Reality Strikes Back

Americans don’t do history – it’s boring – so we rely on shorthand. Calvin Coolidge was known as Silent Cal, and may have once said that he was never hurt by anything he didn’t say. Few remember anything else about him. Franklin Roosevelt said we have nothing to fear but fear itself, which is a good enough summary of his entire way of thinking, and explains a lot about his success dragging us out of the Great Depression and then in taking care of Hitler and the Japanese. Harry Truman will always be Give ‘Em Hell Harry – the details don’t matter. Kennedy told us to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. Fine, and then Nixon said, “I am not a crook!” Did he say anything else? Ronald Reagan told us it was morning in America, and government is always the problem, never the solution. Bill Clinton, with every disaster of any kind, would tell those there that he felt their pain – and as much as he was mocked for that it sure looked like he did – but the only words that still echo are these – “I did NOT have sex with that woman!” He did, depending on how you define sex, formally. George H. W. Bush told everyone to read his lips – NO NEW TAXES! Then he raised taxes. That’s a hell of a way to be remembered.

His son was more careful, but not really – George W. Bush just didn’t have a way with words. All we remember are the Bushisms – I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family – that sort of thing. No one knew what he was talking about half the time. Maybe he didn’t know. Others spoke for him, and on October 17, 2004, there was that New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskind quoting an unnamed aide to George Bush:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

We later learned that it was probably Karl Rove saying this, that reality can be shaped, that it can be manufactured out of nothing much at all, and people will believe it actually is reality. Rove was laughing at those like Suskind who thought they were reporting on reality, thinking it was some sort of thing out there, in and of itself. It isn’t. Rove didn’t think much of the reality-based community. Perhaps that’s why he works at Fox News now, although objective verifiable reality slapped him around pretty damned hard on election night when he insisted that Romney had not lost Ohio and would not lose Ohio – and the Fox News crew had to calm him down and show him the facts.

That was emblematic of the Bush administration and those who survived it – carefully construct the reality America will come to accept and then reap the rewards of dealing with that new reality – except that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, and people were dying in New Orleans and Brownie wasn’t doing a heck of a job, and deregulation of everything in sight and massive tax cuts for the wealthy didn’t lead to endless prosperity, just near-total economic collapse. And Obama won Ohio, and the presidency, once again. The great epistemological experiment had failed. George W. Bush will not be remembered for any short and pithy catchphrase. That just wasn’t him. He will be remembered for that odd alternative universe he and his administration invented out of thin air, and for being the one who started his party off down the road of the totally imaginary.

His party is still walking down that road, admiring the scenery and asking everyone to look at the pretty trees and all, but they should remember the words of Philip K. Dick – Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

Some things just won’t go away, and now, nine days before the massive and mindless sequestration cuts kick in, they are reviving that great epistemological experiment once again. John Boehner took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal with The President Is Raging Against a Budget Crisis He Created – “Obama invented the ‘sequester’ in the summer of 2011 to avoid facing up to America’s spending problem.”

No, he didn’t. It was a poison pill – simply massive, stupid cuts. To solve the last debit ceiling crisis, all that both sides could come up with then was the sequestration idea – let Obama pay the bills, on the condition there’d be massive automatic across the board spending cuts at the end of the year if both sides didn’t work out some kind of bargain. The Democrats didn’t want every social and educational program crippled or destroyed, and surely the Republicans didn’t want the military eviscerated. The idea was that the prospect of such cuts would get each side to talk to the other side and work something out – no one wanted Armageddon on these matters. But it didn’t work out that way – no one really talked at all, except to endlessly sneer at each other. But both sides agreed on this.

Then reality bit John Boehner in the ass. John Avon found The PowerPoint That Proves It’s Not Obama’s Sequester After All:

I happened to come across an old email that throws cold water on House Republicans’ attempts to call this Obama’s Sequester. It’s a PowerPoint presentation that Boehner’s office developed with the Republican Policy Committee and sent out to the Capitol Hill GOP on July 31, 2011. Intended to explain the outline of the proposed debt deal, the presentation is titled: “Two-Step Approach to Hold President Obama Accountable.”

It’s essentially an internal sales document from the old dealmaker Boehner to his unruly and often unreasonable Tea Party cohort. But it’s clear as day in the presentation that “sequestration” was considered a cudgel to guarantee a reduction in federal spending – the conservatives’ necessary condition for not having America default on its obligations.

So this was a presentation Boehner made to his crew in the House, saying this sequester gambit was their best bet to really get Obama good, that they should go for it, because it would force Obama and the Democrats to cave, and they’d get everything they wanted – the start of the end of government doing things for its citizens.

