In the Huddle

Some memories persist, probably because they’re emblematic – something was revealed. It doesn’t matter how minor the event, there are moments when it’s clear that this is how it is, and late in the autumn of 1961 or so, the marching band was looking pretty good. The ninth-grade football team that year had lost every game, convincingly, and the last one was mercifully drawing to a close, when the one guy with a smattering of actual skills tried to get the rest of us in the huddle all fired up. Let’s go! He slapped helmets. He pushed chests. He slammed down on shoulder pads. He challenged us to rise to the occasion – his aim was to inspire us – and we all just stared at him. We were down by three touchdowns or something, with a minute to go, and we just didn’t get it. What was the point? What planet was he from? That’s when it became clear the marching band would be far more pleasant. Sure it was full of nerds and losers, but it was, for the most part, free of total jerks. It’s fine to be impassioned and inspired, but there is reality. If at first you don’t succeed, and they you don’t succeed again, and then you just don’t quite succeed time after time again, it’s not time to try again – it’s time to try something else. No amount of rah-rah crap is going to change anything, and the retro-absurdity of marching band, and the very concept of such a thing, did have its appeal. It was deeply ironic. There’s no irony is sports. That was it for football.

That might have been a turning point. Some choose severe realism and ironic detachment, and some don’t. Severe realism and ironic detachment can be seen as suave sophistication, while others might call all that merely defeatist cynicism, but everyone, fairly early on, makes the choice – forget the pep-talk and do what seems best and try to make the best of things, or get inspired and inspire others to do the impossible, or go down fighting. This may be one of the less obvious divides in life, but one of the most basic. The two sides will never understand each other – it’s gushing and enthusiastic idealism versus pragmatic grounded realism, or polite and somewhat formal courtesy versus let-it-all-hang-out aggressive total honesty, or the difference between simply loving a movie or symphony and actually appreciating it critically – the difference between wearing your heart on your sleeve and using your head.

The odd thing is how this has played out in politics over all the years. Democrats were gushing and enthusiastic idealists, always trying to fix the world with some impossible new program – FDR with Social Security and the SEC and all the rest, and LBJ with his Great Society stuff – all the various civil rights acts and Medicare and Medicaid and so on. Conservatives were the pragmatic grounded realists – don’t do much of anything – let the invisible hand of the free market fix what needs to be fixed – if there’s money to be made doing something it will be done, and if not, it’s not worth doing. Some of that is still true, in a generalized way – think of Obamacare – but it’s pretty clear that the current Republicans are not only in disarray, they’ve become very angry and unhinged, and not very realistic about much of anything these days. Now they’re that guy in the huddle screaming about stuff that really doesn’t matter, while everyone else just stares at them.

What’s the point? Their good friends on the Supreme Court betrayed them and declared Obamacare constitutional, and then Obama won reelection, easily, running on the idea that the way to fix the economy was with a mix of careful but not severe or abrupt spending cuts and asking the rich and corporations to pay what they used to pay in taxes in the Clinton years, before Bush. Obama won on that platform, and all the polling shows the nation still agrees on that sort of balanced approach as it’s called – even most Republican voters do. Why are they shouting in the huddle? It’s the same thing with gay marriage and gun control and abortion – all the polling shows few give a damn about making sure Sven and Brian don’t get married, over ninety percent of Americans are all for comprehensive background checks on folks buying guns, and two-thirds of us don’t think that Roe decision should be overturned. Consider that being down by three touchdowns with a minute to go – there’s no way to slap a few helmets and inspire Americans to change their minds about any of that. Everyone just stares at the jerk in the huddle. What’s HIS problem?

These days Republicans huddle on Fox News, and it happened again. On Fox News Sunday, Paul Ryan explained that he was going to reveal his new fix-everything alternative budget on Tuesday, and this would be the ultimate Republican and truly conservative solution to what ails us, which includes radically altering Medicare for anyone under fifty-five (small government vouchers to buy whatever private health insurance you can find out there) and repealing Obamacare. The host was not impressed:

“Are you saying, as part of your budget you assume the repeal of ObamaCare,” host Chris Wallace asked.

