Those who follow politics usually don’t follow sports, because they feel that sports are meaningless nonsense, and those who follow sports don’t follow politics, because they feel the same way about politics – but of course there are parallels. There’s always a game plan, and specific tactics to consider, including a few trick plays if possible, along with consideration of how to best employ the unique talents of each of your key players, and also how best to disguise their inevitable weaknesses. The trick is to exploit the other guy’s weaknesses, and then establish a sense of inevitable momentum so your opponent is demoralized and pretty much just gives up. It’s all about winning, and there are ways to assure you win. Those work most of the time, until you run up against a team that’s younger and smarter and faster, with sound fundamentals and a loose and happy attitude. There’s not much you can do about that. You lose.
That’s kind of what the 2012 presidential race was like – the Obama team was just younger and smarter and faster, with sound fundamentals, like their precinct by precinct ground game in every single state and their flawless and sophisticated messaging and get-out-the-vote technologies. Romney really didn’t stand a chance. Except for one awful debate performance from Obama, there were no weaknesses to exploit, and Romney couldn’t disguise his. Corporations are people, my friend – that’s something he shouldn’t have said, standing on a hay bale at that Iowa fair, grinning like a fool. That got a lot of play, and then there was the disaster of his forty-seven percent comments. Nearly half the people in the country are no more than moochers who will never have any sense of personal responsibility and they could be written off a useless? Romney handed the election to Obama. Paul Ryan was supposed to be younger and smarter and faster – the amazingly talented rookie – but he was only younger. He did strike some rather impressive “serious” poses – he looked the part – but then people started looking at the numbers in all his fancy budget ideas. They didn’t add up. What he was proposing seemed nasty and cruel. His fundamentals weren’t sound. Then there was Clint Eastwood at the Tampa convention, talking to an imaginary Obama in an empty chair. That was another unforced error, as they say in tennis, kind of a double-fault. No one expected an evening of surrealist improvisational theater. The game was over.
It may have been over earlier than that, with the twenty Republican primary debates. The news was filled with the latest strange thing that each successive front-runner had just said – first Donald Trump then Michele Bachmann then Rick Perry then Herman Cain then Newt Gingrich, then Rick Santorum and then Gingrich again, and then Santorum again. The base was momentarily enthralled, again and again, while the pundits wondered what the hell was up with the now-crazy Republican Party. Fox News tried to salvage what they could from this mess, excusing this and that as well-meaning enthusiasm and not that crazy if you really thought about it – or maybe the liberal media had it out for conservatives and were reporting what was said far too much, making a big deal out of little eccentricities. But after those twenty primary debates it was obvious that none of these people were ready for primetime politics. Only Mitt Romney survived, never winning big in any of the state primaries or caucuses, but never getting blown out anywhere – winning the nomination by just being crazy enough when a specific setting demanded that, and being general and inoffensive the rest of the time. He became the master of the conventionally daring. And no one ever knew what the hell he really believed.
The real damage might have been something else. Those debates gave each candidate an opportunity to call this or that other candidate a liar or a fool, or, if they were being nice about it, to slyly imply that – and they all availed themselves of that opportunity at key moments. That was a problem. No sports fan wants to see two guys on his or her team fighting each other right out there on the basketball court or football field or whatever. It was the same sort of thing. Public infighting assures a loss. Professional politicians, like professional athletes, let it drop and then work together flawlessly for the good of the team, to assure a win. Egos have been bruised. There are grudges. All the smiling talk about how that’s all over now and about working together to win the big one rings false, and a loss follows that. Hillary Clinton is the only politician who has recently swallowed her pride for the greater good once the votes were counted – in 2008 she was all in for Obama, no matter who said what in the Democratic primaries. Of course it helped that she had no real policy differences with Obama.
