Tag Archives: Republican Party

Playing the blame game

Courtesy of The New York Times.
Courtesy of The New York Times.

Much ink has been spilled over the relative blame that should be assigned to various parties in the current government shutdown / impending debt-ceiling fiasco from hell. (About that spilled ink, I’m speaking virtually, of course: no one still publishes on physical paper anymore, do they?)

Aside from the predictable litany of “both sides need to compromise” bullshit from the zombie lords of political commentary — which The Atlantic‘s James Fallows, Al Jazeera‘s Dan Froomkin, and NYU professor Jay Rosen continue to eviscerate brilliantly — perhaps most distressing still are the results of today’s Gallup poll:

Americans are now more likely to name dysfunctional government as the most important problem facing the country than to name any other specific problem. Thirty-three percent of Americans cite dissatisfaction with government and elected representatives as the nation’s top issue, the highest such percentage in Gallup’s trend dating back to 1939. Dysfunctional government now eclipses the economy (19%), unemployment (12%), the deficit (12%), and healthcare (12%) as the nation’s top problem.

This is, in its own way, tantamount to a Republican victory — and one that could have more profound long-term implications than whatever short-term turbulence the GOP has inflicted upon itself courtesy of its decreasingly fringe-y “wacko bird” fringe. Indeed, although early indications suggest that House Republicans may suffer for their intransigence in next year’s midterms, there are plenty of reasons to bet against the Democrats’ chances of retaking the lower chamber in 2014.

Meanwhile, the broader national disgust with governmental dysfunction plays directly into Republicans’ hands: in fact, it could be argued that the GOP will always have a home-field advantage of sorts over the Democrats when the two parties are at loggerheads over just about anything of consequence. When bitterly contested policy issues cause Americans to blame government generally (even if, as is the case now, one side is clearly precipitating the immediate crisis), Republican ideology wins the day. Time will tell if this triumph is more durable than the Democrats’ current advantage in generic horse-race Congressional polling.

But there is yet another component to this struggle that’s extremely apparent but is somehow not gaining the traction I’d expect, especially from left-leaning media outlets. And that is the direct line connecting President Obama’s decision to negotiate the debt-ceiling increase in the summer of 2011 with the current crisis. While there is no question that Republican lunacy is the immediate cause of the budgetary and debt-ceiling impasses, much longer-term blame rests directly on the shoulders of Barack Obama.

Today’s manufactured crisis was an entirely foreseeable outcome of Obama’s capitulation two years ago. In fact, Paul Krugman predicted exactly this sort of future as soon as the 2011 deal with Republicans was announced. In an August 1, 2011 column titled “The President Surrenders,” Krugman wrote:

For the deal itself, given the available information, is a disaster, and not just for President Obama and his party. It will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status.

Republicans will supposedly have an incentive to make concessions the next time around, because defense spending will be among the areas cut. But the G.O.P. has just demonstrated its willingness to risk financial collapse unless it gets everything its most extreme members want. Why expect it to be more reasonable in the next round?

In fact, Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr. Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats. He surrendered last December, extending all the Bush tax cuts; he surrendered in the spring when they threatened to shut down the government; and he has now surrendered on a grand scale to raw extortion over the debt ceiling.

And this is exactly what ended up happening. Two days ago, Jonathan Chait explained this very phenomenon:

They see the debt-ceiling fight as being mainly about the long-term question of whether Congress will cement into place the practice of using the debt ceiling to extort concessions from the president. The price of buying off a debt-ceiling hike would surely be less than the risk of a default. But doing so would enshrine debt-ceiling extortion as a normal congressional practice. This both skews the Constitutional relationship between branches — allowing an unscrupulous Congress to demand unilateral concessions at gunpoint rather than having to compromise — and creates endless brinksmanship that would eventually lead to a default.

The administration’s stance, then, is that submitting to ransom now creates the certainty of default eventually.

The primary quibble I have with Chait’s explanation — as I do with most analyses I’ve read of the situation thus far — is that the time to establish this stance was two years ago, not now. Of course, now is better than never, but the risk of actual default does appear to be greater now than it was back in 2011, and this is primarily due to Republicans’ increased confidence — based on very recent history — that the White House and Congressional Democrats would simply capitulate once again. And this very expectation, paradoxically enough, made it more dangerous for the Democrats to actually stand firm and demand that the Republicans raise the debt limit without preconditions — precisely because the overly-confident Republicans had virtually locked themselves into a rhetorical corner over raising the debt ceiling.

