Retired Republican House and Senate staffer Mike Lofgren spoke with Truthout in Washington, DC, this fall. Lofgren's first commentary for Truthout, “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult,” went viral, drawing over 1.2 million page views.
Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: Mike, tell us a little about your background before you were a GOP staffer and how you came to be disenchanted with the Senate.
Mike Lofgren: I grew up in a provincial town, a company town, in Ohio, where there was an incestuous relationship between politicians, journalists and lobbyists: nominally, they were enemies, but they all belonged to the same club. You expect that kind of one-industry town in the Rust Belt to be a parochial company town. But DC is a parochial company town in an even bigger way.
In the '70s and the '80s, there was that old kind of clubby atmosphere in the Senate – which was quite conducive to bipartisan agreement, but look now at how Barack Obama's jobs program died in the Senate: Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) won't support it; Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) probably has an oil derrick in her backyard and ex-senator Blanche Lincoln, faithful go-fer for Wal-Mart, is now lobbying against clean-air regulations.
Mike Lofgren in his Congressional Staffer office in June 2011 before his retirement. (Photo: David Meyers)
I actually always considered myself a professional staff member employed by the taxpayer to work in the public interest. It was Newt Gingrich who began to de-professionalize committee staffers and employ PR people and party hacks. “Democratic Centralism” was not peculiar to Lenin, you know.
However, I think the disenchantment began a little earlier: I had a real feeling in '93 and '94, before the November takeover, that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a big problem. And then there was the Bosnia-Kosovo war. As Bismarck said, the risk of Europe being set aflame occurs when some damn fool starts a war in the Balkans. And then there was the way it was conducted: $200,000 US missiles were decoyed by the Serbs wiring $100 microwave ovens to operate with the door open.
Yevgeny Primakov threatened to cut off natural gas flows to Europe and Madeleine Albright was boasting about being “the indispensable nation.” Delusions of invincibility are a bipartisan problem. De Gaulle said that graveyards are filled with indispensable men: so it is with “indispensable nations.” That set the stage for a lot of the nonsense after 9/11.
Then, of course, there was the Clinton administration repeal of Glass-Steagall. Another really pernicious bill that passed almost under everyone's radar was the 1995 Private Securities Litigation Reform Act: passed mostly with GOP votes, it extremely narrowed shareholder recourse if they were being defrauded and practically amounted to immunization for executives. It provided a safe harbor for “forward-looking” statements, i.e. executives could lie about the future. Finally, the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act left the commodities and derivatives markets unregulated.
The seminal event in this long disenchantment, though, was, of course, the reaction to 9/11. I was one of the first people over the river to get out of DC because I knew what was going on: that same morning, I made sure to gas up the car in case the vultures started spiking prices. The anthrax thing twisted it all up a notch and remains extremely mysterious; it was certainly convenient while the Patriot Act was introduced – which Feingold alone had the courage to oppose. Everyone was torqued up – stressed and fearful – and a lot of people have never regained their bearings since. It's as though the national IQ dropped 20 points. We can't put two and two together any more.
In December 2001, we were at war in Afghanistan, then we missed OBL in Tora Bora; the budget documents we had by January 2002 were very disturbing because they indicated buildup against Iraq and dispensing with Afghanistan, the ostensible reason the US went to war – but the crystallizing event for me was the 2002 State of the Union speech identifying the axis of evil as Iraq and Iran – which had fought a long and devastating war and hated each other – and North Korea, which might as well have been on the dark side of the moon from the point of view of the other two countries. At that point, I thought, “This guy is going to war forever. There are no adults in charge.” All subsequent events were merely confirmations of that intuition.
You know the people in Congress and the administration; you see what's going on. Can you give us some insight. I mean, what are they thinking?
There are good, personable, fundamentally decent people on both sides of the aisle. They suffer from a herd mentality and an overwhelming fear of being painted as weak on defense. I had private conversations with a few Congressmen before the debate over the use of force resolution. They listened politely, but it didn't change their votes. I know how to operate in that environment and couched my arguments in practical terms, suggesting we were about to create a giant West Bank on steroids. Pitching the moral argument of aggression being against the law of nations was a complete nonstarter.
You have to appeal to pragmatism and budgets. Although the poor bastard who said the Iraq War would cost $80-200 billion had to fall on his sword – and now we're at a trillion dollars and counting.
Well, you had Paul Wolfowitz claiming at the time that the war would pay for itself.
I set up one of the hearings where he testified in early 2003 and hope there were no cameras on me because my jaw literally dropped when he said that.
These people may be as crazy as their statements indicate.
So, how did you get into that game?
I have two degrees in history, was an undergraduate at the University of Akron and attended the University of Basel on a Fulbright scholarship. I had worked as a translator in Europe a little, was newly married and there was a recession in Ohio: my muse just seemed to be flying in circles around the Beltway.
