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Matt Welch and Megan Carpentier: Many progressives giving up on Obama; Libertarians can’t stomach Romney

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. The 2012 election is underway. President Obama’s State of the Union speech was essentially an election speech, and of course the primary in Florida is down to the wire. Now joining us to deconstruct all of this is Matt Welch. Matt is the editor in chief of Reason magazine. And Megan Carpentier. She is the executive editor of Thank you both for joining us.

MEGAN CARPENTIER: Thanks for having us.

JAY: So, Megan, if you look at President Obama’s speech—I should—let me just back up one step. Just before the speech, one of the cable news networks interviewed the communication director of the White House and asked him, is this going to be a rallying cry for Obama’s base? In other words, is it going to be sort of a progressive campaign speech? And the response was very interesting. Essentially the answer was, no, this is going to be directed at Republicans, saying that, you know, President Obama is proposing is so reasonable, even Republicans will support it. And when you look at the speech, some people are saying it’s essentially a good speech for a moderate Republican to have given. How do you respond to that?

CARPENTIER: I think it was very interesting that he led off with a salute to the troops, which effectively forced all the Republicans to stand up and applaud him. He then segues into killing Osama bin Laden and a whole lot of tax cuts and drilling. So, as you said, it didn’t really seem like a speech to his base, which has been very upset with the president’s leadership of a lot of the issues, from taxes to the economy, and was really more directed not even at Republican congressman but at Republican voters who have already pretty well rejected the president no matter what he proposes. It isn’t as though Congress is stymieing the president’s agenda. And their base is in an uproar about that.

JAY: So, as part of this, that Obama and his team’s calculation is, whatever part of this progressive base vote they are going to get, they’ll get, because even if these people don’t like him, they like the alternative worse. And they’re going to position this whole campaign from the point of view of winning over right-of-center independents, seeing if they can split the Republicans, given how in a lot of people’s opinion it’s a kind of crazy show taking place. But where does that leave progressives? You know, Raw Story essentially appeals to progressive viewers, mostly. Where are you left with with this president, Obama?

CARPENTIER: I think we’re left with people downloading the ring tone of him singing Al Green and liking him personally, thinking that he has a great marriage and that he’s not going to be as bad as voting for a Republican. I think essentially he’s running a campaign of vote for me, what’s your other option, which hasn’t really worked that well with Democratic voters historically. You can look at everyone from Ralph Nader in 2000 to a lot of, you know, left of center independents back when Ross Perot was running.

JAY: Matt, just a little bit on the Obama speech. The opening sentences were, I thought, kind of remarkable: the Iraq War has made America safer and more respected. This is certainly not the Obama we heard when he ran for president, anyway.

MATT WELCH: Yeah. Well, that’s to be expected. You know [incompr.] we haven’t heard much from the antiwar left since he’s been elected either. [incompr.] of political power changes the way the candidates themselves and the people who love and hate them behave, and you can count on any incumbent president giving a State of the Union address to talk about how awesome the military is, that we will stand up to all of our enemies and take nothing off the table, and they will eventually embrace whatever wars they ran against as candidates. I think, in terms of that, you know, I don’t think necessarily that he won over a single Republican with that speech. And the military [incompr.] at the beginning and the end, it’s always appropriate for the commander-in-chief to talk about whatever the military has done, regardless of what we think about it [incompr.] president. He runs the stuff.

But he put up a vision of American citizenship as we should take a model from the military. That’s a bit strange. And if it was President Bush saying that and leading off with that type of conception of citizenship, and ending with it, too, as he did in his speech, I think we’d hear a lot more howling about a militaristic concept of citizenship, where it’s command and control, top-down, you know, take up arms, and get your buddy’s back. That’s actually not my conception of American citizenship at all. My conception is we live in freedom, thankfully, for the most part, and we are free to pursue happiness as we see fit. That’s how kind of we all have agreed on that. So I thought it was a little bit militaristic in that concept.

