Bill Clinton did a lot of damage. He was overemotional, and even if brilliant in many ways, he was always jabbering away, talking far too much, in love with his command of detail and his awesome gift for connecting with people in a personal way and all that. You couldn’t shut him up. In fact, there was a touch of the buffoon about him – that happens when you value openness and the giddiness of big ideas and power over quiet dignity and what they used to call refinement. He was happy and enthusiastic. Clinton wasn’t big on restraint.
But he was elected president and reelected, in spite of that business with the somewhat-less-than-fetching Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent impeachment for flat-out lying about it. That didn’t matter. He was a jolly fellow and things were going well. Americans shrugged, and the Republicans seethed. When Newt Gingrich engineered the shutdown of the government in 1995 – Newt and his party wanted massive cuts to Medicare – the Republicans came off as brats throwing a tantrum. That Daily News cover summed it up – the cartoon of Newt as a screeching baby in a diaper. The wholly undignified Bubba was running things well enough, thank you very much.
And Clinton was one of the only presidents, ever, who left office with the government in the black – running a surplus, not the usual massive and incomprehensible deficit. Everything was paid for. And of course unemployment for those eight years was at record lows and real wages for everyone, not just those at the top, were at new record highs. Much of that was, of course, due to the dot-com bubble which soon burst, but Clinton for eight years had the good sense to get out of the way and let the good times roll. He was that kind of guy. And he started no big wars to reshape the world in our image. That seemed never to have occurred to him.
And the damage all this did to America is now obvious. George Bush was elected because a key question about the presidency occurred to Americans. How hard could the job be? Things had been fine under the gregarious and disheveled Bubba who’d sneak out of the White House now and then to score three or four Big Macs. We did fine. Sure George Bush was a dimwitted mean-spirited frat boy of little accomplishment, trading on his privileged status while pretending to be a cowboy – and the evangelical born-again stuff and his history of alcoholism was curious – but what harm could he really do? Why not give it a try? Gore was sanctimonious and boring, and Bush would have Dick Cheney and others around to actually run things if any crisis came up. A Bush administration would oversee the budget surplus and toss in a few new conservative policies for Bush and his father’s buddies and we’d be fine. What could go wrong?
Well, we found out what could go wrong. The surplus was soon gone with the startling enormous tax cuts for the top two percent of the population that had more money than they could count, and to win the votes of the elderly we got Medicare Part D – subsidized drugs for the old folks at whatever the pharmaceutical industry chose to charge the government, no questions asked – completely unfunded of course.
Suddenly we were in debt again – floating more and more treasury bonds that the Chinese government bought, just to cover operations. And after 9/11 we got a war with the wrong party followed by a long and difficult occupation that may never end, and Iran and North Korea building nuclear weapons and laughing at us. The Iraq war, like the one in Afghanistan, was off-budget, of course. We put all that on the tab too – everything was a Supplemental Appropriation.
And the tab grew and grew and grew – we’d make the interest payments and worry about the principle later. Yes, that sounds like a sub-prime mortgage thing. But that’s what was in the air – we’d refinance later, as no one was really going to pay off anything at all. But we’d just spent two or three trillion dollars we didn’t have. The federal deficit was back with a vengeance. But everyone knew our credit was good. And we were, after all, changing the world.
Clinton set that all up. He showed that anyone could be president, even a happy goofball from Hope, Arkansas. But it helps if that anyone enjoys the giddiness of big ideas and is a policy wonk and loves the processes of power, those odd and sometimes tricky ways you actually get things done. Instead we got the corrupted version of the concept that anyone can be president – the school of “it’s simple, really.” Bush said that a lot, when it wasn’t. And John McCain ran for president saying that a lot – end earmarks and there would be enough money to erase the deficit, drill for oil off Malibu and we’d never have to buy a drop of oil from anyone in the Middle East ever again, double-down on deregulation and let the banks and investment houses do anything they want and America will prosper, just bomb Iran and be done with it, threaten Russia with nuclear war and they’d never mess with Georgia or anyone else ever again, and end the recession by shutting down all but a few essential government services, because when a family is deep in debt they should stop spending and it’s just like that, you see. And there’s everyone’s favorite:
For all the national attention surrounding John McCain’s two highly anticipated, protest-ridden commencement speeches in New York last week, the Senator actually saved some of his best material for the crowd that gathered on Friday behind closed doors in the back of the Regency Hotel.
