The Core of What Went Wrong

The last Thursday evening of a strange year and the news is dismal, without even a good disaster to liven things up – and Hollywood is quiet too. All the celebrities are in Paris or the Caribbean, so no sweet young thing is getting arrested down the street or anything like that. The action is elsewhere, and the political action, back east in Washington, isn’t action at all. It seems we are going over that fiscal cliff, as everyone is dug into positions they won’t abandon. Midnight at the end of the year will come and go, and the next day, taxes will go way up, stalling the economy, and all the massive automatic spending cuts will start to kick in, additionally stalling the economy, and at least two million people will lose their long-term unemployment benefits immediately, so they won’t be buying a damned thing, also stalling the economy. It’s going to happen.

Obama, who had cut his Christmas vacation short to fly back and try one more time to work things out, will meet with Congressional leaders on Friday, and House Republicans called their folks back for a Sunday evening session, but no one thinks much will come of it all. John Boehner can’t get his folks in the House to vote for anything he proposes to counter Obama, no matter how much it favors the rich and hammers the poor and middle class. The Republican majority there can’t even agree with each other. In the Senate, where the Democrats have the majority, Harry Reid can’t get anything passed. The minority Republicans can filibuster anything he tries, and you do need sixty votes to end a filibuster and allow a floor vote. Reid has the majority, but not sixty votes, so it all comes down to the minority leader there, Mitch McConnell – and he has vowed to do nothing. After all, the president poisoned the well, so to speak, as Kevin Drum explains:

The president overreached! He spent an entire year campaigning on letting tax rates go up modestly on the rich, and then, after winning a convincing victory in November he insisted on… letting tax rates go up modestly on the rich. In GOP-land, that constitutes “poisoning the well” and it will now become the official excuse for another four years of bitter obstruction and spittle-flecked conspiracy theories.

Drum has all the details – as if it matters – and then there’s this:

Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips on Thursday disputed that President Obama claimed a mandate in November’s election, arguing that his re-election victory came over “the worst candidate in history in Mitt Romney.”

“You know, Obama ran on the fact he was going to raise taxes, the Republicans put up the worst candidate in history in Mitt Romney, yet Obama allegedly has this mandate,” Phillips said during an appearance on MSNBC. “Well, why did Republicans keep the House if Obama has this great mandate? People don’t want their taxes going up. What people do want is spending cuts.”

Judson Phillips makes an assumption there. Yes, no one wants their taxes to go up, but people do want their Social Security checks and their Medicare coverage, and that must be paid for. If forced to choose between the one or the other, they’ll choose their Social Security checks and Medicare coverage, and urge that the very wealthy, who made it big in this our country, chip in a bit more – at least what they used to chip in before Bush made life really easy for them. That’s what the election was about after all, and what all the polling shows. Yes, Mitt Romney was a lame candidate, but neither Newt Gingrich nor Rick Santorum nor Herman Cain would have done any better.

Actually, they would have done worse. There’s much to be said for a candidate who at least isn’t a clown. The party ran the best choice they had available. It’s just that once Obama defined the options – letting tax rates go up modestly on the rich to get the economy back on track – it was all over. The angry Republicans could have dug up and run John Wayne and it would have made no difference.

That’s why Obama is now in no mood to make any more concessions to win these guys over. What’s the point? Let’s go over the cliff and then do damage control, voting to restore the tax cuts to the ninety-eight percent of us who don’t make at least a quarter million dollars a year, and then have an up-or-down vote in both houses on giving the top two percent their Bush-era goodies again. We’ll see how that goes. There is also the matter of restoring those long-term unemployment benefits too, and rethinking all the automatic spending cuts, and Ezra Klein also notes this:

So yes, Democrats want to raise some taxes. But so do Republicans. They want to let the payroll tax cut and the various stimulus tax credits (notably the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit) expire. Those are the tax cuts that primarily help poor and middle-class Americans. In fact, 87.8 percent of the payroll tax cut’s benefits go to taxpayers making less than $200,000 and 99.9 percent of the stimulus tax credits’ benefits go to taxpayers making less than $200,000.

