Blame the Republicans, Or At Least Some of Them

Ah, in a little more than a month Medicare kicks in, freeing up almost eight hundred dollars a month, so should some young starlet here in Hollywood jump the curb in her Bentley and inflict grave bodily harm, well, there will still be coverage for the doctors to do some basic repairs, or remove a few things, no matter what her insurance company says – if she has insurance. Those young starlets are a bit flighty. But pipe-smoking retired English teachers probably shouldn’t be living in Hollywood anyway. It’s the land of the young crazed by the notion of fame, deeply invested in the latest mutations in pop culture. And one does tend to lose touch. On the way to the grocery store there’s Nickelodeon on Sunset, the studio with the giant billboards of wholesome young folks in their early teens. Who are those people? What are those shows? It’s a mystery. And here at the cool retro apartment building just off the Sunset Strip there are all those young folk – who seem to come for fame and are gone in a few months – down at the pool reading scripts, or pretending to, or reading Rolling Stone.

Yes, that magazine is still around, but since the sixties, all the featured artists in the articles have changed – no Bob Dylan or Judy Collins – and the music has changed too. Who are these people? Should one know all about them? Any copy left by the pool might as well be a Latvian agricultural journal – it seems utterly foreign. But Rolling Stone does have its moments. The acerbic economic reporter Matt Taibbi writes for them – bold and insightful and always on fire about something outrageous. The pretty people at the pool probably skip his stuff. And they probably skipped Rolling Stone’s latest interview with President Obama – no doubt an exercise in product placement, to snag the youth vote again, if he can, on the off-chance that any of them will actually vote. One can hope, and these folks sure aren’t going to vote for Mitt Romney. Rolling Stone has interviewed Obama before. Mitt is out of luck with this crowd.

But the interview is pretty boring:

Given all we’ve heard about and learned during the GOP primaries, what’s your take on the state of the Republican Party, and what do you think they stand for?

This was a softball question, giving Obama a chance to be all way-cool and snarky, but the odd thing is that he moved into his usual reasonable and conciliatory mode, always finding a way to give the other guy the benefit of the doubt, as the other guys probably mean well:

First of all, I think it’s important to distinguish between Republican politicians and people around the country who consider themselves Republicans. I don’t think there’s been a huge change in the country. If you talk to a lot of Republicans, they’d like to see us balance the budget, but in a balanced way. …

But what’s happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream - and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts.

Ah, Republicans are really good people, being represented by some very odd folks:

I said recently that Ronald Reagan couldn’t get through a Republican primary today, and I genuinely think that’s true. You have every candidate onstage during one of the primary debates rejecting a deficit-reduction plan that involved $10 in cuts for every $1 of revenue increases. You have a Republican front-runner who rejects the Dream Act, which would help young people who, through no fault of their own, are undocumented, but who have, for all intents and purposes, been raised as Americans. You’ve got a Republican Congress whose centerpiece, when it comes to economic development, is getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency. …

I think it’s fair to say that this has become the way that the Republican political class and activists define themselves.

But that’s the Republican political class and activists – not the real Republicans – not the good and sensible folks.

Yeah, he’s good – although the forum he chose for this was odd, as it’s unlikely even a few unhappy Republicans out there in the heartland are reading Rolling Stone. Still, in Grit, David Roberts thinks Obama may be onto something, as this is a chance to create effective wedge issues:

Obama’s contention is that the GOP political class and activist base have worked themselves into a blind ideological fury, but most people who identify as Republican do not share their rigidity. They are more likely to lean in the direction of Independents and moderates.

If this is true it identifies a political vulnerability. Democrats ought to be able to exploit the differences between the masses and the ideologues, to set them at odds with one another.

I’m not sure how many genuine “wedge issues” there are, actually, but one that shows up in the polls over and over again is clean energy. As I wrote back in January, clean energy is a wedge issue that favors Democrats.

And Roberts is off on his discussion of clean energy, if that sort of thing excites you. But Kevin Drum agrees with Roberts:

Lots of conservatives may very well be true believers who inhale Drudge and Rush and Fox News – but lots of them aren’t. They’re just ordinary, non-fire-breathing folks who happen to be a little more conservative than me. This presents an opportunity for liberals…

But given what he sees around him, Drum is given to sudden fits of despair:

It seems like every time I turn around I’m confronted by growing extremism. The Catholic Church is, increasingly, little more than an angry collection of reactionary old men who hate the modern world. The Republican Party is a refuge for bright-eyed true believers intent on tearing down the modern state. The state of Israel, unable to break the grip of its most expansionist zealots, is busily wreaking its own destruction and doing its best to drag us along with them. Large swaths of the Muslim world remain captured by the fever dreams of its most radical factions.

Unfortunately, none of this seems to be crashing and burning. Not yet, anyway. So when does the wave finally crest and start to break?

