Obama, Romney, and the Washington Generals: Reflections on Class Rule and Theater Politics
I have fond childhood memories of my parents taking me to see the all-black basketball troupe the Harlem Globetrotters at the Chicago Stadium during the 1960s. Staffed in their early days by some of the finest basketball players in the world, the Globetrotters once engaged in epic contests with the early National Basketball Association’s reigning champion – the Minneapolis Lakers. By the time I saw them, however, the Globetrotters only worked their “theater basketball” magic against the “Washington Generals” – a crew of second-rate semi-professionals once aptly described as “a bunch of slow white guys who couldn’t make it in the Italian League.”
The Generals were no match for the Globetrotters. Even on nights when they might have given the Globetrotters some competition, the Generals were paid patsies, professional fall-guys hired to look inept and stupefied by the athletic and comedic brilliance of the Globetrotters.
Obama’s Washington Generals, 1996-2008
I wonder if the hoops-addict Barack Obama has felt like the Globetrotters playing the Washington Generals during some of the past elections he has won. Except for a premature, ill-fated primary run against the entrenched Congressional Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL) in 2000 and his 2008 battle with the Iraq War-damaged Hillary Clinton (who might well have prevailed if her handlers had undertaken a serious strategy in Caucus states), Obama has cruised against some remarkably unimpressive rivals.
After muscling the progressive Democrat Alice Palmer out of her South Side Chicago seat in the Illinois Senate in 1996, the future president won three state legislative elections essentially unopposed since, as his first biographer noted,” the Republican Party was practically non-existent in African American districts on [Chicago’s] South and West sides.”
In his 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate seat that was abandoned after one term by Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL), Obama’s initially formidable multimillionaire primary opponent Blair Hull collapsed under the weight of an ugly past divorce. A sex scandal undid his at first imposing Republican opponent Jack Ryan. When Ryan was forced out late in the game, the Republicans imported the laughable neoconservative Alan Keyes (a true Washington General) to make a sacrificial run against what had become the Obama phenomenon. (Ryan did not implode before the threat he posed was deemed great enough for the Democratic Party to give [not lame-duck Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm] the plum assignment of the Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention – the speech that made Obama into an overnight superstar).
Four years later, Obama was rewarded with highly flawed opponents atop the ticket of a party that was badly damaged by the long national nightmare of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The fuming and befuddled John McCain couldn’t remember how many homes he owned and proclaimed that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” (listed by Time Magazine as one of “The Top 10 Unfortunate Political One-Liners” in American history) even as the biggest financial collapse and recession in more than six decades unfolded before the nation’s eyes. As for Sarah “Going Rogue” Palin, all you have to do is mention her name and eyes start rolling.
“If [Romney Was] a Bain Company, He’d Shut Himself Down”
Which brings us to the astonishingly terrible candidacy of Mitt “Mr. .01%” Romney. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd writes, “The billion-dollar Republican campaign should be sweeping the floor with the deflated President Obama after four years of 8 percent-plus unemployment.” Instead, it’s losing badly and it has Romney to blame.
“Mitt Romney,” Dowd notes, “is awkward, off-putting, and hollow, so bad that if he were a Bain company, he would shut himself down…Aside from Mitt’s penchant for being a piñata, the [Romney] campaign is a movable feast of missteps: spending money at the wrong time; putting on biographical ads too late; letting the Obama camp define Romney before he defined himself; staging a disastrous foreign trip; fumbling the convention; and somehow neglecting to tell the candidate that there is no longer any such thing as off the record, if there ever was.” 
“How,” Times columnist Frank Bruni asks, “did someone so politically maladroit get this far?” 
Which is Romney’s biggest blunder so far:
- Advancing a clueless definition of “middle class” that includes people with annual incomes as high as $250,000?
- Telling a reporter that his favorite bedtime apparel was “as little as possible”?
- Absurdly delaying and playing cat and mouse with the tax returns on his outlandish fortune?
