About Nothing

As all siblings know, and most married couples know, and as those who have worked in academia know, the bitterest fights are almost always about nothing – or maybe about something else. This happens when both parties basically agree on the issue at hand and neither party wants to admit it, or feels they can admit it. There’s just no way the other person can be right, because that would mean you agree with them, and admitting that would be humiliating. It’s that taunt – So, you agree with me! That’s unacceptable, because you know you’re smarter or better or luckier than they are, or something. Agreement eliminates the possibility of dominance, and thus victory – so if the other party says the sky is blue, you say, well maybe, but not really, and the two of you end up arguing about atmospheric absorption of various ranges of the visible spectrum, and about who’s being a jerk. The sky is still blue of course. Married couples argue about even less – but someone must win or lose, and there’s the male ego involved in this, and the sly female concession that isn’t really a concession at all. That’s a debt incurred that will have to be paid back later, at an extremely high cost. Husbands know this. As for shouting matches in faculty rooms, no one ever really knows what all the shouting is about, and eventually even the shouters don’t know – but someone must be wrong. Someone always has to be wrong. That’s the way teachers think, except for those who teach quantum physics or philosophy. Think of Schrödinger’s cat – it’s simultaneously alive and dead, you see. Deal with it. Quantum uncertainty is like that. In fact, life may be like that.

No one is willing to accept that. That damned cat is either dead or alive, and in life, someone is always wrong and the other person is right – and thus smarter and better. This is doubly true in politics, where dominance and victory is everything. Someone must always be very wrong, but unfortunately, right now, the Schrödinger’s cat of American politics is immigration reform, which, like the cat in the box, seems to be simultaneously both alive and dead. Republicans now say they want immigration reform, or feel they must now say they want immigration reform or lose every national election from here on out, and Obama is all for it too, so they’re against what he’s for, even if it’s pretty much the same thing they’re for. It’s a classic bitter argument about nothing, really. Obama said the sky is blue. They need a way to say maybe, but not really, if you think about it – it just looks blue – and Obama’s a jerk, by the way. And thus immigration reform is both alive and dead.

That’s because in response to a leaked copy of Obama’s immigration reform plan – really just a rough draft of the few major points the administration might propose if Congress can’t come up with anything – Marco Rubio fired off an indignant press release saying the plan would be “dead on arrival” if it came before Congress. Rubio and the Republicans would fight against it to the last man, except there wasn’t much there, and what was there was what Rubio himself had been proposing, which led Josh Marshall to say this:

I doubt Marco Rubio can straddle the politics of immigration reform. That’s not a criticism of Rubio. It’s simply recognition that a growing majority of the country is simply too far from the base of the Republican Party to be straddled by any but the most able of political animals. … That news is considerably worse for Rubio than it is for Obama. It will hard for Rubio not to end up being against what he claims to be for.

Talking Points Memo’s Benjy Sarlin notes Rubio’s difficulties:

Consider Rubio’s political position. As a likely 2016 presidential contender, Rubio is taking a huge risk backing immigration reform. The last time there was a debate on the issue, it sparked a backlash from grassroots conservatives so intimidating that even the biggest Republican champions of a bill had to masquerade as hardliners for several years. And that was when a Republican President was leading the charge.

Not wanting to be seen as a shill for a Democratic President’s signature achievement, Rubio’s strategy from the start has been to play up his differences with the White House as much as possible. This weekend’s outburst was only the latest incident: in interviews with the Wall Street Journal, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative thought leaders, Rubio has positioned himself as the right-wing antidote to a far-left White House on immigration.

He needs to be against what Obama is for, even if it’s something everyone agrees on, which gets tricky:

The Republicans he needs to win over to pass a bill will be a lot more comfortable if they think they’re somehow thumbing their nose at Obama by voting for it. We’ve seen this dynamic on other issues in recent weeks, most notably the debt ceiling, where conservative Republicans delivered a lot of macho partisan talk about a bill that was objectively a huge cave to the White House. If a compromise bill ends up passing, expect to see a lot of statements from Republicans supporters about how they stopped some non-existent White House “amnesty” bill.

