The government makes and enacts policies that effect us all – at the local level with zoning laws and deciding to provide police services in a certain manner and not another, and your local school board might keep your kid from reading a nasty book like Huckleberry Finn. At the state level they make decisions about roads and building bridges and new traffic laws and funding the educational system and all sorts of other public services – and make sure hairdressers and HMO’s are licensed and not ripping you off. And at the national level it is war and peace and national defense, and all the policies that regulate, at least a bit, the business of the nation – all the stuff that flows across state lines. And of course there’s the big stuff no one state can handle – think of the Interstate Highway System or the Centers for Disease Control or air-traffic control. And at all levels the government makes and enacts tax policies, to pay for all this.
No one much likes that last part, but if you want the services someone has to pay for them. In our representative democracy we elect folks to sort out all this stuff for us, to handle the details as best they can, and to do that pretty much on their own. We are not a nation of policy wonks, and the details shift day by day and hour by hour. No one can be on top of it all. We elect our representatives in a leap of faith, to sort out all that incredibly boring policy stuff in all its excruciating detail, which hardly anyone understands anyway, or cares to understand. We trust them, by default, to do the right thing, even if we don’t exactly know what the right thing is.
And the best outcome is that our taxes aren’t too absurd and unmanageable and the policies, whatever they are, work out for the best. If so, they’re on their own – strange people who seem to revel in these sorts of things. We don’t think about them much. You know the infomercial. Set it and forget it. There’s a reason our elected representatives are called public servants – they’re the hired help, doing what we’d rather not.
No, we don’t have direct democracy, where everyone votes on every policy issue. We’ve tried a bit of that out here in California with our initiative system, where twenty or thirty specific policy changes pop up on the ballot each time. And the state is broke and ungovernable. We vote for the goodies and always vote against any taxes to pay for anything – which is always a rational action. Why would you vote any other way? But actually no one reads the thick election booklet that arrives in the mail before each election – sometimes a hundred pages of fine print explaining each initiative, with the pros and cons, and just who says what is pro and what is con, and which groups have signed up in support or opposition. That’s for dweebs. We just vote. And it hasn’t worked out well. And we wonder what the hired help in Sacramento actually does for a living. Why are we paying them? What’s the point?
But government is about policy. You may be on the right and be one of those who, since the Reagan years, say the government should do next to nothing – except in matters of individual sexual behavior in your own home and other lifestyle choices, and on the matters of women, on their own, without government approval, deciding an abortion is necessary, and on the teaching of godless science and specific sorts of medical research. It that case you’re fond of saying government never does anything right – private industry is always more efficient and the market should decide everything – except for the stuff God wants us all to do, or not do. Or you may be on the left, arguing that the government can do fine things – it’s just all of us deciding to get some things done for the good of everybody. And you think that private stuff, all wrapped up in religious imperatives on which no one has ever agreed, is best left private – everyone should keep their religious views to themselves, for the sake of domestic tranquility and all that. You may have found Jesus, but that is your business. Live and let live.
But either way it’s all about policy. And that’s why it’s odd that few political commentators talk about policy itself. We seem to have settled into thinking about politics as we think about sports – about who’s winning and who’s losing and who has the momentum and all the rest. Each major election is a horse race. And in rotation, Maddow and Olbermann and Mathews and Chuck Todd pop up and say MSNBC is that Place for Politics, each with a little personal story or a nice smile. And the interesting spot is from Chuck Todd – NBC News’ Chief White House Correspondent and Political Director, and Contributing Editor to Meet the Press, and now an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins. He’s now co-host, with Savannah Guthrie, of “The Daily Rundown on MSNBC” – weekday mornings for an hour. And in his spots you can see him say how much he loves politics, and that he wishes every day was Election Day – he just loves the ins and outs of winning and losing, and what makes a winner and what makes a total loser. He doesn’t cover policy itself. That doesn’t interest him. And he assumes it doesn’t interest us.