They want to end all that? Let them try to pull it off. All bets are off in January. The Republicans aren’t going to look good, as something has gone terribly wrong on that side of things, as some on that side have noticed. There’s Mark McKinnon – the fellow who started as a Nashville songwriter, working with Kris Kristofferson, and then ended up a key advisor to Bush and McCain and all sorts of Republicans. Yeah, he went back to college, but now he’s upset with his party:

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the party is against everything and for nothing.

Nothing on taxes. Nothing on gun control. Nothing on climate change. Nothing on gay marriage. Nothing on immigration reform (or an incremental, piece-by-piece approach, which will result in nothing). It’s a very odd situation when the losing party is the party refusing to negotiate. It may be how you disrupt, but it is not how you govern, or how you ever hope to regain a majority.

And so, we have a Republican Party today willing to eliminate any prospect for a decent future for anyone, including itself, if it cannot be a future that is 100 percent in accordance with its core beliefs and principles. That’s not governing. That’s just lobbing hand grenades. If you’re only standing on principle to appear taller, then you appear smaller. And the GOP is shrinking daily before our eyes.

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman is on the same page:

If Republicans continue to be led around by, and live in fear of, a base that denies global warming after Hurricane Sandy and refuses to ban assault weapons after Sandy Hook – a base that would rather see every American’s taxes rise rather than increase taxes on millionaires – the party has no future. It can’t win with a base that is at war with math, physics, human biology, economics and common-sense gun laws all at the same time.

This is more than the deadlock over the fiscal cliff, and more than deadlock on each of the other issues. You could say there’s something rotten at the core here, and that’s the base of the party. In fact, Ed Kilgore reviews what he calls the big political phenomena of 2012:

The biggest was the decision made the Republican Party’s rank-and-file and leadership to embrace an unusually inflexible and combative conservative ideology as it sought to topple an incumbent Democratic president and regain control of the Senate. In my opinion, this counterintuitive approach had more to do with the ultimate results than any other single factor, including the Obama campaign’s great strengths and Mitt Romney’s personal weaknesses, and the thousands of daily events on the campaign trail we all talked about. The only thing that perhaps rivaled the unforced error of the GOP’s basic messaging was the steady if unspectacular improvement in the objective condition of the country – from the economy to national security to the first positive benefits of Obamacare – which made it easier for Democrats to make the election a clear choice of future policy paths.

His point is that it didn’t have to be that way:

In Mitt Romney the GOP had a presidential nominee who would have been perfectly happy to campaign as a different version of himself, among the many versions he has presented over the years. Republicans did not have to choose a list of Senate candidates so bad – many either open extremists or former “establishment” GOPers afraid to risk conservative criticism – that they managed to lose seats in a cycle when big gains should have been relatively easy. The party’s dreadful performance among younger and minority voters was largely self-inflicted. Nobody made them raise reproductive rights as an issue, particularly in a year when their own pundits and candidates constantly insisted – as though mumbling to themselves – that “social issues” were off the table.

Ah, but they did just that:

There they were, as prospects for winning the White House and the Senate slipped away, stuck not only with absolutist positions on abortion and LGBT rights that have become increasingly universal in recent years, but with equally absolutist and unpopular positions on tax rates for the wealthy, economic stimulus, health care, climate change, and “entitlement reform.” By the time Romney tried to pose as a “moderate” in the autumn, praying for media complicity in presenting yet another dishonest self-portrait, it was too late. …

This is all worth reiterating because there are scarce signs of any Republican reconsideration of basic ideological positioning following the election. Sure, they’ll move partway back to the George W. Bush positioning on immigration – though not without savage internal dissension – and will probably shut up about marriage equality in most parts of the country. Institutions associated with the Tea Party Movement and some of its leaders may decline in popularity – not that it much matters insofar as that movement’s point of view has now been largely internalized by the “Republican Establishment” …

There won’t be “better” candidates, as things have changed, and Steve Kornacki argues here that the Tea Party really isn’t much of a movement any longer, because it has become part of the Republican mindset:

Defined as a literal movement, with an active membership pressing a specific set of demands, the Tea Party absolutely is in decline. Tea Party events have become less crowded, less visible, and less relevant to the national political conversation… the movement’s die-hards are embracing increasingly niche pet issues. The term “Tea Party” has come to feel very 2010.