The Republicans had no such luck – each had to prove to the base that they were more severely conservative than any of the others. Comity was impossible after that. All the others, eventually, would say they supported Romney and would do what they could to help him defeat Obama, but it seemed that their hearts weren’t in it. They wanted to beat Obama, and Romney would have to do. That was about it. If politics is a team sport, the team in this case was hardly a team at all. The big star can’t carry his team to victory if all the other guys are just standing around. This year, out here in Los Angeles, Lakers fans know this all too well.
So the team loses. Something has to be done. This calls for a pep talk, some way to rally the sullen and resentful players and get them to work together for the greater good, for a win. For the Republicans, this has been a problem. Who should give the pep talk? Bobby Jindal gave his pep talk, about how it was time for the Republicans to stop being the “stupid party” – but he was vague about what would be smart. Marco Rubio gave the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union, but there was that odd business of him lunging for the bottled water, and he was talking about immigration reform, with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here. Rubio would make that path far more daunting than anything Obama was proposing, but Rubio was talking about a path to citizenship. He probably can’t drive his party that far into what is economically sound and morally defensible. They don’t want to go there. That was a sort of rallying cry and pep talk – Follow Me! That was met with polite indifference – no one wanted to be mean to him. He’s a nice young man but there were other things to talk about – sequestration and how the government should never ever raise new revenue and all sorts of things. Rubio sat down.
The model for all pep talks is that band-of-brothers Saint Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V – all about the few, the happy few, who fight the good fight, willingly, with joy and pride in their hearts and whatever. There’s a version of that in all hero movies – Aragorn rallying the Men of the West before the Black Gates for example – but those are pretty hard to pull off in real life. It’s easier and maybe nearly as effective to scare the crap out of your team. Tell them that other team out there is big and mean and dangerous and they’re out to hurt you, real bad, and in fact, they’re out to annihilate you. Get your shit together or you’ll be dead. That message may not inspire teamwork, but it may force a bit of it, for survival if nothing else.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told the moderate Ripon Society Tuesday that President Obama’s goal is to “annihilate the Republican Party.” …
Republicans will need to defend themselves in a “very hostile environment,” Boehner said, by thinking strategically about when and how to confront the president.
“Where’s the ground that we fight on? Where’s the ground that we retreat on? Where are the smart fights? Where are the dumb fights that we have to stay away from?” he asked. “We’ve got a lot of big decisions to make.”
Be afraid. It will concentrate the mind, but Michael Kinsey has a bit of fun with that:
Whoever could have imagined that Republicans could be such wussies? After all, the GOP is the Party of Testosterone. Democrats are the ones who are supposed to be wimpy and weepy. But lately the Republicans have been a bunch of crybabies: Hey mama, President Obama is picking on us. He’s so strong, so ruthless. Some of the biggest bullies in the schoolyard, it seems, can dish it out, but they can’t take it.
There are no new ideas, just self-pity:
Self-pity is a powerful force. It’s usually bad policy but good politics. But what’s going on now is different. Now it is the politicians themselves, and their affiliated media, which complain loudly about feeling bullied by their opponents. So far, the disease has only spread among Republicans. Big, bad President Obama, creepy Harry Reid, that B-word Nancy Pelosi, and the rest of the gang of toughs called the Democratic Party are picking on the poor defenseless GOP. As a campaigning theme, it seems insane. The GOP has long prospered by portraying Democrats as the wimps, dangerously weak and unfit for command. Does the name Michael Dukakis ring a bell? And in really heady moments, like 1984, when Reagan earned his second term, or 1994 and 2010, when sweeping victories in off-year elections seemed to foretell an imminent landslide, Republican fantasies of one-party rule involved the triumph of their party, not humiliation by the other side.
In fact, moaning about how weak you are compared with the opposition seems so obviously a political mistake that we can only reach one conclusion: This must be sincere.
Here’s Kinsey’s example:
Rush Limbaugh recently spent two days of his radio show wallowing in political self-pity. “I have alerted you and anybody who will listen that what the objective is at the White House is the annihilation of the Republican Party, the elimination of all viable opposition – and on a personal level. You know, not just to annihilate Republican Party/conservative ideas, but also people, the people who carry them, the people who believe in them.”