It was easier administratively to get a job in Congress since it's at-will employment and it doesn't take up to a year to get hired as in the executive branch agencies.
And you have to understand I am not some disaffected employee. During my career, people were open to arguments if you made them in a reasonable way; I acted like a professional and was always treated like a professional.
Most people cease learning after age 25 or so, but if you continually question the premises of things, you end up where I am; it depends on how intellectually curious and open-minded you are. There was never a huge contradiction. I wasn't living a double life. I was still a government employee doing the best I could on budget issues.
And I was able to have positive impact. I worked with my boss in the '90s to limit production of the B2 to 20 aircraft. The Pentagon wanted to go to 75. At $2 billion a pop, even then, it wasn't worth producing any more cold war nuclear bombers.
What are your plans now?
I'm growing tomatoes; I have a book offer, but the future is an open system. I'll let fate take it where it wants to. I'm still surprised by the reception to “Goodbye to All That” and not convinced it isn't mainly a response to its “man bites dog” aspect.
Establishment liberals just don't understand what's happening and are too often supercilious, condescending and off-topic.
Maybe I'll create a vocabulary primer. For example, take “empower.” “Empower means “cut 'em off; you're on your own.” Empowering seniors by cutting off social security means they're going to be mopping the floor at McDonald's.
The problem is that, for years, liberals coasted on the coattails of FDR, got very complacent and generated no new ideas. So, when the GOP came to the waterhole and stole their clothes, they didn't know what to do; they thought they had hegemony. Group one retreated to the ivory tower: effete crybabies, they became useless politically. Group two, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), became GOP-lite and a pure fundraising operation.
I confess, I really thought Obama would be different and now he feels like the Manchurian candidate.
No kidding. And somehow all this nonsense about how he is a Muslim and not a US citizen is perfect cover for how he slid in as a center-right president who pretty much followed George Bush in everything. Did you see Jon Stewart? “Who knew that his biggest legacy would be the ability to rain death from the sky?”
And who knows what his present new rhetoric portends, whether it actually means anything. And even so, it's awfully late in the game. He's not going to score any touchdowns now.
It's all money-driven for both sides now – and until you get the dollars out of politics, it's not going to end. Karl Rove's one political action committee (PAC) is going to raise $250 million dollars. [Washington Post columnist] George Will says it's all free speech and that more is spent on potato chips than campaign advertising. Well, a quarter of a billion dollars is a lot of potato chips. There needs to be a complete ban on corporate contributions.
Do you see yourself getting involved in activism?
No, I can see writing, but I don't see myself as an activist.
Aren't you concerned about the infringements on civil liberties?
I am not minimizing government infringements of privacy, but commercial operations are bigger spies than the government ever was. It helps companies' bottom line and it's understandable, but why should something that's an intrusion and unconstitutional if the government does it be okay for a big corporation?
How did an iconoclast like yourself survive this environment?
Most people here want to do a good job and have a moral compass and all, but there is a herd mentality and you do go along to get along. I grew to love and revere the institution of Congress as it's supposed to be. It was a great improvement at its time when most countries were ruled by despots. When politicians want to run it aground and denigrate the institution created by the document they claim to revere – the Constitution – that's schizophrenic.
What are your hopes for the future?
I want my kids to have at least as good a life as I did. I was just middle middle class – and looking back on it, it was idyllic.
Like George Orwell, I had upper-middle-class cultural aspirations, but couldn't afford the boarding school fees. I identify most with Orwell's “Coming Up for Air.”
Henry Noel Brailsford's “The War of Steel and Gold” makes clear how things were very similar in 1914, although the European powers wouldn't fight each other today. But some of the situation then is precisely what we are experiencing now. Greece was being extorted by British gunboats to pay some usurer a then-extortionate interest rate. Modern international usury as practiced by big banks, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank sows the seeds for all kinds of conflict.
You know, during 2007 I was a guest lecturer at James Madison University and predicted a crash was going to occur. At some point in 2004 or 2005, I figured the whole housing thing was unsustainable and wondered how they kept it going for so long. Pins started to drop with Bear Sterns in 2007.
We briefly discuss the then-starting Occupy movements.
I know how to beat Republicans. Progressives do not know how to beat Republicans. You have to stick with a simple theme and keep pushing it.
The Occupy Wall Street movement was studiously ignored until the police in New York City started using violence and now it's gone viral, so you need to seize the moment, not have too many mixed messages, because that is just not going to play with Joe Average. If you're underwater with your mortgage, you understand the Wall Street thing. That was the whole point of the GOP: “Our propaganda has to be simple and repetitive.”
People who are not authoritarian by nature are not going to march to the beat of the same drummer, but it's tricky. It can't be identical in style to the GOP – which is now directly appealing to irrational impulses – so there is a natural tension between keeping the message simple and not insulting the intelligence of an educated person, as so much of the GOP's recent messaging does.