“Yes,” said Ryan.

“Well, that’s not going to happen,” Wallace said.

That’s what we were trying to tell that guy in the huddle back in ninth-grade football. Some things ain’t gonna happen. Get real.

That’s easier said than done, and in the House, John Boehner has a tough job leading the Republicans. He has his unruly caucus – establishment old hands and the Tea Party crowd at each other’s throats – and conservative media, mostly talk radio, and various think tanks telling the Tea Party folks to stick it to Boehner. This is most unpleasant, and then The Hill reports what happened last Wednesday:

House Republican leaders have a new problem. They can’t count on their members to support them on procedural votes.

Sixteen Republicans defected Wednesday in a vote on the rule governing consideration of a government-funding bill meant to prevent a government shutdown. The defections could have caused the rule to fail since most Democrats voted also voted against it…

This was an odd business, as the rule had to do with Boehner and the House leadership saying let’s not allow pointless amendments defunding Obamacare, because they’ll never pass, and we do want to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded. The defectors said no, we want to set it up so the government shuts down unless Obamacare is dead and gone forever, even if America hates our guts for shutting down the government. And yeah, maybe our amendments won’t pass, but we’ll have made our point – but maybe, somehow, they’ll pass, and Obamacare will be dead, or the government will be dead, or something.

It’s a mess:

Worse – from a leadership perspective – is that some Republicans say they plan on doing it again if they feel leaders are limiting them from offering controversial amendments on the floor…

Several conservatives switched their positions on the rule under pressure from interest groups that on Wednesday morning announced they intended to score votes on the rule.

Freedom Works, for example, was livid that GOP leaders refused to allow a floor vote on an amendment to defund the implementation of President Obama’s healthcare law.

Who are the wild-eyed idealists divorced from reality here? It’s not the Democrats this time, and Ryan Cooper adds this:

This crop of House Republicans has about crippled the power of the Speakership. They have little sense of legislative tactics, let alone strategy – in fact, they seem barely interested in legislating at all. They don’t seem to care about committee assignments, they definitely aren’t interested in home-district pork, and with the new crop of SuperPACs (and loopy extremist billionaires) dumping tsunamis of money into politics, the leadership has little sway over campaign funds. In my understanding control over these things is what gave the Speakers of ages past their power, and without them it makes the caucus almost impossible to control.

And these guys are only making it worse for themselves:

This seems to be shifting the center of power in the House to the left, as Boehner has been forced to repeatedly seek Democratic support to pass compromise bills – who are then are in a position to extract concessions due to superior discipline. It’s a reminder that ideology isn’t everything – a reminder that tactics and mercenary considerations do matter.

There’s much to be said for severe realism and ironic detachment, with a touch of cynicism. That’s how you get things done in the real world. Go for it? Attempt the impossible or die trying? No thanks. And Prairie Weather adds this:

The story about what’s happening on the Republican side only gets worse. They’ve got pressure coming at them from powerful funders who want Obamacare destroyed.

Ooo-eee! Just think of the reaction of the Koch brothers, et al. – watching as serial Republican governors embrace Obamacare. Rick Perry, too, almost! Freedom Works “sent out an action alert to its members on Wednesday under the heading ‘Demand Boehner Defund Obamacare.'”

There is just no end to the possibilities here – for the moment, though, just knowing that any mention of 2014 to a Republican pol means watching them turn on a pained smile.

They are in a tight spot. They’re getting the pep talk about going for it from the jerk, or in this case multiple jerks – saying we can do the impossible when that’s clearly not so – but they know those saying go for it can ruin their political careers forever, as there’s always a crazier true-believer in the wings to run against them, and they’ll fund that sufficiently crazier person. And in this tight sport they don’t even have a marching band to join. Drat.