Newt Gingrich acknowledged the political environment in an appearance on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, saying an Obama-led bill could never pass the House, not because of its substance, but because of “the level of hostility towards the president and the way he goads the hostility” on the right.

Gingrich let the cat out of the bag (or box) – the actual plan is to argue about nothing:

Rubio has signed on to a bipartisan plan in the Senate that’s premised on the same broad planks as the White House’s 2011 and 2013 plans, often using identical language to describe them: a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a crackdown on employers who hire future undocumented workers, additional border security measures, and a fix to the legal immigration system to bring in future workers. And since White House officials say they’ll only release their bill if Congress can’t pass one themselves, Rubio’s group – which Obama has showered with praise – is still the lead player in negotiations.

Sarlin goes on to describe the details of Rubio’s unique approach, which isn’t much different from Obama’s at all. It makes for curious reading, and Sarlin ends with this:

It’s worth noting that Rubio has already committed himself to the part of reform conservatives hate the most – a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants – so the political benefits of backing out at this point are pretty weak. If his opponents want to demagogue him on the issue in 2016 they’ll have all the ammo they need regardless of whether a bill passes. Mitt Romney took out Rick Perry by tying him to tuition breaks for young immigrants, never mind citizenship. And since Rubio is being held up by the GOP as its savior in large part because they think he can appeal to Latino voters, he has a lot more to gain if he can plausibly claim he was the dominant player in passing a bipartisan bill that’s popular with said Latino voters.

The bitterest fights are almost always about nothing – or about something else entirely. In this case the fight is about Rubio’s future in that grumpy Republican Party, and he’s in a tough spot, as Josh Marshall notes here:

As a policy matter, Rubio’s already signed on to what most people mean by comprehensive immigration reform, to what the President supports. As a political matter, he’s got to find things to fight with the President about, to bring along base Republicans – even if they’re basically made-up differences. It won’t be easy.

The problem is not with Rubio then. It’s those base-Republicans. They’ve always been against what Obama is for, even when Obama goes out of his way to come out for what they once supported – Romney’s Massachusetts health plan and the Heritage Foundation’s individual mandate, Bush’s and John McCain’s immigration reform plans, the Republican cap-and-trade plan to curb carbon emissions and so on. They say Obama does that to make them look bad, to trap them. It’s that taunt – So, you agree with me! That’s unacceptable. But then that leaves them nothing of their own to run on, and as Kevin Drum notes, folks are beginning to notice:

I’m curious. It seems to me that something has happened over the past three months: the nonpartisan media has finally started to internalize the idea that the modern Republican Party has gone off the rails. Their leaders can’t control their backbenchers. They throw pointless temper tantrums about everything President Obama proposes. They have no serious ideas of their own aside from wanting to keep taxes low on the rich. They’re serially obsessed with a few hobby horses – Fast & Furious! Obamacare! Benghazi! – that no one else cares about. Their fundraising is controlled by scam artists. They’re rudderless and consumed with infighting. They’re demographically doomed.

This may have changed the press coverage:

The framing of even straight news reports feels just a little bit jaded, as if veteran reporters just can’t bring themselves to pretend one more time that climate change is a hoax, Benghazi is a scandal, and federal spending is spiraling out of control. It’s getting harder and harder to pretend that the same old shrieking over the same old issues is really newsworthy.

That’s the problem with arguing about nothing. News organizations move on. They want to cover actual news, the something in life. All that’s left is Fox News.

Some Republican thinkers have figured this out. There’s Ramesh Ponnuru, the senior editor of the National Review, who does the unthinkable and writes a New York Times op-ed – which is even odder as he kind of slams Reagan Worship:

Today’s Republicans are very good at tending the fire of Ronald Reagan’s memory but not nearly as good at learning from his successes. They slavishly adhere to the economic program that Reagan developed to meet the challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ignoring the fact that he largely overcame those challenges, and now we have new ones. It’s because Republicans have not moved on from that time that Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, in their responses to the State of the Union address last week, offered so few new ideas.

