Sailing on Defiance

Our Navy has never been all that systematic about naming ships. When we fought the Japanese in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, the aircraft carriers were the Hornet and the Enterprise and so on – suggestive of clever resolve and stinging power or something. But there was no real method to it – whatever sounded good would do. The giant battleships were another matter – the names all matched. They were named after states – the Iowa and the Missouri and the Wisconsin and the New Jersey and the Arizona and the others. If you fought on one of those you knew what you were fighting for. It all made sense and it still does – the Wisconsin, birthed as a floating museum at Newport News on the east coast now, is where Mitt Romney introduced America to his running mate, the Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan. Each of them bounded down the gangway steps and hopped on the nearby podium and gave what was meant to be a rousing speech. Some things are worth fighting for, although neither of them has even ten minutes of military experience – no service at all – and neither has even dabbled in what might be called foreign policy, no matter how generously far you want to stretch that term. But it doesn’t matter – they’re Republicans so they know all there is to know about war and national defense and just what the military should be doing. Holding the event at the big battleship, the Wisconsin of course, showed that. At least that was the general idea.

They had to use the old battleship, the floating museum, because the new ships are now named after politicians. Our newest aircraft carriers are the George H. W. Bush and the Ronald Reagan. There’s the Harry Truman too, and the John C. Stennis was named after the late senator from Mississippi. There’s a lot of lobbying involved, and thus these names aren’t all that inspiring. They don’t invoke big thoughts, a problem the British avoided long ago by naming their naval warships after the qualities of heroes – Courage and Resolve and Resolution and Defiance and on and on. It’s tradition and it’s a system. In fact, since 1588 there have been twelve ships named HMS Defiance. There has never been an HMS Flatulence and Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore was an inside joke on the whole naming business. There will never be an HMS Tony Blair, or an HMS Mick Jagger for that matter. The Brits do know what they’re doing, at least in this one matter.

Perhaps we should have followed their lead, although it’s probably too late now. Lobbyists decide everything these days. Still we are a nation that loves defiance – we started out defying the British, dumping that tea in Boston Harbor, and ended up in the sixties defying all authority, and now we have the Tea Party crowd – which is pretty much all-defiance all the time. There seems to be no end to what they want to stop from happening – from the government doing much of anything to all this stuff about how people think what science discovers is true, to America doing anything any European country does, no matter how successfully. They want none of that. They’re not going to take it anymore, whatever it is. There’s never any regret involved. They are a defiant people.

The Republicans now have a problem with that of course. As the party out of power – save for the House, which can do nothing without the agreement of the Senate and a signature from the president – they have spent almost four years being defiant, blocking everything the president had proposed, even if they once proposed the exact same thing themselves. That’s not the point. The point is to show defiance, with no regret, which they assume everyone must admire, at least on some level. And that notion somehow made them even more defiant, with the contention that Obama is tearing the country apart, by not doing what they defiantly want done.

In fact, Matthew Continetti argues here that the Obama is entirely to blame for the current poisonous partisanship:

Obama has missed opportunities to seize the ground of national unity and possibly split the GOP. He could have for example included defense funding in the stimulus bill, or decided to go back to the drawing board on health care after Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, or embraced fully the Bowles-Simpson Commission’s recommendations in January 2011. He did none of these things. What we got instead was a mobilization of the center-left coalition toward partisan ends that had been on the agenda for years and in some cases decades. What we got was an unshackled and unhinged country whose people are at each other’s throats.

Andrew Sullivan flagged that and offered this in response:

Was one-third of the stimulus as tax cuts GOP-hostile? Was a healthcare plan based on their own nominee’s exact past policy confrontational? Or a climate policy also based on a conservative principle – cap and trade? How polarizing was Obama’s vast expansion of natural gas exploration? Or withdrawing from Iraq and decimating al Qaeda? Or keeping Bush’s tax cuts extended for the vast majority?

