Tag Archives: Tea Party

Actually, David IS Goliath

Powerful forces aligned behind Dave Brat and against Eric Cantor

When previously unknown Dave Brat beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary Tuesday, pundits struggled in vain to find appropriate historical parallels. In America, majority leaders just do not lose primaries … until now.

Since then, the conventional-wisdom storyline has been David vs. Goliath: A grass-roots candidate with virtually no resources overthrew one of the most powerful insiders in the country. But that’s not exactly true; the more accurate story is that one branch of the Billionaire Party had an unexpected victory over the other branch.

Let’s start with the David. The quick description says Brat is an economics professor from Randolph Macon College in Ashland, VA. That’s true, but there’s more to that story. Brat is director of the BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism Program at RMC, one of those ethically suspect programs where billionaires pay a university to teach a particular point of view; in this case, that free-market capitalism is morally superior to all other systems.

Probably, Brat genuinely believes this Randish philosophy. And propagandizing students with his personal opinions makes Brat no worse than professors of many other viewpoints. But unlike those other professors, Brat is paid not to change his mind. He may be a genuine proselyte, but he’s also a hired shill.

Other shills hired by the same people are the stars of right-wing talk radio. As Politico has reported, talk radio runs on a political version of payola:

A POLITICO review of filings with the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission, as well as interviews and reviews of radio shows, found that conservative groups spent nearly $22 million to broker and pay for involved advertising relationships known as sponsorships with a handful of influential talkers including [Glenn] Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh between the first talk radio deals in 2008 and the end of 2012. Since then, the sponsorship deals have grown more lucrative and tea party-oriented, with legacy groups like The Heritage Foundation ending their sponsorships and groups like the Tea Party Patriots placing big ad buys.

Dick Armey has described the system — known as “embedded media”– more bluntly:

The arrangement was simply FreedomWorks paid Glenn Beck money and Glenn Beck said nice things about FreedomWorks on the air.

Brat spent only $200K or so on his campaign (compared with $5 million by Cantor). But (in what the NYT calls “a unique and potent alignment of influential voices in conservative media”) he got the kind of support money supposedly can’t buy from talk-radio personalities like Ingraham and Levin. Not only did they talk him up regularly on their shows (and dis Cantor), but Ingraham lent her star-power to a Brat rally. Thom Hartmann refers to this arrangement as a “dark money machine” and says:

Once you’ve realized that David Brat wasn’t just some random college professor but was actually the hand-picked candidate of the libertarian billionaire class and its army of talk radio hosts, it’s easy to see another one of the major reasons Eric Cantor lost. We’re living in a brave new world of dark money politics, and in this day and age, doing what Eric Cantor did – hanging out with the Chamber of Commerce, K Street, and Wall Street – only gets you so far. If you want to win these days, you need to win the support of the Kochs, their libertarian billionaire friends, and their allies in the talk radio world.

So while Cantor spent more-or-less transparently — receiving contributions and then buying ads — money got spent invisibly around Brat: The Koch-supported candidate got pushed by talk radio personalities who have sweetheart deals with Koch-funded groups.

That’s not exactly grass roots.

The other misperception about the Brat/Cantor race is that it was all about immigration, where (despite blocking House consideration of the bipartisan Senate immigration bill) Cantor was painted as pro-amnesty. That dynamic was certainly part of the campaign, but if you have a half-hour to burn, it’s worth listening to Brat’s stump speech.

Immigration certainly comes up, along with the I-can’t-believe-he’s-an-economist explanation that cheap labor from immigrants is to blame for the slow growth in jobs. (Cheap unskilled immigrant labor might lower the wages of unskilled jobs, but basic supply-and-demand says that lowering wages would increase the number of such jobs. Since the number of people employed only recently got back to pre-recession levels, immigrant competition can’t be the main reason the job market is so tough.) But Brat’s indictment of Cantor runs much deeper: He’s the Chamber-of-Commerce candidate, while Brat is running against TARP and bailouts and all the other ways that government fixes the game in favor of big business.

If he’s elected, we’ll see if anything comes from that populist rhetoric, or if Brat only implements the cut-spending-on-the-poor and let-corporations-pollute aspects of Randism.

Thomas Frank, whose What’s the Matter With Kansas? detailed the conservative bait-and-switch between populist social-issue rhetoric and cut-taxes-on-the-rich votes in Congress, is skeptical. Yesterday in Salon, he wrote:

The clash of idealism and sellout are how conservatives always perceive their movement, and what happened to Eric Cantor is a slightly more spectacular version of what often happens to GOP brass. That right-wing leaders are seduced by Washington D.C., and that they will inevitably betray the market-minded rank-and-file, are fixed ideas in the Republican mind, certainties as definite as are its convictions that tax cuts will cure any economic problem and that liberals are soft on whoever the national enemy happens to be.

Which is not to say that such betrayals don’t really happen. But Frank finds their inevitability not in universal human corruptibility, but in the fundamental tenets of conservatism itself: Anyone who believes the free market should control all aspects of life will eventually sell his vote to the highest bidder.

So the cycle goes on, uprising after uprising, an eternal populist revolt against leaders who never produce and problems that never get solved. Somehow, the free-market utopia that all the primary voters believe in never arrives, no matter how many privatizations and tax cuts the Republicans try. And so they seek out someone even purer, someone even more fanatical. They drag the country into another debt-ceiling fight, and this time, they say, they really mean it! But what never occurs to them is that maybe it’s their ideals themselves that are the problem.

Rights Are for People Like Us

Those high-flown principles put forward by the militiamen defending Cliven Bundy’s rights … do they apply to anybody else?

The best summaries I’ve seen of the conflict between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal Bureau of Land Management are from the local St. George News and the Washington Post. Cutting it down somewhat: the BLM charges that Bundy has been grazing his cattle on public land without paying grazing and tresspass fees for 20 years. (They got their first court order telling him to stop in 1998; he ignored it.) The claimed fees now amount to over $1 million, and so April 5 the BLM started seizing some of Bundy’s illegally grazing cattle.

Self-appointed defender of Freedom.

Armed militiamen who support Bundy started gathering at a camp on April 10, and on April 12 the BLM backed down after what the Las Vegas Review-Journal described as “a 20-minute standoff … [w]ith rifles pointing toward each side”. The BLM released a statement:

Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.

The Bundy Ranch blog described the scene like this:

The result was a group of Bundy’s family members and supporters making a slow advance on a line of armed agents who kept ordering them to halt. At one point, the protesters were even told “one more step and you’re dead,” but the group kept coming, eventually walking easily through the line of federal agents and SWAT members who obviously didn’t have the courage of their convictions. According to InfoWars, the BLM had already announced it was leaving, but the county sheriff refused Bundy’s demand to disarm the federal agents and return his cattle. Within about a half hour, the cattle were released from the federal pen.

In other words, federal agents tried to enforce the law, were met with armed resistance from a mob, and decided to temporize rather than start killing people. On the extreme Right, this was celebrated as a victory for Freedom. Bundy’s son said, “The people have the power when they unite. The war has just begun.”

And the mainstream Right went along. The Powerline blog wrote “Why You Should Be Sympathetic Toward Cliven Bundy” while admitting “legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on.” National Review‘s Kevin Williamson made “The Case for a Little Sedition“, saying

Of course the law is against Cliven Bundy. How could it be otherwise? The law was against Mohandas Gandhi, too

Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano described the BLM (and not the miltiamen) as “a group of thugs dressed in military uniform with loaded M16s pointed at a rancher and his family.” Fox News produced this sympathetic segment, in which National Review editor Rich Lowry described the resistance as “in the finest American tradition of civil disobedience going back to Henry David Thoreau.”

To me, the Bundy incident has captured much of the basic sickness of conservatism in America: The rhetoric is full of high principle, but it’s hard to find any actual principle that would apply to anyone other than People Like Us — people like the people who belong to the conservative fringe.

