Debate on a Strange Red Planet

Red's the designated Republican color, but the shades used for Wednesday's GOP debate have never been glimpsed in nature. Ranging from scarlet to carnelian to a kind of raspberry-magenta blend, they would have induced psychosis in any self-respecting interior designer. They made the set look like a cross between Pee-Wee's Playhouse and a Betsy Johnson dress catalog from the 1990s. And when the camera pulled back to reveal a stars-and-stripes pattern my first thought was, What have you done to my flag?

Come to think of it, that was my last thought too.

The unearthly tones were appropriate, since the candidates seemed to be speaking from another planet. They certainly weren't on this one, where tax breaks have produced no jobs and deregulation's destroyed both the economy and the Gulf of Mexico. But then, they weren't selling reality. They were offering a free-market science-fiction story, with special-effects economics that could have been designed by Industrial Light and Magic. Their reality is not yours, or mine, or that of most Americans.

But you know what? It may not matter. Sure, they were pushing economic hocus-pocus. But that hocus-pocus has cast its spell before. If aggressive steps aren't taken to fix this economy soon, one of those candidates may be our next president.

Hey, look. There's a close-up of Nancy Reagan. I met her last year. She was poised, gracious, and very smart. Democrats underestimated her husband. They've underestimated a lot of Republicans since then, too.

Liberals who sneer at Rick Perry -- we saw some tonight -- do so at their own peril.

Party Wisdom

The television pundits have already rendered their verdict. They're telling us it's now a two-person race between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, and they're probably right. Democrats should be pleased, since the most formidable opponent against President Obama would be Jon Huntsman.

But watching the MSNBC postgame analysis I found myself agreeing with Ed Schultz as he argued with Lawrence O'Donnell and Chris Matthews: Democratic insiders may think Perry's comments ruined his candidacy. He certainly spoke hogwash about Social Security, but Perry came across as a tough and straightforward guy. That could resonate with voters.

Matthews and O'Donnell didn't see that Perry reframed his comments very shrewdly. He's shifting their meaning in a way that aligns him much more closely to centrist Democrats like... well, like Lawrence O'Donnell and Chris Matthews. And unless Obama changes his "grand bargain" strategy, Perry will be able to say he agrees with him too.

His supporters will say he's just more plainspoken about it. And it will wind up being a plus for him, not a minus.

Perry Outsmarts the Smart Guys

We're told that some Democratic centrists are licking their lips at Perry's "gaffes." Romney's people, their soulmates in many ways, have already put out a press release slamming Perry over Social Security. But Perry outsmarted them all.

Pressed to defend his "Ponzi scheme" and "monstrous lies" statements, Perry couldn't back down without looking weak. Here's what he said:

"It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you're paying into a program that's going to be there. Anybody that's for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it's not right."

Perry actually moved closer to the president's position with these remarks. "While Social Security is not the cause of our deficit," the president said in a typical remark recently, "it faces real long-term challenges in a country that is growing older."

Actually both Perry and the president are incorrect. Social Security will be able to pay 75% of benefits starting in 2037 -- but not because we're getting older or giving the shaft to younger people. The shortfall is due to that upward redistribution of wealth we mentioned earlier.

The fact that Perry's wrong doesn't mean people won't believe him, especially if his false narratives are the same ones being promoted by billionaire Pete Peterson and echoed by biased journalists friendly to Peterson's benefit-cutting mission. Nor will the president he able to draw a contrast with either Perry or Romney. To do that he'll need to he shift back to his campaign position that the cap must be lifted and benefits should not be cut.

Perry gave his base some red meat tonight. Then he marinated it for general consumption once the primaries are over. He outsmarted 'em all.

The Monstrous Lie

We said that Perry was talking bunk on Social Security, and he was. A Ponzi scheme is conducted by criminals who tell investors they've found a surefire way to make money. But they're really moving money around in secret, giving big payoffs to early investors to make their fraud seem real. Once they've softened up their marks, they soak them for everything they've got.

Social Security's funding isn't secret. In fact, the Chief Actuary appointed by Ronald Reagan (in whose library they met, and to whom they paid the expected obeisances) co-wrote a paper last year explaining that the program's relatively minor long-term funding problems can easily be fixed -- mainly by lifting the current payroll tax cap, which was established before we saw the massive upward redistribution of income of the last two decades.

If there's a Ponzi scheme out there that's been as thoroughly vetted by actuaries as Social Security;s been, then sign me up.


Perry also said that President Obama has "proven for once and for all that government spending will not create one job. Keynesian policy and Keynesian theory is now done. We'll never have to have that experiment on America again."

What's really been disproven is not Keynesian economics. It's the Republican platform of deregulation and tax cuts that Democrats have too often parroted, to their own detriment and that of the economy. Deregulation created the financial crisis and cost us millions of jobs. The stimulus created more than three million jobs, but it wasn't enough to undo the damage so more is needed.

That's the story the president and his party need to tell. They must draw a sharp contrast between the need to regulate and create jobs and the failed pro-corporate policies Perry and Romney are pushing.

Special Effects

If the overall effect was that of a broadcast from an alien planet, there were moments that felt even stranger -- like the hallucination scenes in 2001 before the giant baby comes out.

For one thing, I think it's safe to say that Ron Paul managed to rebrand himself from a principled if sometimes radical libertarian to a full-time resident of Crazytown. It happened in his rant about border fences. "I think this fence business is designed and may well be used against us and (to) keep us in," he said, adding: "In economic turmoil, the people want to leave with their capital. And there's capital controls and there's people control. So, every time you think of fence keeping all those bad people out, think about those fences maybe being used against us, keeping us in."

Well, okay then. As Woody Allen said in Annie Hall, "I think I'm due back on Earth."

As for Romney, for a fiscal conservative he was pretty batty about the fence too. When he said "we ought to have a fence," he was asked: "The whole fence, 2,600 miles?" Romney answered "Yes. We got to -- we got to have a fence, or the technologically approved system to make sure that we know who's coming into the country ..."

Earth to Mr. Cut Spending: Do you have any idea how much a 2,600-mile-long "technologically approved" fence would cost? Since Romney went on to say quite reasonably that "they can always get a ladder to go over the fence," his position seemed to be that we should spend vast sums of money for a barrier you can overcome by spending $40 bucks at your local hardware store.

So Romney made a little trip to Crazytown, too. (Maybe he's building another house there.)

Then there was the matter of the audience's enthusiastic applause Perry's 234 executions (including at least one person he may have known was innocent). When he was challenged about why the crowd applauded those deaths, his response was immediate and masterful:

"I think Americans understand justice."

The man can think on his feet.

Blood-Red Planet

That's a good place to stop. There's much more to be said about the economics of tonight's debate, but we've learned that emotion trumps economics every time.

People don't change. From the Roman Coliseum to the public executions in medieval France, from lynchings in the Deep South to the crucifixion of a Nazarene prophet, human being have always responded to economic exploitation the same way. They may live in an economic system that's robbing them blind. But satisfy their bloodlust and they'll forget all about it.

Centrists and liberals can scoff if they want, but as I watched Perry and Romney I couldn't shake the thought: If Democrats don't step up their economic game, I think I'm looking at our next president.

It's true: Republicans are from Mars and the economy is from Venus. But human beings are from this planet right here, the one we're standing on. And you know what? That's what scares me the most.