And then in general this stuff in between, you know, I’m sure progressives aren’t happy with it, ’cause they heard a lot about drilling and, you know, all options on the table for energy and so on, and tax cuts. But also, if you think about what independents, Republicans, Libertarians are and should be interested in most of all, which is the fiscal cliff we’re accelerating over right now, he had barely a paragraph on that, and that was in the service of a but comma, and then he talked about Warren Buffett’s secretary and raising taxes and addressing income inequality. All that stuff is crap to the progressive base, and I think it’s a direct response from Obama’s part to try to tap into the more Occupy Wall Street style populist concerns. And that stuff, I can tell you, is not really going to woo a lot of the people who are on the fence about Obama. Luckily for him, from his point of view and for people who were rooting for him, the Republicans are not bringing people to the table who are any more attractive. And so I still think Obama is the guy that you’d bet on to win so far.

JAY: Yeah, I think that’s the calculation. It’s hard to see. Unless there’s some last-minute change, I don’t know if the Republican elite can maneuver someone else to come in at this point. They seem to have thrown their—and don’t have much choice—they’ve thrown everything behind Romney. But before we move that, let’s just a little more Megan on President Obama’s speech and how he’s running. What does this mean, then, to progressives who were, so many of whom may now consider themselves to have been illusioned? If now they were disillusioned, they were illusioned in 2008. What happens? They just stay home? Do they start—there has been talk about trying to primary Obama. That didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

CARPENTIER: I think Matt actually brought up earlier a great point about the attempts, albeit short and very limited, to appeal to the Occupy Wall Street populism going on. And you can look at the Occupy Wall Street response to the State of the Union, and they weren’t very keen on what they heard, even Warren Buffett’s secretary stuff. These are people, I think, many of whom voted for Obama in 2008 and were led to the polls, especially the young people, some of them for the first time, by hope in change, and the system has to be different. And four years later, or three and half years later at this point, things aren’t very much different for them. And, in fact, in many ways it’s worse. So I don’t know what a lot of progressives do. I think that the Obama campaign should be pretty concerned, because they won in a lot of states, and a lot of key states for them, based on voter turnout and based on first-time voters. And when you have first-time voters turning around four years later and calling themselves disillusioned and camping out in parks to express their unhappiness with the government as they see it, I’m not sure those people go to the polls. If they do, I don’t necessarily see them voting for Obama

JAY: Right. Matt, it seems to me you’ve got essentially the American elite has different sections to it, and one likes to call itself liberal, and the other one likes to call itself conservative, and they have different interests to some extent between them. But you got this good cop bad cop drama going on. I once made a film about professional wrestling, and this is like professional wrestling, like, the theater going on, except most of the media’s reporting on the theater as if it’s real and not theater in front of a real set of interests. And the irony right now of who is actually more talking about the real set of interests, of course, very much for his own opportunist reasons, is Gingrich, more openly and more unabashedly that Obama, sort of anticapitalist rhetoric and denouncing the elites and all of this. I mean, it’s a bizarre primary that’s taking place in the Republican Party.

WELCH: Yeah. It’s—Gingrich is obviously a bizarre artifact of kind of Washington life in every way, mostly bad. But you can imagine that he has positioned himself—I mean, the fact that he’s running on an anti-elite campaign right now tells you a lot about how phony populist politics can be. And unfortunately, it seems to be working to as great a degree as it will work, and he’s the definition of a Washington insider. He’s a guy who described his work—after he was hired by a lobbyist for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he describes that work has, doing [incompr.] work as a historian, and in the private sector, and there’s nothing private sector about any of that stuff.

But it shows that a lot of the right and—distressingly, from my point of view—a lot of the Tea Party right is susceptible to a kind of cultural war politics. I’m not necessarily talking about the way that we usually understand culture war on abortion or gay marriage or religion and this type of stuff. It’s more of a sense of us versus them, something that Sarah Palin tapped into that Gingrich is trying to is that these, you know, elites in New York [incompr.] Washington and San Francisco, these media people who are out of touch, they disrespect our lives as sort of [incompr.] Americans, whereas we see what common Americans are, and that is the most important motivating thing out there right now. I think it’s a shallow sentiment to begin with and it’s one—you know, if the Tea Party was animated by concerns over the growth of government, the size of it, of Obamacare, of government action that it disagreed with, to then back a guy who has been part of that government action—he signed on to many other things that they disagree with simply because he’s tapping into this kind of a culture war resentment [incompr.] even though he’s part of the problem. It really is kind of an indictment of how susceptible people are to a completely shallow and phony argument. It’s a wink-wink nudge-nudge argument. Newt Gingrich—.

