When Reason Has No Meaning

It’s Isaiah 1:18 – “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

And nearby, the Beatles are singing We Can Work It Out of course. Things can be solved if, in good faith and with a bit of humility on all sides, we drop the posturing and nonsense and deal with the problem at hand. Things are never as bad as they seem. Apply sweet reason to the issue – that’ll fix things.

In politics it’s called bipartisanship. Back in the sixties, Lyndon Johnson was asked by a national magazine for his favorite quotation. He quoted Isaiah – “Come now, and let us reason together.” Yep, in 1965 he was Time’s Man of the Year for that sort of thing. He got things done by working with people. It was bipartisanship – he’d call up his Republican friend Everett Dirksen and get his vote on this or that.

But of course he was a real son-of-a-bitch who twisted arms and made threats that were all too real. He got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, and then the Voting Rights Act, and along the way gave us Head Start, food stamps, work study, Medicare and Medicaid. That’s quite a legacy. He changed America for the better, or at least made it so the government was actively involved in allowing all citizens, regardless of chance circumstance, like foolishly being born black, or born into poverty in a shack in the Ozarks, some breathing room in a dog-eat-dog world. You may be one of those who think that whole idea is wrong, that providing such breathing room impinges on everyone’s freedom, especially the freedom to fail and die miserably all on your own and all that, but he did these things, and they’re all still with us.

It was all about decency and fairness, and of course he reasoned with people – there was a good deal of horse-trading, and he had the embarrassing goods on any number of important people, as he’d been around congress forever, and they knew what he knew about them. And they knew that as affable as he was, he wasn’t exactly a nice guy. Thus Johnson had an odd concept of what reasoning was. He was ruthless and he would get what he wanted, one way or the other. Sitting down to reason with him must have been a bit frightening. On civil rights matters, Doctor King took the high ground and changed people’s hearts. Johnson did the legislative part, the necessary dirty work of rounding up the votes. He had them by the balls. Think of King and Johnson as a tag-team. And their appeals weren’t to pure reason.

And of course that Beatles song was part of the zeitgeist back then, the fiction that we could all reason together and fix things and make them right. But listen to the lyrics – the guy is telling the girl that she’s being a jerk, an unaware spoiled brat, really. She should listen to him, because he’s patiently listened to her, and she’s ruining everything. It’s obvious that this reasoning together stuff is, operationally, a nasty business. Reasoning together is the ideal. Reality is something else entirely.

Obama, the man of reason, or so he has always presented himself, is discovering that. He spent ninety minutes with the Republican House Caucus, presumably reasoning with them. But they didn’t reason back. He suggested they drop the posturing and nonsense and deal with the problems at hand, after he’d done the same thing the day before in his State of the Union address. They weren’t impressed.

In the ninety minute meeting he tried humor, and reason, and logic:

That’s why I say if we’re going to frame these debates in ways that allow us to solve them, then we can’t start off by figuring out, A, who’s to blame; B, how can we make the American people afraid of the other side. And unfortunately, that’s how our politics works right now. And that’s how a lot of our discussion works. That’s how we start off – every time somebody speaks in Congress, the first thing they do, they stand up and all the talking points – I see Frank Luntz up here sitting in the front. He’s already polled it, and he said, you know, the way you’re really going to – I’ve done a focus group and the way we’re going to really box in Obama on this one or make Pelosi look bad on that one – I know, I like Frank, we’ve had conversations between Frank and I. But that’s how we operate. It’s all tactics, and it’s not solving problems.

And he sees why no problems are being solved:

I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that many of you – if you voted with the administration on something – are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve been telling your constituents is that this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.

And I would just say that we have to think about tone. It’s not just on your side, by the way – it’s on our side, as well. This is part of what’s happened in our politics, where we demonize the other side so much that when it comes to actually getting things done, it becomes tough to do.