It’s tempting to characterize this kind of thing as racism. Certainly that’s what the NYT’s Timothy Egan is suggesting with:

If you changed that picture to Black Panthers surrounding a lawful eviction in the inner city, do you think right-wing media would be there cheering the outlaws?

But it’s more subtle than that. Probably a black man who behaved like a far-fringe-rightist in all other ways could become People Like Us and come to have similar “rights” recognized. But the Black Panthers are clearly not People Like Us, so it would be an absolute horror if they were to arm themselves and resist the law. Likewise, it would be a horror if a Hispanic militia decided to liberate one of Sheriff Arpaio’s detention camps for immigrants. If some miltiamen got killed in such an attempt, I doubt Fox News would lament about “government overreach”. The Occupy protesters weren’t People Like Us, so they could be thrown off public land with impunity. Imagine the outrage if Occupy had militarized Zuccotti Park!

One of the reasons Bundy is supposed to deserve sympathy is that “his family has been ranching on the acres at issue since the late 19th century”. You can imagine how far similar sympathy would extend if armed Native Americans were threatening to kill whites over land their people had been hunting and fishing on for thousands of years. Hispanics have been wandering back and forth across the Rio Grande for centuries, but if they do it today, we have to enforce the Rule of Law. If people get killed, well, so be it.

But not People Like Us. When we feel wronged and take up arms, everyone should sympathize, the government should show restraint, and the media should re-litigate our case to the general public.

A number of Bundy’s sympathizers are rehashing the bizarre claims he has made in court: that the federal government can’t own land inside a state, or that the federal government is itself illegitimate. Bundy repeatedly refers to the federal government’s ownership as “unconstitutional”, probably because his reading of the Constitution never got as far as Article IV:

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States

This is why we have courts, to adjudicate disputes like this. Bundy made his argument in court and lost. Most people don’t then get to appeal their case to the Court of Nuts With Guns. But People Like Us do.

Whenever Bundy supporters are given media time, I would like to see them challenged to state their position in such a way that they would support similar rights for people not at all like them and not already part of the conservative movement. And I’d like to see mainstream conservative pundits confronted with a different challenge: Are there any limits to what you will support if the people doing it are on your side?

Subtext in the State of the Union (and its responses)

You can learn a lot about how our leaders (in both parties) view us by observing how they try to manipulate us.

Once upon a time, state of the union addresses contained major policy initiatives, like when President Johnson announced the War on Poverty in 1964. But nobody does that any more, especially not in a gridlocked era where nothing is going to get through Congress anyway. 21st-century state of the union speeches (and opposing-party responses) are about politics rather than policy. They’re about moving public opinion, not moving the country.

So you might ask, “Why watch?” And there’s an answer: You can learn a lot about how our leaders (in both parties) view us by observing how they try to manipulate us. When they try to scare us, they reveal what they think we’re afraid of. When they reassure us, they reveal what they think we’re insecure about. When they try to be likeable, they reveal what they think we like. They emphasize issues where they feel strong and avoid issues they have no answers for.

They have spent months polling and testing in front of focus groups. Each has carefully crafted the message it believes will best appeal to its part of the public. Listen hard, and you can tell what part of the public they see as their own.

President Obama. The best way to watch the SOTU is via the White House’s enhanced video. (Here’s their transcript.) You get the same video everyone else uses, plus elucidating slides.

President Obama focused on two themes: inequality (which I explore in “Occupying the State of the Union“) and the dysfunctionality of Congress. Clearly he thinks Congress’ unpopularity works to his advantage:

For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate – one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.

I know Ted Cruz comes from an alternate timeline in which Obama and Harry Reid shut down the government and provoked the debt-ceiling crisis, but here’s all you need to know about that: Democrats applauded the President at this point, while Republicans sat on their hands. They all knew who he was calling to account.

The two themes came together in Obama’s executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, something he can do as federal CEO without congressional action. I hadn’t realized the full political import of this until Rachel Maddow pointed it out: Obama has put every executive in the country on the spot. Are governors going to raise the minimum wage for state contractors? Mayors for city contractors? (Yes in St. Louis.) I’ll bet the sound bite (at the 33-minute mark) tested really well:

No one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.

Any time the words Obama and executive order appear in the same news story, Republicans start yelling “tyranny”, as if no previous president issued executive orders. (Sunday Paul Ryan described the Obama administration as “increasingly lawless“.)

Clearly, they have identified a set of voters ready to believe this. In reality, though, Obama has been relatively hesitant about executive orders, issuing fewer of them than other recent presidents. He also has put forward no new theories of executive power, such as President Bush’s sweeping notion of the unitary executive.

Republican response. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington gave the official Republican SOTU response (text & video).

I thought Rodgers’ put forward a likeable image. (The conservative American Spectator protested that her “real message” was “PLEASE LIKE ME”.)  She expressed admirable sympathies, but presented little of substance to back up her good intentions. She talked about working to “empower people … to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be”, but the policies behind those words implement the same old Republican wealth-trickles-down-from-the-rich ideas.

A larger question was: Why her? She’s not a major player in the Republican leadership. She’s not a rising star they’re grooming for bigger things. Nothing about her record in Congress picks her out as the ideal person to speak to these particular issues. But she’s a woman and Republicans want to put a token female face on camera to counter the war-on-women meme.

As Ian Haney Lopez says in Dog Whistle Politics:

The right slams affirmative action for making distinctions on the basis of race, even as it has developed its own perverse form of affirmative action, consciously selecting nonwhite faces to front its agenda.

Rodgers is the female version of Bobby Jindal or Marco Rubio, but without the presidential speculation: Republicans can’t possibly be sexist. Look! They have a woman speaking for them.

But the war on women rages on, no matter who’s in front of the camera. The House Republican majority passed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, whose purpose is to get private health insurance plans to drop abortion coverage. Last week I pointed to its draconian limitations on rape exceptions.

Rodgers’ talk was also noteworthy for invoking yet another bogus ObamaCare horror story. As Paul Krugman put it:

So was this the best story Ms. McMorris Rodgers could come up with? The answer, probably, is yes, since just about every tale of health reform horror the G.O.P. has tried to peddle has similarly fallen apart once the details were revealed.

Tea Party response. Mike Lee (text, video) did a good job countering the Tea Party’s image as the dangerous lunatics who almost pushed the United States into default last October. The over-arching metaphor of his talk was the journey from Boston (the Boston Tea Party in 1773) to Philadelphia (the Constitution in 1787).

Now, as in 1773, Americans have had it with our out-of-touch national government. But if all we do is protest, our Boston Tea Party moment will occupy little more than a footnote in our history. Hopefully our leaders, reformers and citizens will join the journey from Boston to Philadelphia – from protest to progress. Together we can march forward and take the road that leads to the kind of government we do want.

He mentioned several positive Tea Party proposals in Congress without detailing what they would do. But the mere possibility of “the kind of government we do want” is a significant shift in Tea Party rhetoric. I’ll be interested to see if it catches on inside the Tea Party, or if it’s just for export.

Rand Paul’s response. Rand Paul’s talk was mostly a collection of offensive stereotypes and right-wing fantasies. He used the story of black conservative columnist Star Parker to smear welfare recipients:

She was 23 when she quit her job at the L.A. Times so she could go on welfare. By collecting $465 a month, plus Food Stamps, and by getting a part-time that paid cash under the table, she could rent a nice apartment and earn far more money than working an honest 40-hour week. Later, she said, she had no trouble dropping her daughter off at a government-funded day-care center, selling some free medical vouchers to buy drugs, and hanging out at the beach all afternoon.

It’s Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac-driving welfare queen all over again, or Fox News’ lobster-loving Food Stamp surfer. Are those stories supposed to be typical of the people helped by government anti-poverty programs? Paul seems to think so. After putting a happy ending on Parker’s story — she could only get a real job and climb out of poverty after she gave up her “dependence” on government assistance — Paul says:

I want Star Parker’s story to be the rule, not the exception.

