Fresh off his Martha’s Vineyard vacation, a rested and ready Barack Obama set Air Force One on full throttle, flying off to Las Vegas last week to do something really important: Pick a fight with the Koch brothers. The backdrop may have been a clean energy summit starring Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, but the headlines were clear enough. This was about Obama demonizing his enemies.
On the surface, Obama’s announcement of billions of dollars in renewable energy subsidies — yes, the very loan guarantees that resulted in the $500 million bankruptcy of Solyndra Energy — looked like business as usual. What set the event apart was his attack on his opponents’ motives, and his calling out the Kochs by name.
Obama condemned fossil fuel interests and “the Koch brothers pushing for new laws to roll back renewable energy standards.” He characterized such efforts in the harshest terms possible: “That’s not the American way.” Opposing subsidies for geothermal energy is un-American? Really?
Interviewed by Politico, Charles Koch displayed the type of restraint one would hope to see in the president. Despite the media bombast — Politico called Koch’s remarks “blistering” — the essence of what Charles Koch had to say was simple.
First, he observed that a speech that went to great lengths to attack him by name was “beneath the dignity of the president.” It is. Second, he made clear that the brothers’ opposition to Obama’s clean energy subsidies has nothing to do with their support for fossil fuels, but everything to do with their opposition to all forms of corporate subsidy.
Koch promised to continue speaking “against corporate welfare as something that hurts everybody except those direct beneficiaries.” While acknowledging that Koch Industries benefits from many subsidies, he remains steadfastly opposed to them all. “We have to show that this corporate welfare and cronyism is unjust . . . many aspects of it are undermining the opportunities for the poor and the disadvantaged,” he said.
His civil tone sends opponents like Reid into fits of rage; they default to flaming rhetoric about the rich, a rigged system, and the Kochs’ attempt to buy influence. In reality, however, the Kochs are doing something quite straightforward: spending money to promote ideas they believe will make the country stronger.
What irritates opponents even more is that they’re right. Subsidies cost taxpayers billions, flow disproportionately to large corporations, and raise prices on goods like milk, sugar, and other staples. The Kochs want to eliminate them all: oil, gas, the Ex-Im Bank, wind, solar, wheat, catfish — you name it.
Obama disagrees. He likes subsidies when they go to companies and industries he favors; he condemns them when they go to those he doesn’t like. That is precisely the reason Charles Koch wants them gone. Politicians shouldn’t be in the business of dispensing favors to business.
Instead of offering a reasoned argument, Obama questions motives and patriotism, and condemns the Kochs’ “big money” activism. Harry Reid used the term “shadowy billionaires.” Yet nothing could be further from America’s true history. Practically every one of our founding fathers was associated with a major newspaper. Jefferson and Madison financed the National Gazette, Hamilton controlled the Gazette of the United States, and Ben Franklin owned the Pennsylvania Gazette for decades.
These publications promoted political ideas and policies with relentless intensity. There were fewer than 100 nationwide when the Constitution was ratified, and they were the only means of public communication. Then, as now, it was speech, and it was expensive. But their influence was far greater than the fragmented digital ads and cable TV buys of any super PAC today.
Charles Koch is no Ben Franklin. But he has a right to speak, write, and purchase advertising that espouses his views. If the president can’t accept — and champion — that concept, he’s running afoul of 240 years of American history. And if he wants to live in a country that doesn’t allow it, there’s always Russia. They don’t do that in Russia.
John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.