Archive for category 2014 Election

Weimar America?

“We’re not going to be disrespected.  We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”  ” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.)

Rep. Martin Stutzman (R-Indiana)

Rep. Martin Stutzman (R-Indiana) – the Rodney Dangerfield of the GOP

In a thought provoking piece in The New Republic, John Judis argues that the Republican party is causing one of the worst crises in American history.   “Welcome to Weimar America,” he chides before launching into an entertaining and persuasive reflection on American history and the roots of the current crisis.  While I’ve diagnosed the “tea party” as a nostalgic movement resenting the changes in American demography and culture, Judis argues its actually a continuation of earlier movements, including the Calhounist nullification movement that led to civil war.

We’re not likely to have civil war, but there is a real danger that the current crisis reflects growing political fragmentation destined to weaken both American democracy and strength.

But Weimar America?  The electoral system of the United States works against the kind of extreme fragmentation of the German system before the rise of the Third Reich.   The Weimar Republic was a straight proportional representation system which allowed dozens of parties to compete and get representation in the Reichstag.  That required a Chancellor gain support from a large number of parties before being able to control a majority bloc of the parliament and govern.  That worked OK until 1929, then after the Great Depression hit Germany became ungovernable.    For years no government could form and President Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree.    Adolf Hitler rode the unrest, instability and confusion to power, even though he never actually was elected by a majority in a free election.

That won’t happen here.   Our system of single member districts assures we’re likely to stay a two party system; it’s a structural feature of how we run elections, and it does create a kind of stability.    Yet other aspects of our system of government create possibilities that make the Weimar metaphor plausible.   Since we do have a government divided between the executive and legislative branches (not the norm in most democracies), and the legislative branch is divided into two separate bodies of independent power, it is possible that if the culture of compromise and tradition is broken, gridlock and division could become the norm.   That would destroy the essence of systemic stability that has brought us freedom and prosperity.

Dennis Ross (R-FL)

Dennis Ross (R-FL)

“Republicans have to realize how many significant gains we’ve made over the last three years, and we have, not only in cutting spending but in really turning the tide on other things.  We can’t lose all that when there’s no connection now between the shutdown and the funding of Obamacare.  I think now it’s a lot about pride.”  Dennis Ross (R-Fl)

Ross, like other Republicans skeptical of the tactics being undertaken, recognize that the shut down and threats to default are being taken by people who have no clue what those things mean.   They mutter things like “Oh, good, shut down that horrible government,” not recognizing the real consequences for the country.   “The debt’s too high, let’s not increase the debt limit,” some bemoan, utterly clueless to what the impact would be of going into default.  These people aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant.  They are so blinded by ideology that they don’t take the time to study the real implications of what’s happening.

Ironically, John Boehner may be the best hope for avoiding disaster.

Ironically, John Boehner may be the best hope for avoiding disaster.

Luckily, John Boehner does not fit into that category.  Yet he’s dealing to what one pundit called, a Republican civil war.   Both parties have their ideological extremes, but usually they are kept in check by the establishment center.   The extremists hate the pragmatic centrists because they “compromise on principle” and aren’t driven by ideological fervor, but they’re the ones that assure stable governance.   The extremes pressure the centrists and that’s important, but in the GOP they’ve taken over the party.

And they’re mad, certain they are right, and they don’t care about the system because they’ve decided it’s “crashing and burning” anyway, and only big government lovers would suffer if the whole thing collapsed (since presumably a more “pure” America would rise from the dust).  OK, not all are that extreme, but the mix of extremism and ignorance has allowed one party to put the country and the world dangerously close to catastrophe over….pride.   Being ‘disrespected.’   Trying to change a law they couldn’t change the usual way.

As noted last week, the President cannot let that tactic work.   That would be damaging to the Republic in the long term; as bad as the short term consequences are, it would really become Weimar America if parties started to make these games the norm.   Yes, there have been government shut downs before, but the circumstances here are unique.

So the ball’s in Boehner’s court.   He has to find a way to walk the tightrope of avoiding all out insurrection from his tea party wing, but not being the man who dashed the American dream by refusing to hold a vote.   He understands the consequences.   While Obama can’t negotiate, perhaps he can give Boehner a face saving way out.   Perhaps Harry Reid and Boehner can figure out a path that gives Boehner “peace with honor.”   Because right now the Republicans are risking damaging the country immensely at a time we least need it.  This has to end sooner rather than later.

