Political Magic

Over on Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Cherokee, you’ll find Hollywood Magic – but you can’t drop in and buy anything there. You have to be a professional magician. No one else is supposed to know how these things are done – the levitating women or disappearing elephants or whatever. People would only be disappointed to discover there’s no magic at all, even if they know there’s no magic at all. And up the hill, on Franklin Avenue, there’s the Magic Castle – the clubhouse for the Academy of Magical Arts and a wholly private nightclub. You have to know someone to get in, or be someone. It’s a place for swapping trade secrets, and for trying new illusions, asking for advice and suggestions from your peers. The best illusion is one where no one has any idea of how it’s done. The idea is to amaze, not clarify that life, even if it seems extraordinary at times, is quite predictable and rather dull in general. Everyone knows that’s true about life, and no one wants to believe it. That’s why there’s Hollywood.

That’s also why Hollywood is such a disappointment. Hang around long enough and you see all the magic isn’t magic at all, it’s industrial drudgery. Yeah, they do sometimes shoot major movies in the streets – a long and tedious technical process with lots of people standing around waiting for the shot to be set up or this or that to be repositioned and re-rigged for some other shot. Nothing much happens. Grips and gaffers move stuff around, or wait to move stuff around. They mostly wait. There’s no magic – that comes later, in postproduction, after they add the tense music and the sound effects and all the rest. What you see in the streets isn’t what you’re supposed to see – the ordinary plain work of how wonderful things are really made. And it’s not just the movies. So where did Bing Crosby record “White Christmas” and Elvis Presley record “Jailhouse Rock” and Sam Cooke record “You Send Me” and so on? That would be Radio Recorders – down in the warehouse district in the flats south of Hollywood, just down the street from the big cement plant. It’s not exactly a magical place, and it’s gone now anyway. So is Sound City in Van Nuys – home to Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac and Nine Inch Nails and so many others. There’s a cool new documentary on the place – more than one hundred gold and platinum hits came from that recording studio, another dump of a place hidden in a warehouse complex out in the hot and dull San Fernando Valley. You really don’t want to know how things are made. All the magic drains out.

That probably started back in 1906 when Upton Sinclair gave us The Jungle – a novel of complex social themes and a stinging critique of laissez-faire capitalism and Social Darwinism and all that – but set in the Chicago slaughterhouses and centering on the meatpacking industry. That’s all people remember of that novel. You really don’t want to know how sausages are made. Assume it’s magic. Or become a vegetarian. And in the same way you really don’t want to know how Congress works, as they somehow hammer out key legislation and our nation’s budget, determining what should be spent and what taxes should be collected from whom, and at what rate. Thomas DiBacco, an historian and professor emeritus at American University in Washington, tells an interesting tale of that last item – Congress passed the Sixteenth Amendment, establishing a federal income tax, because they were certain the states wouldn’t ratify it. In July 1909, that passed the Senate 77 to 0 and the House by 318 to 14, as a feel-good statement of some sort – on the assumption that the rich folks who pretty much owned the state legislatures would smile ruefully and all would be as before. It was a cost-free gesture. Forty-three months later the final state needed ratified that amendment and we had an income tax – the feel-good whim had turned out to be an idea most Americans decided was not a bad idea at all. Things got out of hand but there was no going back. Oops.

That may not be the best way to run a country, but then the whole business of what happens in Washington is mysterious. Everyone knows the tales of how Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill would hammer out deals on the side, horse-trading this and that, working out bipartisan compromises. Give a little, take a little – it’ll all work out. Lyndon Johnson, who came from the Senate, knew how to make both offers and threats, masterfully – for the greater good. A vote for the Civil Rights Act might cost a new bridge or highway in some asshole’s congressional district, but it was for the greater good. In the good old days people worked together, and bipartisanship was the magic stuff no one saw. Behind the scenes there were mundane trade-offs, for the greater good. Yeah, yeah – Obama was a fool to ever think we still lived in the good old days – he assumed that the other guys still wanted to trade. Obama was a fool. They don’t these days.

Part of that is structural. When McCain ran against Obama he made a big deal out of eliminating earmarks – that pork congressmen could take back to the districts, to show their constituents what they’d done for them, even if it was a bridge to nowhere or a new telescope for the local observatory. It was something, but those are pretty much gone now – the only thing McCain won in the 2008 election – but something changed how business is done in Washington now. There’s nothing to trade, and Kevin Drum thinks that’s dangerous:

Political horsetrading may be distasteful in the abstract, but in reality it’s the way compromises get forged, human nature being what it is in our sadly fallen state. So if you want to get things done, you need trading chits like earmarks.