JAY: And the other part of it is if the other—if Romney can just throw enough money at it, enough TV advertising at it, he can start to take it back again, apparently. So, you know, you can have populist anticapitalist rhetoric from Gingrich, then you just spend enough money on and you can squash him. What kind of bloody election process is this?

WELCH: Well, you know, before we ascribe everything to money—money plays an important role, but it’s certainly not the only role. And the last three or four or five days in Florida in the polls, it’s unprecedented in modern American history how much things have have swung. This thing is super volatile right now. And it’s volatile precisely because the establishment can’t control it, money can’t control it. Up in California I’ve seen so many people think that they can run for governor by spending $60 million of their own money. You can’t. You can’t win that way. You still have to attract votes. So you can’t, I don’t think, buy your way into this election. The voters are completely rested. They’re ready to swing at a moment’s notice. I think a lot of the volatility in this race has more to do with whoever seems like the front-runner at that moment. The next primary state [incompr.] oh my god really? This guy? I don’t want—I want to slow down this kind of glide path to the presidency, so I’m going to gum up the works. I think that’s a lot of what happened in South Carolina, and I think it’s a lot of what happened in Florida [incompr.] are we seriously going to anoint Newt Gingrich as the front-runner? Hold on a sec. That’s too soon.

JAY: Right. Megan, your take on what’s happening in the Republican field. I mean, one of the things I find interesting is how much this kind of anti-elite, and the big capitalist rhetoric resonated with a base of support that normally goes Republican. That’s kind of interesting.

CARPENTIER: Well, I think progressives and liberals have been saying for a long time that they feel Republicans often vote against their own economic interests. And I think the Tea Party, inasmuch as it was sent centered around being anti health care and anti taxation, it was still tapping into a lot of the middle- and lower-income voters who felt very disenfranchised by the system as they saw it, for whatever reason. So when you look at people who have been disenfranchised, who’ve been left unemployed, who’ve been, you know, left without jobs, and who don’t necessarily know what they’re going to do or what the government’s doing for them, you can’t hear them do that and then wonder why it is that an anti-populist rhetoric really appeals to them.

JAY: But what do you make of the sort of liberal media and parts of the alternative media? They were critical of Obama, you know, during parts of his administration, but now the campaign’s on. This part of media is also swinging into campaign mode, and they wind up defending the status quo by defending Obama they wind up defending the status quo. They wind up aligning themselves with, you know, this whole sections of the elite that just want to hold this current situation together.

CARPENTIER: I think what you see with the media in a lot of cases is, as you said earlier, they’re covering the horse race, they’re covering the spectacle. They’re not necessarily covering the issues. And I think you saw this in the 2008 primaries where people talked about Obama’s health care plan at Hillary’s health care plan and John McCain’s health care plan, but on a very broad basis without ever really digging into the details on how that would really help people. And I think you see that a lot here, he said, she said, back and forth, there’s this issue, there’s that issue, but without ever talking to people about what it really means. And so it ends up reinforcing the status quo and ends up reinforcing the major party candidates, and whether that’s putting up the early debates where you have mainstream media putting up these debates between Republicans and then giving no one air time that wasn’t, quote-unquote, a “front-runner”. And now everyone is surprised that Santorum can debate. Well, he never was given a chance. You know, he performed really well in the debate on Thursday night. But part of that is the mainstream media said, well, this guy can’t possibly win, so they just dismissed him out of hand. And I think in both ways it reinforced the status quo. I mean, to oppose Ron Paul is to be said to be an Obama supporter or to be a Romney supporter, but you can just find problems with all of them.

JAY: But my point is it’s a lot of the liberal media that’s been critical of Obama’s centrism, center-rightism is swinging in to defend Obama against the Republicans, which I understand from their perspective the Republican alternative is so much worse and it’s an understandable thing. But they also wind up defending the government and the system that they are supposed to be so critical of. But, Matt, what happens here next? I mean, I’ve always—I’ve said from the beginning—I’m sure I’m not the only one saying it—but Romney—there’s no way Romney isn’t going to get this nomination. The elites have too much money to spend on this. They’re not going to let Gingrich be the candidate. What happens to Ron Paul’s supporters? What happens to people that are so angry that are normally Republican voters? Are they really going to get behind a Romney?