- Accusing the British government of mishandling the 2016 Olympics on a “goodwill” campaign trip to England?
- Confessing (or pretending to confess) a fondness for MTV’s hideous show “Jersey Shore” and its weird little star Snooki?
- Failing to specify any serious policy details on how he will “restore prosperity” beyond repeated promises to roll back environmental regulation and slash taxes on the rich?
- Announcing that he has no concern for poor people since the social safety net was there to take care of them?
- Telling a group of wealthy donors in Jerusalem that the Palestinians were poorer than the Israelis because of their inferior culture?
- Announcing his belief that there really is no solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the he will basically continue the practice of “kicking the [Israel-Palestine] ball down the road…”
- Letting a not-so-sharp 82-year-old actor (Clint Eastwood) on stage to conduct an unscripted, awkward, ill-advised and semi-obscene comedy bit with an empty chair at a key, nationally televised moment in the Republican National Convention (RNC)?
- Writing off close to half the population by claiming that 47 percent of the nation is made up of moocher-“victims” who prefer to rely on the government rather than to “take responsibility for their own lives” – a statement that even the leading neoconservative Bill Kristol felt compelled to call “stupid” and “arrogant.”
“This man,” Anne Romney famously proclaimed at the RNC, “will not fail.” He already has, again and again, on the campaign trail. As yet another Times columnist, Charles Blow, notes, “the real problem” behind Romney’s recent plunge in the polls “has…[a] name: Mitt Willard Romney….He is his own worst enemy…the more Romney talks, the more damage he does to himself.”
Romney’s incredible string of bad campaign moments is no small part of why it seems likely that Obama will do something outside the normal historical pattern – win a second term even as his administration remains plagued by sky-high unemployment and a lingering (and understandable – see below) sense that he has betrayed his campaign promises in fealty to corporate and financial elites.
Even without his epic mistakes this year, Romney’s candidacy has been richly challenged from the start by his ungodly personal fortune and the transparently parasitic ways in which he obtained it (so vile that even many of his Republican primary opponents couldn’t resist mentioning it). “How,” Bruni asks, “does a man who has harbored presidential ambitions almost since he was a zygote create a paper trail of offshore accounts and tax returns like his?”
Mother Jones recently released a 1998 video clip in which Romney boasts that the firm he founded (Bain Capital) would make money by buying up companies and then “hopefully, five to eight years later, harvest them at significant profit.” “Harvest” meant sell off after “downsizing” – after jobs were shredded and many working class lives damaged and ruined. That’s what equity capital is all about, as Obama has repeatedly and easily noted.
Just the other day I saw an MSNBC commentator make easy hash of Romney’s youthful hypocrisy on Vietnam during the 1960s. The silver-spooned Romney “protested” in support of the military draft that sent tens of thousands of young Americans to early death and crippling in Southeast Asia even as he obtained a student deferment to avoid military service and played on the beaches of south France while the war raged on.
The Republican Party is Not the Washington Generals
I do not mention Romney’s failures and inadequacy as someone who wishes to see a strong and effective Republican Party. It is a great mistake for progressives to stick their heads in the sand about – or to apologize or make excuses for – the corporatism, imperialism, eco-cidalism, white-supremacism and sexism of the Democrats. There is no respectable moral or strategic basis for telling the Democrats that they and not the only party that can defeat them under the narrow U.S. elections system can count on our votes in advance, no matter how egregiously they ignore popular and progressive concerns.
At the same time, it is also unjustifiable for leftists to turn a blind eye to the dangerous extremism of the Republican Party. The Romney-Ryan ticket may be incompetent, but the G.O.P. and the right-wing money and noise machines behind it are not harmless patsies on the model of the Washington Generals. The Republican Party (what I half-jokingly call “the Tea.O.P.) has become yet ever more “publicly committed to dismantling and destroying whatever progressive legislation and social welfare has been won by popular struggles over the past century” (Noam Chomsky) – to dismantling whatever is left of the welfare state. Writing of the Republican Party four years ago in an important left-liberal critique of the U.S. political order that did not spare the ever more conservative Democrats, political scientist Sheldon Wolin observed that “It is hard to imagine any power more radical [than the G.O.P.] in its determination to undo the gains of the past century.” That judgment is no less relevant four years later, to say the least.