So what’s the point? Aside from the fact that President Obama is quite clearly a disastrous negotiator, the primary point is that — contrary to “centrist” notions of endless compromise that are entirely unmoored from the empirical reality of each party’s ideological flexibility — giving away the bank to a party steered by radicals absolutely does not guarantee healthy compromises or even engender good-faith efforts in the future. To the contrary, when confronted head-on with the awesome incoherence of Tea Party rage, the worst possible weapon is the one President Obama wielded back in 2011: procrastination.

House Republicans are coming around. Slowly. Finally.

Today's New York Times front page.
Today’s New York Times front page.

Light at the end of the tunnel? One can only hope. But whatever the reason — political expediency, acknowledgment of a battle lost, cynical opportunism, or something else entirely — it’s an encouraging development nonetheless. Considering that the foundation of Obama’s healthcare law was a Heritage Foundation proposal, it’s about damn time.

UPDATE: Happy April Fool’s Day.

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The GOP’s wake-up call

The New York Times reports:

In a sweeping self-critique of the party’s 2012 election efforts, Republican leaders on Monday unveiled a set of proposals aimed at convincing younger voters, ethnic minorities and women that they have a home in the party, even if they do not agree with all of its positions.

“The report minces no words in telling us that we have to be more inclusive,” Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said on Monday. “I agree. And as President Reagan said, our 80 percent friend is not our 20 percent enemy.”

The national party’s report, called the Growth and Opportunity Project, is the latest contribution to a conversation among conservatives after disappointing losses in the 2012 presidential and Senate elections.

The report’s introduction is admirably candid:

At our core, Republicans have comfortably remained the Party of Reagan without figuring out what comes next. Ronald Reagan is a Republican hero and role model who was first elected 33 years ago — meaning no one under the age of 51 today was old enough to vote for Reagan when he first ran for President. Our Party knows how to appeal to older voters, but we have lost our way with younger ones. We sound increasingly out of touch.

As Mike Gerson and Pete Wehner wrote recently, “It is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the Party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.”

The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.

Full text below.

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A center-right country?

Courtesy of the Broockman/Skovron paper.
Courtesy of the Broockman/Skovron paper.

I’ve long mounted a soapbox in defense of two related ideas. The first is that average Americans care less about policy specifics than we give ourselves credit for, and that public perception is defined more by soundbites, rhetoric, and presentation than by substance.

The second idea, which follows from the first, is that liberal politicians could — and should — mount a stronger defense of their policies without fear of reprisals from the conservative end of the spectrum. This is not because such reprisals won’t come — unless you’ve been in hiding since 2009, this has been the position of Congressional Republicans since Day 1 — but because holding to one’s principles in the face of political opposition is quite often perceived as indicative of having a better, more sensible policy.

To my endless blathering, you may now add the following academic paper:

Broockman and Skovron find that legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron write. This finding held up across a range of issues.

The authors conclude:

For those interested in strengthening democratic responsiveness, one tempting conclusion from this analysis is that alternative means of informing legislators about their constituents’ views need to be devised – democratic campaigns and elections appear to do little to update politicians’ perceptions of their constituents. However, on reflection, the fact that candidates and legislators know so little about their constituents and learn so little about them from campaigns and elections is perhaps indicative of a deeper and more basic problem of elite motivation. When Miller and Stokes (1963) conducted their authoritative study of information flows between representatives and their constituencies it was less clear how representatives might ascertain their constituencies’ views with a great deal of precision even if they so desired – reliable district-level opinion surveys were still relatively rare. However, if today’s elites viewed congruence with majority opinion as a primary goal we would expect considerably more knowledge of this opinion in our sample than we observe; such knowledge is quite inexpensive to obtain relative to the cost of modern campaigns. As with voters’ typically low level of motivation to learn about their representatives (Downs 1957, ch. 13), it thus appears that our respondents must have found little desire to accurately ascertain public opinion on political issues of the very highest salience. Politicians clearly do respond to cues about the political consequences of their actions when taking political positions (e.g. Kollman 1998; Bergan 2009), but accurately ascertaining the state of constituency opinion does not appear to rank fairly highly on their priorities necessary for gaining and maintaining access to political authority.

