Playing Marco Polo

Marco Polo is that children’s game that proves humans aren’t bats – it’s all about acoustical location. It’s a form of hide-and-seek where the person who’s “it” closes his or her eyes and shouts out “Marco” and everyone else is required to shout back “Polo” – which should indicate each player’s relative location, and maybe they’ll get tagged, but they seldom do. That may be because it’s a swimming-pool game and the others splashing about and slipping underwater creates lots of confusion, as do slightly delayed responses. No one is where their voices seem to indicate. Spatial orientation – determining range and location – is pretty much impossible. Shout out “Marco” all you want, and carefully attend to the responses – you’ll still be disoriented and lost.

It’s like that in politics too, where the current game is Marco Rubio. Shout out “Marco” and everyone else is required to shout back “Rubio” now. After all, Rubio, the young first-term senator from Florida, did make the cover of Time as “The Republican Savior” – even if he didn’t like it much – so the words go together. The Republicans seem to think they can use him to transform the party – he’s young, he’s Hispanic, even if he’s one of those special Cuban-Americans and not some lowlife from Juarez, and he’s neither an absurdly rich businessman nor a torture-and-war neoconservative from the world of Dick Cheney and William Kristol. He even likes hip-hop – so he’s nothing like them at all. He’s not an angry old white man. This should change voters’ minds about Republicans. Yes, the last four years were hard. Republicans decided the best way to gain respect was to be the sour and mean and nasty party of no-to-everything. That didn’t work out for them. The only respect they got was from their narrow base, and even then many of them were punished for not being nastier – quite conservative Republicans lost primaries to real fire-breathers who promised they’d never compromise on anything, and might not even talk to any Democrat, when they got to Washington. That’s one bloc, but beyond their base, Republicans have come to be almost universally reviled, when folks aren’t laughing at them. Saying no to everything didn’t seem noble and principled to the general electorate. It just seemed stupid.

Marco Rubio would fix all that. He seems to be a pleasant fellow, which most people usefully confuse with being reasonable. He’d be the new face of the party. This year he could deliver the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address, and everyone would change their minds about Republicans. It would be like shoving Audrey Hepburn on stage just before the main act, Phyllis Diller, or something like that – not exactly bait-and-switch, just softening up the audience, easing them into what was really going to happen. At least that was the plan.

The plan didn’t work out. The day after the State of the Union, and Rubio’s response, the buzz was surprisingly negative. Rubio had seemed a tad nervous, unsure and sweating – and the sudden lunge for the bottled water right in the middle of things, and taking a few swigs, was really amateurish. Then it sunk in. He was spouting nonsense, or, except for immigration, at least everything that Romney and all the rest had said. There was nothing new here. Shout out “Marco” all you want and carefully attend to the responses – you’d still be disoriented and lost. Where was he?

Everyone knew where Obama was, as Greg Sargent lays out here:

He offered a way out of our economic doldrums – investment in the country’s future as an alternative to more crippling austerity. He proposed taking action to fix the broken immigration system, address the climate change that threatens our future, reform voting irregularities, staunch the ongoing gun slaughter of tens of thousands of Americans each year, and help millions struggling to enter the middle class, via a minimum wage hike, universal pre-school, and other proposals.

Many of these ideas have broad support. Obama’s speech represented an effort to solve an array of problems that the American people appear to want solved.

There will be none of that. There’s still the nasty party of no-to-everything, and Sargent says that Republicans face a choice:

Either they can accept the realities of public opinion and become a functional opposition party, by working with Obama and Democrats to get some of what they want while allowing Obama to claim some victories of his own, as unbearable a prospect as that might seem. This is what Newt Gingrich eventually did in the 1990s. Or they can continue to reflexively obstruct everything, with an eye towards – well, it’s not clear what this would accomplish, except kicking the can down the road in hopes of taking back the Senate in 2014, making it even easier to tie up Obama’s agenda in advance of another grab at the White House in 2016.