Of course it is, but at least he didn’t sing that Beatle song. And how tough it is became apparent a few days later, on Sunday, January 31, when House Minority Leader John Boehner, the man from Ohio with the amazing and inexplicable deep tan, said bipartisanship actually cannot work, at all, really, as the whole concept is flawed:

Despite White House overtures for congressional Republicans to work with Democrats, the top GOP official in the House said Sunday that such opportunities are limited.

“There aren’t that many places where we can come together,” House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said on the NBC program “Meet the Press.”

Republicans were elected to stand by their principles, and those principles are different than the “leftist proposals” offered by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, Boehner said. …

“Leadership is about standing on your principles and opposing those policies that we believe are bad for the country,” Boehner said.

Should the left be upset at this? Steve Benen says no, not really:

What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing (except the part about President Obama pushing “leftist proposals,” which is a silly assessment).

While I didn’t see the exchange, if this report is accurate, Boehner argued that Republicans intend to push their ideas, and oppose the policies they find offensive. The goal for congressional Republicans isn’t to find “common ground” or “bipartisan solutions” with those they completely disagree with; their goal is to fight for what they believe in, opposing the majority’s agenda.

That only makes sense, so it should be quite clear that Republicans have no interest in working with Democrats on finding solutions to pressing policy challenges. Why would they? But Benen thinks it’s a problem that no one points out the obvious caveat:

Republicans are the minority party, which means it’s their job to oppose the majority’s agenda.

“There aren’t that many places where [the two parties] can come together”? Well, no, of course not. Democrats and Republicans perceive reality in entirely different ways, and advocate for wildly different solutions to various problems (they don’t even agree on which problems exist).

But if Boehner’s right about this – and I believe he is – then why in the world is it incumbent on the Democratic majority to work with Republicans to find “bipartisan” answers to every question? If Boehner has no intention of “coming together” with Dems in the middle – a reasonable, albeit rigid, position – why must the political establishment maintain the fiction that the governing majority is doing something awful unless they bring the discredited minority on board with every proposal?

Why should the majority always compromise, or be the bad guys? Think back to Lyndon Johnson and how he got people on board. That was bipartisanship by force and intimidation. Living in the ideal world, where sweet reason prevails, is a bit silly. Dealing with reality always works better. And Benen cites Ron Brownstein saying that “we are operating in what amounts to a parliamentary system without majority rule, a formula for futility.”

Benen says that’s not the half of it:

In some respects, it’s even worse than that. In nearly all modern democracies, parties that win elections get a shot – they’re able to do what they want to do, putting their party platform to work. If the policies are effective and voters are satisfied, the parties are rewarded. If not, they’re punished.

The job of the minority party (or minority parities) in modern democracies is not to stop the majority from governing. Indeed, the very idea is practically absurd. Rather, minority parties consider it their job to criticize the majority, tell the electorate how they’d be doing things better, and hope voters agree when the next election rolls around.

But we’re not there. We’re dealing with expectations, that it’s right and proper for the majority to do what the minority wants, because they’re nice guys or something, and procedural tools like the virtual filibuster where you use the cloture system to require that anything at all takes sixties votes, to approve that it move forward to the real vote where you only need a majority, fifty-one votes, to pass whatever it is. Benen calls this inherently foolish:

We can elect one party to lead, and then give the minority party the ability to stop the majority from leading. Worse, the political establishment tells voters – and the public agrees – that the majority is doing something intrinsically wrong if they advance policies that the minority disagrees with.

Boehner left no doubt this morning that he and his party don’t want to work with Democrats on shaping legislation. That’s fine. But with that in mind, can we let go of the ridiculous notion that Democrats are on the wrong track unless Boehner likes their ideas? And more importantly, can we abandon the absurd procedures that allow a small minority party to prevent the legislative process from functioning?

