Thursday, January 3, 2013

Catch of the Day

Here's one for Jonathan Chait, who notes not only that it's really not actually possible for House Republicans to meet their policy goals without negotiating with the President of the United States -- but that by telling Speaker Boehner not to do so, they're actually buying into the very strategy which they themselves believe didn't work over the last two weeks.

Which is nuts, of course.

The best part is that, as he reports, apparently some Republicans really think that Joe Biden was negotiating on his own, without White House guidance, in this last round. I think that one goes more in the foolish category than the crazy bin, but at any rate it's an amazing misreading of what just happened. Hey, did you know that conservative talk radio believes (okay, the conservative talk radio host I heard last night was saying) that Nancy Pelosi is a drooling idiot? They think (that is, they say) the same thing about Biden, and of course about Barack Obama, too. Or, that is, they simultaneously believe that at least Pelosi and Obama are both simple-minded fools and brilliant Machiavels (can we bring that word back, by the way?).

As long as I'm sort of on the subject, I'll push my idea for how Democrats should deal with this: challenge Republicans to televised negotiations, but with the price for admission set as a detailed, specific proposal.

But mostly I just liked Chait's post quite a bit. Nice catch!


  1. Jonathan Chiat thinks Speaker Boehner proclaiming that he won't negotiate with Obama is crazy. Taking B. literally, it doesn't seem crazy to me. B. has tried it twice and run away from the deal twice. He either can't back up a deal with votes or he realizes he's out of his depth and getting rolled, or both. He'd be crazy to keep doing it.

    Chiat's point is that if the House wants to actually do anything, they have to know if Obama will sign it. But they don't need B. going to the White House to find that out. All this worked for years through various means (aides talking, back-channel phone calls, signals through the media, etc.) so that both sides had a pretty clear idea where the other side stood on specific legislation and provisions, without "negotiations." If B. means he's not going to do any of this--well, that is crazy.

    In fact, B. going to the White House to negotiate with the President like he was a head of state was always more of a symbolic win for the GOP, placing their leader on equal ground with the POTUS. But B. has failed so spectacularly in public, he's better off being as invisible as possible.

  2. I recall a lot of anti-W stuff that oscillated between portraying him as a moron and an evil mastermind. Admittedly, the more sophisticated stuff usually had W as the moron and Cheney as the Machiavelli, but I think the impulse to believe these contradictory things about political opponents the rare legitimate "both sides do it".

    1. This is true, but a lot of anti-W stuff also portrayed him as not caring about what happened to people. And he passed both a huge education bill and an enormous Medicare expansion!

  3. All due respect, I don't think Boehner means he will no longer find grounds to get bills passed with the WH. I think he means he will no longer take his (profoundly vapid) dog-and-pony show to the WH beauty pageant for comparison with Obama's (equally vapid) dog-and-pony show. That's a competition Boehner always loses, and not for any particularly good reason, so its better not to try.

    Small digression: y'all talked earlier today about whether the cliff tax plan was "permanent", noting that its not permanent to the extent that all Congress and the WH have to do to change the rates is pass a bill. So true. Tell you what: considering all the political capital expended to make the current rates "permanent", you can have the horse of "Obama/some future administration reintroduces Clinton-era rates for everyone", and I'll take the horse of "US drives into the fiscal abyss", and I can't wait to see you down at the track!

    Back to Boehner: if we printed out all the commentary saying how irrational Boehner's plans are, we could fill a wing of the Library of Congress. Commentary on Obama's vision, also immensely foolish in light of the payout for the effort, would not even crack the spine on your kid's Trapper Keeper.

    Indeed, when the MSM notes how little Obama achieved for the effort, its always with the caveat that Obama wanted/was willing for "more", there was so much stuff he was willing to put on the proverbial table, if only if only if only and then some (*Republican expletive deleted). Similarly vague plans from the Republicans are routinely assailed for lack of specificity or internal contradiction.

    So why in the world would Boehner want to publicly darken Obama's door again?