That’s a hard sell – people like their Medicare and Social Security, and cops and firefighters and teachers and national parks – but they can blame all the bad stuff on Obama, except that Paul Waldman points out the fallacy:

Not only are the Republicans making a silly argument, from a purely political standpoint, the American people are likely to hold them responsible for this, for a few reasons. First, Republicans are the ones who always want to cut government spending and always accuse the Democrats of favoring too much spending, so nobody’s going to believe them when they say, “These spending cuts are Obama’s fault!” Second, Barack Obama is reasonably popular right now, while Congress has an approval rating hovering somewhere between hangnails and Jerry Sandusky. And third, this whole governing-by-manufactured-crisis insanity was their doing from the beginning; we all watched them take the economy hostage before, and now they’re doing it again.

For the record, there is a simple solution to the problem of the Sequester: Congress should pass a law eliminating it. Not replacing it with a bunch of other budget cuts, not engaging in a new game of chicken, not putting it off for a month or two, not having a bunch of proposals and counter-proposals, just cancelling it, period. Then once that’s done, you can start the budget process for real, not because there’s a disaster of Congress’ own making looming in a week, but through the ordinary legislative process. If you’re holding a gun to the American economy’s head, the first thing to do is put down the gun.

Kevin Drum echoes that:

There shouldn’t be any budget cuts this year. We should be spending more. Ditto for next year, probably. The deficit conversation should be entirely about setting goals for long-term deficit reduction. Obviously that’s not trivial, since it’s hard to bind the hand of future Congresses, but it’s not impossible to make serious progress. Changes in formulas for mandatory programs, for example, will stay in place unless they get repealed by both the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. That’s not inconceivable, but it’s pretty damn unlikely. Ditto for taxes. Discretionary spending is harder to nail down, but then discretionary spending really isn’t much of a problem anyway.

Pretty plainly, then, this is what we should do. Even Beltway centrists mostly agree, though they’re loath to come right out and admit it. Unfortunately, precisely because it actually makes sense, it will never happen.

By the way, see Drum’s discussion of all the economic analyses that show every move toward austerity and most new spending cuts have slowed the recovery – reality is what it is. And yes, it does seem that discretionary spending really isn’t much of a problem – the problem is the future cost of healthcare. Both items are for wonks, but reality is for wonks these days. What’s not for wonks is what Byron York identifies here:

Could the GOP message on the Sequester be any more self-defeating? Boehner could argue that the sequester cuts are necessary as a first – and somewhat modest – step toward controlling the deficits that threaten the economy. Instead, he describes them as a threat to national security and jobs that he nevertheless supports. It’s not an argument that is likely to persuade millions of Americans.

Note that is Byron York in the hard-right Washington Examiner. York is on their side.

Stanley Collender, however, finds another way reality will bite these guys in the ass – he discussed how during the 1995 government shutdown, he was watching a television report that “showed a video of cars, vans, and campers not being allowed to get into a national park … because, like other federal offices not deemed essential, the park was closed.” That’s where reality kicked in for most people:

As I remember, the video showed two things. First, the lines were long because, even though the shutdown was widely reported, many people didn’t realize that national parks would be affected. Many of those shown said that they didn’t know the national parks were federal facilities. Second, to put it mildly, the people shown on camera were irate. The government shutdown that was just an abstraction to most people up to that point immediately became very real and personal.

When an abstraction becomes very real and personal there may be problems. Jonathan Bernstein comments on the Collender item:

One thing he doesn’t mention is that the reaction against the shutdown seems to have surprised many Republicans at the time. Of course, that alone didn’t automatically hurt them; had people blamed President Bill Clinton for the shutdown, it’s possible that pressure could have fallen more on him than on Congress. Granted, since Republicans in 1995 had planned the shutdown all year, that wasn’t all that likely, but it was possible.

But the government shutdown and the damage from it were intended from the start as temporary measures. That’s not the case this time.

This will be worse for the Republicans, and saying Obama set this up long ago won’t help:

The problem is that most voters – most consumers of government services – are going to be a lot more interested in disrupted government services than in the past. And for that, Obama can argue that he wants to restore what’s been cut; Republicans can only offer … more cuts.

Now, in the event, Republicans will probably argue (1) that the sequester cuts were Obama’s fault; (2) that they want to restore whatever people are complaining about; and (3) they intend to do that by cutting unspecified “government spending,” leaving all actual programs people like intact.