This is where Rubio was supposed to help. He represents the party accepting realities of public opinion, except he doesn’t:

Yesterday’s rebuttal by Marco Rubio was not encouraging. He rehashed many of the same old anti-government bromides that were soundly defeated in the 2012 election. As Steve Benen notes, the speech suggested that that Republicans are absolutely convinced that “there are no substantive lessons to be learned from their 2012 defeats.” Rubio’s primary statement outlining the GOP vision for government’s role in people’s lives amounted to this: “It plays a crucial part in keeping us safe, enforcing rules, and providing some security against the risks of modern life.”

This isn’t an affirmative vision. It’s a grudging concession. If Republicans are going to become a functional opposition party, and start trying to get at least some of what they want, they have to figure out what it is they want in policy terms, other than “whatever Obama doesn’t want.”

Sargent cites Bloomberg columnist Josh Barro with this advice for Republicans:

They need to signal that they have a serious policy agenda that considers programs and regulations on a case-by-case basis, rather than just demagoguing the government. They need a real agenda on health care and jobs rather than just opportunistic opposition to anything the president does. In other words, they need a message that befits a grown-up party that is ready to govern.

Rubio didn’t send that message and Sargent adds this:

By laying out a strong affirmative case that government can act to solve the nation’s most pressing problems and foster long term economic security and shared prosperity, Obama intensified the GOP’s dilemma in a big way.

The contrast was sharp, between the call for doing something and Rubio’s firm stance on doing nothing much. Here’s the text of what Rubio said – such as it was, which wasn’t much more than what had been said before by others, older and whiter. Time’s Michael Grunwald explains that this way:

If Republicans believe that they lost in 2012 because Romney was a boring rich white guy who alienated Hispanics, they got to see a charismatic Cuban-American with humble roots but otherwise indistinguishable positions on every issue except for immigration.

And Michael Tomasky argues Rubio seemed to be in over his head:

His voice doesn’t have enough depth to it. He looks sort of young, as many have observed, but he sounds younger, and that’s the issue. He comes across like the proverbial substitute teacher. You know you can throw spitballs in his class, and he’s not going to have the authority to make you stop.

Conor Friedersdorf says there was really nothing to stop for:

People say Marco Rubio is a good speaker. I see why they say it. He’s warm. He’s polished enough. He has a nice smile. He exudes what seems like earnestness. … But I can hardly stand to hear him speak.

I’m a more consistent proponent of free-market policies than he is, I enjoy listening to old Ronald Reagan speeches, and I think government is too big. But listening to Rubio talk about all that? It makes me feel like … argh, it’s hard to explain. …

What Rubio does best is movement-conservative boilerplate, so that’s mostly what he does, but he doesn’t make any effort to freshen up the ideas, or even to freshen up the rhetoric he uses to express the ideas. When he starts talking, it’s like when the Dave Matthews Band song comes on, the one you liked the very first time you heard it fifteen years ago, but then the guy across the hall played it on repeat for all of sophomore year, and now when the lyrics play you can’t even conceive of them as words with a meaning.

That’s cruel, but this is crueler:

Maybe he’s like the Beatles. We’re just getting to know him, and he’ll reveal unexpected depth with time. But I think he’s like the Monkees, if their television show had aired in the mid-1990s instead.

Andrew Sullivan thinks his friend Conor Friedersdorf is onto something:

The question I have to ask is a simple one: could this speech have been given thirty years ago? Of course it could have. It was not a political speech; it was a recitation of doctrine, dedicated to Saint Ronald, guardian saint of airports. Here is an article of faith which is now so banal it does indeed sound, as Conor notes, like a song whose lyrics have become meaningless by repetition…

Sullivan cites Rubio statements that are simply recycled Reagan, without the charm:

More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them. And more government isn’t going to inspire new ideas, new businesses and new private sector jobs. It’s going to create uncertainty. …

In order to balance our budget, the choice doesn’t have to be either higher taxes or dramatic benefit cuts for those who are in need. Instead we should grow our economy so that we create new taxpayers, not new taxes, and so our government can afford to help those who truly cannot help themselves. …

That’s straight out of the eighties, and there’s this:

If we can get the economy to grow at just 4 percent a year, it would create millions of middle class jobs. And it could reduce our deficits by almost $4 trillion dollars over the next decade. Tax increases can’t do this. Raising taxes won’t create private sector jobs.