Perhaps they need a strong leader, and it seems John Boehner, in spite of his heroic efforts to unify folks who will never understand each other – enthusiastic militant idealists and pragmatic grounded realists – is not the man. The party is in disarray and needs a strong hand, which is a topic under discussion at Talking Points Memo, starting with this from one reader:

Look, I love Republican disarray as much as the next guy, but four months after Election Day I’m still confused by this notion that the GOP’s now in turmoil because it lacks a “strong leader.” …

My questions:

1. What historical evidence supports this idea that American political parties are necessarily divided/ineffectual when they don’t have a single unifying leader? Who was the Democratic Party’s “strong leader” from ’05 – ’07, when they took back the House, or ’07 – ’08, when the party was embroiled in one of the most divisive primaries in decades but was wildly popular and energized in spite of that?

2. How is the GOP substantially more leaderless today than it was between, say, 2009 and 2012, when I think we’d all agree that it was quite effective at a.) blocking President Obama’s agenda, and b.) winning elections? And please don’t try to tell me that Romney was some sort of mighty unifying force for the party that they’re now lost without.

3. Are you sure “strong leader” isn’t just code for “holding the executive branch”?

There may be no issue here:

I can understand why the mainstream DC media likes this narrative. They much prefer a story in which a party’s political fortunes hinge on the strength or weakness of individual personalities – because the alternative is admitting that parties actually rise and fall largely on the merits and appeal of their policy agendas. That, of course, would require making some value judgments about why one party’s policies are more popular/effective than the other’s – which, as we all know from the recent sequester debate, is something that the beltway media just doesn’t do.

Josh Marshall adds this:

Few parties have clear leaders absent a president or dominant congressional figure. Certainly it’s rare after a presidential defeat. To the extent there’s a real issue it’s that the GOP is not united around a core set of political positions that party leaders believe have political traction. So for instance, under George W. Bush there were various factions in the GOP. But the party was politically united around the War on Terror and taxes. Different people had different agendas but all believed that pushing those issues could get Republicans elected. And once a party is in power, everyone can get some of their agenda addressed.

To the extent there’s a real issue here it’s that the GOP at this moment has real doubts about whether a number of its key political drivers are going to be effective any more. Anti-tax politics has at least lost some bite. It’s even worse with anti-immigrant politics and at least to an extent anti-gay politics. …

Absent a clear policy-politics mix there is an element of every man and woman for him or herself…

Another reader points out how unusual that is:

Republicans have in our modern history been more dependent on strong-looking leaders than have Democrats.

For generations, there was a pretty obvious reason for this: Republicans were members of the smaller of our two parties. Not only that, but a whole region of the country – the South – had large numbers of voters who would only vote for a Republican if the negative value of his party identification was outweighed by his personal qualities. Small wonder that the first Republican to recover the White House after the GOP’s collapse in the Hoover period happened to be the country’s greatest war hero.

You’d think this would all be ancient history, but it isn’t. The most active, passionate Republican partisans have never stopped thinking of themselves as an embattled minority. In an historical irony, the party’s dominance in most states of the old Confederacy has reinforced this tendency; so has its support from a majority of evangelical Protestants. Both Southerners and evangelicals (for different reasons) often tend to think of themselves in the same way.

To embattled minorities, division is fatal and a strong-looking leader – someone seen as upholding the minority’s values while (ideally) having broader appeal – is highly desirable.

That is highly desirable, and seemingly impossible, but another reader offers this:

The Republicans are in disarray. They aren’t in disarray for lack of a strong leader. Rather, Republicans depend upon “strong leaders” because without them, they’d have to face the source of the disarray, which is that their ideology is morally and intellectually bankrupt but they can’t fix the ideology without alienating key interest group constituencies in American politics.