But how is that even possible unless her original situation is the rule? Unless welfare recipients in general are lying, cheating, drug-using, child-neglecting blacks who can get honest jobs whenever they want? I’m sure that’s exactly what Paul’s target audience wants to believe, but is it true? Like Reagan, Paul presents no evidence beyond the anecdote.

Another taffy-pull stretching of the truth was Paul’s claim that Obama has “spent more than a trillion dollars on make-work government jobs”. Actually, that number is somewhere close to zero. For example, a big chunk of the $800 billion stimulus was tax cuts. Some of the stimulus’ other big-ticket items sent money to the states so that revenue shortfalls wouldn’t force them to lay off teachers, and paid for repairs to roads and bridges.

So the next time you drop your kid off at public school or drive across an old bridge, remember that Rand Paul thinks teaching or keeping bridges from falling down are “make-work government jobs”.

Thuggery. The weirdest story of the night was New York Republican Rep. Michael Grimm threatening to throw a reporter “off this fucking balcony” (i.e., the Capitol balcony) for asking a question he didn’t want to answer. “I’ll break you in half,” Grimm warned.

Rudeness to the President. Well, at least this year nobody yelled “You lie!” during the speech, as Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina did in 2009. However, Texas Congressman Randy Webber tweeted:

On floor of house waitin on “Kommandant-In-Chef”… the Socialistic dictator who’s been feeding US a line or is it “A-Lying?”

Another Texas congressman, Steve Stockman (who is Senator Cornyn’s Tea Party challenger in the upcoming primary) walked out of the speech.

Isn’t it an amazing coincidence how Southern Republican Congressmen lost their sense of decorum and their respect for the office of the presidency at the precise moment when a black man was sworn in? Did a memo go out, or did they just know what to do by intuition?

Occupying the State of the Union

The conventional wisdom about Occupy Wall Street is that it failed. It made a splash and generated headlines, but ultimately it elected no candidates, passed no laws, and didn’t even leave behind a memorable lost-cause proposal like the Equal Rights Amendment. So it was all a big waste of the activists’ effort and our attention.

By contrast, the Tea Party did elect candidates and has influenced all kinds of laws, especially at the state level. Without the Tea Party, the government wouldn’t have shut down last October. You may not consider that much of an accomplishment, but it is proof of continuing influence. The Tea Party may eventually even displace the Republican establishment and take over half of the two-party system.

What has Occupy done to rival that?

But all along, Occupy visionaries like David Graeber were defining success differently:

For the last quarter millennium or so, revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense. … What they really do is transform basic assumptions about what politics is ultimately about. In the wake of a revolution, ideas that had been considered veritably lunatic fringe quickly become the accepted currency of debate.

The French Revolution, for example, failed to hold power, “but afterward, institutions inspired by the French Revolution … were put in place pretty much everywhere.” Suddenly, it was obvious that monarchy was obsolete. Not only did people around the globe believe that, they believed that they had always believed it.

Now consider President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union and the responses from Cathy McMorris Rodgers (for the Republican Party), Mike Lee (for the Tea Party), and Rand Paul (who seems to be a party unto himself). Maybe it’s not surprising that President Obama would talk about inequality and how difficult it is to stay in the middle class:

Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have  barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead.

But here’s the interesting thing: The responders accepted that framing of the problem, they just tried to shift the blame.*

Bear in mind how conservatives used to respond whenever liberals tried to make inequality an issue: Wealth has nothing to do with poverty. Wealth is conjured out of the aether by creative capitalists, not usurped from the common inheritance or distilled from the blood and sweat of the laboring masses. So talk about poverty if you must, but don’t talk about wealth and poverty in the same paragraph, because they’re totally separate phenomena. This was still the conservative conventional wisdom two weeks ago, when David Brooks argued (in his own italics):

to frame the issue as income inequality is to lump together different issues that are not especially related.

More than just conservative dogma, some version of that argument has been the conventional wisdom of Very Serious People for decades. It has been fine for liberal politicians to talk about the plight of the poor or the struggles of the middle class, but if they combined that downward-looking and sideways-looking compassion with an upward-looking head-shake at the explosion of wealth among the few, mainstream pundits would start lobbing phrases like “class warfare” and “redistribution of wealth” — warning shots that come just before “Why don’t you go back to the Soviet Union, comrade?”.

But post-Occupy, everybody knows about the 99% and the 1%. And it’s no longer anti-American to point out that the 1% (and mostly the .01%) have owned all the productivity growth of recent decades.

Mike Lee’s Tea Party response doesn’t deny any of this, but instead tries to pin it on government and President Obama:

This inequality crisis presents itself in three principal forms: immobility among the poor, who are being trapped in poverty by big-government programs; insecurity in the middle class, where families are struggling just to get by and can’t seem to get ahead; and cronyist privilege at the top, where political and economic insiders twist the immense power of the federal government to profit at the expense of everyone else.** … [W]here does this new inequality come from? From government – every time it takes rights and opportunities away from the American people and gives them instead to politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests.

Rodgers points to the same problems, but calls them by a different names and promises that vague, unnamed Republican “plans” will solve them.

our mission – not only as Republicans, but as Americans, is to once again to ensure that we are not bound by where we come from, but empowered by what we can become. That is the gap Republicans are working to close. It’s the gap we all face: between where you are and where you want to be. The President talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality… And with this Administration’s policies, that gap has become far too wide. We see this gap growing every single day.

And this is where the spin becomes obvious, becomes the metaphor changes: The gap “between where you are and where you want to be” would seem to be in front of you, between you and the people whose examples inspire you to be more successful. Republicans are going to help you bridge that gap, so that you can be rich too.

But as Rodgers gets down to cases, it’s clear she’s talking about a chasm opening up behind middle-class voters, threatening to suck them into poverty as it has already claimed so many of their friends and family:

We see it in our neighbors who are struggling to find job, a husband who’s now working just part-time, a child who drops out of college because she can’t afford tuition, or parents who are outliving their life’s savings. Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one. Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the President’s policies are making people’s lives harder. Republicans have plans to close the gap.

Even Rand Paul has to recognize the hollowing out of the middle class, though (unlike the others) he sticks to the old-time religion that the rich will save us, if only we let them keep getting richer. (It never worked before, but it will if we give it one more shot.)

Parents worry about their children growing up in a country where good jobs are few and far between. More than ever before, Americans wonder how they’ll afford to send their kids to college, and what will happen if they lose their job. … Prosperity comes when more money is left in the private marketplace. … Economic growth will come when we lower taxes for everyone, especially people who own businesses and create jobs.

Another piece of conservative dogma has been to blame the poor for failing; their laziness, crime, drug addiction, and general irresponsibility is dragging down the rest of us. And if people are falling out of the middle class — losing their jobs, getting their homes foreclosed, failing to send their kids to college — well, that’s their own damn fault. We aren’t failing them; they’re failing us.

Recall the opening shot of the Tea Party’s rebellion, Rick Santelli’s famous rant a few weeks after Obama took office. Backed by a cheering mob of traders on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Santelli challenged the new president:

How about this, president and administration: Why don’t you put up a web site to have people vote on the internet to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages? Or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water? … [Gesturing to include all the traders***] This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hands! [boos from the crowd]

Tuesday night no one was blaming the “losers” for falling out of the middle class, or fantasizing about picking the bones of their foreclosures. Instead, everyone sympathized with growing middle-class anxiety: how hard it is to find good jobs, how hard it is to pay for college, how insecure you feel even if you currently have a good job. Everyone acknowledged that Americans are losing faith in the old nostrums: work hard, study hard, say no to drugs, get married, buy a house, pay your bills … it just doesn’t seem like enough any more. You might do all that and still lose out, even as billionaires get ever richer.

Everyone but Rand Paul is acknowledging that some kind of gap needs to be bridged, that some people have more of this vaguely defined “opportunity” that you wish you had. Mike Lee is even denouncing “privilege at the top”, though he blames this privilege on government favors rather than the normal workings of capitalism.

