Trapped in Tactical Decisions

The first week of March begins with the Great Sequestration in place – massive automatic cuts in almost all government spending, but not strategic cuts. These are universal percentage cuts, reducing the amount spent on good stuff just as much as that spent on nonsense and fluff – to the tune of eighty-five billion dollars to start, and adding up to well over a trillion dollars over the next ten years. Everyone who agreed to this – the White House and, overwhelmingly, both houses of Congress – agreed this was really stupid. One side or the other would see that and cave – or compromise, depending on your point of view – and we’d work out some sort of grand bargain, to spur growth and work on deficit reduction at the same time, somehow, and perhaps to assure some sort of fairness for the rich and poor alike, even if we have a deeply divided government in a time of some scarcity.

That hypothetical grand bargain was a tall order. In fact, the whole notion was impossible. It is possible to create something so massively stupid and potentially devastating that any sane person would develop some alternative, however flawed and distasteful, simply to avoid it, but no one could come up with anything. Obama said he was being all reasonable and realistic – sure, he’d cut a few things more, even if it ticked off his base, but he had his mandate – he won the election on the idea that corporations and the wealthy should kick in a bit more, maybe reverting back to what they used to kick in before the Bush years. Poll after poll showed the public overwhelming still agrees with him on that, and those polls also show that most Republican civilians agree with him, even if no Republican politicians ever did or do now. John Boehner saw that and declared that he’d never be reasonable and realistic ever again. It was better to be heroic – revenue was off the table, and he himself would not even negotiate more sensible targeted spending cuts. That was the Senate’s job, not his, or Obama should just list the cuts to be made and he’d do the thumbs-up or thumbs-down thing. His side cheered him for that – he was seen as the righteously angry man who would probably never speak to Obama ever again. It was simple. Obama would do what he wanted or those incredibly stupid sequester cuts would kick in, and that would be Obama’s fault. In the end, House Republicans were cheering those incredibly stupid sequester cuts as a good thing – or at least a better thing than compromising to avoid them. Yeah, this will damage the economy – they openly admit that – but it won’t be their fault.

Of course the whole thing was a way of giving up – neither side could ever possibly agree on just what spending to cut, or why, or whether it might be wise to also close a few tax loopholes for corporations and the filthy rich to raise some additional revenue, so it was kind of cut-everything-across-the-board and hope for the best. It was an admission of impotence, and also an admission that our form of government no longer works. They created a poison pill. Then they took it. It was assisted suicide.

They’re still trying to figure out what they just did:

John Boehner admitted while he wasn’t sure how the government’s ongoing fiscal woes could be resolved, after months of dire warnings from both sides it was unclear whether sequestration would even have a negative consequence.

“I don’t know whether it’s going to hurt the economy or not,” he said. “I don’t think anyone quite understands how the sequester is really going to work.”

It really was a what-the-hell kind of thing. They were faking it.

At least Boehner is now saying that his guys won’t shut down the government at the end of the month when the federal budget expires – they’ll just pass another continuing resolution to keep the doors open and the troops paid. They’ve been doing that for years, running the country on some previous budget from three years ago, extended again and again – but Boehner says his folks are inclined to do that one more time. Perhaps doing one really stupid thing a month is enough. Demanding a new budget that would be everything the White House and the Senate and the American people hate, or else the Republican House will close the country down, might be going a bit too far. They can do something righteously heroic like that the next month when the debt ceiling has to be raised again – Obama does what they say or America goes into default and the world’s economy collapses when the one safe haven for capital in the world says it just won’t pay its bills. They’ll probably try that. Enough time will have passed.

No one really knows what the Republicans are up to here. In a normal world there are goals – what you wish to accomplish, overall – and then there’s strategy – your broad approach to reaching those goals. On a more granular level there’s tactics – the day-to-day specific operations on the ground, which vary with the circumstances, with what you face at any given moment. Your tactics serve your strategy, and your strategy serves your goals. Ideally, you keep those aligned, although it can be difficult. We saw that in Iraq and Afghanistan. If your goal is to achieve stability in that region, and your strategy is to spread democracy there, by establishing pro-western free-market democracies, then the tactics need to serve that end – busting down doors and badly managed drone strikes don’t exactly win hearts and minds and give the locals warm a fuzzy feelings about pro-western free-market democracies. They see your tactics, up close and personal. Your general strategy and overarching goals are irrelevant. All that is just talk – abstractions discussed by odd people far away, on the other side of the world.

That’s the problem with the Republicans in this political situation. Everyone sees their tactics, which seem kind of appalling, but no one is sure of their strategy, if they have one. The overarching goal is a bit easier to see – get rid of as much government as possible, so that people are free to do what they want with their own money, and so corporations are free to do the same and thrive, as an every-man-for-himself world is the best possible world. How ending abortion and contraception, and gay marriage, and making sure no one teaches anything about evolution or climate change, and making sure everyone always thinks of Jesus, fits into this… well, that’s a bit of a mystery. As for the strategy that flows from that – screw up anything Obama tries, even if you have no alternative to offer – that’s a bit of a mystery too. Saying no isn’t a strategy, because you’re not trying to do anything in particular. It’s more of a tactic – something you might do at the moment, given the immediate circumstances. It might serve a limited purpose.