And maybe policy doesn’t interest us, but that is what the whole business is about. Todd may wish every day were Election Day, but the real work takes place every other day, when things are decided that may mean life or death to many, or financial ruin or wealth. But of course he’s not alone. All the cable news channels cover who is up and who is down as the game is played.
And of course this makes most political talk nonsense, much like the sports announcers on the sideline at a basketball game shouting out GOOD SHOT! Sure, you admire the skill. But politics isn’t about good shots. It’s about passing laws.
And the analogy breaks down completely when you watch ESPN during March Madness, the NCAA college basketball thing. It’s the coaches’ interviews after the game – someone asks the coach of the top seed, who just lost by thirty-five points to some Podunk school from nowhere, what the hell happened, and he says, well, the other guys were better, they beat the crap out of us because we stunk out there today. No losing coach says the winning team won but they’re all socialists or hate God and this is just wrong, or that the game should be played again, or there should be a big vote and the results reversed, to match what everyone obviously had wanted to happen. Nope, he says those guys beat us – more power to them.
But that doesn’t apply in politics. In the last full week in March, Obama managed to pass healthcare reform, after many presidents since Teddy Roosevelt had tried and failed, and tucked into that bill was a big change in the student loan program that eliminated the banks acting as middlemen and freed up billions for education itself, not bank profits, and he announced a major arms reduction agreement with Russia, reducing the useless but deadly nuclear arsenal on each side by a third – the first president in many decades to pull that off in many, many decades. In short, he won big.
But the other guys were still out on the court taking what they thought were good shots, even if the game was over. There was former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty – the fellow who refused and refused to sign the certification for Al Franken as senator, arguing, maybe, somehow, some way, Franken hadn’t really won the election, until he had to admit the obvious. The other guys, the Democrats, won that seat. But he kept Franken out of the Senate for four months, arguing no, really, the game wasn’t over, it really wasn’t over. But it was. Try that on ESPN. They’d have you locked up.
But there was Tim Pawlenty in New Hampshire on Friday – “The other day I went to look at their platform for the Democratic Party for our nation. I couldn’t understand any of it. I don’t speak any French.”
Yep – that’s a good shot. But the game is over. And what does that have to do with policy? But of course he wants to run for president. It seems to be a shot in the next game. His platform seems to be making sure America is not France, and reversing the Reagan-era law that emergency rooms have to treat anyone who shows up. Reagan was wrong, and it should be a felony to provide medical treatment to anyone who is not insured, or you should have known was not insured.
Well, he is who he is – a minor player, one of those guys who make dumb shots.
But if the Republicans want to say no, they didn’t lose the week, they had to turn to the business with Israel. General David Petraeus went public with his belief that Israel’s intransigence on settlements is endangering American troops in the field, and Biden goes to Israel to say we stand with Israel, and to see if there’s a way to hold off on new settlements in disputed lands for just a bit, as that would bring the Palestinians to the table for the beginnings of talks to work things out and you have to start somewhere. But Netanyahu greets him warmly, and announces he’s just approved building massive new settlements in East Jerusalem – in spite of international law and UN resolutions and all the rest. He blindsides Biden. And then Netanyahu visits Washington and get the cold shoulder from the White House, which wasn’t anything substantial, just withholding the diplomatic niceties. They acted against our national interest and are endangering American troops. What did they expect?
But you get Glenn Reynolds – “Possibly Obama just hates Israel and hates Jews. That’s plausible – certainly nothing in his actions suggests otherwise, really.”
That’s a good shot, until you realize Reynolds is arguing that what’s good for Israel trumps what’s good for the United States, and he prefers it that way.
And then there is Kathryn Jean-Lopez and Rush Limbaugh:
Rush Limbaugh suggests Israel should just change its name to Iran. It’s the key to be treated well by the U.S.: No pressure, no impolite diplomatic language, no pushing it to give up land.
Matthew Yglesias suggests that’s not a very good shot:
Really? Do we have to explain to the right the difference between receiving vast US foreign aid and being on the butt end of harsh US sanctions? The difference between protecting a country at the UN from its critics and leading the charge at the UN for harsher measures? Really?