But there’s more to it than that. The truth is that, within reason, legislators should have the power to direct money to their districts. They’re supposedly the ones who know their districts best, after all. The key thing to keep in mind is that sometimes there are projects that are really important to locals that just aren’t ever going to pass muster with DC bureaucrats who, for good and appropriate reasons, score spending requests largely via formula. This leads to understandable frustration with how tax dollars are being spent. Earmarks are a relief valve, a way of giving a bit of local control over federal spending to locals themselves, who can spend it as they see fit. It might not be the way you or I would spend it, but that’s okay.

Drum argues that earmarks had gotten out of control, but we overreacted to that by eliminating them:

Earmarks represent a bit of local control over tax dollars that’s basically salutary in modest doses. Oh, and they don’t have any effect on overall spending, either. Earmarks redirect spending, they don’t increase it.

Putting it another way, you might not like the way sausage is made but it can be made relatively carefully and safely, and no one need go hungry. It doesn’t pay to be sad and disappointed at how things are made, and by the way, bipartisanship isn’t an anachronistic folly of the good old days. It’s just that no one understands it these days, as Slate’s John Dickerson explains here:

This week, members of the “gang of eight” came to the microphone pushing immigration reform, and the old folk tales of bipartisanship were once again in the news. Amateur meteorologists claim to have spotted other flickers of the bipartisan phenomena. President Obama and Republican leaders reached a deal on a three-month extension of the debt limit and a bill to aid the victims of Hurricane Sandy. These are not historic acts, but why not raise a glass in tribute if for no other reason than to break the monotony of having to constantly raise a glass to drown our frustration.

But let’s not mistake this for genuine bipartisanship. Or, if this is the new standard for bipartisanship, then we should change our definition of it. These examples of ghost bipartisanship are born from pressure, not cooperation. Lawmakers aren’t reasoning together; one side is crying uncle. That will almost certainly be true of any immigration reform measure that passes (if the reform effort doesn’t break down under the weight of the partisanship itself).

Ghost bipartisanship is an odd concept, and Dickerson recalls the old magic:

The folk story of bipartisanship goes like this: The two parties tackle a common problem, they fight like hell, but both sides ultimately give up something to get a deal. In 1983, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill negotiated a compromise over Social Security. In 1990, George H. W. Bush forged a deal to reduce the deficit with Democratic leaders. In 1997, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich hammered out a balanced budget agreement. These bipartisan moments were not simply the product of reason divorced from acrimony and politics. As President Truman said, “There was never a nonpartisan in politics. A man cannot be a nonpartisan and be effective in a political party.”

That was then, but things now, where the new signs of bipartisanship are something else entirely:

They come not from shared sacrifice but from one side giving in. Charles Krauthammer says Republicans got rolled on the fiscal cliff talks. The Weekly Standard and Sen. Rand Paul say Republicans blinked on the debt limit fight.

On the issue of immigration, the bipartisan opportunities exist not because wise men from both parties have decided to solve one of the nation’s most pressing issues, but because Republicans are giving in to the pressure created by the last election. This fact is clear by the host of Republicans who once opposed or were skeptical of any immigration-reform package that included “amnesty” but who are now supporting it.

It’s not about policy; it’s about politics. Similarly, on the question of gun control, there is an emerging consensus that Congress will support background checks for gun purchases. This too could be called bipartisanship, except that it’s an emergency event brought on by the Newtown, Conn., massacre, which means it tells us nothing about the baseline health of bipartisanship.

That’s what Dickerson means by ghost bipartisanship, or maybe fake magic, where everyone sees through the illusion:

Barack Obama’s re-election marks only the second time that three consecutive presidents have served two consecutive four-year terms. The last time was Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. This gives us three modern examples of the presidential learning curve. After re-election, presidents of both parties draw the same conclusion: Bipartisanship is a pipe dream.

In Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address, he declared his election would bring about a new bipartisan era. “The American people returned to office a president of one party and a Congress of another. Surely they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore.” This was true long enough for the president to reach a budget deal with Republicans – just before his second term devolved into impeachment hearings.

The second George Bush may not have known much, but he knew better:

In 2004, after George W. Bush was re-elected, the man who once promised to unite and not divide entered his second term with a far dimmer view of compromise. “I’ve got the will of the people at my back,” he said despite his narrow victory. Bush’s definition of bipartisanship meant other people falling in line: “I’ll reach out to everyone who shares our goals.” Bush later admitted that when giving his State of the Union address, he relished the partisan reaction it provoked. “Sometimes I look through that teleprompter and see reactions. I’m not going to characterize what the reactions are, but nevertheless it causes me to want to lean a little more forward into the prompter, if you know what I mean. Maybe it’s the mother in me.”