There’s a missing piece here. This political party is trapped in tactics. Strategic thinking has gone missing. Mitt Romney couldn’t win the election by assuring everyone he wasn’t Barack Obama. Of course he wasn’t, but Bozo the Clown and your next door neighbor Fred aren’t Obama either. Romney wouldn’t release his tax returns, and he’d say what you wanted to hear, or what he thought you wanted to here, and indicated you really didn’t need to know that much about him. There was no alternative vision – nothing much was offered in that way. Romney didn’t speak of his goals – what he said depended on the audience at hand – and this he couldn’t speak of his strategies for reaching those goals. It was all tactics – the day to day variations on his not being Obama – and the party learned its lesson. Now they all talk of strategies to win back urban voters and Hispanics and women and Asians and the young and the folks who went to college and like that science stuff. They haven’t settled on how to do that yet, but they’ve recognized that strategic thinking might be the missing piece.

Someone didn’t get the memo. At the highly conservative Washington Examiner, Phillip Klein is unhappy with that:

If you want to understand why proponents of limited government keep losing the health care debate look no further than this year’s upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference.

Over the past several years, as the debate over President Obama’s national health care law was raging, the largest annual gathering of conservatives held regular panel discussions on the topic. Not this year. Laura Rigas, a spokeswoman for the American Conservative Union (which runs CPAC), confirmed to me that although “health care and the associated budget-busting costs at the federal and state level will be addressed in a number of panels,” there would be no panel dedicated exclusively to the health care issue.

“Obamacare was obviously huge over the past couple of years, but Obamacare is done,” Rigas explained.

It’s just not an issue:

Conservative activists often disregard health care as a liberal issue… and only become engaged when liberals attempt to advance big government solutions.

In 1993 and 1994, for instance, when the Clintons were pushing their national health care plan, the conservative movement rose up to successfully defeat it. But then, instead of taking advantage of the intervening fifteen years to advance market-based solutions to health care, conservative activists largely ignored the issue.

What Klein sees is no real interest in healthcare policy, just a fad built around opposition to Obamacare, and a missed opportunity, had anyone been thinking strategically, and Kevin Drum adds this:

There’s a pretty obvious conclusion to be drawn here: conservatives actually don’t care much about healthcare – just like they don’t care much about income inequality or particulate poisoning. These just aren’t hot button issues on the right, and the truth is that the grassroots isn’t much interested in egghead ideas about consumer-directed healthcare. …

Nobody in the conservative movement ever had the slightest intention of following through on the “replace” part of “repeal and replace.” So Klein is right about that.

But he doesn’t take the next step: asking why conservatives have no real interest in healthcare policy. If there really are some conservative scholars working in this area, why haven’t their proposals sparked any interest among the rank-and-file? From my liberal perspective, the answer seems obvious, but I’d be curious to hear what Klein thinks. He’s got the symptom right, but what about a diagnosis?

They don’t care because everything is tactics to them, and another conservative, Ben Grivno, sees a larger issue:

Healthcare isn’t the only panel discussion CPAC is missing. I, too, examined the CPAC 2013 schedule and there are exactly zero panel discussions on poverty, charity, welfare, or community involvement – all of which are important issues to a majority of Americans. I did not check past CPAC schedules, but it is a safe bet the results are similar. Considering the level of disinterest in these crucial topics, Conservatives should not be surprised we are perceived as uncaring by most of America. We only seem to care when the left attempts to make a radical change that will push America in the worst direction. I emphatically believe conservatives do care about these topics, but we have some comfort-zone expansion to do.

Conservatives should not be surprised that they are perceived as uncaring by most of America, because they are seen that way, and Kevin Drum adds this:

Grivno is right that conservatives need to demonstrate some genuine interest in these problems. If the only things that get the crowds roaring at CPAC are attacks on gays and calls to slash spending on food stamps, it’s not much of a surprise that conservatives are perceived as uncaring. It’s because their revealed preferences demonstrate pretty conclusively that they are uncaring.

Drum think these folks could learn what the Democrats once learned:

In the same way that Democrats had to painfully come to grips with growing public anxiety over crime in the 70s and 80s, conservatives need to respond to today’s growing public anxiety over middle-class wage stagnation and growing income inequality. And within a conservative framework, they need to genuinely respond, not just produce tired old nostrums that are plainly intended more for looks than as real solutions. The public didn’t buy it when Democrats initially tried to brush off crime with shibboleths, and they won’t be any more indulgent with conservatives over modern-day pocketbook issues.

But yeah, this will require conservatives to work outside their comfort zones. That’s going to take a while.

