Archive for category John Boehner

Boehner Deserves Better

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The situation is almost surreal.   A small group of Republicans want to shut down government to try to stop government funding of Planned Parenthood.  Not that Planned Parenthood had done anything illegal, but this is part of the on going anti-abortion crusade, this time fed by videos showing officials of the organization un-emotional over the sale of tissue from aborted fetuses for on going medical experiments.  There is nothing wrong with that practice either – better that than just throw it away – but for the zealots that was enough.

Never mind that if that funding was cut – 40% of Planned Parenthood’s budget comes from federal funds, mostly Medicaid – there would probably be a large increase in abortions since so many poor benefit from the contraception services the organization provides – a much more important part of their operation than abortions.  Never mind as well that the President would veto the action, and a shut down would probably hurt the 2016 Republicans as much as the 1995 shutdown hurt the GOP in 1996.  Zealots rarely give in to rational thought.

Both House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell recognized that their moral duty was to govern, and not risk the horrid effects of a shutdown over this quixotic fight.   While McConnell has most of the Senate on his side (only a whiney Ted Cruz strongly disagrees), Boehner faced a full uprising from House Conservatives, about three or four dozen who want to fight this jihad rather than compromise and govern.

boehnerfrancis

And these members, as well as many conservative media sources like Rush Limbaugh and redstate.com, routinely attack Boehner with a vengeance, denigrating him and calling him a lackey to Obama, all because he recognized the limits of divided government.  These people, so frothy in their fervor, don’t understand that they are not only a minority in the GOP, but a detriment to a party that hopes to regain the White House in 2016.  The Democrats have no strong Presidential candidates on the horizon, this could be a big GOP year if they don’t blow it.

Boehner had enough.

He has been fighting this fight for four years, since he became speaker (he joined the House in 1990).  He has survived despite vilification from the right wing, in large part because most Republicans respect him and know he has conservative values.   He choose to leave at a time no one expected, but which seems appropriate.

We don’t yet know when he made the decision.  I wonder if, listening to the Pontiff talk about the need to govern and compromise, he realized he needed to extricate himself from a caucus in complete disarray.  Maybe he decided that this was an appropriate ending point for his career – he has wanted a Papal address to Congress for years, starting back when John Paul II was Pope – the visit of the head of a Catholic Church that means much to him.

Boehner was emotional as the Pontiff spoke, realizing this was for him the biggest, and last major Congressional event he'd oversee as Speaker

Boehner was emotional as the Pontiff spoke, realizing this was for him the biggest, and last major Congressional event he’d oversee as Speaker

Boehner was crucified by his caucus because he wanted to do the right thing – make compromises and govern, recognizing that the Democrats weren’t an enemy to be annihilated, but a necessary part of a democracy that runs well only when there are diverse perspectives which are listened to and respected.   With inbred blogs and media pushing emotional themes and making compromise look like surrender, he was humiliated every day for trying to do the job of Speaker of the House properly.

He deserved better.   He took a lot of bullets for the GOP, he made compromises that were necessary.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the news of Boehner’s departure “seismic” and it seems a clear indicator of the dysfunction within the majority party.  He will no doubt push the hated compromise through, doing his duty to the democracy he serves and avoiding a catastrophic government shutdown.  Already firebrand Cruz is attacking him, even as other Republicans praise his service, and former Presidential candidate John McCain expresses sorrow over his departure.

The Republicans, already wounded by the bizarre media behavior of people like Trump and Carson, have just over a year to get their act together and show Americans they are a responsible conservative party, not a group of loons wanting to shut down the government over one organization’s funding.  With Clinton’s woes, they should be in a much better position then they are.  It’s time for the majority of Republicans to take back their party from the extremists.  That would be best for the GOP, and best for the country.

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Obama, the Republicans and Immigration

Obama addresses the nation on November 20, 2014

Obama addresses the nation on November 20, 2014

The politics behind President Obama’s executive order on immigration are fascinating, so I’ll quickly dispense with the policy stuff.  Yes, what he did is legal.  It probably should have been earlier, and it comes after he tried to work with Congress for six years to get a legislative solution.  No, this doesn’t go as far as comprehensive immigration reform – we’ll still need Congress to do that (and I suspect they will – but only in 2017) – but it definitely gives the US a more humane, compassionate and reasonable approach to immigration.

And the politics, well…as Spock would say, fascinating.

