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I was at the Truman Dinner — the Democratic Party of Orange County’s major annual fundraiser — last Monday night. Someone at one point came to my table and noted, sotto voce, that R. Scott Moxley of the OC Weekly, with whom I’ve had some online unpleasantness over the past year, was at a nearby table. (I don’t know if they were trying to warn me to behave myself or hoping that I’d walk over to him for a screaming match; they needn’t have worried, because I was not about to do either.) But since Moxley has now given his take on the Truman Dinner, I think that it’s time for a counter-take.
Moxley’s thesis in the article is expressed in his opening paragraph:
[E]ven though the event lasted more than three hours, President Barack Obama seemed forgotten. None of the more than a dozen speakers spent significant time rallying the party faithful for Obama. No Obama banners flew, and no glossy Obama literature was distributed.
It’s funny that Moxley got that impression. I don’t think that Obama was forgotten at all. In fact, Moxley notes some of the very places where he wasn’t forgotten, as I’ll note. It’s true (so far as I recall) that no glossy Obama literature was distributed, but there’s a good reason for that: everyone in the room (with the possible exception of some sour journalists on assignment) was already planning to vote for Obama and didn’t need much of an introduction to how he was marketing himself.
Add to this the fact that Obama isn’t really campaigning in California (which he will win regardless — and if he somehow didn’t, he’d already have lost the election elsewhere) or in Orange County (where his intrepid volunteers are paying their own way to support him), and it’s no surprise that he didn’t have literature there. As should have been clear to any viewer, we were already “fired up and ready to go.”
The interesting thing is that several of the points that clearly evoked Obama to us in the audience seemed to have flown right over Moxley’s head.
One such was Richard J. O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award winner Chris Townsend‘s delightful mockery of Clint Eastwood’s “Invisible Obama” (aka “Old Man Yells at Chair”) speech at the Republican convention, which just goes to show how well this bit can be done if you write it out in advance. As for Rabbi Michael Mayersohn‘s invocation, including
“We must build a more just and equitable society. We must create a society in which we all care for each other. Yes, we are expected to be our brother’s keeper. The welfare of our enemy is even our concern”
– we heard Obama’s presence there too. (It’s sort of like “Republican Code Words and Dog Whistles,” but without the bigotry.) And then Truman Award winner Sharon Quirk-Silva‘s declaration of “the battle between Republicans and Democrats to really be a fight over ‘me versus we’ philosophies” – we got that straight from the Democratic convention. The audience loved it — and it wasn’t a matter of ignoring Obama’s candidacy, but of embracing it.
Now, as usual, I found aspects of Moxley’s writing to be quite useful. Yes, the reaction to Keynote Speaker Gavin Newsom was a bit mixed. No one was going to boo or buzz raspberries in his direction, of course, but many of us are not enthralled with the idea of him as the post-Jerry Brown (hopefully that means “2018″) party standard-bearer — so yes, some forks clinked against plates while he spoke. When Moxley noted this about Newsom’s speech:
“In 2005, Facebook is not there,” Newsom noted about the contents of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s book That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind In the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. “Twitter in 2005 was a sound. Clouds were in the sky. Apps were things you filled out to get into college. Linkedin was a prison; 4G was a parking space, and Skype, for most of us, was a typo.”
The list produced the expected audience delight. In fact, those were Newsom’s best lines. Too bad they weren’t his. He’d swiped the points—changing only a word or two—from Friedman, who spoke them during a Sept. 6, 2011, National Public Radio interview on All Things Considered.
he did do us all a service, because I was among those impressed with that snappy list and the fact that it was lifted from Friendman was good to know.
It’s page two (online, at least) of Moxley’s report, though, that suggests that he should spend more time listening as well as transcribing. Joe Kerr was awarded the Samuel Gompers award for his work with the labor movement and Moxley quotes him at length. Moxley then ends his column with this:
You couldn’t count the number of back pats and handshakes Kerr received. Yet there was a putrid elephant in the ballroom that nobody dared mention. Local taxpayers are on the hook for more than $10 billion in unfunded pension benefits to retired government employees, some of whom will ridiculously take $200,000 per year for the rest of their lives. At least on this night, in this room, with this crowd, that fact was a satisfying victory—not a dire, looming crisis.