When do people get fed up with extremist nonsense, finally? What will it take for that to happen? Obama seem to think that, at some point, ordinary good and decent Republicans will tell the leaders of their party to just shut up and sit down. And now there’s some literature on that, the new book It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism – from Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein.

And they’re an odd couple as Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution:

Brookings traces its history back to 1916 and has contributed to the creation of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, and the Congressional Budget Office, as well as influenced policies of deregulation, broad-based tax reform, welfare reform, and foreign aid. It is ranked the number one think tank in the U.S. in the annual think tank index published by Foreign Policy. Of the 200 most prominent think tanks in the U.S., the Brookings Institution’s research is the most widely cited by the media.

Consider it center-left. And Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute:

AEI is the most prominent think tank associated with American neoconservatism, in both the domestic and international policy arenas. Irving Kristol, widely considered a father of neoconservatism, was a senior fellow at AEI (arriving from the Congress for Cultural Freedom following the widespread revelation of the group’s CIA funding) and many prominent neoconservatives spent the bulk of their careers at AEI. However, AEI is not officially neoconservative. AEI resident scholar Norman J. Ornstein, a centrist liberal, criticizes commentators who label him a “neocon” …

Consider that pretty far right, with an occasional flash of common sense now and then.

But Mann and Ornstein agree on one thing – Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem – an array of the key points from their new book, published in the Washington Post the week before the book’s release:

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

Obama couldn’t say that, but they can, and it dovetails nicely with what Chris Mooney offers in his new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality which Mooney summarizes here:

As a young journalist on the political left, I often heeded this well-worn advice. If conservatives were denying the science of global warming I figured big fossil-fuel companies must be behind it. After all, that was the story with the tobacco industry and the dangers of smoking. Why not here?

And so I covered the attacks on the established scientific knowledge on climate change, evolution and many more issues as a kind of search for the wealthy bad guys behind the curtain. Like many in Washington, I tended to assume that political differences are either about contrasting philosophies or, more cynically, about money and special interests.

There’s just one problem: Mounting scientific evidence suggests that this is a pretty limited way of understanding what divides us.

So here’s the puzzle, and a possible solution:

Liberals and conservatives have access to the same information, yet they hold wildly incompatible views on issues ranging from global warming to whether the president was born in the United States to whether his stimulus package created any jobs. But it’s not just that: Partisanship creates stunning intellectual contortions and inconsistencies. Republicans today can denounce a health-care reform plan that’s pretty similar to one passed in Massachusetts by a Republican – and the only apparent reason is that this one came from a Democrat.

None of these things make sense – unless you view them through the lens of political psychology. There’s now a large body of evidence showing that those who opt for the political left and those who opt for the political right tend to process information in divergent ways and to differ on any number of psychological traits.

And after a review of the current research, Mooney offers this:

Perhaps most important, liberals consistently score higher on a personality measure called “openness to experience,” one of the “Big Five” personality traits, which are easily assessed through standard questionnaires. That means liberals tend to be the kind of people who want to try new things, including new music, books, restaurants and vacation spots – and new ideas.

“Open people everywhere tend to have more liberal values,” said psychologist Robert McCrae, who conducted voluminous studies on personality while at the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health.

Conservatives, in contrast, tend to be less open – less exploratory, less in need of change – and more “conscientious,” a trait that indicates they appreciate order and structure in their lives. This gels nicely with the standard definition of conservatism as resistance to change – in the famous words of William F. Buckley Jr., a desire to stand “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’”

But Mooney doesn’t mean this as a put-down. It’s just that some folks have a “need for cognitive closure” in their lives:

This describes discomfort with uncertainty and a desire to resolve it into a firm belief. Someone with a high need for closure tends to seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or ambiguity, and then freeze, refusing to consider new information. Those who have this trait can also be expected to spend less time processing information than those who are driven by different motivations, such as achieving accuracy.

And the studies show that conservatives “tend to have a greater need for closure than do liberals” – so we need to accept that:

Anti-evolutionists have been found to score higher on the need for closure. And in the global-warming debate, Tea Party followers not only strongly deny the science but also tend to say that they “do not need any more information” about the issue.

I’m not saying that liberals have a monopoly on truth. Of course not. They aren’t always right; but when they’re wrong, they are wrong differently.

So you’re going to get a world where there is no truth that all of us agree is the truth:

We wield different facts, and hold them close, because we truly experience things differently. … Does the health-care reform law contain “death panels”? Did the stimulus package create any jobs? Even American history is up for debate: Did the founders intend this to be a Christian nation?

Of course you can’t discount reality forever. But we are where we are.

And Mann and Ornstein don’t like it much:

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.

It is clear that the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right. Its once legendary moderate and center-right legislators in the House and the Senate – think Bob Michel, Mickey Edwards, John Danforth, Chuck Hagel – are virtually extinct.