It’s simply too bad that there’s no institution designed to elucidate the opinions held by both the electorate and their chosen political representatives. An institution that could widely disseminate publicly relevant information on the vital policy issues of the day. An institution that would strip away the gratuitous sideshows, celebrity gossip, and tabloid fare, and focus instead on investigative reporting to enlighten its readers both within and without the halls of power.

We should build such an institution. And I propose we call it The Media.

(Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for flagging this one.)

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Double talk on the sequester

Jamelle Bouie cries foul on Republican attempts to portray the looming sequester as the Democrats’ fault:

A key part of the GOP’s strategy on the sequester is to blame President Obama for the fact it exists at all. One good example is House Speaker John Boehner’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal:

With the debt limit set to be hit in a matter of hours, Republicans and Democrats in Congress reluctantly accepted the president’s demand for the sequester, and a revised version of the Budget Control Act was passed on a bipartisan basis.

Ultimately, the super committee failed to find an agreement, despite Republicans offering a balanced mix of spending cuts and new revenue through tax reform. As a result, the president’s sequester is now imminent.

The big problem with this narrative is that it directly contradicts Boehner’s rhetoric at the time. After the deal was crafted, in July 2011, Boehner told GOP House members that “There was nothing in this framework that violates our principles.” Later, in an interview with CBS News following the House vote on the bill, he described the deal as such: “When you look at this final agreement that we came to with the White House, I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I’m pretty happy.” And, as a whole, the House GOP was fine with the deal too—it passed 269-161, with 174 Republicans voting in favor.

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The Republican establishment fights back

Finally, mercifully, they’re beginning to see the light. As always in politics, it’s the money men who are making things happen:

The biggest donors in the Republican Party are financing a new group to recruit seasoned candidates and protect Senate incumbents from challenges by far-right conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts who Republican leaders worry could complicate the party’s efforts to win control of the Senate.

The group, the Conservative Victory Project, is intended to counter other organizations that have helped defeat establishment Republican candidates over the last two election cycles. It is the most robust attempt yet by Republicans to impose a new sense of discipline on the party, particularly in primary races.

“There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected,” said Steven J. Law, the president of American Crossroads, the “super PAC” creating the new project. “We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”

The effort would put a new twist on the Republican-vs.-Republican warfare that has consumed the party’s primary races in recent years. In effect, the establishment is taking steps to fight back against Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations that have wielded significant influence in backing candidates who ultimately lost seats to Democrats in the general election.

David Brooks wakes up, smells the coffee

From yesterday’s column:

On the surface, Republicans are already doing a good job of beginning to change their party. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana gave a speech to the Republican National Committee calling on Republicans to stop being the stupid party, to stop insulting the intelligence of the American people.

Representative Paul Ryan gave a fine speech to the National Review Institute calling for prudence instead of spasmodic protest. The new senator for Texas, Ted Cruz, gave a speech to the same gathering saying the Republicans should be focusing on the least fortunate 47 percent of Americans.

But, so far, there have been more calls for change than actual evidence of change. In his speech, for example, Jindal spanked his party for its stale clichés but then repeated the same Republican themes that have earned his party its 33 percent approval ratings: Government bad. Entrepreneurs good.

In this reinvention process, Republicans seem to have spent no time talking to people who didn’t already vote for them.

One wonders where this suddenly reasonable columnist has been since last November 6th.

False equivalency and the White House: Obama becomes a media critic

From the newly released New Republic interview with the president, Obama had some thoughts on the prevailing practices of today’s political media:

One of the biggest factors is going to be how the media shapes debates. If a Republican member of Congress is not punished on Fox News or by Rush Limbaugh for working with a Democrat on a bill of common interest, then you’ll see more of them doing it…

The same dynamic happens on the Democratic side. I think the difference is just that the more left-leaning media outlets recognize that compromise is not a dirty word. And I think at least leaders like myself—and I include Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in this—are willing to buck the more absolutist-wing elements in our party to try to get stuff done…

In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems we’ve got in how folks report about Washington right now, because I think journalists rightly value the appearance of impartiality and objectivity. And so the default position for reporting is to say, “A plague on both their houses.” On almost every issue, it’s, “Well, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree”—as opposed to looking at why is it that they can’t agree. Who exactly is preventing us from agreeing?