In a small, mirror-paneled room guarded by a Secret Service agent and packed with some of the city’s wealthiest and most influential political donors, Mr. McCain got right to the point.
“One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit,’” said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests.
It’s simple, really. It all is. Except it never is – it’s only simple to those who don’t much care for actually governing and leading, and all the detail and processes and conflicting imperatives. And remember, McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. He must not have thought governing was hard at all, as she would be a heartbeat away from the big job had he won. Many, and not just those on the left, thought his choice of Palin was madness and completely irresponsible and cynically opportunistic. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe, after the loose and undignified Clinton, he had decided anyone could do the job. Maybe he really believed that, and believes it still.
And it should be noted that Palin resigned halfway through her first term as governor of Alaska – so governing is not only so simple anyone could do it, it’s actually not really worth doing at all. It’s just boring.
And Jonathan Chait in this item considers David Frum, one of Bush’s speechwriters, who is now on the side of those who think the Republican Party has gone bonkers with this it’s-simple business. Chait frames it this way:
David Frum is going through an interesting process as a conservative apostate. He used to be a conservative in good standing. Then he hit upon the idea that the Republican Party needed, primarily for tactical reasons, to reposition itself in the center in order to be politically competitive. (I think Frum’s view on this is overstated, by the way.) This has increasingly alienated Frum from conservative figures and institutions he once trusted.
And Chait points out that now Frum is starting to write things like this:
I appeared on Larry Kudlow’s show last night and we had a bit of a tussle about how much deficit reduction could be achieved by cutting federal salaries. Larry argued that a 5-10% pay cut for federal civilian employees like that imposed by Ireland could have a major impact on the federal budget deficit. …
I had come prepared to talk about a different subject, and so didn’t have the relevant figures at hand, but I suggested that his math sounded incredible. Looking it up this morning, it IS incredible.
While I could find no single source for the total budgetary income of federal civilian pay, I did find this sophisticated calculation at this academic website. The total annual cost of all federal civilian pay and benefits can be estimated at about $260 billion. A 5% across the board pay cut would save no more than $13 billion, and in fact much less: remember, federal pay is unusually benefits-heavy.
To put it another way: even if we fired every single federal civil servant and shuttered the entire non-defense federal government, three-fourths of the budget deficit would still be with us.
Does this really come as news to Larry Kudlow, a very smart man and a former deputy to David Stockman at the Office of Management and Budget?
Frum does note that Kudlow was “greatly influenced” by this Wall Street Journal op-ed – but of course Kudlow’s show is a business show after all. And the article at the academic website is here if you want to check the numbers.
But Chait says this:
A smart man? No, this kind of basic ignorance is the staple of Kudlow’s thinking. He’s an absolute buffoon. I’m guessing Frum considers him smart because he’s never really tried to compare Kudlow’s claims to reality before – he simply trusted that Kudlow knew what he was talking about.
But you see what has happened over the last eight or more years. People say it’s simple really, and now everyone’s bias is to believe that.
It is worth saying that while any liberal will have to appreciate some elements of David Frum’s growing alienation from the conservative establishment it’s not at all clear to me that the heart of his criticism – that Republicans need to moderate in order to become electorally viable – is really true. The empirical evidence to me suggests that our default view about the relationship between ideology and electability ought to be one of nihilism – any challenger can win provided the economy is doing poorly, and any incumbent can get re-elected provided things are going alright. An important caveat to that is that our empirical data rests on the assumption that both parties are able to mount real nationwide campaigns.