The post-McGovern Democratic Party, by contrast, while losing the bulk of its conservative Dixiecrat contingent in the decades after the civil rights revolution, has retained a more diverse base. Since the Clinton presidency, it has hewed to the center-left on issues from welfare reform to fiscal policy. While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.

What happened? Mann and Ornstein don’t blame the good and decent Republicans Obama imagined, or really may exist perhaps, they blame Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist:

From the day he entered Congress in 1979, Gingrich had a strategy to create a Republican majority in the House: convincing voters that the institution was so corrupt that anyone would be better than the incumbents, especially those in the Democratic majority. It took him 16 years, but by bringing ethics charges against Democratic leaders; provoking them into overreactions that enraged Republicans and united them to vote against Democratic initiatives; exploiting scandals to create even more public disgust with politicians; and then recruiting GOP candidates around the country to run against Washington, Democrats and Congress, Gingrich accomplished his goal.

Ironically, after becoming speaker, Gingrich wanted to enhance Congress’s reputation and was content to compromise with President Bill Clinton when it served his interests. But the forces Gingrich unleashed destroyed whatever comity existed across party lines, activated an extreme and virulently anti-Washington base – most recently represented by tea party activists – and helped drive moderate Republicans out of Congress. (Some of his progeny, elected in the early 1990s, moved to the Senate and polarized its culture in the same way.)

And there’s the other guy:

Norquist, meanwhile, founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 and rolled out his Taxpayer Protection Pledge the following year. The pledge, which binds its signers to never support a tax increase (that includes closing tax loopholes), had been signed as of last year by 238 of the 242 House Republicans and 41 of the 47 GOP senators, according to ATR. The Norquist tax pledge has led to other pledges – on issues such as climate change – that create additional litmus tests that box in moderates and make cross-party coalitions nearly impossible. For Republicans concerned about a primary challenge from the right, the failure to sign such pledges is simply too risky.

So now it’s no compromise on anything, ever:

In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.

In the third and now fourth years of the Obama presidency, divided government has produced something closer to complete gridlock than we have ever seen in our time in Washington, with partisan divides even leading last year to America’s first credit downgrade.

Yes, the downgrade was not based on the debt-load so much as it was an assessment that the government was now pretty much unable to decide anything – we were lucky the issue of paying our debts even came up for a vote. And they suggest Mooney was right:

Republicans often dismiss nonpartisan analyses of the nature of problems and the impact of policies when those assessments don’t fit their ideology. In the face of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, the party’s leaders and their outside acolytes insisted on obeisance to a supply-side view of economic growth – thus fulfilling Norquist’s pledge – while ignoring contrary considerations.

The results can border on the absurd: In early 2009, several of the eight Republican co-sponsors of a bipartisan health-care reform plan dropped their support; by early 2010, the others had turned on their own proposal so that there would be zero GOP backing for any bill that came within a mile of Obama’s reform initiative.

Yes, they often voted against their own legislation, because Obama had looked at it and it seemed fine to him:

And seven Republican co-sponsors of a Senate resolution to create a debt-reduction panel voted in January 2010 against their own resolution, solely to keep it from getting to the 60-vote threshold Republicans demanded and thus denying the president a seeming victory.

Mann and Ornstein want to be clear, that there’s only one party responsible for this mess:

Democrats are hardly blameless, and they have their own extreme wing and their own predilection for hardball politics. But these tendencies do not routinely veer outside the normal bounds of robust politics. If anything, under the presidencies of Clinton and Obama, the Democrats have become more of a status-quo party. They are centrist protectors of government, reluctantly willing to revamp programs and trim retirement and health benefits to maintain its central commitments in the face of fiscal pressures.

No doubt, Democrats were not exactly warm and fuzzy toward George W. Bush during his presidency. But recall that they worked hand in glove with the Republican president on the No Child Left Behind Act, provided crucial votes in the Senate for his tax cuts, joined with Republicans for all the steps taken after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and supplied the key votes for the Bush administration’s financial bailout at the height of the economic crisis in 2008. The difference is striking.

So blame the Republicans, and blame the press for telling us to take them seriously:

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, and at what risks and to what ends? …

Look ahead to the likely consequences of voters’ choices in the November elections. How would the candidates govern? What could they accomplish? What differences can people expect from a unified Republican or Democratic government, or one divided between the parties?

On the other hand, the voters will be the ones who decide things:

If they can punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents, then an insurgent outlier party will have some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.

It’s probably a safe bet on things getting worse before they get better. Mann and Ornstein do agree with Obama – there are good folks out there, conservative folks who don’t agree with him, but also want to get things done, one way or the other – they’ll show up and we’ll get back on track.

And pigs will fly. No one really reads Rolling Stone.

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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 Compromise, Fair and Balanced, Obama the Pragmatist, Political Deadlock, Political Polarization, Political Purity, Republican Denial of Reality and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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