  4. Yes, CSH, it is true that Obama has profound advantages in those kind of situations. But after all, to use an overused observation, elections have consequences. If the GOP does not want to have that problem, then they do not need to worry about the MSM, they need to convince the voters to give them unified control of the government. It is also the case that MSM, and academia even more so, does not have a high regard for the GOP. Republicans are not just blowing smoke on that. However, in general Republicans, or maybe it is better to say conservatives, have not handled that particular situation very well. Maybe there really are personality issues at work on both sides that make it highly unlikely for most academics and journalists to really have much sympathy with conservatives. But then again Boehner's trouble isn't what pundits and scholars say. His trouble is that he isn't dealing with President Romney and Majority Leader McConnell.

    1. I agree with you, Anastasios. Boehner is universally reviled for disclaiming his own interest; Obama's "arm was twisted" into entertaining adjustments to chained CPI or adjustments to Medicare eligibility (even as we are assured our fiscal situation will easily be fixed by something something chained CPI and Medicare eligibility).

      No one is willing to admit this, but Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell are viscerally repulsive, while Obama, Biden, Pelosi and Reid are naturally likeable. To a large extent, the media narrative follows from that universal, if rarely acknowledged, truth.

    2. So personal! Is that why so many people on the right love Pelosi? We on the left have our own reasons, of course.

      This conversation would benefit from people treating their leaders with some level of respect. They are leading us, after all, and they were chosen through the democratic process. What we would like as a nation would be for them to have an honest conversation about how best to rebuild our economy.

      That's the real shame about Boehner claiming he just can't talk to Obama anymore.

    3. Do we want them to have an honest conversation, Anonymous? I'm not so sure we really do. It is true that most people adhere when asked to vague ideas about the deficit is bad, the economy needs to be fixed, etc. They are even willing to support general courses of action if those courses of action are stated in very vague terms, such as reforming entitlements while raising taxes on the wealthy; or cutting corporate welfare while increasing investment in the future; or supporting the middle class and American families with a transparent, cost-effective government; or limiting government overreach while maintaining vigorous action in areas where government has proven effectiveness.

      The problem is when you start getting down to specifics, like raising the Medicare eligibility age, or changing the Social Security formulas, or experimenting with a carbon tax, or limiting payouts for certain kinds of medical procedures, or limiting the mortgage interest deduction. As soon as those kinds of discussions begin, the public's support disappears as fast as a buck-toothed teenager at an Orthodontists' Convention.

      What having an honest conversation, or telling painful truths, or crafting a grand bargain really seems to mean, then, is that politicians should defy the public, do what's best for the country, and tell the public "We know you don't want this but it's good for you so take your medicine!" Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately depending on your viewpoint, our political system is not set up for politicians to do that and get away with it. There are too many checks and balances, too many veto points, too many levels of government, and elections are too frequent. Polticians who try that kind of thing, that is who try to have an honest conversation and then present the public with the results, simply cannot endure the backlash. In this other types of constitutions and political systems are arguably superior. Many European systems, for instance, deliver full power into the hands of a winning coalition and then given that coalition several years to prove their prowess before having to endure elections. Thus European politicians can, in some countries and some instances, do strikingly unpopular things and actually survive for extended periods with their full power intact. For better or for worse, in this case probably for worse, our leaders can't do that. In this Madison was well-meaning, but possessed of a vision that simply looks stupid and increasingly disfunctional in the modern world.

      So I agree that our leaders deserve better from us. I don't think I would put it in terms of respect. Rather sympathy might be better, along with some free headache powders.

    4. How about if they just do their homework, Anastasio? They could say that the federal government should have X priorities. To accomplish that, we need to ...... (insert specific list of tax and spending ideas.) The other side could then respond with their own list. Then they could, you know, negotiate.

      You're saying that nobody wants to hear such a thing. Rather, I'd argue that many people are paid to prevent such a conversation. Please don't be part of the problem.

  5. Who should do their homework, Anonymous? I think that the most effective answer would be to get the public to do that, at the very least the part of the public that is politically active. If the conversation within the politically active public changes then that within the primary and electoral system will change, changing the conversations within and among the parties.