And there’s a reason for that:

To my mind, that moral and intellectual bankruptcy has been obvious since at least 2005. The failure of the Social Security privatization push, the Schiavo debacle, the disintegration of Iraq into murderous chaos, and the hailing of a financial industry edging ever closer to outright criminality as the Miracle of Markets Creating Wealth and Prosperity for All.

All of these disasters – political, social and economic – were the consequence of Bush Administration’s application of the Reagan realignment policy paradigm to social and economic circumstances that no longer remotely resemble those existing in 1980. Privatization, tax cutting, the embrace of politicized Christian fundamentalist as policy, militaristic interventionism, and deregulation – of course the Bush Administration’s zealous application of those policy principles led to serial disasters for the GOP and the nation. All of the problems – real or perceived – that these policies were implemented to fix had long since been as “fixed” as it was possible for those principles to fix them. And yet they were compelled to keep acting like top marginal rates were at 90%, the Evil Empire had to be rolled back and business was groaning under the weight of oppressive regulation and mired in strangling red tape because the constituencies that were the pillars of the party’s electoral constituencies.

All that might have worked once, but times changed and it was all irrelevant, and failed, again and again – that was the Bush administration. There was a lesson there. If at first you don’t succeed with some old Reagan trick, and they you don’t succeed again, and then you just don’t quite succeed time after time again, it’s not time to try again – it’s time to try something else. They didn’t learn the lesson:

This is the cycle of American politics. One party controls the policy paradigm while the other initially resists, then accommodates and then, finally, emerges with a new(ish) paradigm of its own and takes control. We call these shifts in control of the paradigm that sets the agenda “realignments.” New policy paradigms arise to fix the problems created by the application of the last party’s policies long after the problems they were designed to fix were fixed. The new paradigm initially benefits all but naturally benefits some more than others. Those who benefit the most become the key constituencies that fund and drive the party’s turnout machinery. At a certain point, however, the problems created by the last paradigm’s policies are as fixed as the current paradigm’s policies can fix them and all the while demographic change – the one inexorable constant of American politics throughout history – keeps rolling. At that point, the continued application of the dominant policy paradigm ceases to benefit everyone, albeit unequally – and instead it becomes a matter of benefitting the dominant party’s key constituencies at the expense of everyone else.

There’s an easier way to say that. Things changed, as they always do, but they didn’t change, and now maybe they can’t change:

The problem this time, however, is that over the last thirty years, the GOP’s policies created one constituency – our bloated financial sector specifically and a top 1% that controls a greater share of the nation’s wealth than at any time since the gilded age – that presents a potentially insurmountable barrier to policy reform within the GOP, especially given the Supreme Court majority’s seeming determination to magnify their importance. That constituency demands policies that foster continued upward redistribution of wealth and if it doesn’t get them, there’s no reason for it to continue funding the GOP. Without that money, it’s got nothing because the electoral power of its other constituency – non-college-educated whites – is fading fast.

This is what’s behind all of the infighting and the stridency, the doubling down and the many, many seminars that all seem to end up concluding that there’s nothing wrong with the policy paradigm, they just haven’t articulated their views clearly enough – and, yes, the increasingly open racial animosity and resentment. They’re boxed in by their need to keep advocating policies that represent upward wealth redistribution to keep the money – the only thing that keeps them competitive – flowing but advocating those policies make them propose things that sound more and more obviously out of synch with reality which, in turn, makes them unelectable. The 2010 gerrymander may buy them a little more time, but in the end, gerrymandered electoral success will only drive them deeper into the trap they’re in and make it harder for them to change before it’s too late.

Okay then – the result of all this is that you get all sorts of different guys in the huddle, one after the other, slapping helmets, trying to rally the other ten guys, who stare stupidly at him, wondering what HIS problem is. The game was lost long ago, just like the whole season. The air is thick with irony, or should be. It’s time to join the marching band, where not much character-building will occur but at least no one knocks you on your ass every thirty seconds. There are some things you remember from long ago – lessons learned.

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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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