Good news, bad news … and a lot of laughs
Robert Reich regales campus audience with insights, predictions
| 21 April 2004
In a lively talk marked by erudition and comic timing, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, a visiting professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, addressed a Wheeler Hall audience of more than 700 last week. In his address, the widely advertised title of which was “Why a Liberal Democrat From Massachusetts Will Be the Next President (and Other Amazing Prophecies),” Reich explored the role of liberalism in America (a theme of his most recent book) and waxed prophetic on the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry’s likely running mate, and more.
The longtime analyst and agent of public policy — Reich has written 10 books; served in the Ford, Carter, and Clinton administrations; and ran for Massachusetts governor — noted that “liberalism” and “liberal” are much-maligned terms in American politics today. (Only 17 percent of the electorate, for example, describe themselves as “liberal,” as opposed to 25 percent who self-identify as “conservative.”) He argues, however, that on substantive issues — such as abortion, gay rights, corporate influence, government regulation, campaign financing, and economic justice — a majority of Americans in fact adhere to “liberal” views.
Reich contended that anti-liberal rhetoric (think Rush Limbaugh inveighing against “commie liberals, femi-Nazis, and environmental whackos”) gets a sympathetic ear from white males without college degrees who, in the face of technological innovation and globalization, have seen their economic fortunes decline. Democrats and liberals, he said, “rather than respond to this very large and growing crisis, instead defaulted,” allowing their opponents to blame blacks, affirmative action, feminists, immigrants, liberals, or the Clintons for the woes this group is experiencing.
Hard-hit American workers, especially in the industrial Midwest, are voters whom the Democrats must appeal to, Reich said. In light of this imperative, he predicted that Senator Kerry will name Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack — a “superb governor” from a “very important swing state in the middle of a very important swing region” — as his running mate. Together they will take back the presidency, and many Bush administration policies “will be stopped in their tracks,” he ventured. That prediction, for the many Berkeley liberals in attendance, was the good news. The bad was that the Democrats will not win back control of either the House or the Senate — making it very difficult “at least during a first term” for a Kerry administration to carry out an affirmative agenda.
Another formidable obstacle liberals face is that Presidents Reagan and G.W. Bush have generated deficits so large as to “starve the government” and stymie efforts to “generate the kind of public investments we need in the future” — not to mention to support a tidal wave of Baby Boomers expecting, despite meager personal savings, “a kind of Med-med retirement, a cross between a Club Med and a medical facility: snorkeling in the morning and oxygen in the afternoon.” The supply-side argument behind tax breaks for the wealthy has been that the rich will invest their tax savings in the U.S. economy, thereby generating new jobs and prosperity. But in an international economy, Reich said, “a global pool of capital searching for the highest rate of return can go anywhere and is going anywhere.”
Reich concluded with a strong plea for political participation. “We desperately need, in this election and in the future, for people whose normal reaction to American politics is to hold their nose and say ‘I think politics is dirty’ to, despite those feelings, embrace politics and become political again. Politics is the applied form of democracy,” he urged. “If we turn our back on politics, we turn our backs on democracy.” This plug for “the applied form of democracy” notwithstanding, Reich, when asked later about his own presidential aspirations, replied that though he had “fun and heartache” in his recent gubernatorial bid, “I would rather be dead than run for President.”
During his spring visit to Berkeley, Reich taught a graduate course on wealth and poverty and gave a number of lectures; he plans to return to his faculty position at Brandeis University at the end of the semester. A webcast of last week’s lecture is available online at webcast.berkeley.edu/events.