One theory is Obama is purposefully “trolling the Republican party.”  Not so much by the policy – Obama was going to do this anyway – but by not waiting until a bill was passed in December to continue government spending.   The logic goes like this:  the Republicans do not benefit politically when they try to shut down the government.   Most Republicans do not want a government shut down.   Already 2016 looks difficult for them, wounding themselves politically is something they want to avoid.

Moreover, the GOP remains divided.  They want to create the impression they are united and can be responsible, but the divisions are intense.   If those divisions can be brought into the open and be shown to bring chaos into Republican ranks, then the Democrats not only have a better shot to perhaps win back both houses in 2016, but Obama will benefit politically, giving him more leeway.  Already talk radio hosts, tea party activists and many in the House and Senate are calling for a government shut down.

One probable result of these changes in immigration is improved economic growth

One probable result of these changes in immigration is improved economic growth

This would, however, be a major shift of tone from a President who has been criticized for being too nice with Republicans, too unwilling to take unilateral action.  He is by nature a consensus builder and he has tried to use pressure and persuasion with Republican leaders who make ultimatums and refuse to compromise.   It’s not that they don’t want to compromise, but they don’t have their House caucus under control.  To make significant compromises would be to face a rebellion, and Speaker Boehner would prefer to lead a “do-nothing” Congress with at least the illusion of party unity than one gets things done, but further divides and weakens the GOP.

So the White House may believe: a) there is nothing to gain by trying to work with this Congress – it’ll be no different than the last one; b) it’s now or never, we have two years to continue our agenda; and c) if we act now and inspire anger in the GOP base, then the  party will be divided, play with the fire of a government shut down, and ultimately be weakened going into 2016.

On top of that, Latinos will be thankful, will see and get angry at the rhetoric coming from the right, and turn out in record numbers to vote in Democrats in 2016.   The Republicans will claim the Democrats are “bribing Hispanics,” but that will be even more insulting.  The result: a weakened GOP and a revived Democratic party, already recovering from the 2014 election and realizing that overall the direction of the country still favors the Democrats.

To be sure, Obama wouldn’t have done this if he thought it was bad policy.  This could be another aspect of his legacy that one day shines brightly, despite the controversy now.  It could also make it easier for the GOP to actually decide to pass a bi-partisan immigration policy that has more of what they want, realizing they get nothing if they just complain.  If the Republicans did that, they might find it easier to win over Latino voters in the future.

Too harsh a response and Republicans could help push record numbers of Latinos to vote Democratic in 2016

Too harsh a response and Republicans could help push record numbers of Latinos to vote Democratic in 2016

To Boehner and McConnell, they have to somehow satisfy their right wing (Boehner calling Obama ‘the most lawless President in history’ shows at least he’ll use their rhetoric) but chart a path that shows the country that the Republicans aren’t a bunch of angry whackos who can’t be trusted with the steering wheel.  This is a real test of whether or not the GOP can actually use their new majority effectively.

Clearly Obama is still very relevant and willing to use his power.   Senator McConnell said the President is ignoring the will of the voters (the relatively small number of voters who voted in the midterm), but the Majority Leader should be reminded that Obama won elections with significant majorities twice.   That means he has been entrusted to follow his best judgment.

It’s also interesting how fickle politics can be.  Just over two weeks ago Republicans were overjoyed and Democrats demoralized by the 2014 Midterm elections.   Between the defeat of the Keystone pipeline, the China-US climate deal and now bold leadership from the President on immigration, it’s the Republicans feeling angry and upset, and liberals light on their feet.   But that could change just as quickly.

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Liberals – Chillax!

McConnell and Boehner, the leaders of the Senate and House

McConnell and Boehner will lead the Senate and House in the next Congress

Although I held out hope, the result of the election was not a surprise.  The Republicans had a good night – the map was on their side, it’s the six year curse on the President’s party, and the Democrats ran a strategically bad campaign.  Rather than arguing for policy and supporting the President, they ran scared.  The result?  Moderates figured they didn’t stand for anything, and the base was repulsed.  Especially Black and Latino voters stayed home.   Even then so many states stayed very close until the end, it clearly wasn’t a massive GOP wave.

Yet to hear people on the left talk, the election was a disaster.   The Republicans hold the House and Senate!  Scott, Walker and LePage were re-elected as tea party governors!   The country is going the wrong way, people are ignorant, big money is warping our system, and the media is shilling for the right, etc.

My response to that?  Chill people!  The sky isn’t falling, and there are a lot of reasons for optimism.  Don’t make yesterday’s Republican victory out to be more than it is.  Here’s why:

1.  The House has always led Republican obstructionism, with Senate Republicans able to say that they can’t do more because the Democrats were in control.  Now the Senate has no excuse – if they are willing to compromise, real progress can be made.