What the current movement right fails to get (but the left understands all too well) is that Obama is a moderate Republican president, and the polarization of the past three years has been a function almost entirely of the GOP’s decision from 2008 on to oppose, obstruct and destroy a presidency that represented – and still represents – a massive rebuke to their extremism and failure this past decade.

They have responded by becoming an ultra-rightist, populist, revolutionary party, rather than a conservative one. Whatever its roots, it’s the reason we are so far apart. Obama’s moderate, pragmatic presidency isn’t.

Sullivan dismisses the Continetti item as one of those “dispatches from an alternative universe” – but that’s the universe of defiance. It’s an odd place, and now the Republicans are finding out just how odd it is:

In an effort to explain his stance on abortion, Representative Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee from Missouri, provoked ire across the political spectrum on Sunday by saying that in instances of what he called “legitimate rape,” women’s bodies somehow blocked an unwanted pregnancy.

Asked in an interview on a St. Louis television station about his views on abortion, Mr. Akin, a six-term member of Congress who is backed by Tea Party conservatives, made it clear that his opposition to the practice was nearly absolute, even in instances of rape.

“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Mr. Akin said of pregnancies from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

Yes, Akin differentiates between “legitimate” rape and, perhaps, some sort of fake rape – where the woman really wanted it, or perhaps she wore provocative clothing, not a burqa or something. Or maybe he meant something else. He didn’t say, at least in this interview. But he was sure that science shows that when a woman is raped – when she really doesn’t like it – she cannot possibly get pregnant. Her body won’t allow it, almost all the time. If she’s a loose woman things are different.

Akin later tried to walk this back, a bit, but the whole thing was a little too defiant. See Sean Hannity Calls On Akin To Leave Senate Race and Mitt Romney On Akin: ‘We Can’t Defend Him’ and Tea Party Express: Akin ‘Should Step Down’ and National Review Calls On Todd Akin To Quit and Republican Infrastructure Abandons Akin – they all want him gone, now.

Akin is a special problem. Many in the party, including Paul Ryan, want to make abortion in the case of rape or incest impossible to obtain – there’s a long history of that on the right, which is a legitimate if somewhat severe pro-life position. But the “science” here was absurd, and the “she asked for it” element was pointlessly cruel, and quite stupid, politically. Women vote too and the Republicans would like to win this Missouri seat. So Romney and Ryan now like the exception for rape – or say they do. The party may have lived and breathed defiance for the last four years, saying wild things with no regret at all, but they unleashed a monster. Todd Akin is one of its spawn.

And he has no regrets. See Akin Finds Defenders among Pro-Life Groups and Todd Akin Launches ‘I’m Not Quitting’ Ad Campaign – he may be defiant and stay.

Now the Republicans really are in trouble. But this is what the party created, and Talking Points Memo offers Todd Akin’s Greatest Hits – a long list of pure defiance, of most everything. Akin wants to get rid of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the states should be allowed to decide if blacks or gays or women should be allowed to vote or some such thing. There’s much more – hot pure defiance that the party encouraged for years, but then grew into something a little too pure.

That had to happen. The Tea Party loves defiance, and certainly loves those who never regret anything they say. Maybe that is a heroic quality. But you can’t just say anything that crosses your mind – that confuses the admirable character trait with the sometimes odd idea being presented in its display. Someone who is willing to fight to the death for the right to wear plaid boxer-shorts on alternate Thursdays may not be the hero you want. Akin may be one of those.

And the underlying problem is worse. This is a diversion, as everyone seems to agree that every day the talk is not about the economy, and how Obama hasn’t fixed it up all shiny and new yet, is another day Romney loses. This was supposed to be an election about the economy and how to fix it, not about abortion, or about how women are either shameless sluts or pure and helpless and somewhat dim flighty children. Team Romney is having a hard time shining the spotlight in what they think is the right place – and the folks on their own side are making it even harder.