It’s important to realize what we’re seeing: an early stage in the “transformation of political common sense”. People who believed and may still believe that OWS was horribly misguided and failed completely — those same people see the world differently now. The problem isn’t that a few “losers” are dragging the rest of us down. The problem is that there’s a 99% and a 1%. We’re arguing about what caused that and how to fix it, but we all see the problem now.

Thank you, Occupy.

* Ultimately they’ll lose that argument, because the facts are clearly against them. Look at the graphs: This problem didn’t start with Obama. It started in the Carter-Reagan years. If your explanation doesn’t account for that, you’re just spinning.

I explain it by Carter and the Democrats in Congress turning to the right: de-regulation, lower capital gains taxes, free trade deals, and turning a blind eye to union-busting. That all started slowly under Carter and then really took off during the Reagan administration. The long version of this story is in Thomas Edsall’s The New Politics of Inequality from 1985, but William Anderson of the conservative Mises Institute noted the same thing in 2000:

Republicans like to point to the failures of the Carter Administration and then claim that Ronald Reagan brought us into the present era. Alas, while I prefer Reagan to Carter, I cannot say that the above statement is true. Granted, much occurred during the Reagan Administration that was good, but if truth be known, many of the important initiatives that enabled those boundaries to expand came from Carter’s presidency.

I agree completely, if you reverse the value judgments and define “the present era” as the Second Gilded Age.

** Perversely, the purest examples of cronyism are due to a trend conservatives champion: privatizing public services like prisons or public schools.

*** I love the assumption that the well-compensated wheeler-dealers on the CME represent “America” and the people who “carry the water”. I think it’s arguable that American productivity would go up if the Earth swallowed the Chicago Mercantile Exchange whole. The people who really “carry the water” are the ones who grow stuff and build stuff and deliver services. The water-carrier is the single mother who cuts your hair (and who may need Food Stamps to feed her son), not the venture capitalist who conjured up millions by franchising Supercuts.

Nobody’s a Moderate in the Republican Civil War

The Tea Party and establishment Republicans differ on style and tactics, not goals.

After his loss in Tuesday’s Virginia gubernatorial election, Tea Party Republican Ken Cuccinelli refused to make the traditional phone call to congratulate the winner, Terry McAuliffe.

No big deal, you might say. Cuccinelli has admitted in public that he didn’t win, and McAuliffe becomes governor in any case. The Outside the Beltway blog argues that the congratulating call doesn’t matter, because such gracious gestures are insincere anyway. And Kevin Drum threw the question out to his readers: Does symbolic politeness still matter or not? (Typically, the comment thread quickly devolved into insults that leave no clear consensus answer. And that’s a meta-answer, I suppose.)

But whether the absent phone call has any direct significance on governance, I think it is important. Congratulating the winner, no matter how much your defeat still rankles, recognizes that in the end we are all on the same side. We are all Americans, or (in this case) all Virginians. However bitter the campaign has been, however overheated the rhetoric has become, we all want the collective project we call “government” to succeed, whether our side gets to lead that government  or not.

That is more-or-less precisely what the Tea Party denies: We are not all on the same side. In President Obama’s case, Tea Partiers often don’t even admit that he’s an American. And they see election campaigns not as contests between differing views of how to move our country forward, but as apocalyptic battles between Good and Evil.

The Obama/Romney election, evangelist Franklin (Billy’s son) Graham warned last fall, “could be America’s last call to repentance and faith. … There’s still time to turn from our wicked ways so that He might spare us from His wrath against sin.” And the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer saw the shutdown/debt-ceiling showdown as evidence “the destruction of America” is on President Obama’s “bucket list”.

Like Cuccinelli, Ted Cruz did not even fake politeness when the President visited Cruz’ home state of Texas this week: “President Obama should take his broken promises tour elsewhere.” Where’s that famous Southern hospitality?

Tea Party strategist

Legitimate rivals merit politeness, but if the AntiChrist wins you don’t congratulate him on his victory or give him a chance to implement the vision the voters have endorsed. You continue the struggle wherever and however you can. And if you bring the temple down on your own head like Samson, you take satisfaction in the number of enemies who perish with you.

The Republican establishment. One popular interpretation of Tuesday’s election results was that establishment Republicans had flexed their muscles and proved that they (and not the Tea Party) are the GOP’s best hope for victory.

Christie and AntiChrist

There was some truth to that. Cuccinelli’s campaign suffered from a lack of money, in large part because big bankroll donors like the Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t contribute. The Chamber also figured in the victory of establishment Republican Bradley Byrne over Tea Party Republican (and birther) Dean Young in Alabama’s 1st congressional district.

And the biggest Republican winner of the night was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had praised Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy and accompanied Obama on a photo-op tour of damaged areas late in the 2012 campaign: “It’s been very good working with the President,” Christie said. “He and his Administration have been coordinating with us. It’s been wonderful.”

Frontrunner? After his landslide win in a blue state, some pundits anointed Christie the early frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, while others were more skeptical.

But his potential opponents have treated Christie’s victory like a serious threat, barely even pretending to be happy about a Republican victory. Rand Paul gave Christie a backhanded compliment, saying that the Republican Party needs “moderates like Chris Christie who can win in New Jersey.” (Recall that “moderate” is an insult in GOP circles. It was Mitt Romney’s opponents who called him a “Massachusetts moderate“, which the Boston Globe characterized as “the two dirtiest words in the Republican lexicon”. Romney himself claimed to be “severely conservative“.) Rick Perry likewise questioned whether “a conservative in New Jersey a conservative in the rest of the country”.

Ted Cruz’ comments were even more pointed:

I think it is terrific that he is brash, that he is outspoken, and that he won his race. But I think we need more leaders in Washington with the courage to stand for principle.

So congratulations to the cowardly, unprincipled Governor Christie.

Moderate? For most of American history, moderate sounded reasonable and good, and to much of the electorate it still does. But what evidence is there of Christie’s moderation?

Traditionally, a moderate was someone who shared at least a few positions with the opposing party (like Democrat Joe Lieberman’s support for the Iraq War and waterboarding, or Republican Rudy Giuliani’s support for abortion rights and immigration reform), or shared goals with the other party but tried to achieve them by different means. (That’s what RomneyCare was about, and why Mitt Romney would have deserved the moderate label if he had truly run on his record. Mitt tried to achieve universal health care via private insurance and the free market. Obama’s embrace of that moderate-Republican approach should have earned him moderate status as well.)

I can’t think of any issue where Christie fits the bill. His position on marriage equality seems typical: He believes only in opposite-sex marriage. He vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey, and then sued to prevent same-sex marriages after a state judge ruled in their favor. He eventually dropped the suit and allowed same-sex marriages to proceed in New Jersey, but only after it became clear he would lose.

That’s not moderation, it’s pragmatism. He doesn’t waste his effort on losing battles.

He occasionally makes agreeable noises about gun control, but in the only real test he vetoed three popular bills, one being a version of something he had proposed himself just a few months before.

On contraception and abortion, he vetoed funding for Planned Parenthood five times. The anti-abortion Life News says he proved wrong the “media elite [who] claim Republicans can’t win on a pro-life platform.”

He believes in tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts for the poor. There’s nothing in his record resembling RomneyCare.

ThinkProgress goes into more detail on Christie’s conservative record.

Opposing the Tea Party doesn’t make you a moderate. Likewise, you’ll search Bradley Byrne’s web site in vain for any moderate policy. He just won’t say stuff as gratuitously offensive as his Tea Party opponent Dean Young, who wants anybody who supports marriage equality thrown out of the Republican Party

If you want to have homosexuals pretending like they’re married, they need to go to the Democrat Party.

Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, as well as Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell are all likely to face Tea Party opposition as they run for re-election. They all (eventually) voted to keep the government open and not default on America’s commitments, but they’re no moderates. Just because they won’t set themselves (or the country) on fire to protest ObamaCare doesn’t mean that they secretly support it.