2.  Obama has no incentive to capitulate.  He’s not running again.  Especially the first year, look for him to be aggressive with the use of executive orders and other unilateral actions.   Obama may do more to make liberals happy this coming year than the last six put together – in part because if he doesn’t do it now, he’ll never have the chance, and in part to pressure the GOP: If you don’t compromise, I’ll act!

3.  In 2016 the Democrats will have the map on their side, unlike this year.   In many ways, the surprise of the election was that the Democrats were able to keep so many states so close.   Of the 34 Senate seats up in 2016, 24 will be Republican, only 10 Democratic.  Of the ten Democratic seats, only Nevada and Colorado are likely to be in danger, and those are both states that voted for Obama in 2012.   Of the Republican seats, nine are in states won by Obama in 2012, and many others could be in play.  In other words, 2016 might be a mirror image of 2014.  Remember: Democrats do much better in Presidential election years.

4.  It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Democrats could retake the House in 2014.  They’d need to win forty seats, something difficult to do – but if the GOP doesn’t compromise and gets seen as obstructionist, it’ll be possible.

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5.  The President has veto power.  He’s a firewall against a Republican agenda.   With the Republicans in control – the onus is on them to prove they can provide a productive legislative branch.  If they don’t, they’ll be that much more likely to have a devastating year in 2016.

6.  The Republicans are moving away from the tea party.  If you look at the candidates they choose, the effort to control the message, and the anger about, say Thad Cochran, it looks like the GOP recognizes that the tea party has no staying power.   I don’t think the GOP is there yet, but they’re in the process of moving away from ideological dogma towards true conservatism.

7.   The country’s culture and demographics still point to a progressive future.  It was virtually a non-story yesterday that a Federal Judge ruled Missouri’s ban on same sex marriages illegal.  The culture has changed that much.   In the grand scheme of things, the trajectory of the country has not changed.

Not convinced?

Try this:  there is nothing you can do to change the election result anyway!   Unless you invent a time machine and can go back and tell Democrats that their timid strategy of ignoring Obama rather than embracing him hurt more than helped, what’s done is done.  Why waste energy by feeling depressed and angry?   It not only doesn’t help, but that energy could better be directed in a positive way.  Practice pragmatism:  Accept what you can’t change, change what you can.  And there is a lot we can do!

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Chaos Prevails

Susan Collins, R-Maine

Susan Collins, R-Maine

Republicans and Democrats increasingly seem to be in separate worlds.   Reality is never objectively perceived “as it is.”  It is always interpreted through ones’ perspective, a prism of beliefs and past experiences.   Yet most people are convinced reality is as they perceive it, they believe they are being objective and clear, meaning that those who think differently are somehow flawed.   They may be stupid, dishonest, disingenuous, or have some kind of nefarious belief system.   The US political system depends on a smaller class of people, those who can understand diverse perspectives, and navigate to a position of common ground – even if it’s a option all can barely life with.

I’m not writing to praise Senator Collins’ political views or positions.  I agree with her on some things, disagree on others.  But I do praise the fact that she is one of those able to try to work with people of different views to craft solutions to problems – to have the intellectual capacity for multidimensional thinking, rather than the true believer mentality of the ideologues.

As I write this a wild circus is playing out in Washington DC.   As Senators Reid and McConnell, both who like Collins see past ideological cages, near a compromise, an angry house demands to pass a bill with no chance of support from the Senate or White House.  But as they plan for an evening vote, apparently they can’t come up with anything.   Confusion reigns!  Now it sounds like no vote will occur.

Boehner:  "Truth is we have no idea what we're doing, and haven't for the past three weeks!"  (Well, what he would say if under a spell to tell the truth)

Boehner: “Truth is we have no idea what we’re doing, and haven’t for the past three weeks!” (Well, what he would say if under a spell to tell the truth)

Reading the quotes of the Republican tea party Congressmen is like reading quotes from die hard communists during the Cold War.  They have their ideological world view, and anything not falling within it is, well, a ‘threat to freedom,’ ‘demolishes the Constitution’, or some such silliness.

Speaker Boehner, who is also able to bridge diverse perspectives, at this point has to find a way to balance an out of control House, the need to solve the problem, and the views from the Senate and White House.    He doesn’t appear up to the task – perhaps no one is.  It appears that the lunatics have taken over the asylum!

Consider David Vitter, (R-La)’s defense of the shutdown:  “Approximately 15,000 EPA employees are furloughed, making it less likely fake CIA agents at EPA will be ripping off the taxpayer.”    Sure – while people in the Pentagon are holding food drives for furloughed employees, Vitter sees the government as some pack of demons.