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Why Obama Must Not Negotiate

obama

House Republicans are miffed that the President refuses to negotiate with them about the government shut down.   “He’s willing to talk with Iran, why not us,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bemoaned.   Yet the truth of the matter is that there is nothing to negotiate.  For the good of the political process, for the sake of future Presidents Republican and Democratic, and for the country, the President must remain resolute.

The Republicans are trying to gut or delay the Affordable Care Act, and using a threat to shut down the government as a means of doing so.  That is, a group of people do not like a law that was passed a few years ago, and are threatening the entire country’s economy and well being in order to try to stop that law.   That’s not how you do it.

In a Democratic Republic, if you don’t like a law you make the case to the public.   You get your people elected, and then you change or rescind the law.   You do it through a constitutional process whereby the House and Senate vote, confer, and then pass a bill.  The President can sign or veto it.  Congress can override the veto if they have the votes.

Repealing and replacing Obamacare was a key component of Romney's failed Presidential bid

Repealing and replacing Obamacare was a key component of Romney’s failed Presidential bid

In this case, the 2012 election had Obamacare as a main component of the campaign.   Candidate Romney vowed to rescind or at least dramatically alter the act if elected, the President vowed to maintain it.   The votes were counted and the President won by a large margin.  The Democrats gained seats in the Senate.   And though Republicans took the majority in the House, more votes for the House went to Democrats than Republicans.

If it becomes possible for a minority to get their way and undercut laws simply by threatening to shut down the government, a horrible precedent will be set.   Rather than letting the democratic process operate, dangerous and destructive games of chicken will become common place.   Today it may be the GOP and the Affordable Care Act, but sometime in the future the Democrats might threaten to do the same to stop changes in Social Security.

It’s even worse than that.   If the Speaker of the House allowed a free vote on conscience, the government shutdown would be averted.  A number of Republicans disagree with the extremist approach being taken.  But they are being silenced by a large minority, which has not only stymied the legislative process, but put the world economy at risk.

Whatever one’s view on Obamacare, there should be agreement that blackmail and threats to the very fabric of our country are not the way to oppose it.   A case in point: on October 1, the first day that exchanges were up to sell insurance for Obamacare, lots of glitches and problems arose.  The GOP could use that in their favor to argue against Obamacare.  Instead those stories were under the radar as everyone focused on the shutdown.

I’m not saying the glitches are truly a reason to oppose Obamacare, only that the GOP should be focusing on substance to make their case before the 2014 election rather than playing Russian roulette with the economy and the jobs of nearly a million federal workers.

Every parent learns that giving into bad behavior means it will become more frequent

Every parent learns that giving into bad behavior means it will become more frequent

Today is a gorgeous day in Maine, and one of the most beautiful parks in the US, Acadia National Park, is closed thanks to the fact Congress can’t do its job.   When a young child wants to watch TV and a parent says no, often the child throws a tantrum.   If the parent gives in, then the child learns that tantrums work, and will more frequently and more vigor go ballistic to get his way.  If the parent holds firm and there are negative consequences for the tantrum, the child soon learns that tantrums don’t work and it’s better to follow the rules.

The tea party wing of the GOP is throwing a collective tantrum.  To give in would assure that shutdowns, crises and other threats to our stability become more frequent – the tactic will have worked.   The President cannot let that happen.

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Pragmatists vs. Jihadists in the GOP

No new taxes!

No new taxes!

The Republican party is congratulating itself for following through with the sequester and avoiding any new taxes — this time in the form of closing tax loopholes which most Republicans once favored — but the continuing crisis risks putting the country into a double dip recession while the American system appears dysfunctional.

The GOP wants to blame Obama for “not leading.”   That’s false.  We have a divided system of government and the President has never been able to lead Congress.   The President can and has over the decades negotiated with Congress, made compromises, and cut deals, but divided government means checks and balances.   When it works, extremes are avoided and pragmatic compromise is reached.   When it fails, gridlock ensues.

So what next?

The Republicans are internally divided, as everyone knows.    But that’s nothing new, in a two party system there will be vast divisions as a matter of course.     Usually parties gravitate to the center, where most voters are.   This isn’t happening with the Republicans, at least not yet.

The pragmatists want to move towards the center and relegate the “tea party” wing of the party to the sidelines.  They think the core problem for the GOP is that the far right has had too much a say over GOP policies and made compromise seem a bad word.    Symbolic is the way the far right torpedoed the effort by President Bush and John McCain to get comprehensive immigration reform passed in 2007.    If they had passed that, voting patterns today might be much more friendly to the Republicans.