So when they run against Tea Party extremists in the Republican primaries, I’ll be rooting for them. But that offer expires the morning after the primary. I respect their higher level of politeness and their caution about burning down the house we all live in. But they differ from the Cuccinellis and Cruzes and Youngs merely in tactics, not in goals.

The Method of Madness

It isn’t that Obama has the wrong policies or writes the wrong numbers into his budget proposals. It’s that he belongs to the wrong tribe.

In the shutdown/debt-ceiling fight, the Tea Party Republicans put President Obama in a position where compromise was a practical impossibility: They demanded concessions in exchange for a resolving a crisis that they created, and that they could recreate at will. To give them anything at all would invite an endless series of crises that drop-by-drop would bleed the administration dry. The election of 2012 would effectively have been nullified.

So Obama held firm and the non-Tea-Party Republicans blinked. The deal did not resolve the crisis, but it did buy time. The government is funded until January 15 and the debt ceiling is raised until February 7. Obama didn’t win anything in terms of policy; he just got the metaphorical hostages released for a few months.

Now, presumably, we should be negotiating about the budget and other government policies, so that January and February don’t hit us the way October did. But increasingly we face the question: Negotiate about what?

The essence of negotiation is to figure out what you where you would be willing to compromise with the other side and where they might be willing to compromise with you. It presumes a desire on both sides to reach an agreement.

But increasingly, liberals like me are becoming skeptical. For the Tea Party base, the point of this last fight seems to have been the fight itself. It accomplished nothing, and (by one estimate) cost the economy $24 billion, reducing the growth rate in 4th-quarter GDP from 3% to 2.4%. But that leads Ann Coulter to say, “We should be proud. Tea Partiers should be standing tall after the last few weeks.” And Ted Cruz went home to a victory tour, reportedly getting standing ovations of eight minutes and 14 minutes.

What’s up with that?

So often, when you try to grapple with the issues the fight is supposed to be about, they evaporate. The national debt is supposed to be an apocalyptic threat to America. But the fact that the annual deficit is dropping does not seem to mitigate the urgency. The prospect of going back to the tax rates that produced a surplus in the last years of the Clinton administration is off the table. No tax increase of any kind can be part of the solution, no matter what spending cuts it might be coupled with. Not even egregious tax loopholes can be closed, unless that money is used to lower taxes somewhere else.

So we have a problem that is destroying America, but you can’t consider paying any money to solve it?

Some on the Left have begun talking about “post-policy nihilism” — Republican opposition for the sake of opposition, even when Obama offers their own ideas back to them. Or passing a budget whose cuts they themselves won’t vote for when they’re spelled out.

What are we to make of bizarre irrationalities, like Ted Cruz shutting down the government, and then protesting that the national monuments are shut down? With a confederate flag in the audience and sharing the podium with a guy who called on President Obama to

leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.

Ryan Cooper comments:

these tea partiers were absolutely incandescent with rage at Obama that the national parks are shut down. This was the plan, don’t you remember? Guys? The only operating principle at work here seems to be “If X is bad, then X is Obama’s fault.”

The total disregard for even the simplest details or logic here, even according to the Republicans’ own frame of reference, underscores again that this crisis has nothing to do with actual policy differences. This is nothing but the politics of reactionary grievance.

Mike the Mad Biologist elaborated by referring to a piece he had previously written about Sarah Palin:

Her policy ignorance isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Palin is conceptually and intellectually poor because her politics are not about policies, but a romantic restoration of the ‘real’ America to its rightful place. The primary purpose of politics is not to govern, not to provide services, and not to solve mundane, although often important, problems. For the Palinist, politics first and foremost exists to enable the social restoration of ‘real’ Americans (think about the phrase “red blooded American”) and the emotional and social advantages that restoration would provide to its followers (obviously, if you’re not a ‘real’ American, you might view this as a bad thing…). Practicalities of governance, such as compromise and worrying about reality-based outcomes, actually get in the way.

And that, I think, gets to the heart of it. The root motivation of the Tea Party isn’t the deficit or ObamaCare or any other policy it’s currently focused on. The root motivation is tribal: a feeling that People-Like-Me used to own America, but it is being taken away by People-Like-Them and needs to be taken back.

That’s why nothing Obama can do is right. It isn’t that he has the wrong policies or writes the wrong numbers into his budget proposals. It’s that he belongs to the wrong tribe. Who that tribe is, exactly, varies from person to person and situation to situation. Sometimes it’s racial and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s cultural — the whole guns-and-religion thing. Sometimes it’s the Makers vs. the Takers. But what unites them all is a sense of tribal grievance. People-Like-Me used to own American and need to take it back.

I am in debt to Jonathan Korman (a.k.a Miniver Cheevy) for making the connection between the Palinist rhetorical style and the “Duckspeak” of 1984. After rendering an apparent word salad into free verse, Korman finds the structureless structure:

You may have trouble following Palin not only because of the way her arguments jump around, but also because they are almost all incomplete. To decode them, you need to know that they are allusions to right-wing talking points. … I submit that this is not just clumsiness. This is a method, if not necessarily a conscious one.

The point is to remind the initiated of feelings and conclusions and frames without providing any actual facts or ideas that could be thought about or disputed. Orwell noted the usefulness of this technique in “The Principles of Newspeak“.

For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgment should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets. His training fitted him to do this, the language gave him an almost foolproof instrument.

…. Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning ‘to quack like a duck’.

This is a common speech pattern on the Right. You just quack “Benghazi” or “out-of-control spending” or “religious freedom” or “the Constitution” and whole narratives of misinformation click into place. And because they need not be spelled out, they cannot be challenged.

I’m not sure where we can go from here. A group with policy goals can be negotiated with. A aggrieved tribe with identity issues really can’t be.

Seven Key Points About the Shutdown

1. This is not a pox-on-both-your-houses situation. The Republicans planned this shutdown and carried it out.

Last Monday, on the eve of the shutdown, Rachel Maddow showed the tapes of one Republican candidate after another making campaign speeches about shutting down the government and being cheered for it. That never happens on the Democratic side. No Democratic candidate for Congress tells his crowds he’s going to shut down the government and expects to get a cheer. Rachel summarized:

What is happening tonight is happening tonight because this is what Republicans want to do. This is what they promised to do. … Elect Republicans and they will burn the place down and they will laugh while they do it and have a great time.

The Daily Beast’s David Freedlander talked to a number of Republican donors from the banking industry, who said Rep. Walden (chair of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, which wants their money) told them “We have to do this because of the Tea Party.” (An NRCC spokesman denies Walden said that.)

Jonathan Chait traces the Republicans’ post-2012-defeat strategy to a meeting in January.

If you want to grasp why Republicans are careening toward a potential federal government shutdown, and possibly toward provoking a sovereign debt crisis after that, you need to understand that this is the inevitable product of a conscious party strategy. Just as Republicans responded to their 2008 defeat by moving farther right, they responded to the 2012 defeat by moving right yet again. Since they had begun from a position of total opposition to the entire Obama agenda, the newer rightward lurch took the form of trying to wrest concessions from Obama by provoking a series of crises.

The first element of the strategy is a kind of legislative strike. Initially, House Republicans decided to boycott all direct negotiations with President Obama, and then subsequently extended that boycott to negotiations with the Democratic Senate. (Senate Democrats have spent months pleading with House Republicans to negotiate with them, to no avail.) This kind of refusal to even enter negotiations is highly unusual. The way to make sense of it is that Republicans have planned since January to force Obama to accede to large chunks of the Republican agenda, without Republicans having to offer any policy concessions of their own.

2. This “budget” showdown has nothing to do with the budget. Both sides agree on the spending number that should be in the continuing resolution.

That’s because Democrats agreed to the Republicans’ number. In other words, the only genuine concession in this process has come from the Democrats. John Boehner could have taken that concession, passed a continuing resolution to avoid the shutdown, and then called a press conference to declare victory. Instead he shut down the government.