Well, probably not, and that’s what Ron Brownstein argued:

Obama’s first year demonstrated once again that in this deeply polarized political era, big legislative crusades aimed at big national problems produce only big political headaches. President George W. Bush learned that when his failed drive to restructure Social Security helped trigger his precipitous second-term political collapse. And now, like President Clinton, Obama is at risk of cracking his presidency on the immovable rock of health care reform. Democrats control the White House, the House, and, even after the Massachusetts vote, 59 Senate seats, more than either party has held since 1980, except during the past several months. Yet much of Washington assumes, probably correctly, that Democrats are now condemned to gridlock.

Republicans believe that Obama’s problem is that he’s pushing so much government intervention in the economy. That’s undoubtedly part of the story. But Obama’s larger difficulty is that he’s pushing so much change at a time when filibuster threats are so common that it requires 60 Senate votes to pass almost everything – and the minority party won’t provide the president votes on almost anything.

And he asks us to imagine if the shoe were on the other foot:

Republicans would likely be facing equivalent troubles if they had the power to advance their goal of retrenching government. Does anyone imagine that a President John McCain would be flourishing if he had spent 2009 attempting, over unified Democratic resistance, to impose his campaign agenda of eliminating the tax incentive for employer-provided health care and reducing the growth of Medicare spending? Or that House Republicans would be thriving if they could enact their 2009 budget proposal to literally end Medicare for Americans now younger than 55 and replace it with a voucher to buy private insurance?

In that alternate universe, Democrats would almost certainly be the ones celebrating off-year upsets. The common thread is that it’s extremely difficult to sell this country on big change, in any direction, without at least some bipartisan validation. That’s especially true in today’s communications maelstrom, where overtly partisan media sources tirelessly incite the opposition party’s base against the president.

But now the alternative “seems almost unreachable too: building bipartisan coalitions to address big problems.” Without a mean bastard like Lyndon Johnson it may be impossible. And that means on almost all issues things only get worse, or more trivial:

Obama will likely argue that Republicans are blocking reform to protect powerful corporate interests, such as banks. The increased Republican presence in the Senate also will encourage Obama to pack more of his priorities into reconciliation legislation that can’t be filibustered. And like Clinton after the 1994 Republican landslide, Obama is likely to focus more on executive actions that allow him to advance his priorities without legislation.

But, unavoidably, Obama will be forced to lower his sights. Incremental steps on issues like energy (and maybe health care) and mostly symbolic gestures (remember Clinton’s fabled promotion of school uniforms?) will become more attractive. And the sense that our political system has lost the capacity to craft solutions commensurate with our challenges will only deepen.

And see Matthew Yglesias on Boehner and others saying that it’s good that they fight for their principles:

I think that’s right, and it’s reflected in the fact that the US House of Representative is a fairly well-functioning legislative body. It’s a body organized around two major political parties that outline competing, somewhat coherent agendas that command large-scale support from their own members and little support from the opposition. Some issues scramble the coalitions and leave the door open to large-scale bipartisanship, but the bulk of the legislative terrain consists of systematic disagreement on important issues. There are biannual elections at which the American people put either one party or the other in charge, and having won an election the winning party attempts to govern in a way that maintains the confidence of the voters.

It’s a perfectly good system. Sometimes a majority sees its margins trimmed (1996, 1998, 2000) other times it sees its margin enhanced (2002, 2008) and sometimes a majority is replaced by a rival majority (1994, 2006) and the House’s policy agenda changes accordingly. Boehner’s ideas are different from Nancy Pelosi’s ideas, and if he wants his ideas to prevail he needs to assemble a majority prepared to support him. That’s his responsibility as an opposition leader, whereas Pelosi’s responsibility is to frame a successful governing agenda that maintains the public’s faith in her co-partisans. It’s a system where power aligns with responsibility, and where those with power are held accountable for their use of it.

The Senate, by contrast, is a mess.

Yep, there the forty-one vote majority always stops the fifty-nine vote minority. And they’ve been doing that on everything, because it proves something. Just what it proves is open to interpretation of course.

