Opinionated comedian Bill Maher was in a good mood on the afternoon of April 13, 2011. He was pleased that he'd been wrong, after all.
On MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show the night before, the host of HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher predicted a lame "center-right" budget speech from President Obama the next day.
He, like many disappointed progressives, feared that Obama would once again surrender too much ground to the 21st-century Republican plan to repeal the 20th century.
Instead, the president rejected Rep. Paul Ryan's robber baron plan forcefully; and of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans he declared, "I refuse to renew them again."
This is where we started our conversation with Maher on afternoon last week. He'll perform in Raleigh on Thursday.
Independent Weekly: What did you think of the president's speech on the budget? Was it as center-right as you predicted?
Bill Maher: No! Actually, you know, he has a great ability, when you count him down, to surprise you. I thought it was a terrific speech and was much more the Obama that I would like to see all the time.
Me too. I'm still nervous, though. I've been in bad actual relationships that haven't felt as traumatic as this one.
That's funny, because, so many times when he negotiates with the Republicans, he reminds me of someone in a relationship who somehow has done something shady and feels guilty about it and now is letting his girlfriend win every battle. But not today. He sounded good.
He did. And he used the same word you used recently on The Rachel Maddow Show to summarize the Republican answer to any senior who uses more than $15,000 in health care under their proposed plan: "Tough."
Right! Their option is if they run out of the $15,000, then tough luck.
So you think "Candidate Obama" is back? Do you think it's tied to election-time gearing up?
I don't know. First of all, the election is quite far away. And he's a master politician. He certainly knows how to move to the center. I think he has won back the independents. He did that last year when he passed the Bush tax cuts, they said. I mean, conservatives are even liking him more. The majority of conservatives now think he deserves a green card!
I've been disappointed in him because he didn't seem to fulfill his promise to change the trajectory of this country like Reagan did. But today seemed like a Reaganesque moment. He framed his argument as optimistic, and his opponents' as extremely pessimistic.
Right. And he also threatened their shit. This is one thing that Democrats seem to have forgotten how to do. I felt like there was a little bit of that coming back in his speech today. When [Republicans] get up there, and they threaten heating oil for the poor, and Pell Grants and food stamps, that's when you threaten their shit!
That's when you threaten tax cuts for the rich—and the Pentagon, and farm subsidies, and oil companies. So, I felt like it was a little bit more of Obama on the offensive.
Of course, I would have liked to see him go a lot further. It would have been wonderful if he said, "You know, there's 38 billion dollars that we just cut out of people who are really gonna feel it. We could have gotten rid of one program for a fighter jet. How about that F-22 that has never been used? We've spent untold billions on this thing and Phil Spector has killed more people."
Did you catch Boehner's response immediately afterward? He said, "Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem."
Yeah, see, that's their line now. They think that anything that the government spends is evil. First they demonized all taxes. All taxes are evil. Now all spending is evil. But the truth is, all spending is not evil. You have to spend money to make money. I thought they were the party of business. Isn't that like, page 1 of the business manual—you have to spend to make?
You know, sometimes you need to invest. If we don't invest—if we don't have enough good schools and good roads—who's gonna wanna live here and be in business? Who's gonna wanna trade with us? You know, the country's falling apart from the inside. They don't seem to understand that.
The genius of the Republican Party is their ability to embrace and repeat these facile sound bites until they become, you know, nuggets of "conventional wisdom."
That is so true.
So how do you fight that when you're talking about complex issues, without coming off like John Kerry?
[chuckles] It's very difficult, you know. Obviously, people in this country don't really pay attention to the issues. That's why I've always said, It doesn't really matter what side of an issue you're on. Just don't act like a pussy. That's what they care about. You see, if you don't really follow the minutiae of policy, you're going to make your decisions based on how somebody comes across.
Now, for example, the public option was a very popular notion before the health care debate began—as it should be, because, after all, it's about having more freedom. It's called the public option. You don't have to do it. But it was polling at around 70 percent.
But, you see, Republicans see something polling at 70 percent, and they say, "OK, we'll get a check from the Koch brothers for a billion dollars, we'll all meet in our secret evil lair, we'll get our talking points in a row, and for the next six months we'll hammer away at this thing and we'll get it under 50 percent. And then we'll say the American public doesn't want this." And that's what they did.
And they did the same thing in reverse. If something that the American public doesn't like is polling at 45 percent, they say, "Oh, that's easy. Again, we'll meet in our secret lair, we'll get our talking points straight, we'll hammer away, and we'll get it up to 60." And they do it every single time.