The usefulness of the wacky fringe

As Barack Obama enters his second term, speculation is predictably high about every aspect of what’s coming up: new policy proposals, the specter of continued gridlock on Capitol Hill, a heavy docket of significant rulings pending at the Supreme Court, and so on.

Central to this debate is the question of whether Obama will be able to leverage his electoral triumph into real momentum for his policy agenda. Will the Republicans continue to draw from their playbook of the last four years, or will they be inclined to compromise more in the wake of their poor showing at the polls in November?

Despite the partial fragmentation of the national GOP between moderates — in the most relative, unanchored sense of the term — such as John Boehner and party hardliners like Michele Bachmann, early indications are that Republicans are unlikely to shift much until at least the 2014 midterms, depending on how they do.

Which brings me to the above video, of radio host Alex Jones displaying an alarming mental instability on a nationally televised show inexplicably hosted by Piers Morgan. Say what you want about Morgan, but at least he had the good sense to shut up, for the most part, during this “interview” and allow the world to see just how unhinged the gun nut really was.

But it also made me think about the nature of political conversation in the U.S. these days. For years now, the right has not only allowed, but often actively encouraged, radical and unreasonable rhetoric, for the simple reason that it helps rile up the base and inspire them to increase public pressure on Democrats, vote for Republicans, donate money, and so on. That’s an understandable short-term goal (it helps in the next election), but it’s produced impressive long-term benefits as well: each time a foaming-at-the-mouth conservative espouses an armed takeover of Washington or impeachment of the president for allegedly not being a naturally-born American or whatever else, the right-wing boundary of acceptable conversation shifts further right.

The problem is, there’s no counteroffensive from the left, which generally polices its commentary to an astounding degree (especially surprising given the increasingly partisan nature of American politics). Insane leftists don’t fare well in the United States. But crazies are the mainstream across the aisle.

There are several reasons for this. For one, there’s really no American far left to speak of these days. Even in Europe, which has moved steadily right in recent years to the jaunty tune of “austerity measures” and “shutting borders to Islamic fundamentalists,” lefties retain much of their glamour. (See Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, for example.) But in the U.S., we’re confined largely to the likes of Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and a smattering of others, all of whom have their devoted followings but none of whom enjoy the warm embrace of large swaths of the population at large or have any real political power.

Another reason for the prominence of right-wing insanity is, ironically enough, liberal media establishments. (No, I do not mean that the media establishment at large is liberal; I’m referring specifically to the media institutions that are liberal, such as MSNBC and a host of online blogs and news sites such as the Huffington Post.) The first one to trumpet something stupid said by a lowly or irrelevant Republican is usually a member of a Democratic-leaning media organization. This makes sense when the said troublemaker is reasonably significant, but in recent years the left has played an outsized role in promoting people such as Orly Taitz, ineffective and mostly impotent members of Congress like Allen West and Michele Bachmann, and even a thoroughly discredited post-2008 Sarah Palin — the last of whose every sideways glance the press breathlessly reports as if it signaled the Second Coming, even as she and her family have drifted into tawdry, broadsheet-worthy behavior (see Palin, Bristol).

Without a huge assist from left-wing media promoters, all such tragic humans would have faded slowly from the spotlight (to varying degrees, of course: Sarah Palin will always be more interesting than Orly Taitz). Instead, they’re kept front and center in our public consciousness by “media watchdogs” like Mediaite — which, by the way, uploaded the above video. It’s time to start ignoring people whose most recent credentials include, for example, stints on reality TV (a growing subset of Americans, to be sure, but not one I’m ever interested in hearing about).

But whatever the causes, one consequence consistently remains: right-wing brashness dominates the news cycle while liberals mostly cower in fear. And this state of affairs has started to make me wonder whether the American progressive sector would do well to unleash its own attack dogs a little more often.

Take the Newtown massacre, for example, and try to imagine the GOP and Democrats on opposite sides of the gun control debate from where they are now: in other word, Democrats against gun control, and Republicans in favor of it. Would the right have waited several days, as did Obama, and then given a speech in favor of some very vague “changes,” then waited even longer before finally announcing the conclusions of a study group led by the vice president that would result in a myriad of mostly ineffective and insignificant executive orders and a thoroughly unambitious legislative agenda?

Of course not. We know this because guys like Rep. Louie Gohmert were appearing on TV shows within a day or two of the shooting and saying they only wished there’d been more guns at the school. Then the NRA held its notorious press conference and made things even worse. I’m using the words “notorious” and “worse,” however, in a very relative sense, since in reality the event was quite successful from a far right perspective: it once again slammed the door in the face of timid liberal attempts to ever so slightly nudge public policy.