But it seems that although Congressional Republicans decided early on to reject compromise at all costs, and block the Democratic majority from governing, to prove they’re dorks who just can’t govern, Sam Stein reports here that some in the Republican Party are starting to wonder if that’s so wise:

Some senior Republican strategists and party veterans are beginning to fret that the party’s refusal to work with President Obama, even when he crosses onto their own philosophical turf, could ultimately erode some of the political gains they’ve made this past year.

Over the past two weeks, Republicans in Congress have united in nearly unanimous opposition to a series of ideologically conservative policy suggestions, starting with a commission to reduce the deficit, a pay-go provision that would limit new expenditures, and a spending freeze on non-military programs.

Opposition has usually been based on specific policy concerns or complaints that the measures aren’t going far enough. But the message being sent is that the GOP’s sole mission is presidential destruction.

Now, some in the party are beginning to worry.

Benen isn’t buying that:

Stein’s piece is solid, but it quotes former lawmakers and GOP strategists, not sitting Republican lawmakers. It’s one thing for party officials just outside the decision-making center to raise concerns; it’s something else when someone with actual power and direct influence shares those concerns.

And at this point, Republicans realize that they’re taking obstructionism to levels unprecedented in American history, and they realize that the public may disapprove, but they’re willing to take the risk.

I’m delighted that some in the GOP are “beginning to worry” about the reflexive, knee-jerk opposition to literally everything Democrats consider, but I’m at a loss as to how the majority is supposed to work constructively with a minority that would rather destroy the political process than approve its own proposals.

They do try to stop anything at all, and what they themselves once proposed:

The Senate took a vote on extending the federal debt ceiling – without which the United States would go into default. All 40 Republicans voted no.

The Senate took a vote on requiring Congress not to pass legislation that it can’t pay for. All 40 Republicans voted no.

The Senate took a final vote on passing the overall plan. Thirty-nine Republicans voted no. The 40th, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), skipped the vote.

And Benen finds the pay-go vote especially ridiculous:

The idea is to “impose a requirement that key parts of the budget must be paid for with spending cuts or tax increases to prevent the federal deficit from increasing.” It’s known as the pay-as-you-go approach, or “paygo” – if policymakers are going to increase spending or cut taxes, they have to figure out a way to pay for it at the time.

A similar rule was in place during the Clinton era, when the deficit was eliminated altogether. Republicans – you know, the ones who claim to have the high ground on fiscal responsibility – scrapped paygo in 2002. Soon after, GOP policymakers stopped trying to pay for their policies, and Republicans quickly added $5 trillion to the national debt, and left a $1.4 trillion deficit for Democrats to clean up.

As part of the effort to address the GOP’s mess, Democrats have embraced paygo as a matter of common sense. President Obama, in his State of the Union address, urged Congress this week to “restore the pay-as-you-go law that was a big reason for why we had record surpluses in the 1990s.”

Just a few years ago, a handful of Senate Republicans – Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, George Voinovich, and John McCain – argued that paygo should be brought back. They were unsuccessful in persuading their Republican colleagues at the time, and yesterday, they voted with their Republican colleagues to reject the idea that they’d already embraced.

As Benen concludes:

GOP lawmakers are so reflexive in saying “no” to everything, they end up opposing ideas they support, and at that point, reason has no meaning.

But maybe it never did. Johnson liked to quote that passage from Isaiah. But that’s not how he operated. He knew better. Reasoning with others is a fine thing. And everyone is glad Obama tries to do that. But in real life no one really does that, as the other side can just dig in and concede nothing, and pay no price for that at all, as everyone will see them as strong and principled.

And thus sitting down with others and reasoning together never works. But it does sound good, in theory. It almost makes you miss the sixties.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Bipartisanship, Obama Respecting Republicans, Obama Stands Up to Republicans, Party of No, Republican Obstructionism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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