I do think, however, that there are two senses in which moderation would be useful. One has to do with race. There’s obviously a lot of identity-driven voting happening, and right now African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics are both disinclined to vote Republican relative to demographically similar white Anglos. Republicans either need to increase their appeal to non-whites or else drive up increasing levels of white solidarity voting to stay viable.
The other, more important sense, is that precisely because it’s the fundamentals that matter most to campaigns, actually governing well makes a great deal of difference to political outcomes. The big problem with thinking that tax cuts cure all problems, in other words, isn’t that it’s unpopular – it’s that tax cuts do not in fact cure all problems – which makes it hard to govern effectively and avoid the sort of bad outcomes that lead to incumbent losses.
And there you have it. Actually governing well does matter.
Steve Benen puts it this way:
Whenever I write about my concerns that Republican lawmakers don’t seem to know anything about public policy, I invariably get emails pushing back. Just because GOP leaders take a different approach, doesn’t mean they’re dumb, I’m told. They must know substantive details, I’m reminded. After all, they’re experienced politicians responsible for shaping U.S. policy at the federal level.
Benen says he appreciate why his premise seems implausible, but he asks us to consider this example from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jay Bookman. Bookman and other Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editors and columnists participated in an interview with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and their own senator, Saxby Chambliss. Benen sets the stage:
Both agreed that they had serious objections to the Affordable Care Act, but said they intended to keep some provisions of the new law, including protections for those with pre-existing conditions. The individual mandate, however, would have to go, the conservative senators said.
Readers of this blog probably already recognize the problem here. If those with pre-existing conditions will be protected, the mandate is necessary to keep costs from spiraling and to prevent the “free rider” problem.
But Bookman notes the senators just don’t get it:
If you somehow tell companies they can no longer deny coverage of pre-existing conditions, you need to provide them another way to eliminate free riders. Under the new law, individual mandates are that tool. As long as everyone is required to have coverage, nobody can game the system and there’s no longer any justification to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions.
So if the GOP plan is going to ensure that pre-existing conditions are covered, as Chambliss and McConnell suggested, how would they do it without individual mandates? What mechanism would they use?
Chambliss and McConnell had no answer. Literally.
After Chambliss fumbled an initial response, McConnell broke in with a long and familiar condemnation of the Democratic plan, including its failure to include tort reform. After a few minutes, I interrupted and brought him back to the question: OK, but how are the Republicans going to cover pre-existing conditions?
“The premiums are going up either way,” he said.
OK, I responded, a little stunned. That doesn’t explain how the Republicans intend to cover pre-existing conditions.
“The premiums are going up either way,” he repeated.
That was that. We moved on, and I still don’t have my answer.
Benen adds this:
Let’s be clear about this. After over a year of debate about health care policy, two leading Senate Republicans, including the Senate Minority Leader, can’t speak intelligently about the basics. Bookman didn’t throw a curve ball at them, quizzing them on some obscure provision – this was an easy one for anyone with a basic understanding of what policymakers have been discussing since early last year.
They want protections for those with pre-existing conditions, and want to eliminate the mandate, but asked how that could work these experienced senators have no idea how to even begin answering the question.
They have their talking points, but if anyone dares to scratch the surface, even a little, they’re completely lost.
Anyone who thinks Republican lawmakers are well-informed, thoughtful public officials, with a working knowledge of public policy, simply isn’t paying attention.
But they have that Clinton-induced Bush Bias. It has to be simple, because it’s supposed to be simple, and Americans want simple, and expect it. This is the same sort of thing Frum ran into with Kudlow.
And then there’s our new nuclear policy. Former half-term governor Sarah Palin described the administration’s nuclear policy this way – “It’s kinda like getting out there on a playground, a bunch of kids, getting ready to fight, and one of the kids saying, ‘Go ahead, punch me in the face and I’m not going to retaliate.’” That’s simple. And Fox News anchor/activist Megyn Kelly believes the new policy may leave the United States “defenseless.” And former mayor Rudy Giuliani believes the president want us to “all hold hands, sing songs, and have peace symbols.”