Sullivan returns us to reality:

They did in the 1990s. And cutting taxes irresponsibly in the 2000s reduced the rate of job growth. Nonetheless the dogma is in place, like some Animal Farm slogan: “Big government” is bad. “Small business” is good. And yet, Rubio, in the few instances when he mentioned specifics that might tackle actual problems, was in favor government action…

Yes, Rubio is fine with government action:

Helping the middle class grow will also require an education system that gives people the skills today’s jobs entail and the knowledge that tomorrow’s world will require. We need to incentivize local school districts to offer more advanced placement courses and more vocational and career training. We need to give all parents, especially the parents of children with special needs, the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice. And because tuition costs have grown so fast, we need to change the way we pay for higher education. I believe in federal financial aid.

Ah… Marco? That’s government. Shout out “Marco” all you want and carefully attend to the responses – you’d still be disoriented and lost. Where is he? But this one really got to Sullivan:

The President loves to blame the debt on President Bush. But President Obama created more debt in four years than his predecessor did in eight. The real cause of our debt is that our government has been spending 1 trillion dollars more than it takes in every year. That’s why we need a balanced budget amendment.

Sullivan:

Seriously? A president, who gave us two unfunded wars, massive tax cuts, and unfunded new entitlement in our biggest spending program, Medicare, in a period of growth, was more fiscally prudent than a president who inherited a collapse in revenues to 60 year-lows because of the worst recession since the 1930s? And a balanced budget amendment, which in general I favor, would have been catastrophic in the last four years as demand was wiped out of the economy. For these statements to be true, you have to live in a sealed ideological universe that hasn’t changed since 1979.

Sullivan thinks the rest was crap too:

On policies? No compromise on gun control. Immigration? Secure borders first. Growth? Drill, baby, drill – as if we haven’t. Climate change? “No matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather.” Please. Gay equality? Not a word. Foreign policy? Nothing on Afghanistan; nothing on what the last decade has taught us; nothing on drone warfare; nothing. No wonder the GOP has the lost its historical advantage on this topic.

Then there was this:

Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.

But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems. That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.

This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.

Sullivan:

This is unhinged. Obama has never said this, never given any indication that he believes this and has repeatedly said that the private sector is the engine of growth. And the recession was caused by government support for mortgages for low-income home-owners? Wall Street was a by-stander? This is a talk-radio talking point, not an analysis. And the sequester is now apparently an Obama policy, not just a short-term attempt to keep the government from a self-imposed credit crisis caused by nutball Republicans in 2011 that Obama wants to avoid.

There’s more, but it comes down to this:

This was an intellectually exhausted speech that represents the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary Republicanism. It was a series of Reaganite truisms that had a role to play in reinvigorating America after liberal over-reach in the 1960s and 1970s. It had precious little new in it. If reciting these platitudes in Spanish is what the GOP thinks will bring it back to anything faintly resembling political or intellectual relevance, they are more deluded than even I imagined.

Sullivan is clearly grumpy, but he’s a staunch conservative outraged by the Republican Party, and by the way, a devout Catholic outraged by his church and glad the current Pope is pulling a Palin and just quitting. He’s not a Nobel Prize economist who was outraged by these words from Rubio:

This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.

Krugman offers some reality:

Okay, leave on one side the caricature of Obama, with the usual mirror-image fallacy (we want smaller government, therefore liberals just want bigger government, never mind what it does); there we go with the “Barney Frank did it” story. Deregulation, the explosive growth of virtually unregulated shadow banking, lax lending standards by loan originators who sold their loans off as soon as they were made, had nothing to do with it – it was all the Community Reinvestment Act, Fannie, and Freddie.