But if you think of the Tea Party less as a movement and more as a mindset, it’s as strong and relevant as ever. As I wrote back in ’10, the Tea Party essentially gave a name to a phenomenon we’ve seen before in American politics – fierce, over-the-top resentment of and resistance to Democratic presidents by the right. It happened when Bill Clinton was president, it happened when Lyndon Johnson was president, it happened when John F. Kennedy was president. When a Democrat claims the White House, conservatives invariably convince themselves that he is a dangerous radical intent on destroying the country they know and love and mobilize to thwart him.

But it’s more than that:

The problem, of course, is that the Tea Party’s power resides in Republican primaries, where conservative purists wreaked considerable havoc in the past two election cycles. This included, famously, Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, where the minority leader’s protégé was crushed in a 2010 GOP Senate primary by Rand Paul. Now McConnell has to worry about suffering a similar fate in two years, especially if his handling of the current fiscal impasse evokes cries of treason from the base. How could this square with claims of fading clout for the Tea Party?

The Tea Party is stronger than ever. They triumphed, really, but in an odd way:

The twist in the Obama-era is that some of the conservative backlash has been directed inward. This is because the right needed a way to explain how a far-left anti-American ideologue like Obama could have won 53 percent of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes in 2008. What they settled on was an indictment of George W. Bush’s big government conservatism; the idea, basically, was that Bush had given their movement a bad name with his big spending and massive deficits, angering the masses and rendering them vulnerable to Obama’s deceptive charms. And the problem hadn’t just been Bush – it had been every Republican in office who’d abided his expansion of government, his deals with Democrats, his Wall Street bailout and all the rest.

Thus did the Tea Party movement represent a two-front war – one a conventional one against the Democratic president, and the other a new one against any “impure” Republicans. Besides a far-right ideology, the trait shared by most of the Tea Party candidates who have won high-profile primaries these past few years has been distance from what is perceived as the GOP establishment. Whether they identify with the Tea Party or not, conservative leaders, activists and voters have placed a real premium on ideological rigidity and outsider status; there’s no bigger sin than going to Washington and giving ground, even just an inch, to the Democrats.

These folks took over the party and they drive things now, particularly on the fiscal cliff issues. Obama gives in. They don’t – and they tell the Republican establishment what to do:

This is exactly what the Tea Party mindset produces. For one thing, the House GOP conference (and to a lesser extent, the Senate GOP) contains no shortage of Tea Party true-believers – men and women who embody the spirit of the movement and have no qualms about going to war with party leadership if they believe their principles are at risk. And they are backed by a conservative information complex – media outlets and personalities, commentators, activists and interest group leaders – ready to cast them as heroes in any fight with “the establishment.”

All of this is more than enough to instill real fear in Republicans on Capitol Hill who aren’t true believers – but who do like their jobs and want to keep them. McConnell falls in this category. Boehner evidently does too. And so do many, many other Republicans who don’t want to look back and regret the day they cast a vote that ended their careers. The fact that the Tea Party, as a literal entity, seems to be dying is actually a sign of how successful it’s been. Its spirit now rules the Republican Party.

If you want to know what went wrong, that’s it, and the blogger Maha puts it nicely:

Yesterday Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner added to the fiscal cliff fiasco by announcing the debt ceiling will be reached by Monday or so, and needs to be raised.

And along with the taxes and budget cuts thing is the little detail that the “doc fix” hasn’t been fixed. The “doc fix” is a legacy of the 1997 Congress that ties physician Medicare reimbursement rates to growth (or not) in the GNP. Since 2003 Congress has voted every year to defer changes, meaning cuts, to physician reimbursement rates. The 2012 fix, which was agreed to in the waning days of 2011, will expire at the end of the year, and when that happens, physician Medicare reimbursement will be cut by 27 percent.

There’s also a dairy farm subsidy bill that needs extending to keep the price of milk from going up to $6 a gallon.