And the media always gives the other side of an issue in the name of "fairness," which often amounts to just repeating the other side without really analyzing it.
Yes, and that's what I call "fake fairness." And it does not get at the truth. The media forgets that the truth, sometimes, isn't 50-50. Not every story has two sides that are of equal weight. And we hear this all the time—that, somehow, we have to get the moderates from both parties to meet.
Well, you know, Obama tried that. There are no moderates on the other side. That's the problem. The term "Republican moderate" is a misnomer—like "friendly shark" or "straight priest."
Some Obama haters are also very good at plausible deniability when it comes to stirring racism against the president. It's clear that "community organizer" has been a wingnut term for "black Communist" since 2008.
But if Obama hits back against this stuff, or the "birther" thing, he'd be accused of playing the race card. Do you think he's right to ignore that stuff?
He has to. You know, I always said he was the Jackie Robinson of black politics in America. And when Jackie Robinson was chosen to be the first black [Major League] baseball player, of course, Branch Rickey chose him, not just because he was talented on the field, but because he knew that he would be subject to so much insult and hurling of epithets when he was on the field, that he had to choose someone who could calmly ignore all that.
And Obama is very much in that tradition. And I know the tea baggers hate it when you call them racist; even though 99.999 percent of them are white [chuckles] and the president who drives them batshit insane is black. The one thing they hate is being called racist.
Of course, the other thing they hate is black people. So that's the fly in that ointment.
So how do you explain their love of Herman Cain and Clarence Thomas? The tea party loves them.
Look, it's a good thing if there were more blacks who were keeping the Democratic Party honest. The Democrats basically take the black vote for granted. So it would be nice if there was a choice, and they had to keep the Democrats honest.
But I think the majority of the Republicans love Herman Cain the way evangelicals claim that they love the Jews. You know, they don't really love the Jews. They just need the Jews to be in Israel because they think Jesus is gonna return any minute. And when he returns, he has to return to Israel the way it was when he was there, which was Jewish.
And then of course, they all have to die. That's what happens when Jesus returns—all the Jews die.
Really, though—how do the Democrats get their mojo back? Some of the positions are, frankly, hard to sell. When you were on Rachel Maddow recently, she said that many economists agree that you need to run a deficit during a recession. Well, if you're not an economist, that may sound bad. It's not a facile argument like "Washington needs to tighten its belt like you folks at home."
That's very true. Well, first thing, the Democrats could do a lot better than what they're doing, if they would just stick up for what the progressive party is supposed to believe in. You know, Democrats have to get it through their thick skulls that they were put on Earth for one reason, which is to drag the ignorant hillbilly half of this county into the next century—which in their case, is the nineteenth.
And economically, what they have to do is convince the tea bagger-type people who are regular Joes that, if you are a regular Joe, and you have the same agenda as Steve Forbes, you're an idiot! These regular people who think they're gonna get rich—it's like the dog thinking "You know, tomorrow he's gonna let me drive."
I mean, if you're a regular Joe, and you are fighting to get rid of the estate tax, that's just crazy. The estate tax—a tax on people who have estates. Otherwise known as "not you."
Even though you're one of the right wing's most hated media figures, you don't mind going on Fox News. What do you get out of that?
First of all, I haven't been on Fox News for a while, because Roger Ailes has banned me from Fox News. I'd be happy to go on. I'm not afraid of them. And I actually take pleasure in telling people who are usually, as they are on Fox News, just full of misinformation, the facts.
I mean, apart from ideology, these people are just constantly and tragically misinformed. The latest example being this John Kyl guy, who said that Planned Parenthood—"90 percent of what they do is abortion," when really, it's 3 percent. And then the statement coming out of his office was, "Well, he did not mean that to be taken factually."
Oh, well, why should we ever take what a politician says factually? Especially when he's quoting numbers.
I've often heard you speak of your fondness for performing in the South.
Yes. My favorite place to perform, because, for one thing, the audiences are so enthusiastic, because there are a lot of progressive people who live in Southern cities. They just are surrounded by a lot more conservative people. So when somebody who thinks like them comes to town, I think we both enjoy that moment.
And I also want people in the Southern states to understand that I don't write them off, you know? I don't say "Oh, that's just a red state, and there's nobody smart who lives there." No—I know there's lots of cool people living there, and I'm gonna come to see them.