It may not even be possible when you’re stuck in the tactics that work for the moment. After a time that’s all you think about. Forget about what we did day to day in Iraq for almost a decade – think of our guy in Vietnam who said we had to destroy that village to save it. The tactic there undermined the strategy, not to mention the goal – and the villagers didn’t appreciate it either. People do care about healthcare, middle-class wage stagnation and growing income inequality – and some may even care about poverty, charity, welfare, or even community involvement. It might be useful to have a strategy for dealing with those.

Even Newt Gingrich agrees:

I’m for a big rethinking. I don’t think a modestly reformed Republican Party has any real chance of competing in the absence of a dramatic disaster. If there was a big disaster, people would be driven away from the Democrats, but in the absence of a really big disaster, if you want to compete in a difficult but not impossible world, we’re going to have to have very large fundamental rethinking.

The first thing you have to do with African Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans and Native Americans is go there. They don’t need to come to you; you need to go to them. And when you go there, listen. Phase one is not going there to tell about you. Why is it we can have entire cities that are disasters, that we can have 500 people getting killed in Chicago, we can have Detroit collapsing, we can have the highest black unemployment teenage in modern history, and no Republican politician can figure out that going there to say, “Gee, shouldn’t we do something to make this better”? And then talk about it jointly, so it becomes a joint product – that it’s not “Let me re-explain conservatism.” I don’t mean to walk away from conservatism, but we need to understand conservatism in the context of people who are talking with us.

Newt Gingrich may be an infinitely strange man, but he does know something about strategy, not that it will do much good, as the most interesting item from the weekend was the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein admitting he had be completely wrong – as he had written a item that argued that if only Republicans knew how much Obama has been willing to offer, they might be willing to make a deal – there would have been a grand bargain and no sequester nonsense now in place. It’s pretty to think so, but Jonathan Chait set him straight, about that. No matter what Obama put on the table, or in writing, or on any website, Republicans would find a way to say that it’s not enough. Chait offered a Twitter exchange that lets us watch that happen in real time, as a top Republican consultant, confronted with evidence that Obama has already conceded what he said was all that was needed, keeps adding more demands.

That consultant, Mike Murphy, told Time magazine that Obama could get a deal if Obama just said seven magic words – “Some beneficiaries pay more and chained CPI.”

John Harwood noted on Twitter that Murphy seemed unaware that Obama had already offered both of those things, and Murphy responded that he hadn’t, and then in response after response said Obama couldn’t really mean those things, even if it seems he said them. It was very odd, and Paul Krugman sees larger implications:

The whole push for a Grand Bargain has been based on the notion that we can reach a fiscal deal that takes the whole fight over the budget off the table. What Klein has belatedly learned is how unlikely such a Bargain really is; but the same logic tells us that any Grand Bargain that might somehow be struck, via Obama’s mystical ability to mind-meld Star Trek and Star Wars or something, wouldn’t last. In a year – or more likely in a minute or two – Republicans would be back, demanding more tax cuts and more cuts in social programs. They just won’t take yes for an answer.

Meanwhile, it’s not just Republicans who refuse to accept it when Obama gives them what they want; the same applies, with even less justification, to centrist pundits. As people like Greg Sargent point out time and again, the centrist ideal – deficit reduction via a mix of revenue increases and benefits cuts – is what Obama is already offering; in fact, his proposals have been to the right of Bowles-Simpson. Yet the centrist pundits keep demanding that Obama offer what he has already offered, and condemn both sides equally (or even place most of the blame on Obama) for the failure to reach a deal. Again, informing them of their error wouldn’t help; their whole shtick is about blaming both sides, and they will always invent some reason why Obama just isn’t doing it right.

It’s all tactics, and the BooMan sees the history here:

In some progressive quarters, people are in love with saying that ObamaCare was the Heritage Foundation’s idea. Is that true?

Well, something very much like ObamaCare was first floated by the Heritage Foundation as an alternative to HillaryCare. But it was about as serious as Murphy’s promise that a deal could be had in exchange for means-testing and Chained CPI. The Republicans never say that they will oppose you no matter what. They usually offer an unacceptable alternative. But if you accept those terms, they just make up new excuses. If Bill Clinton had tried to enact the Republican plan in 1993, they would have moved the goalposts. Their plan was just for show.

Murphy gave the game away because he didn’t know that his demands had already been met.

Yes, it’s hard to deal with people who are all tactics. It’s impossible. You can’t discuss their goals in relation to yours and try to work something out. They may not even have a clear notion of their goals anymore, if they had any notion in the first place. And as for countering their strategies, forget it – there never really were any. There’s only gleeful knee-jerk reaction. You get used to it, but nothing gets done. There’s a reason that our form of government no longer works. It was a tactical decision.

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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.
This entry was posted in Republicans: All Tactics, Sequestration Showdown and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Trapped in Tactical Decisions

  1. BabaO says:

    So , , , they can’t have Ronnie back, but Nancy will do as well and they can just say no?

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