What on Earth does he mean by “annihilation”? And not just of ideas, but of people? Should we expect pogroms against Republicans in Obama’s second term? Even Rush can’t mean that. So does “annihilation” mean anything more than just trying to defeat the other party’s candidate on Election Day, a tradition that Republicans ordinarily acquiesce to and often thrive at? If neither of these, “annihilation” must mean that Obama and the Democrats are cheating in some way. In what way is not clear. It sometimes seems as if Republicans think that their ideas are so superior that any Democratic victory is cheating by definition.
It is a bit absurd. The other guys want to win and they’ve got ideas. That’s unfair? But it gets more absurd:
According to some Republicans, Obama is even responsible for the war of recriminations now going on inside the Republican Party. And not just because he beat them. Because he (in the words of columnist Charles Krauthammer) used “ruthless skill to create an internal civil war” among Republicans. What a magician! What a masterful, powerful, brilliant performance. A man like that ought to be president!
Look. President Obama has no superpowers. He is a skilled politician who plays the game well. He was reelected by a majority of the voters. Hubris is always a danger among politicians, but I think we can allow him a victory lap or two before worrying that he is creating a dictatorship.
The logic of the scare-their-pants-off pep talk breaks down:
If you asked Newt Gingrich, for example, or any of the other House Republican leaders of recent vintage, whether he would like to “destroy” the Democratic Party, he probably would say, “Heck yes.” And President Obama might well dream of killing off the Republican Party. So what? He’s not going to do it. If we’re going to start being held responsible for our fantasies – even just our political fantasies – as if they were real, we’re all in trouble.
The losses continue too:
House Republicans raised the white flag Thursday on extending domestic violence protections to gays, lesbians and transsexuals after months of resisting an expansion of the Violence Against Women Act.
GOP leaders, who had tried to limit the bill before last November’s election, gave the go-ahead for the House to accept a more ambitious Senate version written mainly by Democrats.
Democrats, with a minority of Republicans, were the key to the 286-138 House vote that sent to President Barack Obama a renewal of the 1994 law that has set the standard for how to protect women, and some men, from domestic abuse and prosecute abusers.
It was the third time this year that House Speaker John Boehner has allowed Democrats and moderates in his own party to prevail over the GOP’s much larger conservative wing. As with a Jan. 1 vote to avoid the fiscal cliff and legislation to extend Superstorm Sandy aid, a majority of House Republicans voted against the final anti-violence bill.
Steve Benen thinks this means things are finally changing with that odd Hastert Rule:
We’re learning something important about House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the so-called “Hastert Rule.” For those who need a refresher, under modern Republican norms, the Speaker only considers legislation that enjoys “majority of the majority” support – if most GOP House members oppose a measure, it won’t even be considered, whether it can pass the chamber or not.
The non-binding rule is great for party discipline, but lousy for democracy and governing.
For Boehner’s part, the Speaker has long believed in enforcing the “Hastert Rule,” but he’s finding far more flexibility on the issue than we’re accustomed to seeing. When it was time to approve the “fiscal cliff” deal, Boehner ignored the rule to pass a bipartisan Senate plan. When he needed to pass relief aid to Hurricane Sandy victims, he bypassed the rule again.
At the time, the Speaker said these were isolated incidents that wouldn’t be repeated, but here we are again – most of Boehner’s caucus opposed the Violence Against Women Act, but he brought it to the floor and passed it anyway.
Kevin Drum sees things a bit differently:
This is mostly a sign that Boehner understands what his party is up against. In the last election, Republican problems with the Hispanic vote got most of the attention, but that’s not the only demographic group the GOP is losing badly. There are also women. And young voters. And especially young women voters: in the last two elections, they’ve voted for Obama by whopping margins of 69 and 66 percent.
So in the same way that pragmatic Republicans are in favor of passing some kind of comprehensive immigration bill to stop the bleeding among Hispanics, Boehner wanted to pass VAWA in order to stop the bleeding among young women, for whom this is very much a hot button issue. This same dynamic might play out on a few other issues too, but I’m not sure if it heralds the demise of the Hastert Rule more generally. We’ll have to wait and see.