The most insipid slogan from the far right is that “compromise is a violation of principle.”   To pragmatists, strict adherence to “principle” is mindless; context matters and compromise is a virtue.  They hope to attract candidates that are moderate, reasonable, likable and able to get things done.

The jihadists don’t want to compromise.   Bring on the sequester!   Hell, many wanted the US to default on our debt and would be happy to shut down the government.   Ted Cruz of Texas acts like a little McCarthy calling people “communist” (note to tea party:  calling people communist ceased to mean anything after the end of the Cold War).    Believing they represent what America “should be” they are waging a holy war to save the country.   They are convinced global warming is a fraud – and due to cherry picking of dubious claims some actually believe that evidence is on their side!  Some on this wing of the GOP wants to simply burn everything.   They’re holy warriors!

Though it appears that while the jihadists hold the House Republican caucus hostage for a moment, the pragmatists are gaining the upper hand, especially after the unexpected defeats of 2012.   Democrats gained in the Senate, kept the Presidency despite economic difficulties, and though the GOP held the house, Democrats got more votes overall.   But the pragmatists need to change too – they need to learn how to connect with all voters.

Blaming everyone but themselves, the Romneys show what's wrong with the GOP

Blaming everyone but themselves, the Romneys show what’s wrong with the GOP

The core problem of the Republican party was on display in the recent interview by Mitt and Ann Romney with Fox News.   While most of the time Romney was gracious and reasonable, when they talked about their defeat it was clear they don’t get it.   Mitt claimed that Obama appealed to minorities because of Obamacare — get it, that “minorities want free stuff, the government is bribing them” line.   That disdain and disrespect for a large chunk of Americans — the core of the 47% quote — is a mindset that destroys the GOP brand.    They want to think they are virtuous hard working self-reliant Americans while those Democrats and minorities are lazy moochers who want a handout.   That is not only wrong, it’s so idiotic that it borders on the delusional.

Of course, Ann wasn’t much better, blaming the media, acting as if it were self-evident that her husband was right for the job.  If anything their interview showed why the country dodged a bullet by not electing him – and how the GOP blame game prevents them from confronting real problems within their message and policy preferences.   And Romney is one of the pragmatists!

Obama must help the Republicans save themselves

Obama must help the Republicans save themselves

In an ideal world the Democrats would be coming to the debate demanding tax increases while trying to defend so-called entitlements and aid to those already suffering the most.    The Republicans would counter demanding spending cuts and deep entitlement reform.

After a process of negotiation the result would be a compromise.   Entitlement reform and spending cuts that piss off the left wing of the Democratic party alongside tax increases that piss off the right wing of the Republican party.   The idealists would be trumped by the pragmatists on both sides, that’s how our system is supposed to work.

But that won’t happen.   The jihadists have hijacked the Republican party and they won’t compromise.  It’s all spending cuts and deep entitlement reform or nothing.   And of course, with a demand like that they’ll get nothing.   The deficit will grow faster than if they compromised, they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

So President Obama needs to make them an offer they can’t refuse.   He needs to offer them real cuts through a restructuring of programs that brings about significant savings, in exchange for a mix of tax reform to increase revenue and investments to have our economy competitive for the new century.

The President should be specific.   He should expect but not fear criticism from his own left flank.   He should tell the American people “these are the cuts and reforms the Republicans want, and we’re willing to compromise and give them that, but they won’t take yes for an answer because they’re protecting tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy fat cats.  They care more about protecting the rich than cutting the deficit and reforming wasteful programs.”

At that point, Republican pragmatists will realize that this is the best they can possibly achieve and will be good for the country.   They will be able to undermine the jihadists.    Without a compromise,  it becomes the big campaign issue of 2014.   To tea partiers thinking 2014 will be another 2010, think again.  The Democrats learned their lesson, they’re already targeting districts for a ground game more like a Presidential year than an off year election.

After all, if the GOP can’t compromise at all, well, all the President has is the bully pulpit and the powers of the executive branch.    Expect him to use both.

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Debt Ceiling or Platinum Option?

debtceiling

Let me be blunt: if the Republicans threaten to not raise the debt ceiling unless the Democrats agree to spending cuts, they are the functional equivalent of terrorists, holding a gun to the head of the economy and demanding the President give in to their demands.

Here’s why: If the US cannot make payments on money it owes, then our credit rating crashes, our bonds become more expensive, the budget would be made much harder to balance and we could dive into another global recession.  You don’t make that a bargaining chip.   The President’s biggest first term mistake was to allow himself to be suckered into bargaining on the debt ceiling, thinking he could get a deal.   He cannot repeat that mistake.