The optimistic take on the right has always been that these clowns are lying, but after the Bush years I think the default assumption has to go in the other direction. Dishonestly may be involved, of course, but you’re fundamentally looking at a batch of people who don’t know what they’re talking about or how to do anything.
Well, you could think of it as a three-point what-the-hell shot from beyond half-court when you’re losing by thirty at the final buzzer. It won’t help at all, and it’s meaningless, but if the shot drops it’s damned impressive – but meaningless.
But some on the right act like the coaches at the post-game ESPN interviews. There’s Patrick Ruffini post on the right’s healthcare failure, which seems to be a confession that when it comes to health policy, the rising stars on the right don’t know what they’re talking about:
When it comes to health care policy, conservatives have been seriously outgunned. And I say this in all fairness to the friends I have who work night and day on free market solutions to health care. On economics, you always know what the conservative answer is: tax cuts and generally hands-off regulatory policies to spur economic growth. No matter how good the Democrats’ promises sound, we return to these simple, pro-growth touch-tones that resonate with a majority of Americans who intuitively get that you can’t micromanage your way to a better future.
On health care, I have no idea what our basic guiding principle is. Seriously, I don’t.
But Yglesias says that is pure back to the eighties:
You can easily see how it was possible to stand amidst the stagflation of the late-1970s and say, “hey, maybe this tax cuts and hands-off regulatory policies idea should be given a try.” But how on earth could you live through the years 1993-2008 and come away with the opinion that if only someone would try cutting taxes and easing off on the regulation then we wouldn’t have all these problems? There’s something really, really dense about this attitude. And yet it remains the very cutting edge of conservative thinking on economics.
But Ruffini is saying this:
We have tried ineffectively to stretch free market rhetoric to health care without appreciating that health care is already too far removed from a free market for the analogy to make sense. Real markets are sensitive to price. Health care isn’t. The insurance companies hide the cost of actual care from the consumer.
Ruffini is saying his side could never win this one. But Bush’s former speechwriter, David Frum, was asked to leave the American Enterprise Institute for saying Jim DeMint was wrong, that healthcare reform wasn’t Obama’s Waterloo, it was the Republican’s, because they could have gotten a better deal had they engaged and worked with the Democrats, instead of saying no to everything, even what they themselves proposed. And Bruce Bartlett says here that AEI healthcare experts “had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.” This is all pretty odd.
And Yglesias says this is about how you deal with losing:
The most surprising thing about David Frum’s apparent parting of ways with the American Enterprise Institute is the extremely mild nature of Frum’s heterodoxy. What he’s been doing for the past week has been to primarily offer a tactical critique of congressional Republicans’ approach to health reform. And if you can’t offer a tactical critique in the wake of an unequivocal defeat, then what can you do? I don’t really expect people to welcome sharp disagreement about matters of principle, but when you adopt an approach to blocking a piece of legislation, and then the legislation doesn’t get blocked, how are you not going to engage in some spirited disagreement about what went wrong? It’s baffling.
And on the right, Edmund Andrews wonders about that:
I’d like to think that there is a group of young Turks or moderates who agree with Frum that the GOP health-care rejectionism will turn out to be the party’s Waterloo. I’d like to think that there is a new generation GOP that is ready to take a chance on constructive engagement.
But my good friend Bruce Bartlett is skeptical. Republican leaders think their strategy since the 2008 election has been a great success. If they win back House and Senate seats this fall – as they almost certainly will – they’ll argue that their strategy has been vindicated. … The moderates are disappearing faster than ever, and the ones who stay are disdained.
Yglesias is reminded of the Goldwater campaign:
I think that to understand what’s wrong with the conservative movement today, you need to think about Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign. In ’64, the GOP establishment felt that Goldwater was too radical. They said that nominating a hard-rightist like Goldwater would be counterproductive. But conservative activists worked hard, and they did it. Goldwater got the nod. And, just as the establishment predicted, Goldwater got crushed. And just as the established predicted, it proved to be counterproductive. The 1964 landslide led directly to Medicare, Medicaid, Title I education spending, and the “war on poverty.” In the 45 years since that fateful campaign, the conservative movement managed to gain total control over the Republican Party and to sporadically govern the country. But it’s only very partially rolled back one aspect of the Johnson administration’s domestic policy.
