Peterson’s Puppet Populists

Kick the Can ManFix the Debt is the most hypocritical corporate PR campaign in decades, an ambitious attempt to convince the country that another cataclysmic economic crisis is around the corner and that urgent action is needed. Its strategy is pure astroturf: assemble power players in business and government under an activist banner, then take the message outside the Beltway and give it the appearance of grassroots activism by manufacturing an emergency to infuse a sense of imminent crisis.

Behind this strategy are no fewer than 127 CEOs and even more "statesmen" pushing for a "grand bargain" to draw up an austerity budget by July 4. With many firms kicking in $1 million each on top of Peterson's $5 million in seed money, this latest incarnation of the Peterson message machine must be taken seriously.

Fix the Debt has hired such powerful PR firms and lobby shops as the DCI Group, the Glover Park Group, the Dewey Square Group and Proof Integrated Communications, a unit of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller, which was the go-to firm for Big Tobacco. In the run-up to the "fiscal cliff," these firms launched a flashy $3 million media campaign, blanketing Capitol Hill with TV, Internet, Metro and newspaper ads featuring slogans like "Got Debt?" and "Just Fix It."

Fix the Debt's stable of CEOs are a PR flack's dream. Not only are they able to get meetings with everyone from John Boehner to President Obama; they can flood cable news with laughable messages of "shared sacrifice" and be treated with fawning respect. Fix the Debt's David Cote, CEO of Honeywell, "brings serious financial muscle to the table" when he pushes "market credible solutions," chirps The Wall Street Journal. There is no mention that Cote is a tax-dodging, pension-skimping hypocrite: Honeywell has a negative average tax rate of -0.7 percent and underfunds its employee pensions by -$2.8 billion, making Cote's workers even more reliant on Social Security.

Creating a crisis is key. "America is more than $16 trillion in debt," Fix the Debt's website warns, calling it "a catastrophic threat to our security and economy." The CEOs echo this warning, writing to Congress of the "serious threat to the economic well-being and security of the United States."

But as Dean Baker shows, this talking point just isn't true -- and the inventors of Fix the Debt know it. Indeed, they have admitted it: former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, who is on the steering committee, has said publicly that the goal is to create an "artificial crisis" to get Congress to act.

To foster the illusion of a grassroots uprising, Peterson has nursed what the National Journal calls a "loose network of deficithawk organizations that seem independent but that all spout the Peterson-sanctioned message of the need for a 'grand bargain.'"

In addition to throwing money at groups for national tours and town hall meetings, the 86-year-old Peterson is obsessed with creating the fantasy that young people care more about the national debt than their own. This time around we have The Can Kicks Back, complete with a mascot -- "AmeriCAN," a staffer dressed as a giant can -- who in December taught former Senator Alan Simpson to dance "Gangnam Style." This goofy press stunt went viral -- Peggy Noonan labeled it "merry and shrewd" -- and the group enjoyed puff pieces in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Even Chelsea Clinton and George Stephanopoulos are in on the fix. In his latest effort to birth a group of bipartisan baby hawks, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation has announced a $10,000 cash prize to the college student who creates the best project "designed to educate their peers on the effects of the nation's rising debt." Chelsea and George will judge the contest, along with Simpson and Bowles.

Fix the Debt leader Maya MacGuineas, head of the Peterson funded Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which once partnered with Big Tobacco to tank the Clinton healthcare plan, has tried to cast these efforts as part of a grassroots phenomenon, one of many "popping up all around the country of people who want to get involved." To this end, Fix the Debt has prepared a "Citizen's Toolkit" to facilitate a national uprising against debt and deficits. It provides scripts for talking to legislators, sample letters to the editor and advice for forming grassroots groups. ("Include everyone," it suggests. "Be yourself." "Dream.") It also encourages using Meetup Everywhere, along with assorted social media, to spread success stories.

How has the uprising gone since it was launched in July?

i'm fixin' itSo far, only two meetups have been attempted. (By contrast, the 2011 Halloween Zombie Apocalypse had 497 meetups.) Fix the Debt has collected some 345,000 petition signatures, directed at Congress and the president. This sounds impressive until you learn that the goal was 10 million, and that some CEOs instructed their employees to sign -- among them, the 130,000 employees at Caterpillar (it's unknown how many did).

In October, Fix the Debt launched the first of twenty-three state chapters using a simple template: select bipartisan co-chairs along with a passel of business leaders, write a press release, hold a teleconference et voilà!: a "chapter" is born that looks like an organic, bipartisan effort. Many of the 442 state leaders are corporate lobbyists, of course, some for Fix the Debt firms. By our count, more than ninety are current or former lobbyists.

This strategy seems to be convincing enough for many media outlets. With a staff of eighty people and a $60 million budget, Fix the Debt "increasingly resembles a presidential race, with grassroots-style organizing and offices in places like New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida and Michigan," writes Fortune. Ultimately, the goal is to create a sense of momentum and urgency that feeds back into Washington and gives members of Congress the political cover to meet Pete Peterson's demands.

"This is probably the most important phase as we see it," gushes spokesman Jon Romano. "This is where we actually think something will happen." It's enough to make ace astroturfer David Koch jealous.

This article was published in a special edition of The Nation Magazine, "Stacking the Deck." Learn more about Fix the Debt at

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.


Ed Rendell is on the central committee of Fix the Debt. Yet MSNBC continues giving him airtime, and I have yet to hear them provide a disclaimer when he's introduced. Why not? Regardless, every time it happens, I lose a bit more respect for them.

Thanks for your comment. Interestingly CREDO decided to target MSNBC for this lack of disclosure, check out their action here:

So are you saying there is no issue with the debt? Dean Baker seems to think that the debt is not a problem, others do. One potential isue on the horizon: any normalization of interest rates will explode the line item for interest to service that debt. Maybe not a catastrophe but potentially a huge problem ( much greater than the $85 billion in sequestration cuts that could be coming)