Note: Congress has already voted to spend this money.   It’s not like the President wants to increase debt and Congress doesn’t.   This is money the Republican House has voted to spend – it’s a debt they’ve approved.  For them to not raise the debt ceiling or to blame the President for the higher debt is objectively wrong.   That’s why for the good of the country the President cannot negotiate around the debt ceiling.   He should work to make it that neither party ever can.

Don’t get me wrong – there should be real talk on deficit and debt reduction.   We need to take a hard look at demographic change and the long term sustainability of so-called “entitlements.”   The Republicans are not all wrong in this discussion.  You just don’t threaten the life of the US economy in order to get your way.

GOP leaders have publicly stated they want to use the debt ceiling as leverage, holding the global economy hostage unless the Democrats give into their demands

GOP leaders have publicly stated they want to use the debt ceiling as leverage, holding the global economy hostage unless the Democrats give into their demands

Last time this came up many people thought that perhaps the President could use the 14th amendment to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling.   Coming just before an election year with the Republicans sure to start impeachment hearings by claiming that would be a misuse of that power, that was an option the President could not risk.   But his legal team should seriously consider it, the political conditions have changed.

There is also the so-called platinum option.   The President does not have the power to print money, only the Federal Reserve can do that.   But there is power given to the Secretary of the Treasury:

The Secretary may mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.

Should the Treasury issue a trillion dollar coin like this?

Should the Treasury issue a trillion dollar coin like this?  What if Monty Burns steals it?

You see why laws are so complex – if you don’t word them right you can leave enormous loopholes.   The purpose of this law is to make it possible for the Treasury to issue platinum collector coins.    But what if the Secretary of the Treasury minted a $1 trillion dollar platinum coin and deposited it with the federal reserve?   And what if he threatened to keep doing so until the debt ceiling limit was raised?   That would keep us from reaching the debt ceiling and thus avoid default.

That might risk inflation – minting trillion dollar coins adds greatly to the money supply.  But the Treasury secretary could make clear that those coins would be withdrawn in response to a raising of the debt ceiling.   Better would be to abolish the debt ceiling issue — it’s insane to make it possible for a manufactured crisis to threaten the world economy — and at the same time rewrite the  above law so the loophole is closed.

If Congress votes to spend money, they are voting to borrow enough money to spend what they want.   There should be no secondary ‘debt ceiling’ vote.   The platinum option is probably too absurd to be used, but when the global economy is being held hostage it might be necessary.

The President must address this issue forcefully in his State of the Union speech

The President must address this issue forcefully in his State of the Union speech

The President must make this an issue in the State of the Union address – he must call the Republicans out as recklessly threatening the country by holding the debt ceiling hostage as a way to gain leverage.   He must take control of this issue, and put the Republicans on the defensive.   This should be the first shot in the 2014 campaign – if the Republicans purposefully crash the economy, the public should make them pay.     He shouldn’t call them terrorists (though I think that’s what they’d be doing), but he has to crystallize the issue for the country and show leadership.

At the same time he must offer real negotiations on the budget and show his good faith.  But those two issues must not be linked, it may take longer to reach a budget compromise and that’s OK.    The President wants his legacy to be putting the US on the path to fiscal responsibility, not sky high deficits.  The Republicans know it.   Risking the economy on a phony issue is insane.

As the debt ceiling deadline nears, if the GOP tries to play that game the White House should seriously explore and discuss options like the 14th amendment or the platinum coin.   Given the dynamics in 2011 I think the President was right to go with the sequestration — it actually set the Democrats up for a big win on the fiscal cliff.   But for the sake of the country he can’t allow Congress to hold the US economy hostage in order to try to get their way.  It’s un-American.

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The Plan B Fiasco

A dark day for the Speaker

A dark day for the Speaker

The Plan B pill is taken by women the morning after having sexual intercourse in order to avoid getting pregnant.  Unfortunately for the Republicans and John Boehner, their plan B could not prevent the birth of a fiasco, meaning the Republicans are screwed.

After weeks of talks it was clear that there was no way Speaker John Boehner could get his party to support the kind of deal that he and President Obama were building to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.    The Republican leadership decided they needed a “plan B” to pressure the Democrats to make more concessions.

At first Plan B was simply to pass a higher tax rate on to millionaires, with rates staying the same for everyone else.  Boehner’s argument:  “I’ve now shown I’m willing to accept a tax rate increase.   That’s what the President has wanted from me.   Now let’s see what he’ll give me in exchange.”   If nothing, Boehner reasoned, the GOP would have some cover -rather than being seen as an intransigent party refusing any tax increase on the wealthy, they could say they had moved and the Democrats need to respond in good faith.