Consider Collins:  “I would encourage people, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both the Senate and the House, to take a look at the proposal that we’ve been working on.  I also think that the Senate needs to act first, and that there’s more chance of an agreement being reached in the Senate and we need to lead.”   You can just hear the tea party folk hissing at her “betrayal of principle.”

But Collins is right about what it takes.   The Democrats made their point earlier in the week when they resurrected demands to roll back the sequester.  If the Republicans want to “negotiate” before opening the government or raising the debt limit, the negotiation can’t be from “the status quo” to closer to where they are – that’s hostage taking.  The negotiation has to be from the Democratic starting point, which is precisely what Reid demonstrated!

From there Susan Collins got involved and crafted a bipartisan plan.  It didn’t pass muster, but Reid and McConnell took over from there, and it appeared we were on track to get an agreement.  It would give the GOP a face saving out, but the House Republicans would have fought a quixotic cause, turning the country against them and making the tea party look like a different kind of crazy.

The Tea Party - a different kind of crazy

The Tea Party anthem album

Simply, blinded by ideology they felt justified making outrageous demands, believing they were RIGHT and fighting on PRINCIPLE!  They scoff at those who compromise as somehow “compromising principles,” not recognizing that it is a kind of psychological malady to think one needs the world to adhere to his or her principles in order to be true to them.   Then as defeat became inevitable and the scope of the damage they’ve done to their party, themselves, their movement and perhaps the country became clear, they veered off in numerous directions.

So tonight meetings continue.   Susan Collins is working behind the scenes, still a major force.  McConnell and Reid are talking – all recognize the scope of the problem.   Still, the real issue is not the debt ceiling or shutdown, but how could we let such a dysfunctional group of Congresspeople veer the country so close to catastrophe?   How could it be that people like Louie Gohmert, who said that President Obama should be impeached if the country defaults (even if his party is the cause of the default) – he’s the same guy who said terrorists were having babies in the US so the babies could commit terrorist acts in 18 years and that John McCain supports al qaeda – can be as influential as Collins?

Republican Pete King (R-NY) put it best:  “This party is going nuts…Even if this bill passed tonight, what would it have done?  After shutting down the government for two and a half weeks, laying off 800,000 people, all the damage we caused, all we would end up doing was taking away health insurance from congressional employees. That’s it? That’s what you go to war for? That’s what we shut down the United States government for?”

I predict they’ll find a way out and pass an agreement that the House will have to swallow.   More important for our future is to elect people with the insight to recognize that our system welcomes political conflict as long as the participants are able to recognize the legitimacy of diverse opinions.   Because if the tea party mentality takes root – and a similar way of extremist thinking grows on the left – our Republic will be on a downward spiral.

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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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The Coming Government Shutdown

shutdowns

President Obama has effectively cast the debt ceiling issue on his terms.    Raising the debt ceiling is necessary to prevent a series of catastrophic economic outcomes that could push the US back into recession, make total debt even higher, and put at risk social security payments, veterans benefits and other important services.

Republicans are split on the issue.    The hardliners don’t care – they just want to cut spending.   But even moderates want to find some way to leverage their control of the House into forcing the Democrats to bend on spending.   They thought the debt ceiling would be the way to do it, but increasingly the politics around it is forcing them to back down.

But that will be very bitter medicine for the right wing of the party, especially after having failed to prevent tax hikes on the wealthy during the fiscal cliff negotiations.    John Boehner is a smart man.  He understands the issue enough to know it would be irresponsible to let the US default — most of the business community would be angry if that were to happen, and they represent a core portion of the Republican constituency.    But he also knows that he has to appease the hardliners.

In a long press conference President Obama definitively ruled out negotiations over the debt ceiling

In a long press conference President Obama definitively ruled out negotiations over the debt ceiling

Here’s what I expect:   The Republican leadership will decide, perhaps as a sudden surprise, to simply punt on the debt ceiling.     They know that not only does he now have the issue framed on his terms, but the State of the Union address gives him the ultimate bully pulpit.   He’ll set the narrative, it’ll be hard for the Republicans to react.

At the same time they will call for negotiations to begin immediately on finding spending cuts.   They’ll say that they are showing their good faith by raising the debt ceiling, and thus expect President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to show an ability to compromise.   If they don’t, they will warn, do not expect a continuing resolution to fund the government to be passed by the March 27th deadline.    In other words – threaten a government shut down.