So what I’m saying is, the next time something like Newtown happens — and there will be a next time, as we all know by now — I don’t want to hear Democrats and liberals clamoring all over each other to be the first to demand an assault weapons ban. That is a quintessential Democratic tactic, and one that Barack Obama has practically made his trademark: beginning the negotiation by asking for exactly what he hopes to get by the end. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is a horrendous strategy in any situation, but it’s even worse when the counterpart is an increasingly unpredictable and radical political party.

Instead, we should hear people calling for a repeal of the Second Amendment. I’d love to have that conversation play out on the national stage. Of course, there are several issues with this approach. For one, the media has a funny way of discounting staunch leftist rhetoric in a way it doesn’t on the right. But again, I think this has become a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: the media doesn’t necessarily have any ingrown bias against leftism, but they’ve developed artificially skewed boundaries of acceptable discourse anyway because that’s what they’ve been exposed to for so long. Destroying that stasis won’t happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere.

Perhaps the larger problem is that almost no Americans would support such a proposition (repeal). But why does that matter? A wide array of social movements — from women’s to civil to gay rights and more — took their first steps in a landscape of profound public hostility to their objectives. And anyway, my point isn’t actually to repeal the Second Amendment. The point is to make a big enough deal about it so that the proposals from the opposite side — say, arming teachers in every school — get taken right off the proverbial table.

Indeed, such was the promise of Occupy Wall Street. Unfortunately, the movement failed to crystallize into something truly permanent. But despite Occupy’s short, limited role, the entire national conversation shifted rather dramatically for a time. Today, it is commonplace to hear politicians and public figures speak of the 99%, the 1%, and so on, but these were concepts only just recently introduced into the broader lexicon. And at least as importantly, it served as a heavy counterweight to the classist “takers” rhetoric coming from the right. Would Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” comment have exploded nearly as loudly as it did if Occupy Wall Street hadn’t raised the issue of middle-class exploitation just months before?

I think not. Although the movement ultimately fizzled out, the ragtag group consisting largely of students, social misfits, hipsters, and the unemployed briefly jolted the boundaries of discourse in the opposite direction from their long-term trajectory. The question is whether that shift represented an insignificant and temporary diversion from the mean, or a useful lesson on how to conduct political warfare in the future. Yes, the Democrats have managed to win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. But just imagine what the left could accomplish if it actually started fighting.

The permanent Republican victory

Frank Rich cautions against premature liberal gloating of coming triumphs, demographic or otherwise:

What’s more, the right thinks long-term, and if you look at the long-term, the whole ugly “fiscal cliff” standoff was a win-win for conservatives, no matter what their passing defeats in this week’s deal. The more Washington looks dysfunctional, the more it sows dissatisfaction with the very idea of a Federal government. Yes, Democrats and the White House can argue that polls show that the Republicans would be getting most of the blameif Congress couldn’t reach agreement on the “fiscal cliff.” But that’s short-term liberal wishful thinking. Long-term, this intractable dispute has undermined Americans’ faith in government, period, and the voters’ plague-on-all-your-houses view of Washington is overall a resounding ideological win for a party that wants to dismantle government, the GOP. The conservative movement is no more dead after its 2012 defeat than it was after the Goldwater debacle of 1964.

Silver lining? Social issues, at least, seem to be a winning hand for the Dems:

John Roberts is as political a Chief Justice as I’ve seen — political in the sense of wanting to be well-regarded by mainstream public opinion and posterity. He’s no Scalia-Thomas-Bork right-wing bull in the china shop. Much as I welcomed his upholding of Obamacare, his logic was so tortured that I shared the view of conservative critics that he was holding a finger to the wind and cynically trying to be on the right side of history. His remarks about  the nation’s fiscal impasse are content-free and gratuitous — and irrelevant to his constitutional role — but they do reflect his own desire to maintain a noble public image. It was, one might say, a Howard Schulz PR move. If nothing else, this Chief Justice’s continued obsession with his own profile may bode well for the future of same-sex marriage: Hard to imagine that Roberts will thwart a civil rights breakthrough now enthusiastically supported by an overwhelming majority of the young and even not-so-young Americans who will write the history of the Roberts Court.