    The problem is how to support such a dynamic -- how even to get such a conversation effectively started. Sure, politicians have a role. But ultimately the motive force has to come from the ground up. When the politicians have interest group pressure, exemplified by votes and money, to do the right thing, they will do it. I will even give them a break and say that many of them would do the right thing in the absence of positive pressure, if they just did not have so much pressure going in the opposite direction. So if serious talk of a grand bargain with specifics did not attract active support but at least did not invite automatic primary challenges -- well, we still would not get a grand bargain, but we might well get much better focused bargains. We would also get better legislation during periods of unified government.

    But, as you say, there are a multitude of problems with trying to get the process rolling. There are people paid, as you say, to keep that from happening (although they would probably, quite honestly, describe their function in a different way). There is an absence of safe space within the party structure, particularly on the GOP side, where alternative policy approaches and polticial strategies might be discussed and grow. But there is particularly the problem that any discussion between a party and its base, once again particularly on the GOP side, is very likely to quickly degenerate into a least-common-denominator slide toward quasi-populism.

    Now, nothing about any of this means that some solutions could not be imposed - particularly during periods of unified government. That is how the ACA came about after all, as well as Medicare and the Civil Rights Act. But the more underlying issues will persist and mean that, like the ACA, any legislation passed during unified periods will simply become fodder for the war, whatever its intrinsic merits. The Republicans have welded a repeal of the ACA into their culture of aspiration. Should the Republicans win big in the next few years and pass something like the Ryan plan, repeal of THAT will become part of the Democratic culture of aspiration. Such things can persist for a very long time. Many Republicans have never gotten over Roe v. Wade (granted that was a court decision and somewhat different), and the ongoing battles over taxation mean, as JB has pointed out, that the Bush tax cuts remain an issue whether permanent or not.

    Maybe, ultimately, we have to accept that the old and bitter addage is right, progress really does proceed one funeral at a time. Our only hope may well be to try to keep the lid on, that is to try and muddle along someway, somehow, for several more years until the public sickens of the situation and demands change and enough "negative influences" die off to actually allow change to happen in a way that will give at least some long-term and stable agreement. Not very attractive, that, but it may be what we are stuck with.

    The other scenario is even worse, which is that we muddle along with things getting worse and worse until the system definitively breaks and some majority or other simply sweeps asides obstacles by fiat. I don't mean just a period of unified government, but an actual "we are sick of this and going to change the system so it can't happen again," situation. I really don't think that second possibility will happen, but it is not impossible (it's happened twice before, during the Revolutionary Era and in 1860-1865).

    1. I don't quite see whose funerals you are hoping for. Most of the older politicians come from an era when bargaining was more highly regarded. Indeed, Congress eventually had to lean on a pair of seventy-somethings to resolve the latest man-made financial crisis.

      I think that you are on to something, however, when you point to the problem being between the Republican party and its supporters. Not its base, mind you, by which I mean the hundred million or so Republicans who are reasonable, thoughtful, conservative individuals. The supporters who are at issue are the financial backers who are only interested in augmenting their fortunes (Club for Growth, anyone?) and the organizers and bully pulpit prophets who whip the far right flank into a frenzy. These are the folk who have sucked all the space out of the Republican party. They do it to promote their personal agenda, and they do it because they can.

      Thing is, everything the supporters are doing to rout their own party is legal. There's no law that says the Republicans have to care about governing.

      Although I didn't address it earlier, the ACA somewhat rebuts your argument that it is impossible for politicians to do big things without being punished. The Democrats paid a much smaller price for the ACA than they did for the Civil Rights Act.

    2. Had an insight today about grassroots movements; first, I agree that they are critical when they reach a critical mass - the insight is that we never know what that critical mass is until after the fact...right up to the tipping point, inertia prompts us to dismiss the potential of the movement.

      Classic contemporary illustration: the Paulistas. Those of us not libertarians secretly root for the Paulistas where their ideology intersects dormant parts of our own; otherwise our reaction is by and large benevolent patronization - keep up the good work!, we shout, then make a Quixotic jibe behind our hand.