Heck, the Obama folks even tried to help them out with that. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein offers a long and carefully-sourced article on how the Obama team worked for years to make sure Romney picked Paul Ryan to run with him:

In 2008, Ryan released the first version of his budget, the “Roadmap for America’s Future.” So while Obama and the Democrats in 2009 were pushing big plans to stimulate the economy and reshape the health-care system, Republicans had a big plan of their own all ready to go.

But as Ryan Lizza recounted in the New Yorker, Republican leaders “wanted nothing to do with his Roadmap.” Their theory was that Obama’s agenda was rapidly becoming unpopular, and the smart strategy was to attack, attack, attack. The dumbest thing they could do would be to release a grand bit of, shall we say, “right-wing social engineering” that promised to privatize Social Security, voucherize Medicare and block grant Medicaid while eliminating the capital gains tax, ending the tax deductibility of employer-based health insurance – and more.

The Obama team made the same strategic assessment, which is why as Obama’s poll numbers dropped they did everything in their power to publicize Ryan and his budget. In January 2010, Obama spoke at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore, where he couldn’t stop talking up that Paul Ryan guy.

“You study this stuff and take it pretty seriously,” he said to Ryan. “I think Paul, for example, head of the Budget Committee, has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal,” he said to Rep. Jeb Hensarling. He even gave Ryan personal compliments. “The problem we have sometimes is a media that responds only to slash-and-burn-style politics. You don’t get a lot of credit if I say, ‘You know, I think Paul Ryan’s a pretty sincere guy and has a beautiful family.'” It was a lovefest.

But it quickly became something else. A few days later, Obama’s then-budget director (and current Bloomberg View columnist) Peter Orszag dismantled Ryan’s budget at a news conference. That set the tenor for the next year, during which administration aides continued trying to raise Ryan’s profile and establish his budget as the Republican alternative – all so they could destroy it.

It was all a set-up, which could backfire:

The Obama team never could have predicted that its efforts would help vault Ryan into the nomination for vice president. The difference between what they reasonably hoped a strategy like this could achieve and what it actually achieved is attributable to Ryan, who has proven a tremendously skilled politician – so skilled, in fact, that he’s convinced many Republicans that the fight Obama wants is the fight they should want, too. Many of them share House Whip Kevin McCarthy’s view. “It’s not so smart to raise [Ryan] up by picking him as an enemy,” he told Draper. “If he picks a budget fight with Paul, Paul will beat him.”

The White House, obviously, disagrees. The result, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, is that the Obama administration knew the fight they wanted, and now they’re going to get it good and hard.

It seems the White House knew that Obama needed to seem heroically defiant – people like that sort of thing, especially these days. But damn it, there wasn’t anything handy lying about to be defiant about. All there was seemed to be was Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” budget plan – a plan that made even his fellow Republicans yawn. So they systematically made Ryan the hero of the right, and the Republicans fell for it. They get to defiantly defend this plan – that had bored them and didn’t seem all that clear – and Obama gets to defiantly oppose a plan, which is, as Paul Krugman notes, quite odd:

So if we add up Mr. Ryan’s specific proposals, we have $4.3 trillion in tax cuts, partially offset by around $1.7 trillion in spending cuts – with the tax cuts, surprise, disproportionately benefiting the top 1 percent, while the spending cuts would primarily come at the expense of low-income families. Over all, the effect would be to increase the deficit by around two and a half trillion dollars.

Yet Mr. Ryan claims to be a deficit hawk. What’s the basis for that claim?

Well, he says that he would offset his tax cuts by “base broadening,” eliminating enough tax deductions to make up the lost revenue. Which deductions would he eliminate? He refuses to say — and realistically, revenue gain on the scale he claims would be virtually impossible.

At the same time, he asserts that he would make huge further cuts in spending. What would he cut? He refuses to say.

What Mr. Ryan actually offers, then, are specific proposals that would sharply increase the deficit, plus an assertion that he has secret tax and spending plans that he refuses to share with us, but which will turn his overall plan into deficit reduction?