Ramesh Ponnuru doesn’t like his party arguing about nothing, or at least about fixed and permanent all-purpose universal solutions no matter what the circumstances. At least no one suggested that the answer to Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction was eliminating capital gains taxes. What would Reagan do? The question has become somewhat irrelevant. He’s dead and he left no specific instructions for new special circumstances, and Ponnuru gets specific about that:

When Reagan cut rates for everyone, the top tax rate was 70 percent and the income tax was the biggest tax most people paid. Now neither of those things is true: For most of the last decade the top rate has been 35 percent, and the payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people. Yet Republicans have treated the income tax as the same impediment to economic growth and middle-class millstone that it was in Reagan’s day. House Republicans have repeatedly voted to bring the top rate down still further, to 25 percent.

A Republican Party attentive to today’s problems rather than yesterday’s problems would work to lighten the burden of the payroll tax, not just the income tax. An expanded child tax credit that offset the burden of both taxes would be the kind of broad-based middle-class tax relief that Reagan delivered. Republicans should make room for this idea in their budgets, even if it means giving up on the idea of a 25 percent top tax rate….

There’s more:

Conservative views of monetary policy are also stuck in the late 1970s. From 1979 to 1981, inflation hit double digits three years in a row. Tighter money was the answer. To judge from the rhetoric of most Republican politicians, you would think we were again suffering from galloping inflation. The average annual inflation rate over the last five years has been just 2 percent. You would have to go back a long time to find the last period of similarly low inflation. Today nominal spending – the total amount of dollars circulating in the economy both for consumption and investment – has fallen well below its path before the financial crisis and the recession. That’s the reverse of the pattern of the late 1970s.

In short, arguing about what Reagan would do is arguing about nothing, or nothing that matters now, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

Both these observations are common among liberals, but it’s refreshing to hear them from a senior editor of National Review. Ponnuru’s op-ed is pretty light on an alternative economics agenda for the GOP – he mentions a focus on lightening the payroll tax burden; a more balanced monetary policy; and attacks on software patents as innovation inhibitors. But it’s a lot more interesting than the warmed-over stuff we’ve been hearing from Republican politicians, who seem to think returning to a pale version of the immigration policies of George W. Bush is enough “rethinking” for now and maybe ever.

Jonathan Bernstein at the Washington Post’s Plum Line, however, thinks Ponnuru misses the larger point:

The problem with Republicans today on public policy isn’t that they’re stuck in the 1980s; it’s that they’ve given up entirely. More often than not, what passes for Republican “policy” is just symbolic, not substantive. Think, for example, about the big GOP rollout of the spring, a balanced budget amendment – which wouldn’t be much in terms of substantive policy even if it had a chance to pass, which it obviously doesn’t. Or think of their inability (still!) to come up with an alternative to the Affordable Care Act. Again, it’s not that Republican health policy is stuck in the 1980s; it’s that there is nothing that could really be called Republican health policy. Or, to move away from Ponnuru’s topics to national security, there’s the frenzy over Benghazi, Libya, that (as Kevin Drum points out) somehow never quite is about anything, or what seems to be purely symbolic attacks on Chuck Hagel.

The first step out of the policy wilderness for Republicans, then, is for them to decide that developing substantive public policy ideas is a good idea at all. If the way to do that is to attribute it to Ronald Reagan, well, if it works then there’s nothing wrong with it. I hope so; the nation could really use a political party that advances well thought out conservative policy options. There hasn’t been one of those in years.

Ponnuru has that covered:

Conservatives should retain their skepticism about government intervention, the preference for letting markets direct economic resources and the zeal for ending government-created barriers to economic growth that they inherited from Reagan. In his first Inaugural Address, Reagan famously said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The less famous yet crucial beginning of that sentence was “in our present crisis.” The question is whether conservatism revives by attending to today’s conditions, or becomes something withered and dead.