3. The threat not to raise the debt ceiling is unprecedented, except for when these same Republicans made the same threat in 2011.

Posturing about the debt ceiling is perennial: “Look how profligate the party in power is. They’ve run up so much debt we have to raise the ceiling.” But making a credible threat not to raise the debt ceiling unless your legislative demands are met? No. That is an absolutely new tactic in American politics.

Slate’s David Weigel goes through all the alleged examples of the Democrats threatening the debt ceiling. In 1981, Tip O’Neil tried to get President Reagan to promise that Republicans wouldn’t use a debt-ceiling vote against incumbent Democrats in the next election cycle (i.e., no policy demands), but passed it in plenty of time. In 1984, a Democratic committee chair blocked a debt ceiling bill for one day, seeking defense spending cuts. He was roundly criticized for “brinksmanship” and backed down.

That’s it. Dozens of other times Democratic majorities in Congress have passed debt-ceiling increases proposed by Republican presidents without making an issue of it.

If Democrats accepted the tactic Republicans are using, the September, 2007 debt-ceiling increase would have been an opportunity for Nancy Pelosi to demand deficit-reducing changes like a repeal of the Bush tax cuts or an end to Iraq War. But that didn’t happen, because Democrats don’t operate by extortion.

4. Republicans have redefined he words negotiate and compromise.

ThinkProgress’ Judd Legum summed up the Republican “negotiation”:

Can I burn down your house?
Just the 2nd floor?
Let’s talk about what I can burn down.

In a real compromise, both sides give something and both sides get something. So far, the Democrats have been offered nothing.

In the 2011 crisis, President Obama repeatedly tried to negotiate a “grand bargain” with Speaker Boehner that would knock trillions off the long-term deficit. That failed, and the “supercommitte” negotiations that were supposed to replace the sequester failed, on the same point: Republicans insisted there could be no tax increases in the deficit reduction plan. Zero. During one Republican presidential debate, the candidates were asked whether they would accept a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. All said no.

Since April, Harry Reid has been trying to form a conference committee so that the House and Senate can work out a budget compromise. The Republicans have refused to appoint their conferees, preferring to wait until they had the “leverage” of a government shutdown and debt default. The point here is exactly what Chait said above: to extort concessions out of the Democrats without offering any concessions of their own. “OK then, half the ransom” is not a concession, no matter what Ted Cruz says.

5. The principle at stake is majority rule.

I talked about this in detail last week. Speaker Boehner wants to tell the story that the shutdown represents a disagreement between two branches of government that have conflicting popular mandates: The public elected President Obama, but it also elected a Republican House of Representatives.

That’s not what this is about at all. If it were, Boehner could bring the Senate’s clean continuing resolution to the House floor for a vote and defeat it. He can’t do that, because given the chance the people’s representatives would pass it. In blocking that resolution, Boehner does not represent the majority of the House, he only represents “the majority of the majority”, i.e. a minority.

The entire give-us-what-we-want-or-we’ll-burn-the-house-down strategy is against all American ideals of democracy. The constitutional way to pass a law (or repeal a law you don’t like) is to do what the Democrats did to pass ObamaCare in the first place: Win not just a majority in the House, but also a substantial majority in the Senate (to overcome a filibuster, which the Founders never envisioned), and win the White House (to avoid a veto). The Republicans can’t do that, because they are a minority. (Even their House candidates collectively got a million fewer votes than the Democrats in 2012.)

6. Don’t believe the leak that John Boehner won’t allow a debt-ceiling default.

Thursday the NYT quoted multiple anonymous Republican congressmen saying that Boehner had told them he wouldn’t allow a default. But Matt Yglesias points out that Boehner has been saying such things all along, while also saying the opposite.

Boehner’s position, dating back to 2011, has been twofold. On the one hand he says that failing to raise the debt ceiling would be catastrophic and that he favors avoiding catastrophe. On the other hand he says that he requires unrelated public policy concessions in order to agree to a measure that he himself says he supports.

It is, in other words, the classic suicide hostage strategy: Do what I want or I’ll detonate the bomb strapped to my chest. This has always been Boehner’s position.

For example, on Friday Boehner said:

I don’t believe that we should default on our debt. It’s not good for our country. But after 55 years of spending more than what you bring in, something ought to be addressed. I think the American people expect if we’re going to raise the amount of money we can borrow, we ought to do something about our spending problem and the lack of economic growth in our country.

In other words, he wants concessions. And notice: Boehner doesn’t suggest doing something about the deficit, which has a revenue side. He only wants to discuss “our spending problem”. So he’s seeking spending cuts with no tax increases, the same no-compromise position that doomed the budget negotiations in 2011.

And then Sunday he reiterated:

STEPHANOPOULOS: So under no circumstances will you pass a clean debt limit?

BOEHNER: We’re not going down that path.

Stephanopoulos’ question: “So you sit down with the president. What would you offer him in that conversation?” got no answer. And when pushed on the tax issue Boehner said: “Very simple. We’re not raising taxes.”

He described Harry Reid’s proposal to negotiate about the budget after the shutdown and debt ceiling had been dealt with as

My way or the highway. That’s what he’s saying. Complete surrender and then we’ll talk to you.

So he wants concessions and won’t give anything in return. Without his extortion demand, he has nothing to talk about, so giving it up is “complete surrender”.

7. The clearest head in the room belongs to Elizabeth Warren.

The boogeyman government is like the Boogyman under the bed. It’s not real. It doesn’t exist. What is real, what does exist are all those specific important things that we as Americans have chosen to do together through our government. In our democracy, government is not some make-believe thing that has an independent will of its own. In our democracy, government is just how we describe the things that We the People have already decided to do together.

Countdown to Augustus

Losing the Republic one day at a time

About once a year, I recommend that Sift readers take a look at Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series of novels. It covers the final century of the Roman Republic, from the rise of Gaius Marius to the establishment of the Empire under Caesar Augustus. I recommend the series not just because it’s a good yarn (which it is), but because it’s a cautionary tale about how republics are lost.

Your high school world history class probably gave you a highlight-reel version of the fall of the Roman Republic — crossing the Rubicon and all that — but didn’t really cover the century-long erosion of public trust that made the big rockslides inevitable.

The highlight reel may have left you with the impression that at a few key moments, individuals failed or made bad, self-serving decisions: If Cicero and Cato had carried the day, if Julius Caesar didn’t march on Rome, if Octavian had restored the power of the Senate after Actium rather than becoming Emperor… everything would have worked out. And so people who apply the Roman model to the American Republic usually end up matching personalities: Who is our Caesar, our Cicero, our Brutus? Is there a parallel between FDR’s four terms and Marius’ seven consulships? Between the assassinations of the Kennedies and of the Gracchi brothers? And so on.

That’s a fun party conversation for history geeks, but the closer (and scarier) match is in the steady erosion of political norms.

As Chris Hayes has observed on several occasions (at around the 3:30 mark here, for example), republics don’t work just by rules, the dos and don’t explicitly spelled out in their constitutions. They also need norms, things that are technically within the rules — or at least within the powers that the rules establish — but “just aren’t done” and arouse public anger when anyone gets close to doing them. But for that public anger, you can often get an advantage by skirting the norms. And when it looks like you might get away with it, the other side has a powerful motivation to cut some other corner to keep you in check.

For the last few decades, we’ve been in a Romanesque downward spiral of norm-skirting. One side does something that just isn’t done, but calibrates it to avoid a rush of public anger. And the other side responds by doing something else that isn’t (or didn’t used to be) done.

One example has been growing use of the filibuster in the Senate. Once an arcane device that showed up more often in movies than in the Capitol, the filibuster is now in such constant use that journalists now write as if the Constitution required 60 Senate votes to pass a law. The brand new use of the filibuster not just to block the passage of laws but to nullify laws already passed (by blocking appointments to the agencies that enforce those laws) led the Obama administration to push the boundaries of recess appointments, which then led the courts to push the boundaries of their norms against getting involved in political conflicts between the executive and legislative branches.