They have it wrong, as explained in detail here – and military leaders, policy experts and just about anyone who knows anything about the subject have made it clear that the these arguments, if that is what they are, have no foundation in reality. But they want to keep it simple. And if they do, Obama is going DOWN. America likes simple.
But see this Reuters item:
President Barack Obama on Thursday made clear he was not going to take advice from Republican Sarah Palin when it comes to decisions about the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Palin, the former vice presidential candidate, has not been shy about criticizing Obama’s policies and this week weighed in on his revamped nuclear strategy, saying it was like a child in a playground who says ‘punch me in the face, I’m not going to retaliate.’
“I really have no response to that. The last I checked, Sarah Palin is not much of an expert on nuclear issues,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News.
If you want to make things simple, two can play that game:
Pressed further on Republican criticism that his strategy restricts the use of nuclear weapons too much, Obama added:
“What I would say to them is, is that if the secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff are comfortable with it, I’m probably going to take my advice from them and not from Sarah Palin.”
Of course Fox News and everyone on the right love this. Palin and the rest said it’s simple, really. Obama said it isn’t. They feel they can win that one. It has to be simple, because it’s supposed to be simple, and Americans want simple, and expect it. Obama loses.
And Michael J. W. Stickings describes the nature of the essential simplicity in this item:
Obama’s decision reflects a genuinely civilized understanding of the world and of America’s place in it. You see, it’s conservatives who think the world is a Hobbesian playground full of moral toddlers in which all that matters is brute force and the imposition of brute force on others, the use and abuse of those who are weaker. In this world, what you want to do, apparently, is strut around with your weapons on full display, smacking down, if not totally annihilating, anyone who gets in your way. This, of course, is the conservative view not just of international relations but of capitalism as well. …
For his part, Obama isn’t saying that the U.S. will never retaliate, never use force at all. This is Palin’s lie, and a vicious one that conservatives are spreading. Indeed, it is ridiculous to suggest that Obama is a pacifist who would let himself get punched in the face. This is the man who has escalated the war in Afghanistan and who continues to direct the use of military force against terrorist targets. Moreover, his new policy allows for exceptions for rogue states like Iran and North Korea. And I suspect that if a terrorist organization, like al Qaeda, attacked the U.S., he would respond with overwhelming force. And if a state were behind the attack, he would launch a determined counter-attack that would severely cripple it.
Stickings goes on to discuss how it was simple in the Cold War, or a bit simpler, and these folks seem to be stuck there.
Or maybe they’re stuck in another way. Consider someone even more powerful and important on the right than Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the new Forbes profile of him:
With a deadpan, Beck insists that he is not political: “I could give a flying crap about the political process.” Making money, on the other hand, is to be taken very seriously, and controversy is its own coinage. “We’re an entertainment company,” Beck says. He has managed to monetize virtually everything that comes out of his mouth.
And he has made money. Beck’s Mercury Radio Arts, dubbed “Glenn Beck Inc.” by Forbes, generated thirty-two million dollars over the last year – and only two million of that total came from Fox News. The majority was the result of book sales, speaking engagements, merchandising, and Beck-related publications:
“I don’t necessarily believe that [what Beck says] is reflective of his own personal politics – I don’t even know if he has personal politics,” said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a trade magazine devoted to talk radio. “I see him as a performer.”
And there’s this item reminding us that this isn’t the first time Beck has suggested he doesn’t much care for actual policy and governing and all that boring stuff. He has described himself as “a rodeo clown” and conceded, “If you take what I say as gospel, you’re an idiot.”
Well, maybe, way back when, the causal and happy Bill Clinton should not have made governing look so easy and so much fun, and then left the country in good shape. Actually governing well is harder than it looks, and not everyone can do it well, if at all. See George Bush, above.
And now many think it doesn’t even need to be done. Sarah Palin simply quit – she said she could get more done just being all dynamic in public. Perhaps Bill Clinton needs to speak up and explain things, and undo the damage.