Good luck with that. After all, Obama and the Democrats can present a variety of options (similar deficit reduction with new revenues from the wealthy or simply smaller deficit reduction) and demand back that Republicans specify exactly what they want to cut. There simply isn’t an answer for that. At least, not a popular one…

Not much good can come of this. In their alternative world everyone wants spending on everything cut and also believes austerity leads to wealth, but selling the Iraq War was easier than this. In fact, one of the key guys behind selling the Iraq War, the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, simply laid it all out – asking his beloved party to rethink the “deeply irresponsible” approach that allows the sequestration cuts to happen:

But wait, say Republican tacticians, it’s a chance to gain leverage against the president.

Leverage for what? The GOP pols who talk about “leverage” never explain what they’re going to use that leverage for. The Republican House can and should prevent further tax increases, and for that matter domestic spending increases, regardless of how the sequester battle turns out. The Sequester gives Republicans no leverage here. And the House will have no more ability to insist on needed entitlement reforms or on the shape of next year’s overall budget with the sequester in effect than if it’s not.

Kristol is hardly one to talk about reality, but he does here. And on a broader level, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner try to help the Republicans return to reality:

It’s no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.

It’s time to get real:

Republicans need to express and demonstrate a commitment to the common good, a powerful and deeply conservative concept. There is an impression – exaggerated but not wholly without merit – that the GOP is hyper-individualistic. During the Republican convention, for example, we repeatedly heard about the virtues of individual liberty but almost nothing about the importance of community or social solidarity, and of the obligations and attachments we have to each other. Even Republican figures who espouse relatively moderate policy prescriptions often sound like libertarians run amok.

Andrew Sullivan sees that too:

This is true – but it seems to me equally true that the spending recklessness of the Bush-Cheney era made that libertarian turn inevitable, vital and important, if the party is to regain any credibility on fiscal matters. The utopian ideals and dystopian means by which the last Republican president promised to end tyranny on earth also require a slightly more robust critique than this:

“In every presidential election since the Nixon-Humphrey contest in 1968, Republicans began with a significant lead in this respect. With the end of the Cold War in 1989, this potent issue was largely taken off the table. Nor has the decidedly mixed legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade worked to bolster the Republicans’ electoral advantage in the conduct of foreign policy; if anything, the opposite is the case.”

At some point, a “decidedly mixed legacy” will become “huge fucking errors”. Then we’ll see the ice really break up.

There’s much more, but Sullivan is a Brit so we get this:

It’s odd to me that they don’t talk about the more obvious parallel: how the British Tories tried to climb their way back to relevance after becoming deeply branded as the “nasty party” in 1997. They needed a new leader who showed he backed the welfare state – using socialized medicine for a special needs child; who represented the next generation – by backing marriage equality for conservative reasons; and who signaled a new commitment to the common good by embracing the fight against climate change. Even then, his fiscal austerity in this period, which I broadly supported, has clearly failed to reinvigorate the private sector, increase growth and reduce the debt. In retrospect, I see the milder deficit contractions under Obama to be closer to the sweet spot of growth and debt-trimming we currently need.

It’s hard to see our Republicans doing what the British Tories did, save for the austerity stuff, which didn’t work at all. Still, Sullivan thinks they may have to change:

I suspect that the increasingly potent force of global capitalism will require the right to buttress the welfare state rather than dismantle it, at least in the short and medium term. The times might also suggest a slower path back to fiscal balance than I first thought was possible. In Britain, the Tories have the previous Labour government to blame for all the domestic and war spending and debt they inherited. And the public still agrees with them on blaming Labour. But here’s a sign that conservatives in America need to notice. Even when the Tories can blame the other party for the massive debt before the Great Recession (which gave the government almost no fiscal room to maneuver), the public is still souring on them badly. Labour leads the Conservatives by 42 – 31 percent in the polls – and Cameron’s move to the middle has also created an opening for the anti-Europe, anti-immigrant far right party, UKIP, which is now polling at 8 percent, just behind the Liberal Democrats at 12.

In other words, in” this present crisis,” as someone once said, government may have to be part of the solution. Finding what part that is, honing policies that can better address soaring social inequality, a corrupt tax code and the abuse of market power by the financial and healthcare industries, a chaotic, incoherent immigration system, and a prison-industrial complex of often unspeakable brutality – that’s the task we need to take on.

He’s got to be kidding. Sullivan just said government may have to be part of the solution. What about all that presidential shorthand? Just about the only thing Ronald Reagan ever said was that government is always the problem, never the solution – at least as far as anyone remembers. And soaring social inequality and a corrupt tax code are pretty damned cool, if you’re part of that hyper-individualistic crowd – the clever and the lucky and the already-rich get all the goodies, as it should be. What’s the problem?

The problem is reality of course. Karl Rove was wrong. Solutions do emerge from judicious study of discernible reality. The grand epistemological experiment failed. How could it not fail? Reality is funny that way.

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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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