Since 1981 there have been five government “shutdowns,” but the first four were hardly felt, except by federal workers.  Two lasted a day or less, the third took place over Columbus Day weekend.

President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich clashed during the last government shut down

President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich clashed during the last government shut down

The last time this happened was between December 16, 1995 and January 6, 1996 (and earlier between November 14 and 19, 1995).  Bill Clinton was President, and Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House.  Gingrich had also threatened not to raise the debt ceiling, but realized the Republicans could not risk the US defaulting.

The shutdown was seen by many as helping President Clinton recover from low approval ratings and win a second term.  Newt Gingrich believes it was instrumental in pushing Clinton to compromise with Republicans to balance the budget.  To be sure, the shut down cost money, nearly a billion extra dollars.   A shut down itself doesn’t save money, even if its used as leverage to get the other side to agree.

Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid would ultimately need to get their caucuses to approve any budget deal to avert/end a shutdown.

Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid would ultimately need to get their caucuses to approve any budget deal to avert/end a shutdown.

Based on what happened back in 1996, here’s what to expect:

*  Social security recipients will keep getting checks, but if newly qualifying recipients may not be able to apply for benefits until the government is back up and running;

* Welfare recipients will still get checks, but again – new applications for things like food stamps would be delayed;

* National parks would shut down;

* Food testing would continue, but farm loans and benefits would cease;

* The armed services would see cut backs in civilian staff, and possible delays in payment for active duty personnel;

* The IRS would not process tax forms, except perhaps ones submitted electronically

* Passport and visa applications will be delayed, with the backlog continuing even after government is up and functioning.

As inconvenient as all that would be, it would be nothing like the devastation of a default.  It would be a high stakes drama, but one we could recover from quickly.

Unlike the debt ceiling, President Obama could embrace negotiating to help pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running.   It would provide the leverage and drama House Republicans want without the economically suicidal path of preventing the country from paying its bills.

Moreover, having won on the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling, President Obama would have cover for compromising on some issues dear to progressives.    Moreover, House Republicans loathe to compromise about anything would have the real ramifications of a shut down staring them in the face.   It’ll push them to compromise as well.

So if you need a passport, apply sooner rather than later — because while I don’t think Republican leadership is irresponsible enough to not raise the debt ceiling, they aren’t going to give up on their core issue of cutting the deficit.   So don’t be surprised if in just over two months the crisis du jour is a government shutdown.

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Time for Pragmatism

newengland

Notice anything interesting about this map?   The US is in a lighter shade of blue then New England, which is off colored and unlabeled.   This map is from a Republican guide to finding one’s Senators and representatives.   To the GOP New England appears to be persona non grata.

Indeed, with a few exceptions (Senators from Maine and New Hampshire) the region has become very Democratic.  New England along with the upper Northwest were the only regions where white males supported Obama in the election.

Not only that, but New England Republicans are distrusted in their own party.  They are often pro-choice, moderate and labeled RINOs (Republican in name only) by ideological conservatives.   Maine Senators Collins and Snowe voted to acquit President Clinton after his impeachment, breaking with their party.   Senator Snowe’s retirement this year was in part a reaction to all the anger and partisanship that has overtaken the Senate.   Yes, Maine has a tea party governor, but that’s only because of a three way race in which 39% could win.

Republican Olympia Snowe personified pragmatic conservatism

Former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe personifies pragmatic conservatism, she wants to solve problems and focus on the people, not a set of rules or an ideology

This is interesting because New England does not fit the usual left-right demographic patterns.   Maine is the most white and least diverse state in the union.    New Englanders are pragmatic and rather conservative.   But there is one thing that sets the region apart: ideology is distrusted.  Here in Maine the tea party governor couldn’t get his fellow Republicans to impose a true conservative agenda when they had control of both houses.  Instead they continued the tradition of trying to build consensus, often angering Governor LePage.    I supported President Obama, but voted for many Maine Republicans – it’s not good vs. evil here!

It’s a part of the pragmatism – a sense that the difficult problems we face can’t be addressed by looking to fancy theories and ideologies, but by compromising with a goal of solving problems.   In that New Englanders are more conservative than many Republicans who have a radical ideological world view – to implement ‘true capitalism’ or some other ideologically motivated “solution” to our problems.

Ideologies are seductive.  The present truths in simple terms and make seem like all you have to do to solve our problems is follow the ideological precepts.   People who want to be right, who don’t want to deal with complexity and uncertainty, often find ideologies very comforting.  They are a kind of secular religion, you can interpret the world through an ideology and avoid cognitive dissonance.    As Communism demonstrated, people can cling to ideologies even when it’s absolutely crystal clear that the evidence proves them wrong.

