The Audacity of Mope

After years of political punditry, Kevin Phillips needs a beer.

By Eric Scigliano December 27, 2008 Published in the August 2008 issue of Seattle Met

It’s three hours till Kevin Phillips takes the stage at Town Hall, and already he’s beat. “I’ve lost count,” he says, shuffling across the Olympic Hotel lobby. “I don’t know whether this is the 12th or 13th interview today.” He brightens slightly at two suggestions: “Just say ‘Shut up,’ if I ask the same questions,” and “How about a beer at Shucker’s?”

Phillips’s weariness runs deeper than book-tour blues. “I’ve been doing politics, studying politics for damn near 50 years,” he growls. “I’m tired of it.” Tired of the political culture that he prophesied. In 1969, as a young Nixon White House staffer, Phillips published a book, The Emerging Republican Majority, that foresaw an epochal political realignment and crystallized the GOP’s triumphant “Southern strategy”: Let the Dems have the GOP’s old Northeast heartland, though Phillips himself grew up an Eisenhower Republican there. Exploit race and blue-collar populism to capture the Bible Belt and emerging “Sunbelt”—the latter a term that Phillips coined, as he did “New Right.”

That led to raging deficits, growing economic inequality, and foreign misadventures under President Reagan in the 1980s, and much more of the same under the president Phillips calls “the lesser Bush, the inconsequential Bush” today. Phillips, appalled, has become a data-crunching Jeremiah, decrying the monster he helped create in books whose titles speak for themselves, from The Politics of Rich and Poor in 1990 to his new Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism. “The conservatives think I’m a total apostate,” he says matter-of-factly, “but I still haven’t wound up with any great affection for the Democrats. They have an infallible talent for wasting opportunities, starting with the Man with the Golden Zipper”—Bill Clinton—“himself.”

Today, Phillips finds economics more meaningful than politics, but no cheerier. Finance—unproductive money-shuffling—is 21 percent of the economy. Manufacturing is just 12 percent. Debt has quintupled in the last 25 years. Looking ahead, oil will keep bleeding us. Asia will eat what’s left of our lunch. Goodbye, dollar, when Britain joins the Eurozone. “A lot of things that are gathering steam will really hit in about 15 or 20 years.” Phillips’s expression goes from deadpan to hangdog. “I’m probably not going to be here, which is probably a good thing.”

"Democrats have an infallible talent for wasting opportunities, starting with the man with the golden zipper himself."

Meanwhile, Phillips says, the government cooks the stats to make the economy look rosier. “Politicians aren’t preparing us for any of this,” least of all the lesser Bush: “This guy’s about as strategic as a fried clam.” But speaking of seafood, this dire seer still relishes his Seattle stopovers. “I love the Willapa oysters and the Copper River salmon.”

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