Wow. If that’s the filter through which Moxley was straining his understanding of the night’s events, no wonder the story came out tasting a little putrid! It’s not even that Moxley’s entirely wrong — yes, pension obligations are a serious concern, though pensions are generally not fully funded and the “dire looming crisis” language is overblown. (Can we reserve “dire looming crisis” for things like climate change, which has brought us our Miami-style summer for the past three months?)
As the Democratic Governor of our state has acknowledged (seriously, it was in the papers), something has to give way — and Democrats have more than done their part in the legislature this year to address the problem. The difficulty is that “fixing” this problem of (essentially, let’s be honest about it) “too much money going to the middle class” has its downside as well — like, it contributes to the continued evisceration of the middle class. Did some public workers get overly generous pensions in the past? Arguably so (although there’s a counterargument or two of which Moxley seems entirely unaware.) We can analyze that — and, if it’s so, we can fix that going forward. (There are problems, as Moxley surely knows, with fixing it retroactively. Or maybe he doesn’t know. ”Putrid elephant” and “dire looming crisis,” after all.) But wouldn’t it be great if, while we’re asking the middle class (which is getting the brunt of these supposedly excessive pensions) to take a hit, we also came up with other ways to take the money from the bloated wealthy sector and directed it back to the middle class?
If that’s so — and bear with me here and just imagine for a moment that it might be — then does it make sense for Democrats to make all of their concessions right away? To the extent that there’s a legitimate argument for the middle-class to take a hit with reductions in public pensions, it makes sense to seek a comprehensive reform in which all social classes give something up. But do you hear Republicans endorsing Prop 30? With perhaps a few honorable exception, you do not.
There’s more than one elephant in the room, you see, and the problem of social inequality and giving the wealthy enough power to control state politics — as with the egregious Prop 32 that Moxley recognizes as having been in the room in only one sentence of his piece. (Admittedly, that sentence is right on target, when he writes that it “would devastate public-employee-union influence in elections while strengthening corporate power.”)
If only there was some way that Moxley could have perceived the importance of reform that does not further tilt the playing field towards the wealthy! Oh wait — there was: Joe Kerr. But while Moxley quotes Kerr’s words, the end to his piece suggests that they didn’t sink in at all.
Here’s what Moxley quotes Kerr saying:
“All women and men deserve the right to work, live and retire in dignity in this country. President Kennedy once talked about a rising tide lifting all boats. Nobody ever prepared us for a receding tide and that once it ebbed, the middle class would be targets of political fire, labor attacks and daily persecution from the right.
“One moment you’re working-class heroes doing your best to serve and protect America. The next moment you are to blame for everybody’s lot in life. So, I ask: Since when is it acceptable in modern-day America to blame your child’s kindergarten teacher, your neighborhood fireman, your family nurse or your local cop for the worst recession in American history?
“If history tells us anything, [it's that] as goes organized labor, so goes democracy. End of story. So, we can’t give up now—certainly not in Orange County.”
Rousing stuff. Powerful stuff. Stuff that, if heard and thought through, should lead one to recognize that the loud pot-banging over the “elephant in the room” of public pensions — as if pensions had never been a fraught subject before — misses a much larger and more dangerous elephant in the same room: that the continued erosion of the power of organized labor in Orange County and elsewhere, threatens the political balance of our society. Yes, yes, we need to worry about pensions — and the environment, and working conditions, and education, and much more. But if one can listen to those three paragraphs above and react to it with a snotty retort that we must make pension reform an overriding priority to the exclusion of issues of social inequality — at least that’s what I read into the phrase “dire looming crisis” — then while one may have heard the words and one may have transcribed them, one didn’t really listen to them. One’s psychological defenses brushed them away before they could sink in.
Oh, and incidentally — Kerr’s speech was another time when the people in the room when the people in the audience, with perhaps one or two exceptions from the media — were thankful that our President is someone who gets what the most pressing crises of our day is: the capture of government and media, even some “alternative” media, by exponents of great wealth.