Another example is impeachment. When Democrats began an impeachment process against President Nixon  in 1974, both parties proceeded somberly and with utmost caution, because the only precedent, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868, wasn’t something to take pride in. By contrast, the impeachment and trial of President Clinton in 1998-1999 had a circus atmosphere; Republicans were giddy that one of their endless investigations had turned up something they could exaggerate into an impeachable offense. Today, Tea Party Republicans see the Constitution’s definition of an impeachable offense as a technicality. This August, Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) told his constituents that impeaching President Obama would be a “dream come true” except for the annoying little detail that “you’ve got to have evidence” and he doesn’t have any.

That follows a pattern that a Masters of Rome reader easily recognizes: The rules give an explicit power to some office, along with the implicit duty to wield that power to achieve a particular public purpose. But as the erosion of norms proceeds, the power becomes something the officeholder owns, and can use however he likes. So Congress was given the impeachment power to save the Republic from a president who had been suborned by a foreign power or domestic special interest. But the Tea Party believes a Republican Congress just owns that power to use according to its whims; the hurdle to overcome isn’t assembling the evidence, it’s acquiring the votes.

Similarly, the president has the power to enforce the laws and the Supreme Court has the power to interpret the Constitution. More and more, those institutions are coming to own those powers rather than wield them for a public purpose. So the meaning Constitution’s commerce clause changes from one case to the next, according to the whims of the Court’s conservative majority.

An abuse by one branch legitimizes an abuse by another. Congress’ inability to even compose a new immigration law (much less debate it and bring it to a vote) allows President Obama to be the champion of the popular Dreamers by stretching his powers of prosecutorial discretion. The norms of Congress used to allow simple legislative fixes to complex programs during the implementation phase; even if you opposed a program to begin with, you supported improving it once it was already established in law. But the refusal of the Republican House to allow any changes in ObamaCare short of repeal or sabotage has legitimized Obama in pushing the limits of executive orders.

That also is something an MoR reader will recognize: About half of the erosion in Rome was done by the good guys, in order to seek justice for popular causes that the system had stymied.

And that brings us to the present showdown over funding the government and managing the debt ceiling. Until Newt Gingrich, government shutdowns were glitches: Congress thought it could get the laws passed in time, but something went wrong and the government had to shut down for a day or two until Congress could get it fixed. With Gingrich the government shutdown became a tactic, comparable to a labor strike closing a factory: Give us what we want, or we’ll shut the place down.

In 1995-96, the public recognized that the norms had been violated and reacted with appropriate anger. Gingrich had to back down, and his partner-in-crime Bob Dole was soundly thrashed by Bill Clinton in the next presidential election.

President Bush’s clashes with Democrats in Congress were bitter, but impeachment and shutdown were never serious threats. With the anti-Obama backlash and the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, government shutdown has again become just another tool in the congressional toolbox. And for the first time, threatening the debt ceiling has become a tactic. Both parties had repeatedly postured over the debt ceiling in the past, but in 2011 it was a brand new norm-violation to demand concessions in exchange for allowing the government to pay debts lawfully incurred. Obama blundered by not standing on principle then, and so we are where we are.

Later today I’ll have more to say about where that is, but right now I just want to point out where it fits in the larger pattern. The Republicans have President Obama in a Roman-style box: He can surrender to this new minority-rule tactic with the prospect of more surrenders in the future, or he can watch havoc unleashed on the financial markets, with unpredictable effects on the American economy, or he can break the norms himself by invoking the 14th Amendment or minting a trillion-dollar coin or choosing which of Congress’s contradictory laws (the appropriations bills or the debt ceiling) he will enforce.

In the short run, the third choice — find your own norms to violate — does the least damage to the country.  But it keeps the countdown-to-Augustus clock ticking. As Congress becomes increasingly dysfunctional, as it sets up more and more of these holding-the-country-hostage situations, presidents will feel more and more justified in cutting Congress out of the picture.

We know where that goes: Eventually the Great Man on Horseback appears and relieves us of the burden of Congress entirely. He may come from either the Left or the Right, but when he arrives the people will cheer — as the people cheered first Julius Caesar and then Caesar Augustus — because the trust they have placed in the Republic has been so badly abused.

How Republican Congressmen Spent Their Summer Vacation

The conservative base wants to see a Charge of the Light Brigade against ObamaCare. Their congressmen are trying to distract them with less dangerous crazy talk.

Congress went into its summer recess with everything up in the air. None of the major appropriation bills to fund the government in fiscal 2014 (which starts October 1) are passed yet, and the House and Senate versions of them are still far apart. Even if compromises could be reached in time, the far right wants to shut down the government until President Obama agrees to delay implementing ObamaCare. Or, if they can’t block the FY 2014 appropriations, they want Congress to default on the spending it just approved by not raising the debt limit.

Other big policy decisions are also pending: The Senate overwhelmingly passed an immigration reform bill, but the House leadership has neither brought that bill to a vote nor offered an alternative. Proposals to fix the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court gutted in June) are stuck in committee.

What to do?

The sticking point in all these negotiations is the Republican caucus in the House, and in particular its Tea Party faction. It represents only about a third of the Republicans, but that’s enough to prevent Speaker Boehner from passing anything without Democratic votes. And its red-meat rhetoric is popular enough with the grass roots to threaten a primary challenge against any Republican who compromises with the Democrats over its objections. So Tea Partiers feel they are in a position to call the tune for the Republican caucus, which calls the tune for the House, which in turn should call the tune for the country in spite of a Democratic Senate and President.

That minority-rule plan is symptomatic of what’s wrong with the Republican Party in general. Republicans tell each other that the majority of the country is conservative, so the more conservative the Party gets the better it represents the People. But leaders like Boehner and Mitch McConnell know that’s not true: If Republicans close Yellowstone and delay processing Grandma’s Social Security application in a quixotic attempt to repeal the law that allows Cousin-Bob-with-diabetes to get healthcare, they’re going to lose big in 2014.

[A poll done for Republican members of Congress showed that self-described "very conservative" Republicans (9% of the electorate) support a government shutdown 63%-27%, while the next most conservative 10%, the "somewhat conservative" Republicans, oppose it 62%-31%.]

So that set up the drama of the August recess: Republican congressmen would go home and meet with their constituents — typically not a representative sample, but invited groups of Republican supporters (“We’re actually talking to the choir,” Senator Coburn admitted to a meeting promoted by the Glenn-Beck-inspired Tulsa 912 Project) — who presumably would tell them to get in line behind the far right. They, on the other hand, would be trying to talk softly while slowly backing out of the padded cell — not directly confronting their base’s delusions, but also not promising to jump off any cliffs to prove their faith in the protective angels of the hidden conservative majority. (I wrote that padded-cell metaphor before seeing the following cartoon.)

For the most part, the congressmen preserved their conservative bona fides by pandering in areas that didn’t demand an immediate on-the-record vote, like doubting Obama’s birth certificate or fantasizing about impeachment.

ObamaCare. For the most part, far-right groups like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks succeeded in delivering rooms full of people so opposed to ObamaCare that they support a government shutdown, and most of the politicians succeeded in sticking to their I-agree-with-you-but response. (Senator Coburn, for example, kicked the can down the road from October 1, saying the debt-ceiling confrontation would be a better opportunity to defund ObamaCare. He cited the danger a government shutdown would pose to the economy, while conveniently ignoring the larger threat of casting doubt on the government’s willingness to pay its debts.)

Occasionally, though, reality seeped into even the most conservative townhall meetings. In Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, and elsewhere Republicans had to face real people (middle-aged white people that they couldn’t instantly write off) with pre-existing conditions whose only shot at health insurance goes away if ObamaCare is repealed.