      Empirically, the Paulistas are some number of adherents short of becoming the change they seek. If there are 10 million committed Paulistas in the US, that number is "something less than 290 million". We don't really know what that number is.

      What if its six? Can anyone say for sure its not six? If it is six, we'll all say, after the fact, how close Paul was in the 2012 election, as if we knew it all along. Seems like its not 6. But who really knows?

      But if it is 6, that necessitates a whole different sense of urgency for folks like Couves than if its 290 million. Do we ever know if its 6 or 290 million? So shouldn't we proceed with the urgency of assuming its 6, recognizing that the doubters don't really have any better idea than we do?

      I didn't mean for this to turn into a pro-libertarian polemic, though you are welcome to take it that way if you wish. Rather that dramatic change is often closer than it appears, as we usually only notice such things after the fact.

    3. For a specific example of the above, imagine your wildest political dream right now (for me, a good candidate might be "structural deficits < 2% of GDP." But I digress). Then rewind the clock about five years, and compare the perceived probability of your craziest dream with "Lesbian wins heartland senate seat over conservative icon". Which would have seemed more probable in 2007?

      And yet, when a lesbian wins just such a senate seat, we're like yeah, another win for integration, chalk it up, what's on tv? It quickly becomes background noise, though it would have shocked us seemingly just yesterday.

      Bet there's a lot of such stories in the hopeless zeitgeist. The reason it seems there's so little inspirational change is because inspirational change rapidly becomes the new normal, and you don't notice it anymore.

    4. That is an extremely good point, CSH. What is the difference between an abolitionist movement, which becomes dramatically successful, and an anti-Masonic movement, which turns out to be sound and fury signifying nothing? You are surely right that it is critical mass combined with events, that is enough people at the right point at the right time. And you are surely right that we only recognize these moments in retrospect, and then they seem obvious and inevitable. When the dam breaks, it breaks irretrievably, and then that new lake is just an ordinary part of the scenery.

      I think we have a rather obvious example right before us. Through most if my life it was absurd to think of a black man being elected President. It was the subject of jokes, comedy sketches, and feel-good family movies. I remember back in 2007 Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post describing the response of the black political structure to Barack Obama as being frustration and anger because "he can't possibly win and all he is doing us creating problems for the Clintons. They want somebody to tell him that the time for chaing rainbows is still a long way off.". And of course they were speaking from bitter experience. After all, it was impossible for someone like Obama to be elected President ... And then it wasn't. Now, in 2013, if someone talks about Cory Booker being elected President no one finds it an absurd idea at all.

      So it's true, when someone like me says that a grand bargain is impossible, when CSH doubts the viability of libertarian politics, when Couves doubts gun control, when pundits predict a Clinton restoration in 2016 or that the GOP will control the House for a decade --- well, tis good to reflect how many people were sure that compassionate conservatism would make the GOP an enduring majority, that SCOTUS wold overturn the ACA, that the GOP was done in 2008, that Obama was doomed by the developments of 2010, and that San Diego would dominate the NFL in 2012.

    5. Thanks for the compliment, Anastasios. I thought of the following example last night, which is topical (if a bit strained and ad hominemy).

      Speaking of tipping points, the author of the bestseller itself has a website ( with a blog that was always only sporadically updated. That blog has been dormant for about 2 1/2 years.

      A few months after his last post, Malcolm got into a big kerfuffle with Andrew Sullivan (and many others) in suggesting that social media and crowdsourcing added no value, vs. traditional face-to-face communication, in fomenting revolution.

      From which we infer that the blogging career of the bestselling author of the Tipping Point is entirely contained within a time in which said author thought social media added no value (vs. face to face persuasion) in fomenting revolution.

      And we are startled, and we wonder "You mean anyone was blogging at all during the era of perceived irrelevance of crowdsourcing, much less the author of cultural bestsellers...who hasn't blogged since (what is that, 100 years)?"


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