Obama doesn’t seem to think bipartisanship means other people falling in line with him, but he’s given up on the old magic too:

The president’s aggressive second-term trajectory was evident even before he gave his inauguration speech, but the speech set the emotional tone for a second term full of conflicts. When Obama’s top political adviser argues that Democrats don’t have “an opposition party worthy of the opportunity,” it cemented the proof.

There may be bipartisan progress in the months to come, but it will be of a tougher kind. Members of the two parties may join arms and make a deal, but it won’t be the result of fellow feeling, conciliation, or understanding.

That’s okay. You really don’t want to know how things are made. Bing Crosby recorded “White Christmas” in a small room down in the flats here, next door to that big cement plant, and if you really want to know how things are made in Washington now, consider this from Ronald Brownstein:

For decades, liberal political strategists have asked how the Democratic Party would behave if it could reduce its reliance on culturally conservative white voters. Throughout the past year, Obama has systematically provided an answer.

Over that period, he has accepted collisions with Republicans, as well as the most conservative members of his own party, to advance traditionally liberal positions on an array of issues, particularly social and foreign policy concerns. During the campaign, that impulse was evident in his requirement that employers providing health insurance offer no-cost contraception coverage (despite fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church); his move to administratively legalize young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents; his endorsements of gay marriage; and his call for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally.

If anything, the president has hurtled even more rapidly down this track since his reelection. After almost entirely avoiding the gun-control issue in his first term, Obama responded to the Newtown shootings by advancing an ambitious package of reforms. In his Inaugural Address, he reasserted his commitment to confronting climate change, another issue he had almost completely muted after legislation to control emissions failed in the Senate early in his first term. On foreign policy, he has provoked sharp resistance from conservatives by insisting on moving quickly toward withdrawal from Afghanistan and by nominating former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who is a bête noire to neoconservatives, as Defense secretary. Obama’s decision last week to lift the ban on women serving in combat shows the same political impulse…

Brownstein argues Obama is giving up on right-leaning whites:

On many of these issues, and in similar disputes, Democrats have been constrained since the 1960s by fear of losing the blue-collar, rural, and older white voters who traditionally made up the conservative end of their electoral coalition. Reflecting that perspective, House Blue Dogs, as well as swing-state and red-state Democrats in the Senate, who represent regions with large numbers of those voters, have often discouraged the party from highlighting issues such as gun control and immigration reform, much less gay marriage.

There’ll be no more of that. Laws will be made differently now:

In 2012, Obama lost more than three-fifths of non-college whites and whites older than 45; he carried only one-third of non-college white men, the worst performance of any Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale was buried in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide. Yet Obama nonetheless won a solid victory by posting strong numbers with minorities (a combined 80 percent), the Millennials (60 percent), and college-educated white women (46 percent overall and more in many key states); moreover, each of those groups expanded its share of the total vote. (For the first time, white women with college degrees cast more votes last year than white men without them.)…

The result is that the president, to a striking extent, appears unshackled from the fear of alienating conservative white voters that has shaped the way the party has governed since cultural and foreign policy issues (such as civil rights and the Vietnam War) shattered the economically based New Deal coalition in the 1960s.

That reshapes the whole nature of bipartisanship, but, as Ed Kilgore notes, Obama had no choice here:

Will a more “moderate” policy direction or message produce anything other than confusion at a time of asymmetrical polarization when there is virtually nothing he can do to force Republicans into serious negotiations? And even if he somehow can, will that produce policies that actually help the country, or just create an incoherent and self-canceling mess?

There will be a new way of making sausage:

I’m increasingly convinced that Democratic centrists would be better advised to promote their favored policies on the merits instead of as bipartisanship-bait, which at the moment just is not a credible approach. And if Democrats do indeed need to improve their performance among elements outside the “Obama coalition” – and in the short term, they do if they ever want a sizable congressional majority and control of a majority of states – they should focus on what these voters actually do and do not favor instead of assuming “moderate” rhetoric will do the trick.

Paul Waldman adds this:

A Democratic party that isn’t constantly terrified of what some mythical Reagan Democrat might get a bee in his bonnet about is a party that can offer a clearer identity and agenda to the public. For a long time, we’ve had one party that forged a clear identity, and another whose answer to everything seemed to be, “It’s complicated.” Well now we’re getting to the point where we have two clear agendas, and the American people can choose between them. What’s wrong with that?

Well, there’s that – and there’s magic. It’s just that in Washington, as in Hollywood, there’s no real magic – just a lot of standing around and waiting, and trading what you can for what you can get, and hoping for the best. When you look into how things are really done, at how things are really made, all the magic drains away. That’s probably for the best.

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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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