An example of that taken to the extreme can be seen in this over the top interview of Alex Jones by Piers Morgan:

Ideologues can ignore reality because its so complex that you can always find some other reason to explain what went wrong.   Communist ideologues blamed the West or others for making the ‘path to socialism’ more difficult.    Capitalist ideologues embrace the market, and find reasons to dismiss evidence that shows markets can be inhumane and corrupted when not regulated.

I don’t think Republicans or Democrats outside New England are all ideologues.  Rather, media plays a role to socialize people to embrace ideological thinking by creating a narrative that makes it seem natural.  Powerful corporate actors like the “Club for Growth” use money to manipulate the process and create an ideological political climate.

The classic example of media narrative is the last election.   On the right there was a widespread belief that Romney would easily beat Obama this year, a belief held by even people high up in the Romney campaign.   The narrative seemed logical: the polls over sample Democrats, Obama’s supporters aren’t as enthused, Republicans are angry and want Obama gone, the 2010 spirit still exists, the media is overstating Obama’s chances because they like him, etc.

If you looked at the evidence it was pretty clear that those arguments were weak – that the expectation had to be that Obama would win.  However, FOX news, talk radio, conservative blogs, and media outlets on the right stated that case over and over like it was a fact, and then added that the mainstream media was untrustworthy, in the pocket of Obama and even trying to demoralize the right.   In other words, rather than rationally analyze the narrative, they found excuses on why not to take the counter arguments seriously.

This happens on many issues – climate change, taxes, the economy,  guns, terrorism, the debt ceiling.   There is an ideology-driven understanding of reality that is spread by talk radio, FOX, and a host of blogs and pundits that is designed not to analyze a perspective but to promote and defend it because it is deemed true – the ideology is unquestioned.

This penchant for ideology-based understandings of reality is destroying the Republican party.    I do not believe John Boehner or Mitch McConnell are ideologues, but they are held captive by the fringes of their party.   Moreover, there are signs many on the left want to emulate the ideologues on the right by embracing partisan war.   That has to stop.  It is time for pragmatism,  pragmatism is the enemy of ideology.

Ideologues claim they are embracing principle, but that’s an illusion.  They are embracing simple rules.  Reality is complex and simple principles don’t work.   Context matters, it changes the meaning of every act.   Ideologues left and right will use terms like freedom, social justice, equality and even peace to give their causes the air of moral authority.  But beware any theory-driven understanding of a complex reality, and beware of those who interpret everything through their ideological lens rather than comparing and contrasting different perspectives.

Pragmatism is messy, but it’s the only way forward in difficult times.

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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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Going Over the Cliff!

Going over the fiscal cliff?

Warnings are everywhere that we must avoid the fiscal cliff or else face recession.    The fiscal cliff is a series of tax hikes and spending cuts resulting from an inability to achieve targets on deficit reduction set in 2011.   The spending cuts hit 1000 government programs, touching ones dear to both Republicans (military spending) and Democrats (Medicare).

Most of the cliff involves repeal of the payroll tax cut (which expires in December) and the Bush tax cuts (which expire January 1).   The argument is that the mix of tax increases and spending cuts will seriously damage the economy and cause growth rates to plummet into recessionary territory.

The impact of the “cliff”

All this is set up by the negotiations around the debt ceiling back in 2011.   The Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling unless budget cuts were made to halt the increase in the deficit.    President Obama entered into negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner to try to reach a grand bargain to do just that.   The talks failed.  The “grand bargain” that the Republicans walked away from would have been about 85% spending cuts and 15% tax increases.

Republicans rejected any tax increase, making a deal all but impossible to reach.   236 of the 242 House Republicans, and 40 of the 47 Republican Senators have signed a pledge to Grover Norquist’s “Americans for Tax Reform” organization promising not to raise taxes ever.    Many Republicans figured that if they held out they could take the Presidency and Senate in 2012  and then craft their own measure with no need to compromise or raise taxes.