All of these things – the farm bill, the debt ceiling, the doc fix – used to be passed pretty much without a burp out of Congress, because most of the lawmakers had the sense to know they really didn’t have a choice about it.

But now we’ve got the Tea Party, and all bets are off. The baggers want to hold every bit of legislation they can hostage so that they can further destroy the government they hate. And there are enough of them in Congress that Congress is now pretty much dysfunctional.

There you have it. A duly-elected government collects taxes, as fairly as possible, and spends that revenue for the common good, as decided by the majority vote of the representatives we have elected to do that spending, as wisely as possible, and these Tea Party folks will have none of that nonsense, as Maha notes:

They really do want to drown the federal government in a bathtub. They’ve got it in their heads that just about everything the federal government does, with the exception of the military, violates some sacred principle established somewhere in the mythic past that lives in their heads and which they mistake for history. And they will continue to eat away at everything workable and functional in government until it is destroyed.

This, however, may be a bit over the top:

They’ve somehow simultaneously staked claims on both “love it or leave it” super-nationalism and on “hate the Gubmint” anarchism. If you don’t want to either destroy the government or secede, you can’t be a true patriot.

And of course, the reason these misfits have so much influence is that they are being financed by deep pocket special interests and industries that can manipulate the crazies into opposing taxes and regulations the hyper-wealthy find inconvenient.

We’re doomed.

Maybe so, and later, amid the ruins, if someone asks you what the hell happened back in 2012 or so, to cause all this, what would you answer? That there were a bunch of people who said that if you don’t want to either destroy the government or secede, you can’t be a true patriot – and some very rich folks found them useful to have around and funded them – and no one else was paying much attention?

A long time ago Richard Hofstadter was paying attention and wrote this:

The difference between conservatism as a set of doctrines whose validity is established by polemics, and conservatism as a set of rules whose validity is to be established by their usability in government, is not a difference in nuance, but of fundamental substance. …

Writing in 1954, at the peak of the McCarthyist period, I suggested that the American right wing could best be understood not as a neo-fascist movement girding itself for the conquest of power but as a persistent and effective minority whose main threat was in its power to create “a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.”

We’re there now. They just call a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety becomes absolutely impossible something else – they call it true and glorious freedom – and enough people shrugged and said close enough. Yeah, Obama won, decisively, and really does have that mandate, to make the government work reasonably well for the good of all, not just some. The trick was making it so that doesn’t really matter, through clever procedure or likely-sounding rants about absolute freedom, which is also every-man-for-himself anarchy, depending on your point of view.

Here’s a thought for going forward. Those who want a government that works reasonably well for the good of all, not just some, get to stay and live here. We’ll keep the roads and bridges and schools, and a healthcare system that takes care of the basics, and keep Obama and all the Starbucks and Volvos. Those who prefer the glorious freedom of every-man-for-himself anarchy can move to an area where they can live in that set of conditions – South Carolina perhaps. They can have their pick-up trucks and assault rifles and their Ayn Rand books. After this year ends there may be no other way to proceed. After all, we like it here. They don’t, and why shouldn’t they be happy too?

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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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2 Responses to The Core of What Went Wrong

  1. BabaO says:

    Mr Karnaki sees the teabagger phenomenon as akin to the insect which bores into it’s victim, leaving larvae to mature while they kill the host. The party withering away and dying whilst an idiot’s paradise is created? Maybe the ‘baggers are in fact not fascist, but Leninist.

  2. Madman says:

    I completely agree with your Thought Going Forward. Maybe Lincoln was wrong — maybe he should simply have let the degenerate slave-owning plantation Elite have their own country. Let the North have infrastructure and education and a secular government, and allow the South go its own way and sink into increasingly backward and theocratic governance. I know this sounds severe — but this IS what the Fright Wing clamors for endlessly. Let them have it — with NO AID whatsoever from their self-reliant Northern neighbor. After a couple generations of no taxes and no regulations and no common sense, the South will closely resemble East Germany of the 1980s — shocking piles of rubble compared to prosperous West Germany. We can always re-admit them to our Union — but only AFTER they tax themselves enough to repair the damage they self-inflicted. What do you think?

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