“Whoever Gets Elected, We’re Screwed”
The most maddening thing about the Romney candidacy isn’t its poor quality but the nauseating way in which it seems perfectly calculated to let the “deeply conservative” corporatist Obama look like a progressive champion of the people. A white working-class voter in the arch-pivotal battleground state of Ohio recently told the Associated Press (AP) why he sees Obama as more of “a regular guy” than Romney. “If I was digging a ditch,” truck driver Tony Gern told AP reporter Jesse Washington. “Obama would come down and get a little dirty. He’d probably do it with me. Romney, he wouldn’t do it. He’s never done that kind of work. He’s never had his hands dirty.”
Never mind that Obama has no blue-collar history and enjoyed a comparatively privileged, middle- and upper-middle class life trajectory including attendance at Honolulu’s top private high school, Columbia University, and Harvard Law, Never mind that Obama spent years teaching at the elite University of Chicago Law School and then entered the elite political class to set new records for raising money from corporations and Wall Street in the process of blowing up the public presidential election financing system in 2008. Or that Obama, like Romney, has spent at least as much time this month at opulent private fundraisers as in public campaign rallies. And never mind that Obama’s presidency has amounted – as I have demonstrated too many times to mention – to nothing less than a full tutorial on who really runs the country beneath the charade of popular governance and across quadrennial election spectacles: the privileged corporate, imperial, and financial Few.
Thinking seriously about the real and richly capitalist Obama record, it strikes me that J.R. Cross, a different white working-class Ohioan interviewed by Jesse Washington, gets much closer to the truth than Tony Gern. “If the election were held right now, “Cross, a coal miner, told Washington outside a payday loan store with money for his oldest son’s college bill, “I’d choose none of the above.” By Washington’s account, Cross “voted for Obama in 2008 but thinks the president helped Wall Street and the auto industry instead of the working class. He thinks Romney favors the rich and that he bankrupted companies to make investors a profit.”
‘Whoever gets elected,” Cross told Washington, “we’re screwed.” (emphasis added).
Of course, there’s nothing new about bumbling, clueless, hopelessly aristocratic Republican candidates helping centrist corporate Democrats look progressive and more willing to “dig ditches” with everyday folk. Recall, if you will, how the corporate-Democratic candidate Bill Clinton was helped by incumbent George H.W. Bush’s campaign-trail statement of wonder at the workings of a grocery-line scanner (a clear sign that he hadn’t personally purchased groceries for many years). McCain’s inability to remember how many homes he possessed and his statement of confidence in the U.S. economy made him seem hopelessly “out of touch” with ordinary working people in the summer of 2008.
Romney is taking “out of touch” to a new level. He seems straight from central casting when it comes to helping Obama easily beat the Republicans in the big theatrical game that the formerly left Christopher Hitchens once aptly described as “the essence of American politics…the manipulation of populism by elitism.”
Paul Street is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11; The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power; and (coauthored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics.
 See “Washington Generals,” http://en.wikipedia.or/wiki/Washington_Generals. After Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein enticed a team named the Philadelphia Sphas to tour with the Globetrotters in 1952, he got them to change their name to the Washington Generals in deference to former U.S. Allied European Commander Dwight Eisenhower, elected
 Between 1952 and 1995, the Generals won six times and the Globetrotters prevailed more than 13,000 times. The last Generals victory came in
 We all know what would have happened to John Edwards if he had won the Iowa Caucus in 2008 (he almost did, edging out the Hillary Clinton machine for second place).