Look, this is one of the most thoroughly researched topics out there, and every piece of the government-did-it thesis has been refuted…

He suggests this useful Mike Konczal summary and adds this:

No, the CRA [Community Redevelopment Agency] wasn’t responsible for the epidemic of bad lending; no, Fannie and Freddie didn’t cause the housing bubble; no, the “high-risk” loans of the GSEs weren’t remotely as risky as subprime.

This really isn’t about the GSEs [Government Sponsored Enterprises]; it’s about the BSEs – the Blame Someone Else crowd. Faced with overwhelming, catastrophic evidence that their faith in unregulated financial markets was wrong, they have responded by rewriting history to defend their prejudices.

Something is amiss here:

This strikes me as a bigger deal than whether Rubio slurped his water; he and his party are now committed to the belief that their pre-crisis doctrine was perfect, that there are no lessons from the worst financial crisis in three generations except that we should have even less regulation. And given another shot at power, they’ll test that thesis by giving the bankers a chance to do it all over again.

Mike Konczal was more specific:

In 2000, Congress passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which deregulated the derivatives market, in a lame duck session as a rider to an 11,000 page omnibus appropriation bill. A banking capital “recourse rule” in 2001 allowed the ratings agencies and private bank risk modelers to decide what banks should hold against risk. In 2003 the OCC preempted and overruled Georgia’s new anti-predatory lending laws. Alan Greenspan refused to enforce regulations on, or even investigate the wrongdoing of, the new subprime market during the 2000s. The 2005 bankruptcy reforms in BAPCPA, widely viewed as friendly if not written by the financial industry, codified the market practice of letting derivatives go to the front of the line in bankruptcy, helping create the conditions for shadow banking runs.

These government actions all fall under the rubric of deregulation, or “letting the market decide” how to manage the rules of the financial sector, and they are more relevant to the actual crisis. Though these are government policies, and they were reckless, I doubt they are what conservatives like Rubio mean.

That’s probably too specific. Rubio was just talking trash, like this gem:

When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather – he accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air.

Ezra Klein responds to that:

No one suggests the government can control the weather. The argument – which is thoroughly in line with market-based economics – is that carbon can be priced to better reflect the harm it does to the environment. Republicans used to believe this, too. The first major cap-and-trade program was enacted by President George H. W. Bush to deal with sulfur dioxide, the culprit behind acid rain. And the first cap-and-trade proposal to limit carbon emissions was co-sponsored, as Obama mentioned in his speech last night, by Sen. John McCain.

John McCain did look uncomfortable when Obama mentioned that. That was a low blow. Don’t remind these guys that they were once sensible and helpful – it makes them squirm, and it reminds people of better times in America. As for Rubio, Salon’s Joan Walsh sums it up nicely:

In the end, Rubio looked like a child pretending to be an important politician, and his ideas weren’t any more impressive than his amateur delivery. Why are Republicans acting like he’s their savior anyway? Is it the fault of the media yearning to have anything positive or new to write about the party? It’s tough, I guess, to be judged “fair” to the party and nonetheless write honestly about its utter dearth of new ideas and genuine new leadership. But if I were a Republican, I’d be furious at the lamestream media for anointing Rubio my future.

That isn’t even the half of it:

From the very beginning, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has kept a sense of humor about his now infamous reach-and-sip moment during the official Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address. Now, he’s cashing in on it.

In exchange for a $25 donation to Rubio’s political action committee, the Reclaim America PAC will send you an official “Marco Rubio water bottle.”

“Send the liberal detractors a message that not only does Marco Rubio inspire you… he hydrates you too,” the page reads.

Yeah, well, whatever, Marco. Out here in Los Angeles it’s always summer, and at the pool down in the courtyard the kids are always playing. Marco! Rubio! No one can tag him. He’s not there.

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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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