Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Understanding McConnell

Who is Mitch McConnell's plan, unveiled yesterday, aimed at?

Here's how I read it: this is directed squarely at his own party. The Republicans.

McConnell is, we all agree, a very savvy politician. Here's his problem. Obama may be willing to strike a deal -- may be desperate to strike a deal – may even be willing to agree to a deal that is lopsided in favor of Republican priorities – but it's still going to be a deal. A bargain. A compromise. And what has to spook McConnell and John Boehner and all the Republican fact, what has to spook every non-crazy Republican politician -- is that the very fact that whatever deal is cut will be a compromise with that Kenyan socialist usurper will make it a sellout.

And all of this is made worse by epistemic closure among conservatives. It may really be difficult to fathom, for those who get their information only from partisan media, that Republicans have any reason to make any concessions at all. They may be completely unaware that many of their policy preferences, including some on taxes, just aren’t all that popular. They also may mistakenly believe that Barack Obama is massively unpopular with the American people.

So what McConnell is doing, I think, is showing Republicans what losing would look like, and trying to persuade them losing is the alternate to cutting some sort of deal.

And he’s challenging Republicans: would you prefer to just plain lose? Because that's the real alternative to cutting a deal.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Republicans will believe McConnell and accept that those are the only choices. And you know what? It’s also very possible that a lot of Tea Partiers would prefer losing outright, with only the flimsiest of face savers, than to support a deal that Obama signs off on (and, for good measure, one that would require them to vote to raise the debt limit). But that’s the choice McConnell is trying to get them to make.


  1. Wow. I'm not sure this is accurate, but even if it is, is this an amazing testimonial to the virtues of "Madisonian" government, or what?

    Let's review. Currently in play, we've got:

    > Two contradictory constitutional provisions, one requiring authority from Congress for any borrowing and the other forbidding Congress from refusing to grant that authority when needed.

    > Two -- or arguably three -- contradictory sets of laws, one authorizing spending (appropriations), one refusing to raise enough to cover this (the tax code), and one setting a ceiling on borrowing that's too low to cover the difference.

    > A president of Party A.

    > One house of Congress in the "control" of Party A.

    > A minority in that house of Party B, which however holds a veto.

    > A second house of Congress under the control of a radical wing of Party B.

    > A minority in that house of Party A, at least some of whose votes will probably be needed here, giving it, too, an effective veto.

    Result? Party B's leader in one house floating weirdly complex proposals in public, not to communicate with the public or even with Party A, but to get a message across to other members of Party B.

    A system like this is just too weird and complex. I think what we're seeing in the current negotiations (or failure thereof) is a premonition of the day when it finally cracks to pieces. Unless, of course, this IS that day.

  2. At this rate, I really do expect a few days of "shutdown" (or whatever we'd call the not-paying of bills for a few days).

    The GOP really and truly is insane.

  3. In June 2009, noted libertarian Rand Paul was videotaped making the (very reasonable, for a libertarian) suggestion that Medicare should include a $2,000 deductible. One year later, he was running for Senate, and in spite of still (apparently) being a libertarian, he walked back that deductible idea with tremendous urgency.

    In 2010, Michelle Bachmann was a rising Tea Party star who said, several times, that old people will have to wean themselves off entitlements, a very reasonable position for a Tea Partier. One year later she is a viable Presidential candidate, and we suddenly find her a friend of Medicare, even defending it against the President's nefarious plot to turn it into Obamacare, since "Medi-" is obviously a preferable prefix to "Obama-" when receiving a government subsidy.

    As a conservative, I find it endlessly fascinating that liberal commentators have seemed not to clue into this essential and crippling conflict between the powerful "old folks" and powerful "Tea Party/(rich guy)" lobbies within the Republican tent. Look, McConnell is not surrendering because he wants to "teach his side a lesson" (does he have that authority? He is from Kentucky, isn't he?) He is also not responding to the "Kenyan socialist usurper" shibboleth, which is an increasingly tiresome non-argument.

    He is surrendering because there is no deal he can agree to, not now, not in 100 years, that will keep his Tea Party and old folk constituencies happy. He is surrendering so that both can point their fingers at Obama and the Dems for their unhappiness for however the difficult times to come run afoul of their diametrically-opposed interests.

    In conclusion, it occured to me today that, if Fox News had instead been a bunch of left-wing shills, they'd have a weekly show with a pretentious title like "How Gerontology turns Libertarians into Socialists". In this world, the left gives you the half-rationalizing Kenyan/colonialist routine, letting their opponents off the hook. As it always is.

  4. CSH, that's a funny line about prefixes. But look, I don't know what you mean about an "old folks lobby." Medicare and Social Security are very popular. That's true across age groups (because they life the financial burdens of care for the aged that would otherwise fall on families) and even with voters who self-identify as Republican and conservative. This is the reason that candidates for office all have to support them. In fact, what we have here is one area where our highly imperfect democracy actually works as advertised -- translating, through campaigns and elections, a clear public preference into policy.

    Also, if there's a "lobby" at work it must be an international one, because programs like these are if anything even more firmly entrenched in other countries. It seems that the citizens of modern nation-states have decided that taking care of the old and infirm is one thing they definitely want those nation-states to do. I know there are a few libertarians who argue otherwise, or who suggest that the private market can do this even though it failed to for so long (that's why Medicare and S.S. were created), but they're apparently failing to convince their fellow citizens.

  5. Erratum: Make that "lift" the financial burdens.

  6. Jeff,

    Totally agree with your assessment about the popularity of entitlements; my point is that the popularity of entitlements is a huge roadblock for Republicans also trying to satisfy their Tea Party members.

    It didn't get much press, but remember when Rand Paul tried to demonstrate his Tea Party bona fides by presenting a plan to cut $500 B from the Federal budget? Not surprisingly, Senator Paul pretty much exempted popular entitlements, and then - as the few critics who engaged him noted - he basically took a blunt axe to the rest of government. Any fool can say "I think the DEA should be 30% smaller", but the real challenge, not engaged by fools or Rand Paul, is specifying how to achieve that goal.

    Not only did Rand Paul put together a blunt instrument, hand-waving plan to cut the deficit (while sparing entitlements), but worse - given his ideology - his huge blunt changes cut the deficit half. Lame.

    In summary, you can't realistically make the Tea Partiers happy without making the old people unhappy. Or vice-versa. So McConnell is responding by taking his ball and going home. In typical liberal style, the left is letting him.

  7. In summary, you can't realistically make the Tea Partiers happy without making the old people unhappy.

    Yes, which is why, if the Tea Party were a stock, I'd be shorting it.

  8. Well, that makes quite a lot of sense. I found the proposal hilarious, as it seemed on the surface to be a way for the know-nothings to technically fulfill their campaign promise not to vote to raise the debt ceiling, by voting away their ability to effectively stop it. McConnell correctly claims it makes the debt limit the president's responsibility, but it does that by Congress completely abdicating theirs.

    I mean, sure, a lot of GOP base voters are, shall we say, not strong on critical thinking and prone to believing whatever ludicrous story Fox tells them, but I still think that would be a hard one to get past them. On the other hand, Newt and his pals declared victory on the Contract with America because they'd written each point as a promise to bring the matter up for a vote, not to actually *pass* it, so who knows.

    Personally, I think the best counter-proposal to McConnell would be to push for a permanent end to the debt ceiling. (Republicans can still vote non-binding resolutions of disapproval all they like.) The best way to end the hostage-taking strategy would be to take away the hostage every time Republicans try it and lose.


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