 David Mendell, OBAMA: From Promise to Power (
 Maureen Dowd, “The Son Also Sets,” New York Times, September 22, 2012.
 Frank Bruni, “Mitt’s Mortification,” New York Times, September 28, 2012.
 All of these statements and mistakes are terrible, but the last one mentioned should hurt him the most. Even a FOX News commentator was moved to ask Romney if he had simply decided to write off a vast swath of the electorate in advance. See Maureen Dowd, “Let Them Eat Crab cake,” New York Times, September 19, 2012, A27.
 By Bruni’s account, Romney has “misfired so repeatedly and phantasmagorically that his wounds make those visited upon Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway at the end of ‘Bonnie and
 Gregory J. Krieg, “Romney: Bain Builds Up, Then Harvests Companies,” ABC/OTUS News (September 27, 2012) at http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/09/romney-bain-builds-up-then-harvests-companies/
 For a useful historical reflection on the Democrats, see Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History [Updated Edition] (
 Noam Chomsky, “The Disconnect in American Democracy” (October 27, 2004), in Noam Chomsky, Interventions (
 “The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anti-corporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf. And this despite the fact that these elements are recognized as the loyal base of the party. By ignoring dissent and assuming the dissenters have no alternative, the party serves an important, if ironical, stabilizing function and in effect marginalizes any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republican. Unlike the Democrats, however, the Republicans, with their combination of reactionary and innovative elements, are a cohesive, if not a coherent, opposition force.” Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (
 Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, 206. “Paradoxically,” Wolin added, “liberalism and its historical party, the Democrats, are conservative, not by choice but by virtue of the radical character of the Republicans.”
 Two springs ago in early of May 2007, the moderately liberal-center journalist Larissa MacFarquhar came to an interesting conclusion about Obama in a carefully researched essay for that eminently bourgeois magazine The New Yorker. “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar found, “Obama is deeply conservative….It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely,” MacFarquhar wrote, “he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.” Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). For elaboration and details on the conservative, corporatist, imperial, and racism-accommodating nature of Obama’s pre-presidential political career, see my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), ix-164. For an especially important example I neglected to mention
(presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Barack Obama’s changing and finally reactionary position in favor of granting retroactive immunity to the nations’ leading telecommunications corporations for participating in the George W. Bush administration’s program of illegal eavesdropping on U.S. citizens), see Glen Greenwald, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful (New York: Metropolitan, 2011), 94, 96.
 Jesse Washington, “What Do
 Michael Barbaro and Ashley Parker, “With Rich Donors, a More Candid Romney Emerges,”
 For just a few of my own officially invisible attempts to document this terrible record, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); Paul Street, “Two Bubbles That Went Pop,” Counterpunch, February 24-26, 2012, at http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/02/24/two-bubbles-that-went-pop/; Street, “Whose Black President?” Black Agenda Report (August 3, 2011) at http://blackagendareport.com/content/whose-black-president
“1. Totally dysfunctional Washington gets worse…No matter who wins….the dysfunctional, no-compromise political battles will get more deadly for the country…Business Week warns: ‘Obama likely won’t be able to pass more stimulus, and Romney will have a hard time lowering taxes. Neither campaign has a convincing growth strategy…”
“2. Wall Street has no moral conscience… Since
“3. Lobbyists keep fueling
“5. Trickle-down economics increasing inequality gap. In The Price of Inequality, Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz tells us that ‘the American dream is a myth … the gap’s widening … the clear trend is one of concentration of income and wealth at the top.’ “
“7. Perpetual growth economics is destroying the planet…”
See Paul B. Farrell, “Obama or Romney, Stock Market Loses 20% by 2016,” MarketWatch (September 21, 2012), read at http://articles.marketwatch.com/2012-09-21/commentary/33979317_1_obama-or-romney-mitt-romney-wall-street
 For a good record of the fundamentally corporate, state-capitalist and neoliberal nature of