The experience of being an American citizen has degraded over the last eight years. So has the experience of being a consumer. Whether we're dealing with a government that lies us into war or a credit card company that places us in phone-menu hell, we're confronting the same phenomenon: a screw-the-customer mentality that views both government and business as quick payoff schemes for those in power.
It wasn't always this way. There was a time when the relationship between a business and its customers was just that ... a relationship, based on the understanding that dishonesty, bait-and-switch tactics, and lousy customer service would eventually bring a business to its knees.
Government leaders, too, understood that there was a level of cheating and mendacity beyond which they couldn't go, for fear of being drummed out of public life forever. Richard Nixon left office in disgrace. But if Watergate happened today he'd have completed his second term to public applause. And his advisors, rather than going to jail, would have gone on to lucrative second careers as cable news pundits.
The Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress have changed all the rules -- not just for government, but for businesses too. They've lifted regulatory oversight on so many different types of industry that it's now open season on the consumer.
Deceptive credit card practices that inflate your interest rate by claiming you've done something wrong? That's the product of Republican policy. Endless wait times and complicated phone menus, followed by conversations with unhelpful call center staff? Hey, what do you expect from this rape-and-pillage psychology of leadership? Whether it's call centers or Katrina, the new GOP philosophy holds us all under its thumb.
Oh, and those offshore call centers? They're the result of Republican policy too. So are those loans given to customers who couldn't afford them. Some of them didn't realize these loans would quickly become unpayable -- but the lenders did. Now Hank Paulson lectures those homeowners about meeting their obligations while wanting to write a blank check to cover the multi-million dollar incomes of the executives that manipulated them.
They've created a financial 9/11, and they did it the same way they did it the first time: by ignoring the warning signs. Somewhere the memo was written: "Economic Meltdown Determined to Strike in the US." But they ignored that warning, too, and they want to benefit from their failures again. (No doubt administration officials are willing to go to Congress, as Condi Rice did, and claim the warnings were "strictly historical.")
The government bailout plan is a dirty deal. Democrats in Congress -- and the one running for President -- need to make it clear that this is just another breach of trust between the citizen/consumers of this country and their political/business leaders.
No wonder Carly Fiorina was a Republican spokesperson (until her recent gaffe). Under her leadership a great company went seriously adrift. The quality associated with Hewlett-Packard products faded. Instead, the company became better-known for its cynical practice of selling substandard printers with cartridges that were half-empty, then charging outrageous rates for replacements. What better spokesperson for this new philosophy than an ink cartridge salesman?
If Democrats want to win they'll stand tough on the bailout. They'll make "customer service," in its broadest sense, their theme for the remaining weeks of this campaign. They'll link it all together: tying business practices that include lousy credit card deals, bad home loans, rapacious cell phone companies, and the like, with a government that lies to its people then taxes them for the resulting unpopular wars and giveaways to the wealthy.
Underlying it all is a party whose philosophy at election time is not unlike Fiorina's HP: Just sell the product. Who cares if they're miserable later? It doesn't matter once you've closed the deal. That philosophy extends from false campaign promises all the way through to their treatment of the Constitution - which is, after all, a contract between citizens and their government.
Democrats should make sure you think of the GOP and John McCain every time you're placed on hold, or replace the cartridge on your printer, or find out your credit card rate has jumped to 28%. Or discover an extra $75 on your cell phone bill and have to spend four hours on the phone straightening it out.
Or every time another coffin is shipped home from a war sold on false pretenses.
John McCain's election-year flipflops and gimmicks -- including the "time out" -- should be treated no differently than any salesman's attempt to confuse you into making a bad deal. Economic crisis, war, products that don't do what they're supposed to do ... In the end, they're all the result of a broken bond of trust between institutions and individuals. In the end, this election is about "customer service."
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