guarantee a level income that is well above the income of the average American household.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists agreed:
The Heritage report highlights many ill effects of the current federal farm subsidy system. We absolutely must continue to support farmers, particularly when they need it most, but that support shouldn’t come at the cost of incentivizing certain crops and practices over others, exacerbating land access issues, or disproportionately supporting the largest and wealthiest farm businesses.
Farmers have good years and bad years—like every other business—but the median income of farm households is consistently higher than the median income of nonfarm households. The average American household has a net worth of $82,600, versus $827,000 for farm households.
About half of the billions in farm subsidies go to farmers with household income over $150,000. If Republicans—or Democrats—were remotely serious about cutting the deficit, wouldn’t it be a logical step to cut out what amounts to farming welfare for rich farmers?
In a piece called “The Farm Bill Is Everything That’s Wrong with Congress,” Alex Shephard wrote in
The New Republic,
The Farm Bill was initially conceived as a response to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, an effort to provide fair prices for both consumers and farmers, access to quality food, and protection for natural resources. It wasn’t until 1965 when the funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps) and efforts to regulate and support commodity prices were combined into a single omnibus bill—this was because neither was able to pass on its own, a situation that has grown only more dire under this polarized Congress.
The linking of farm subsidies and food stamps makes sense if anyone thinks the government has equal obligation to help wealthy farmers and poor Americans. In a sane world, aid would be need-driven with any subsidies going to farmers in need just as food stamps are need-based. But the conglomerate that is known as the farm lobby fights every effort to means-test farm subsidies. Meanwhile, Republicans continue to push to make it increasingly difficult to qualify for food stamps. The hypocrisy is not lost on some in the agricultural community. In a
interview, the former USDA chief economist Joe Glauber acknowledged the hypocrisy of the farm lobby taking a stand against income testing for eligibility for farm subsidies, while “you have a knockdown drag-out over whether you’ll give SNAP payments to someone earning $26,000 instead of $25,000. Give me a break.”
As the magazine
The American Conservative
notes, “Agricultural subsidies are one of the most important examples of corporate welfare—money handed out to businesses based on political connections.”
There’s a language war here that Republicans have been winning for decades. “Welfare” is what the poor get because they are, well, poor, and being poor is a choice because in America anyone can succeed. Or something close to that. But “grants,” “tax breaks,” and “incentives” are the language businesses use to describe the corporate welfare they demand in exchange for doing what they usually have to do or want to do anyway, like build a new data center or factory or, in the case of sports, a new stadium. Often the real description should be corporate blackmail. Big business has mastered the art of pitting one state against another state in a sort of eBay bidding war in which politicians desperate to claim they have “created” some mythical number of new jobs bid against each other using taxpayer dollars.
A watchdog organization called Good Jobs First analyzed the subsidies received by high-tech giants. As reported in the San Jose
Tesla, valued by market capitalization at $54 billion, led the way by far, with $3.5 billion in public-money subsidies since 2007. Google’s parent Alphabet, market cap $762 billion, has received $766 million since 2000, with most of the subsidies coming since 2011. Apple, market cap $894 billion, has racked up $693 million in subsidies since 2009. Facebook, market cap $549 billion, has reaped $333 million since 2010. In Nevada subsidies to Tesla cost local governments $68.7 million in 2016, with a school district near Reno losing $36.7 million in revenue “solely to Tesla subsidies.”
Then there’s the whole world of sports madness where billionaire owners somehow manage to get regular taxpayers to underwrite the cost of new stadiums that are basically a license to print money for the monopoly-protected owners. Arthur Blank, who co-founded Home Depot and owns the Atlanta Falcons, managed to get more than $700 million in tax breaks and subsidies to build his new sports palace. Some owners do even better, getting more in breaks than the cost of a stadium.
Is it fair to lay the insanity of middle-class taxpayers’ subsidizing billionaires at the feet of the Republican Party? At any given game, Arthur Blank’s suite at the Falcons’ new stadium will be graced with happy politicians from both parties who feel so special they are invited to the inner sanctum of the billionaire their constituents worked hard to support. But if Republicans were serious about being the party of fiscal responsibility, they would combine any efforts to cut entitlements with a real push to end corporate welfare of all kinds, on the state or federal level. For decades on the center right, there have been endless amounts of self-serious declarations on the need to change the “culture” of welfare, the “culture” of dependency. All of that had a net positive impact, focusing attention on examples of the failures of the best intentions of the Great Society years. Yes, some of it was ill-disguised racist tripe that blamed the poor for being poor. But the welfare system did need reform, as Bill Clinton famously declared in his 1992 campaign pitch to “end welfare as we know it.” Where is the equivalent when it comes to corporate welfare? Republicans have largely been silent and let the left like Bernie Sanders define the outrage.
How about cutting the defense budget? Of the so-called discretionary spending—that is, the part of the budget that is not increasing on automatic formulas—around 50 percent goes to the military budget. When’s the last time you heard a Republican talking about cutting the military? Republicans ridiculed President Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders for claiming that the United States spends more on the military than the next twelve countries combined. Well, it’s true—or mostly true, depending on the year. Sometimes it has dipped as low as only the next eight or ten countries. The next ten would include China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the U.K., Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Any serious attempt to balance the budget by necessity would include defense cuts, but Republicans have decided there is a direct correlation between the size of a patriotic heart and the size of the defense budget. This patriotism-equals-defense-spending is now so common with Republicans that it’s difficult to remember when it was otherwise. I made ads attacking John Kerry for supporting defense cuts. I made ads attacking Bill Clinton for reducing defense spending. One of the great modern political commercials is the Bush 1988 ad showing Michael Dukakis in a tank wearing a helmet that made him look like the Snoopy character, with a voice-over detailing the defense cuts he proposed. I didn’t make that ad—Roger Ailes’s team of ad makers did—but I loved it and thought it was brilliant. So did a lot of other people. For those voters who thought national defense was a key issue, Bush crushed Dukakis.
But have we forgotten? President Eisenhower cut defense spending by 27 percent after the Korean War. President Nixon cut the budget by 29 percent from the peak of the Vietnam War. There was a stretch of eleven years, from 1987 to 1998, in which Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton used the end of the cold war to control defense spending.
Donald Trump is the most isolationist president since Herbert Hoover, attacking NATO and ridiculing America’s need to support allies. But he still supports increased military spending and, in a typically boastful lie, claims that when he became president, the military was running out of ammunition. In the end, Americans get the worst of both worlds. Our taxes pay for an ever-increasing military budget, while our respect in the world has plummeted with Trump as a leader. In the sandbox of Donald Trump’s mind, spending more on defense proves he’s a tough guy, while working with allies proves he’s weak.