Yes, but that Hastert Rule was all about party discipline – the team working together as one. You can forget that:
House majority leader Eric Cantor is increasingly frustrated with a group of House Republicans who are working against the leadership, and he’s not afraid of voicing his dismay.
In a closed-door conference meeting on Wednesday, Cantor told one GOP member that if they blocked the Senate-passed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) from coming to the floor, they’d cause “civil war” in the ranks.
Cantor’s comment irked some Republican aides, who told National Review Online that such strong language is inappropriate. In recent days, some conservatives have been upset about the Senate’s version of VAWA, saying that parts of the bill are unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, Cantor’s warning may have had an effect. When the bill came to the floor on Wednesday, only nine Republicans voted against the rule to take up the bill.
It’s like being back in the primaries again, with the addition of some nasty talk-radio stuff – Mark Levin Calls Out “Little Weasel” Eric Cantor: “You’re a Coward! You’re a Hack!” Mark Levin then called on Eric Cantor to step down – so we have a civil war here. If politics is a team sport, one team is in real trouble, and the day before, it was this:
Karl Rove on Wednesday defended his effort to field more electable Republican candidates in U.S. Senate races, saying his “posterior was shredded a little bit” by GOP donors who questioned why the party was putting forward candidates like Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana.
A new Rove-led group, dubbed the Conservative Victory Project, was rolled out this month under the imperative to avoid putting forward weak general election candidates, immediately setting off a feud between tea party types and establishment Republicans.
Rove couldn’t pull off a Henry V:
Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a tea party favorite who is the early favorite to claim the GOP nomination in Iowa’s 2014 U.S. Senate race, sent out a fiery fundraising email to supporters asserting that he won’t allow Rove to “bully” him out of a Senate bid. Akin himself accused Rove and other establishment Republicans of “killing the grassroots heart” of the party. And Tea Party Patriots circulated an email to supporters depicting Rove in Nazi regalia, something for which the group subsequently apologized.
Rove is putting a brave face on this, by being logical:
“It’s not a question of ideology,” Rove said, according to the Dallas Morning News. “The quality of candidates matters.”
The GOP strategist continued, “My posterior was shredded a little bit by donors wondering why we are writing checks for people who then turn around and run such lousy campaigns.”
Everyone on the team knows something is wrong, so they’ve decided to ignore the other team and continue to punch each other in the face. If you saw that on a basketball court you’d head for the exit – you can watch your kids do that at home, for free.
And then the final shoe dropped:
Clint Eastwood has joined about 130 self-described moderate and conservative Republicans in signing a brief to the Supreme Court arguing against California’s Proposition 8, which bans marriage for same-sex couples.
No one’s even on the team anymore and all that’s left is the “long game” as Ezra Klein explains here:
Insofar as there’s a long-term strategy here, it comes down to 2014. Republicans feel that this is a defensive year for them, and if they can resist further tax increases while locking in some spending cuts, that will be more than they could reasonably have expected in the days after the election. But in 2014, they expect the implementation of Obamacare to be a debacle that will give them an opportunity to mount a policy offensive against the White House. If they can just get through this year and get to 2014, their position will strengthen considerably…
Michael Tomasky paraphrases:
As long as we can gum up the works, make it look like Washington can’t do anything, deny Obama any sort of breakthrough victory, then we can head into ’16 in a strong position. We can say the country needs new leadership that the Democrats weren’t able to govern.
So, does America want to see a losing team play badly for two or three more years, not to win but to make the other team look bad, if they can, keeping the score as low as possible so that nothing much happens at all? Along the way they’ll also argue with each other, and start throwing punches at each other too. Would you be a big fan of that team? Probably not, but that seems to be the Republican plan. It’s enough to make a political junkie just give up and watch the next Lakers game. At least that doesn’t matter at all.