Only thing – Boehner had to get Plan B passed.  At first he figured it should be easy.   His party has the majority in the House, and back in 2011 many Democrats had suggested that raising rates on millionaires would be enough – Boehner could throw their own words back at them.   If it could get through the Senate with Democratic help, it would force Obama to veto the bill and make it look like he was blocking progress.  Fearful of that happening, Obama would have to give the Republicans more of what they wanted.

It didn’t work.

Boehner's best option is now Plan C

Boehner’s best option is now Plan C

First, Democrats were pretty united against it.   What was said in 2011 is irrelevant; this is a new political reality.   Given that, Boehner needed to have Republican unity to get it to at least pass the House.    He failed.   Too many conservatives had taken a career stand against EVER raising taxes, even on millionaires.

Boehner appealed to reason – the lower tax rates will expire on everyone on January 1.   Then the House will be forced to pass a bill lowering taxes on those under $250,000, meaning rates will go up on a lot more people.  “I need this for my negotiations,” Boehner said –  for leverage, it’s not actually going to become law!

Nope.  The hard right, already angry that some of its members had committee assignments plucked away from them for their disloyalty, dug in.   So Boehner added budget cuts to the mix – cuts that meant that any chance that the Democrats could support it withered.   He didn’t care, he was desperate.  He had to pass something in the House.  ANYTHING.

Boehner's fiasco comes a week after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell embarrassed himself by filibustering his own resolution due to a strategic miscalculation

Boehner’s fiasco comes a week after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell embarrassed himself by filibustering his own resolution due to a strategic miscalculation

After a tense meeting on the evening of Thursday December 20, the Republicans managed to impale themselves.   The far right accepted nothing, the Speaker’s leadership was rejected, and the party was split.    Conservatives were gleeful about the separation, believing they had gotten revenge on the Speaker and had stood on principle.    But it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

In the headlines the story is clear:  Boehner’s efforts to compromise even a bit were shot down by extremists in his own party.    Any effort to shift blame to the Democrats or show that the Republicans were negotiating in good faith fell apart. Any deal that gets passed will be a Democratic agreement — the President and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) will craft a proposal that can pass the Senate and the House, appealing to at least enough Republicans to get it through.

Moreover, this will likely happen after New Year’s, meaning that the Republicans might lose the President’s offer to raise rates only on those earning $400,000 and higher.

Conservatives say fine – make the Democrats own what is passed.   Make them responsible for tax increases, make them responsible for any cuts that are made.    Rather than governing, which is what legislative bodies are supposed to do, they want to make stands on “principle.”   But principles are always simplified rules of thumb, inapplicable across all contexts.   Sticking to simple principles is for the simple minded – reality is far more complex.

Governance is about compromise and problem solving.    John Boehner understands that; too many in his party do not.

So now what?   The Republicans are in disarray, still fighting over the lessons of 2012, even as a recent CNN poll shows that 53% of Americans consider the GOP too extremist while 57% consider the Democrats mainstream.    They may hope that 2014 is 2010 redux — another off year election — but the mood of the country is much different.

Simply, they are seeing their “conservative revolution” die.    The country is moving slightly center-left, with pragmatism trumping ideology.   The Grover Norquist types are 20th century relics, whose politics are poison today.  The tea party was the last gasp of this movement, reacting in horror to the election of man they couldn’t imagine as President.   But it was an illusion, they won in 2010 because of the economy and the fact the voters thought it would facilitate compromise.  It wasn’t a popular conservative rebellion against Obama.

The tea party anger of 2010 may have been the last gasp of a dying movement

The tea party anger of 2010 may have been the last gasp of a dying movement

2012 may be seen as the election that solidified a move to the left that started in 2006, and was interrupted by the 2010 elections.  If that’s the case, the Republican party is going to have to go through a kind of reconstruction, rethinking how their principles and beliefs apply in the 21st Century.   They’ll need to look at other successful conservative parties in Europe, and most of all recognize that the world today is not the same as it was thirty years ago.

Perhaps its fitting that a party that has been fighting against contraception insurance with no co-pays for all women should have its Plan B fail.   The party has reached rock bottom, there is no place to go but up.   Will it be a Rubio uniting the conservatives with a more moderate message?   Perhaps Chris Christie’s gruff style can be a pragmatism conservatives embrace?    Right now the Republicans are down and out, but the future is pregnant with possibilities.

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