At the time people thought the Republicans had bested the President.   He was ridiculed by progressives as having been naive, willing to bargain with Republicans when their goal was to do whatever they could to defeat him in 2012.   He was called spineless for not invoking the 14th amendment to circumvent Congress and raise the debt ceiling unilaterally.  Obama’s lowest ratings were in the wake of the breakdown of those talks.   In retrospect Obama looks like a strategic genius – the Democrats have set up a situation where they hold the best cards, thanks to the sequestration deal and the automatic expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

So will the fiscal cliff cause a recession?   Perhaps, but the damage will be limited.  A couple charts:

Note how quickly the economy recovers after the sharp dip

And:

Note that the damage is mostly in Q1 2013, cliff or no cliff the prognoses for the rest of 2013 are similar

Beyond that, growth after 2013 is robust, even if we go over the cliff:

By 2014, things could be improving dramatically

Going over the cliff could enforce a kind of restraint that would yield long term benefits.  At the very least it would unclog the gridlock preventing real solutions to the budgetary and economic crises.   Letting the Bush tax cuts expire would render the pledge to Norquist meaningless — taxes would go up automatically and any agreement to cut taxes to the middle class would be a tax cut, not a tax increase.

So why all the alarm?

Besides the fact that the slow down in 2013 would be real, there is concern about the cuts themselves.   Many important government programs will be cut, angering the left.   Defense spending will be cut, angering the right.   Good!  This will force them into meaningful negotiations.

The Republicans essentially demanded no tax increases or defense cuts, but steep cuts to entitlements, social welfare programs, education and programs Republicans disliked (such as PBS).   In the heady days after the 2010 election that might have seemed feasible, especially if they were going to win back the Presidency and Senate.   Now it’s a pipe dream.

President Obama was re-elected, the Democrats remarkably gained two Senate seats and even though the Republicans still hold the House, the majority is smaller and overall Democratic candidates for the House received more votes than did the Republicans.    The Democrats have every incentive to make a deal now, while the Republicans would prefer to come up with a piecemeal deal to push the issue down the road to when political conditions are more favorable.   The farther they can get from the 2012 election the better it will be for them.

If we go off the fiscal cliff, the GOP will be forced to deal quickly.  To prevent tax increases on the middle class there may be a will to increase capital gains taxes – something that could raise significant money.   Those low tax rates are why Warren Buffet pays a lower rate than his Secretary and why Governor Romney  thought it more harmful to release his tax returns than to keep them secret.

Nothing should be off the table.    Each side could recover from political hits by the 2014 election, better to act sooner rather than later.   Going over the cliff will make both sides eager to reach a deal.

Expected tax increases should we go off “the fiscal cliff”

The danger in that is that the Democrats could make the mistake the Republicans did and overplay their hand.    In 2014 it is unlikely the Democrats will gain the House, and if this deal goes bad due to Democratic intransigence the Republicans could have another big off year election.    The Republicans blew it by not making a deal when they were in a position of strength, the Democrats can’t afford to make the same mistake.

It could be that the cliff is the only thing that will force both sides to actually make structural reforms that can lead to a sustainable budget.     It’s not just about the money.   The Democrats can “give” on issues like taxes and defense in part in exchange for tougher regulations on Wall Street and less resistance on appointments to agencies like the FHFA (Federal Housing Finance Agency).

Perhaps the Monster has a good heart?

Ultimately we all lose if there isn’t bold action as quickly as possible to get the government to a sustainable budget with a modicum of bipartisan support.    Fear of the cliff stands in the way of making bold choices and creates the danger of kicking the can down the road to deal with at a later date.   Go off the cliff.   Face reality.   A sharp down turn will be short and followed by growth.   The pain will be limited, and it just might force the politicians to make difficult choices.

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Delusions Hold GOP Back

Success in 2010 has blinded the GOP to the dangers of moving too far to the right

The thing that struck me most about the Republican National Convention is the extent at which they were preaching to the converted.    They are missing a chance to recast themselves as the hope for the future.   Whereas four years ago President Obama chose “hope and change,” the Republicans seem to be running on “fear and loathing.”

I believe the reason for this self-inflicted wound is groupthink.    There are two variants.   Activists have become convinced that Obama is a dangerous radical threatening the core values of the democracy and thus see it as a kind of moral imperative to remove him.   The second variant is that the establishment has become convinced that anger at and disillusion with Obama is enough to win them the election.    They realize Obama isn’t some kind of threat to the Republic, but are willing to go along rhetorically with the extremists.

Groupthink, as described by Dr. Irving Janis, includes a few attributes.  First is an over estimation of group power, along with a view that the group itself is inherently moral.   All politicians play fast and loose with the facts, but the Romney camp has taken this to new depths.   Moreover, there seems to be no reflection on the ethics of voter suppression; in Ohio the Secretary of  State first tried to increase early voting in Republican counties while decreasing it in Democratic ones, and now is saying he’ll ignore a judge’s ruling to reinstate early voting the weekend before the election.   What’s the law if you are sure you’re cause is morally pure?