Which is just to say that the conservative movement from 1964-2009 was a giant failure. By nominating Goldwater, it invited a massive progressive win that all the subsequent conservative wins were unable to undue. But the orthodox conservative tradition of ’64 is that it was a great success that laid the groundwork for the triumphs to come.
He suggests we have a movement incapable of thinking seriously about the interests of the country, and can’t even “think rigorously about its own goals.”
Andrew Sullivan sees a more basic problem:
Once upon a time, the intellectual conservatives in this country cherished their dissidents, encouraged argument, embraced the quirky, valued the eccentric and mocked the lock-step ideological left. Now they are what they once mocked. And they have the ideological discipline of the old left.
And David Frum’s wife agrees:
We have both been part of the conservative movement for, as mentioned, the better part of half of our lives. And I can categorically state I’ve never seen such a hostile environment towards free thought and debate – once the hallmarks of Reaganism, the politics with which we grew up – prevail in our movement as it does today. The thuggish demagoguery of the Limbaughs and Becks is a trait we once derided in the old socialist Left.
Well boys, take a look in the mirror. It is us now.
And then there’s this – Stephen Colbert had Mary Matalin on his show, and Colbert pressed the über-Republican spokeswoman on the gigantic cross she was wearing, and why she wears a cross. “You know Jesus preached social justice – makes you look like a commie.” Matalin replied that Jesus “also preached, ‘Teach ‘em how to fish.’ Not give ‘em a fish, right? You don’t work you don’t eat.” That prompted Colbert to say this – “He said ‘I will make you fishers of men.’ I don’t think Jesus said ‘if you don’t work you don’t eat.’ I think that was Cool Hand Luke.”
Sometimes you cannot win for losing.
And Saturday’s big news was that the White House announced a whole bunch of new recess appointments:
Fed up with waiting, President Barack Obama announced Saturday he would bypass a vacationing Senate and name 15 people to key administration jobs….The 15 appointees to boards and agencies include the contentious choice of union lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Republicans had blocked his nomination on grounds he would bring a radical pro-union agenda to the job, and they called on Obama not to appoint Becker over the recess.
Obama went ahead anyway, while also choosing a second member for the labor board so that four of its five slots will be filled. The board, which referees labor-management disputes, has had a majority of its seats vacant for more than two years, slowing its work and raising questions about the legality of its rulings.
Kevin Drum sees this as playing hardball:
This is pretty fascinating. Years ago, after Republicans filibustered a Carter nominee to the NLRB, the two parties made a deal: the board would have three appointees from the president’s party and two from the other party. So after he took office Obama nominated two Democrats and one Republican to fill the NLRB’s three vacant seats and got support from a couple of Republicans on the HELP committee for the entire slate. But when it got to the Senate floor John McCain put a hold on Becker, and his nomination – along with the others – died.
Fast forward to today and Obama finally decides to fill the board using recess appointments. But what does he do? He only appoints the two Democrats. This is not what you do if you’re trying to make nice. It’s what you do if you’re playing hardball and you want to send a pointed message to the GOP caucus. You won’t act on my nominees? Fine. I’ll appoint my guys and then leave it up to you to round up 50 votes in the Senate for yours. Have fun.
Actually the message seems to be that if you insist this is a game – and that government isn’t about policy and filling the open positions so stuff gets done, but only about who wins and who loses – and if you insist the game is not over – let’s play it out and we’ll see who wins.
It seems it matters what you say when you lose. If you claim “you was robbed” and it just wasn’t fair, the other guy, whose team just beat the crap out of yours, might say fine, so let’s do it again. That might not be what you want. And of course what the game was all about – policy in this case – still doesn’t get done. But maybe it is all a game.