The disconnect here is that the provisions of ObamaCare are popular, even in states where the name “ObamaCare” is unpopular. That’s why Jim DeMint describes this fall as “the last off-ramp for us to stop Obamacare”, because after it gets implemented people will be dealing with the real thing rather than DeMint’s death-panel horror stories.

What makes facing ObamaCare’s real beneficiaries so tough for Republicans is that after four years of attempting to repeal the law, Republicans still have offered no alternative. So their basic message to the uninsured is: Rejoice in your “freedom” and pray you don’t get sick. (Their underlying problem is that ObamaCare is the Republican alternative to HillaryCare that the Heritage Foundation promoted in the 1990s and Mitt Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts in 2006. Republicans have no healthcare plan because Obama stole their old one — which they then felt they had to denounce as “socialism”.)

Immigration. Atlantic’s Molly Ball notes the dog that hasn’t barked: Opponents of immigration reform tried to pressure Congress with big rallies, but people just didn’t show up. We’ll see if that frees House Republicans to compromise with the Senate.

So far, it doesn’t sound that way. Immigration reform has to go through the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, told a townhall meeting last Monday that the House should be “setting forward the right way to do things” … “even if it doesn’t go all the way through to be signed by this president”.

Impeachment. The weirdest thing to come out of the August recess was the talk about impeaching President Obama. None of Rep. Bentivolio of Michigan, Rep. Farenthold of Texas, or Senator Coburn of Oklahoma had the courage to tell their townhall questioners what they didn’t want to hear: that constitutionally President Obama can only be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” and so far Republicans have uncovered not a shred of evidence to support such a charge.

Bentivolio said it would be a “dream come true” to submit an impeachment bill, but his good intentions get frustrated by lawyers who ask “What evidence do you have?” and by a press that would “make a laughingstock” out of anybody who tried to impeach Obama without evidence. (The press, he adds, is “the most corrupt thing in Washington”.) But for those interfering lawyers and reporters, though, he’d be all over it even without evidence.

Coburn (in response to the meeting’s last question, beginning at about the 1:04 mark in the video) does say that impeachment “is not something you take lightly”, but dodges the question of whether impeachment is appropriate now, passing the buck to the House (where impeachment proceedings would have to start). “I don’t have the legal background to know if that rises to high crimes and misdemeanor but I think they’re getting perilously close.” (The meaning of “that” and “they” is never spelled out.)

Farenthold regrets that an earlier House didn’t look into “the whole birth certificate issue” and then passes the buck to the Senate:

if we were to impeach the President tomorrow, you could probably get the votes in the House of Representatives to do it. But it would go to the Senate and he wouldn’t be convicted. … I think there’s some potential damage to society that would be done with a failed attempt at impeachment.

At least when Democrats talked about impeaching President Bush, we had enough respect for the process to point to specific crimes. You define the crime first, then you collect evidence to prove it, and then you talk about impeachment. You don’t just say “I want to impeach this guy” and hope you can find evidence that he did something wrong.

Now what? During the August recess, the far-right base made it clear they want to see a last-ditch charge against ObamaCare, while polls show the American people in general don’t want a government shutdown. In general, I think the electorate wants to see more solutions and less drama, while the far-right base won’t be satisfied until it gets the apocalyptic battle it keeps fantasizing about. Nothing less will cause God’s hand to reach out of the clouds and give their Gideon-like band the victory.

I believe the stage is set for an epic conservative defeat. The only question is how much damage it will do to the country. We can only hope Tea Partiers keep identifying with Gideon, and not Samson pulling the Philistine temple down on himself.

Avoid the cliff, hit the ceiling

I admit it: I expected House Republicans to reject the last-minute Biden/McConnell deal (that passed the Senate 89-8) and send us over the fiscal cliff.

Instead, they did one of those having-it-both-ways things that makes people despise politicians: Within their own caucus, Republicans voted to let the bill come to the floor, where (led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor) most of them voted against it. So they knew it was necessary and wanted it to pass, but they also wanted to be able to deny supporting it.

The WP’s Wonkblog summarizes what’s in the deal and charts how it affects the national debt. (Short version: The tax hikes and spending cuts that constituted the fiscal cliff would have cut the annual deficit more, but this is a middling path between that and the status quo.)

The chart on the right has way too much jargon, but it’s showing debt-as-a-percentage-of-GDP over time under various scenarios. The top line is roughly cancel-the-fiscal-cliff-and-let-things-go-on-as-they-were and the bottom is go-over-the-cliff. The red, green, blue, and purple lines are where we’re headed now under various scenarios.

So who won? Nobody yet. This deal solved the question of the Bush tax cuts, but it delayed the spending-cut decisions until March, when they will run up against another debt-ceiling showdown.

Republicans are claiming that the debt ceiling is a better battleground for them, and believe they’ll get the kind of concessions out of Obama that they got in 2011. Obama thinks the public was disgusted with the 2011 shenanigans and won’t stand for the Republicans taking the world economy hostage again. (Until 2011, raising the debt limit was an opportunity to score rhetorical points, but no one ever seriously proposed not doing it or extracted any concessions in exchange for doing it.)

So who won in this deal depends on who is right about their advantages in the next deal. Greg Sargent writes:

the major fight at the heart of this whole mess — over the proper scope and role of the safety net of the 21st century, and who will pay for it — remains unresolved. Only the outcome of that battle can settle the question of whether today’s compromise was a good one for liberals.

And Kos of Daily Kos agrees:

Whatever argument we’re going to have, it shouldn’t be whether this deal is good or bad. It’s over whether Obama will eventually cave or not.

Do it like this, Mr. President

I’d like to see Obama include an Eastwood-like make-my-day paragraph in the State of the Union: “You want to blow up the global economy if you don’t get your way? Go ahead. Show the world what kind of people you really are.”

I think this is a necessary and (eventually) inevitable confrontation. For that reason, I’ve soured on tricks like the trillion-dollar coin to finesse around the debt ceiling. Kevin Drum explains how that trick distorts the intention of the law, and so puts Obama in the position of trying to pull something rather than calling the Republicans on pulling something. I don’t want him to sacrifice his integrity to avoid paying blackmail; that’s just another kind of blackmail payment.

Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to minimize the consequences of not raising the debt limit. Senator Cornyn writes:

The coming deadlines will be the next flashpoints in our ongoing fight to bring fiscal sanity to Washington. It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country, rather than plod along the path of Greece, Italy and Spain. President Obama needs to take note of this reality and put forward a plan to avoid it immediately.

(President Obama, of course, has put forward a plan: Congress should raise the debt ceiling the way it always did until 2011.) And Senator Toomey said:

A temporary disruption because we have to furlough the workers at the Department of Education, or close down some national parks, or not cut the grass on the Mall, that’s not optimal, it’s disruptive, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the path that we’re on.

The problem is temporary and minor only if you assume that Obama quickly folds once he discovers that Republicans are serious. But what if Obama is serious too? The 14th Amendment (section 4) requires that the government keep paying interest on its debt and principle on bonds as they come due. But how long before we have to shut down the National Weather Service or the Center for Disease Control or the TSA?

I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who’s reminded of one particular movie scene. Greg Sargent quotes an email he got from former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger:

The whole thing reminds me of the great moment in “Blazing Saddles” when Sheriff Bart takes himself hostage by pointing a gun at his own head. The simple townsfolk of Rock Ridge were dumb enough to fall for it. Are we?

The Tea Partiers have talked themselves into the idea that this would be the Lesser Apocalypse compared to the spending binge that is about to turn us into Greece. Kevin Drum debunks:

The facts are pretty clear. Spending isn’t our big problem. The recession spike of 2008 aside, it’s about the same as it was 30 years ago. But instead of paying for that spending, we’ve repeatedly cut taxes, which are now at their lowest level in half a century.

You’ll see an early sign of who’s going to win in how the mainstream media identifies the hostage in this crisis. If the hostage is “government” — a separate entity unrelated to the rest of us — then the Tea Party will win. If the hostage is “the country” or “the economy”, then Obama will win.


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