A key aspect of groupthink is an “ends justifies the means” mode of thought.

Boehner’s ability to compromise for the good of the country – something he wanted to do – was prevented by the angry ideologues

Read the blogs and pundits on the right, and a narrative emerges amongst activists: Obama is evil and dangerous and the Democrats want to institute some kind of collectivist hell.  That is delusional thinking.  It ignores problems in their own strategies and Obama’s essential centrism.

A second symptom of groupthink is closed mindedness.   That includes discounting warnings or any dissonant information that might suggest they are on the wrong track, as well as a strereotyped view of the opponent as weak and vulnerable.   The polls that show Obama leading?   Meaningless, blogs and pundits on the right say, because bad job numbers, a crash of the Euro, and increased public attention to the election will change everything.  In the summer the narrative painted Obama as desperate and scared.   The Democrats have been dismissed as out of touch collectivists, incompetent, and even with authoritarian predilections.

In a bizarre return to Cold War fears, many on the right are convinced Obama is some kind of communist – even though his plan has tax rates lower than Reagan’s, cuts regulations, and explores entitlement reform. It is an irrational argument.

A third symptom of Groupthink is pressure for conformity.   Don’t question the group consensus, don’t stray from the message.   Look at the vitriol against one of Romney’s advisers when she suggested Romneycare in Massachusetts was a good thing.

Think of it, what if at the GOP convention candidate Mitt Romney said, “The Romneycare I put in place in Massachusetts is working.  It is popular, holds down costs, and assures that all citizens of the state have insurance.   I believe President Obama’s heart is in the right place on Obamacare, but it is a mistake to try to do this at the federal level.   It will create too many rules and regulations, and too much power in Washington.   States will be left to follow the dictates of DC bureaucrats.  As President I’ll work to make it easier for states that want to pursue something like Romney care to do so, with the federal government not putting obstacles in the way, while those who are happy with the status quo may keep it.”

Wow.   People would see that Romney is not some ogre who cares only about his tax shelters but actually has worked to assure all people in his state get health care.    That would have been independent voters in the bank.

Of course, he can’t do that.   Or, at least, he’s afraid to do that.  When he ventures from the harsh attacks on all things progressive, his base bellows.   And, since in a close election you need an enthused base, he’s afraid to lead, afraid to veer from a mix of vagueness and hollow slogans.  This self-censoring by otherwise reasonable establishment Republicans is a result of thinking Obama is weaker than he is.

Groupthink  creates fiascoes — a bad decision where: a) people should have known better when they were deciding; and b) they stick with the decision and a disastrous course of action even when it should be clear that they made a wrong choice.

A subset on the fringe of the political discourse sees imminent economic and social collapse, sometimes with survivalist fantasies.   Would be Timothy McVeighs rise from the woodwork.

In this case the fiasco is that the Republicans have chosen a strategy that plays into the hands of the Democrats, and have refused to veer from that strategy, even though it should have been clear during the summer that it wasn’t working.   The fiasco could be large in scope — they may lose a Presidential election that should have been easy, and they could blow the chance to gain control of the Senate.   Given that the Democrats are defending 23 seats and the Republicans only ten, most people thought the GOP could easily shift power in the Senate.   As it is, the Republican majority in the House may even be in danger.   None of that had to be.

The Republicans could have run a positive campaign.   They could have chosen a theme that set them apart from both the Bush era and its policies as well as from the Democrats.   They could have argued that Obama and the Bush era economic policies were taken from failed playbooks, too ideological and rigid.   They could have explained why Obama’s policies were not doing the job, offering alternatives while differentiating themselves from Bush era policies.

Rather than provide a clear break with the economic policies of the Bush years, the Republicans just pretend he doesn’t exist.

They could have had an optimistic message that was inclusive.    They could have embraced immigration reform and the Dream Act — positions they inevitably will have to adopt anyway to remain viable as a party.    They could have spoken not just to the fears of Americans, but also to their hopes and dreams.   They could have put forth a positive vision, not a narrow “the economy is bad, I’ll fix it — trust me, I’m a businessman — and that’s what your families need.”   We’re choosing a President for a country, not a CEO for a company!

Granted, with all money in the race and the economy still in a funk Mitt Romney can still win.   He might actually decide to lead to veer to the center after all, rather than fear his base.  But at this point in time there is no explanation why the Republicans haven’t embraced a positive change message and have instead relied on anger at Obama to give them the election.   The only reason I can figure is that Groupthink has taken hold and they are truly surprised that they do not have a big lead.

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