WELCH: I don’t think that they’re going to, at least not a vast majority of them. This is a topic of a lot of debate and concern. You see different people, like Bill Kristol from The Weekly Standard, saying, well, we just need to kick Paul and that whole movement out of the Republican Party and wash our hands of it. It’s like a Buchananite upsurge—it’s distasteful; we need to expel it. And then you have people like Jim DeMint in South Carolina saying, no, no, this is actually kind of the future of the party; we need to embrace it and domesticate it somehow. It’s fascinating. Ron Paul’s doing really well among young voters especially, independents especially.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party, in an era where Democrats have run a bad economy, have been losing voter registration. It lost 800,000 registered Republicans since the 2008 elections. That’s astonishing in that field to do so badly, and the only growth area is the Ron Paul area. So we’re going to see a very interesting dance going forward, depending on how long it takes for Mitt Romney to reestablish himself as the front-runner and so on.

There is going to have to be a moment of truth between whoever the Republican establishment solidifies around and this insurgent wing that has belief systems that are utterly opposed to those of Mitt Romney. Let’s not forget, Romney is running every day bashing Obama for cutting Medicare. Romney says we drastically undercut our military spending and we have to restore—he is not running on cutting governments all. In fact, if all of his policies came into being, government would be expanded even further. So you have this guy who created the blueprint for Obamacare, which is the single most hated thing on the right, and as a big-government conservative, would have to create some kind of rapprochement with this very, very motivated, very non kind of Republican affiliated group [crosstalk]

JAY: And also this group you’re talking about, especially the younger people that are being drawn to Ron Paul, at least in my experience, they’re mostly being drawn to Ron Paul’s foreign policy positions. It’s less about the—less government all that kind of stuff. It’s the anti-empire message. And that’s completely opposed to anything Romney stands for, or for that matter what Obama stands for. So, I mean, there’s a lot of people that may want to stay home this election.

WELCH: Yes, or vote for [incompr.] no matter what, you’re going to see a lot of people write in the name Ron Paul. You might see some people tried to flirt with Gary Johnson if he wins the Libertarian Party nomination. He’s—was the first major politician in this country to come out in favor of legalizing marijuana. He did that in the ’90s as a Republican governor of New Mexico. And he’s going for the LP nomination. I think that he might end up—if he gets it, he might end up doing the best that the Libertarian Party’s ever seen, precisely because people who care about war, who care about the drug war, who care about civil liberties, won’t have anywhere to go, really, except holding their nose and voting for the lesser of two evils. So I think there is a big electorate out there that’s in favor of that stuff and they’ll be open to going elsewhere or sitting on their hands.

JAY: And, Megan, just quickly, to finish, do you think there’s a section of your readership at Raw Story that just either won’t vote or might even vote—will vote for just a candidate in a sort of a—another candidate in some sort of protest?

CARPENTIER: I think absolutely there are people that have showed up in 2008 that might not show up again. I think the voter registration numbers that Matt has seen are very interesting, people switching parties in part because of the Tea Party. And I think a candidate like Gary Johnson, whose views haven’t really gotten a good airing, appeals in a lot of ways to progressive voters who maybe aren’t that sold on Ron Paul. You know, it’s great to be anti-Empire and anti-war on drugs, but some of his other positions leave progressives really cold, whereas Gary Johnson is a very fiscal conservative, but when it comes to social issues he leans very Libertarian. So he’s a same-sex marriage, he’s pro-marijuana legalization, he’s pro a lot of of LGBT rights issues. That’s going to be a very attractive combination for a lot of voters in the of LGBT community, in the women’s community, because he’s also decent on pro-choice issues, looking at what the Obama administration hasn’t done for them and looking to cast a protest vote.

JAY: Thank you both for joining us.

WELCH: Thank you.

CARPENTIER: Thank you so much.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine. Welch's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, LA Weekly,,, Wired, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Daily Star of Beirut, and dozens of other publications.

Megan Carpentier is executive editor at The Raw Story. She was an associate editor at Talking Points Memo and an editor at Prior to writing about politics, she spent 7 years working in them as a lobbyist.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine. Welch's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, LA Weekly,,, Wired, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Daily Star of Beirut, and dozens of other publications.