If this sounds like a joke, that’s because it is. Yet Mr. Ryan’s “plan” has been treated with great respect in Washington. He even received an award for fiscal responsibility from three of the leading deficit-scold pressure groups. What’s going on?

Krugman suggests this is a triumph of style over substance, but maybe it was just a set-up all along. The Obama folks said my, my, my – that Ryan fellow is someone everyone should take very seriously. The Republicans scratched their head and said they guessed so, and the rest is history.

Andrew Sullivan sees it somewhat differently:

I don’t share some Obama-supporters’ contempt for Paul Ryan. That’s in part because he comes across as a sincere, decent, fine fellow – whose Randian worldview has produced a reformist zeal known most intimately to an adolescent male. Indeed, he reminds me most of all of myself in my teens – dreaming of how to cut government in half, relishing schemes to slash taxes and slash spending and unleash revolutionary growth which, in itself, would render all other problems more manageable. There is no libertarian quite as convinced as a teenage libertarian. And it’s the adolescent conviction of Ryan that shines so brightly.

It’s adolescent defiance:

One can call it courage or arrested development. But he is, in some ways, a pellucidly bright plant bred in the conservative movement’s hydroponic greenhouse. Barely exposed to natural light, these young fertile saplings are fed with a constant drip of Koch money, sprayed with anti-liberal pesticides and brought eventually into the political marketplace with joyful children, a lovely wife and a set of abs Aaron Schock would die for (and probably has). He has no life or experience outside the greenhouse – which is why he glows with its certainties. Most important, he has that quintessential characteristic of the modern conservative – total denial of the recent past. Ryan was instrumental and supportive of the most fiscally reckless administration in modern times. He gave us a massive new unfunded entitlement, two off-budget wars and was key to ensuring that the Bowles-Simpson plan was dead-on-arrival. This alleged fire-fighter – whose credentials are perceived as impeccable in Washington – just quit being an arsonist.

All of Ryan’s defiance was nonsense:

No, he is not a serious fiscal conservative. Not even close. In 2012, decades after supply-side economics was proven not to add more revenues than it gave back, Ryan is still a true-believer. His view is that if you cut taxes massively, you will decrease the debt. But this is the primary reason we currently have the massive debt that began its ascent under Reagan, was arrested by Bush and Clinton and then exploded under Bush and Ryan. Worse, Ryan believes that you can cut taxes drastically, increase defense spending massively and still cut the debt. This, to put it mildly, is Zombie-Reaganomics. Tax rates are already far lower than they were in 1980 – and can’t be cut still further and have the same impact. Besides, our problem right now is obviously lack of demand, rather than enervated supply. Companies are sitting on piles of cash. Interest rates are very, very low. And yet we struggle under a debt burden Ryan would immediately drastically increase, with a promise to get to a balanced budget somewhere near the middle of the century. It makes zero sense to me.

And now his party is stuck with this nonsense:

On the Republican side, we now have a debt-reduction plan that actually cuts tax rates for the very rich along with everyone else, vastly increases defense spending, and “balances” the entire thing on gutting care for the old, the poor and the sick (the Medicaid proposal is truly Darwinian) and ending loopholes (which Ryan refuses to specify). I’m all for ending loopholes but even then, we wouldn’t get a balanced budget for three decades because of all the defense spending and tax cutting.

This isn’t conservatism. It’s rightist theology. In a fiscal emergency, the Republicans are proposing not clear remedies but ideological fantasies that were already disproven in 1990. They have learned nothing. And the immense damage they inflicted on this country’s fiscal health in the last decade would be nothing compared to what would come under a Ryan-Romney administration.

But they are defiant about all this. That should count for something, right? They have no regrets about gutting care for the old, the poor and the sick.

Heroes regret nothing. On the other hand, neither do sociopaths. It seems that defiance don’t matter as much as what you’re actually being defiant about, and the Republicans should have learned that by now. They’re learning that in Missouri.

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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.
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