Yes, all arguments should be about real things in the real world, as things are now. Then they’d be about something, except that the economist Paul Krugman finds the Ponnuru column just sad:

First, Ponnuru wants the GOP to recognize the reality of growing inequality that has eliminated the connection between economic growth and middle-class incomes, to shift its focus away from tax cuts for the rich, and to drop the fixation with inflation and hard money in favor of a pragmatic approach. Well, there’s a name for people willing to be flexible in this way: they’re called Democrats. Think of the known views of Paul Ryan, who is undoubtedly his party’s intellectual leader (a fact that in itself tells you a lot about the party), and ask how he could conceivably accept any of this without admitting that he has spent his entire career being wrong about everything.

But it’s also really sad to see the continuing dominance of Reaganolatry. It’s not just that Reaganomics was a long time in the past – his big tax cut was 33, count them, 33 years ago. It’s also that Reaganomics was not a success!

This is followed by detail of median family income over all the relevant years, for wonks – but it’s clear enough that Reaganomics did little good for anyone:

Ponnuru hopes to get Republicans to accept policies they’ll never accept, and the only way he knows to make his case is to invoke the memories of a politician from the quite distant past whose policies weren’t all that successful in the first place.

It seems that there’s a corollary to trying to avoid fighting about nothing at all – if you want to fight about something, get your facts straight. On the other hand, you could double-down:

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) will speak at next month’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

“We are pleased to again welcome Governor Sarah Palin to CPAC in March,” American Conservative Union (ACU) Chairman Al Cardenas said in a statement. “Governor Palin electrified the crowd in 2012 and we are thrilled to welcome her back this year.”

There’s someone who knows how to fight about nothing at all – like those Death Panels and all the rest. This time the issue will probably be Benghazi, which she can’t see from her front porch, or maybe she can. We’ll find out next month.

So there you have it. Marco Rubio is picking a fight with Obama, over matters about which they both agree – so that’s about nothing. Ramesh Ponnuru is out there reminding his party that Ronald Reagan is quite dead, and no one knows, if he were alive, what he would do now – so all the talk of doing exactly what he would do is talk about nothing. All the other fights, over Chuck Hagel or Benghazi and the rest, seem to be about nothing too, which means that Clint Eastwood was onto something last summer in Tampa, arguing with an imaginary Obama in an empty chair. That was emblematic and entirely appropriate after all. The bitterest fights are almost always about nothing.

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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 About Nothing

  1. Rick says:

    First of all, I commend you for doing that whole 3,106 word column “about nothing” without once mentioning Jerry Seinfeld.

    But yep, the Republicans are still throwing temper tantrums over everything Obama proposes, which is why probably the cleverest idea I ever came up with was in which I suggested Obama endorse Romney in the last election — since there are just enough Republicans in this country who would never vote for anything Obama was in favor of, thus assuring that Obama would win.

    But this “nothingness” business also harkens back to an old question, “Are Republicans really necessary?” That is, do we really always need a so-called “Loyal Opposition”?

    We all take it as axiomatic that democracies require “opposition parties”, but in such times when the obvious good stuff never gets done, simply because the opposition is always out there desperately inventing ways to obstruct, maybe our updated axiom should be that, every now and then, the “loyal opposition” should recognize the fact that they have nothing to contribute, should stop muddying the waters with contrary ideas that make absolutely no sense, and just shut the hell up — maybe go on sabbatical and not come back until they have something worthwhile to say, giving the rest of America the freedom to actually fix the economy, for example.

    No, I’m not really suggesting that Republicans “self-deport” themselves from the scene completely, only that they sort of relax for a while — “hibernate”, so to speak — at least until they spot an actual opportunity to be actually useful.

    Rick

    • Madman says:

      The Republican Party is already moribund. I like your idea of an induced coma — to clear the way for evidence-based solutions to current problems. Good luck attempting to get the obviously rabid “base” to agree to ANYTHING other than World Domination!

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