The Never-Ending Train Wreck

Out here in Hollywood we do disaster – because it sells. Things should blow up or burn up or collapse or run into each other. Here’s a quick snapshot of Hollywood Boulevard just down the street here on a weekday afternoon in the middle of September a few years ago – all blown up with the extras pretending to run for their lives, with wreckage everywhere. The movie was Hancock – released the next July, as postproduction takes forever and choosing the right release date is also tricky. Disaster movies always open in the summer, when the kids aren’t in school, but this one disappeared pretty quickly. The characters were sour and surly. Massive chaos will only get you so far, and the next day all that fake wreckage disappeared too – the streets reopened and we could all get to the grocery store.

This sort of thing happens now and then, although less and less as CGI has matured to the point where all the wreckage, and the action that causes it, is now virtual. That’s fine – it solves a lot of local traffic problems here – but it’s still true that there’s nothing like a massive train wreck to make a movie special, and train wrecks are better with real trains. Here’s a list of the best twenty-five of them – the classic is in The General from 1926, a Buster Keaton silent – but they’re all good. Everyone loves a good train wreck.

That’s how everyone seems to be talking about the Republican Party these days, as an ongoing train wreck, but no one’s enjoying this one. It’s not Hollywood make-believe. It’s one of our two political parties collapsing, and it’s nice to have two parties, to keep each other from going too crazy about this and that. Now all the Republicans can seem to do is argue with each other about who’s more severely conservative and who’s been seduced by the dark side – that evil temptress, pragmatism. This in turn has led to reflexively rejecting anything Obama and the Democrats propose – even if they proposed it in the first place, which flummoxes the Democrats, because now they can’t propose anything. If it’s their idea it’s rejected out of hand, and if it’s a Republican idea, that’s rejected too. It must be a trick – some kind of trap. That means nothing can be proposed, really. So nothing will ever change. Nothing will ever get done, and the Republicans can say that proves they were right all along – government is useless so just let the free market decide everything, based on what makes money. Ronald Reagan did keep saying that government is never the solution to anything – it’s always the problem – and he must have been right, because he was right about everything.

This is a disaster, but not of the Hollywood kind, where everything works out after ninety-four minutes or so. People die. Think of George Bush’s two prophylactic land wars in central Asia – or preemptive wars if you like – thousands of our guys killed and tens of thousands maimed, and eight or ten veterans a day committing suicide, and a trillion or two down the drain with not much to show for any of it. Think of New Orleans and Katrina. Think of all the massive deregulation of anything vaguely financial that led to almost total economic collapse – ruining lives forever. This train wreck started long ago, and then John McCain said he’d proudly extend it, and he chose Sarah Palin to run with him, who was a walking talking train wreck all on her own. Mitt Romney tried to be a little more slick about it, and Paul Ryan did a good imitation of seriousness – until you realized it was Ayn Rand talking. All that stuff about the makers and the takers was disastrous for the party, capped off by Romney’s forty-seven-percent comments. That was a special train wreck – you don’t say that nearly half the citizens of the country are useless moochers who have no sense of personal responsibility and never will have one, so they should be ignored, or maybe they should just die or something. Democrats were amused – Obama won reelection rather easily, Democrats held the Senate easily, thanks to a number of Republican Senate candidates who were so severely conservative that they seemed unhinged, and Democrats got a million more votes than the Republicans in the House races. But they also knew something was terribly wrong. When the other party’s a train wreck you have a disaster, a real one – and the Republicans kept control of the House, so they could continue to do untold damage, saying no to everything, even their own ideas.

A train wreck shouldn’t last twelve years, and keep going, as it just did with the opening of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference – CPAC – sponsored by the American Conservative Union. It’s a showcase for the Republican Party’s top presidential prospects, and those who are the big guns on that side – but this year they invited a number of walking train wrecks – Sarah Palin and Donald Trump and Allen West, and Herman Cain too. Others weren’t so lucky:

Two Republican governors were left off the guest list after perceived ideological breaches: Chris Christie of New Jersey, who drew conservative ire for embracing Mr. Obama after Hurricane Sandy and recently accepted federal money for an extension of Medicaid, and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, a star of last year’s gathering who recently backed a road improvement program that included tax increases.

Al Cardenas, the Conservative Union president, told reporters that organizers concluded that Mr. Christie had not earned a spot in the “all-star” program because of “decisions he made,” but that he could be invited next year. Mr. Cardenas dismissed the notion that Mr. McDonnell’s absence was based on ideological considerations.

They had been seduced by that seductress, pragmatism – Christie wanted to rebuild his state after the storm of the century practically destroyed it, and McDonnell wanted to fix the roads in his state. Neither saw government as inherently evil, as there was stuff that needed to be done. That was something like Original Sin with these folks, so they listened to Rand Paul and Marco Rubio instead:

Mr. Paul and Mr. Rubio, the most anticipated speakers on Thursday, displayed differences as bare as those within the party at large. Mr. Rubio called for a reassertion of the traditional, Reagan-era values of limited government at home while Mr. Paul called for a more libertarian approach that would shrink America’s role in the world.

Mr. Rubio, whose Cuban-American heritage is a perceived strength after the party’s huge losses last year among Hispanic voters, did not dwell on his proposals to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, which include a path to citizenship for those here illegally. (The crowd’s reaction to the general notion of a road to citizenship for illegal immigrants seemed to range from lukewarm to hostile.)

Instead, Mr. Rubio offered a new defense of the party’s longstanding strain of social conservatism, saying that “just because I believe states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot.”

Some would say it does, but whatever. The train wreck continues, and Rubio was wise not to mention immigration reform at all. Rick Perry mentioned it and got booed – but that happened to Perry in the primary debates too, so he’s probably used to it. The only one there who tried to stop the wreck was a surprise:

“Well, we lost,” said Republican strategist Dick Morris as he took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside of suburban Washington, D.C., on Thursday. And in order to win the next election, Morris delivered some bad news to Republicans: They need to change…

“We lost because of demographic mathematics,” said Morris, who famously predicted days before the November 2012 election that Mitt Romney would win in a landslide. … To fix this problem, Morris urged Republicans to pass immigration reform immediately. Once the immigration issue is out of the way, he argued, Latinos would embrace the conservative values, switch sides and ultimately become “the salvation of the Republican Party.”

Sure, but he also predicted Romney would win by a landslide. Still this was even odder:

In order to win back young women, Morris argued that Republicans should stop trying to make abortion illegal and instead focus on a bipartisan effort to reduce the instances of abortion.

“Single white women run screaming from the Republican Party, largely because of our pro-life position,” Morris said. Morris stressed that Republicans can remain pro-life in principle, but needed to shift their focus away from the courts and embrace polices like “adoption, adoption tax incentives, birth control, abstinence, parental notification, parental support … a whole range of efforts, some sponsored by the right, some sponsored by the left.”

Overturning Roe v. Wade, he said, was “a case we’re never going to win.”

Then he went off the deep end:

Moving on to the budget wars, Morris explained that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) was wrong to focus on balancing the budget by 2023, the main selling point of his latest budget released this week.

“Only about 5 to 7 percent of his total cuts come from the Medicare program,” Morris said. “Why mess with those programs? Why lose ten years of elections because of those programs.”

“So we don’t get to zero,” Morris continued. “So we don’t balance the budget. Who cares if we have $100 billion deficit – or $120 billion? The important point is – what’s the ratio between the deficit and our economy.” …

“Let’s get away from the hypnotic phrase ‘balanced budget,’ and stop being accountants and start being politicians,” Morris said, repudiating the exact message Republican leadership has been sending this week.

Were he not the go-to guy on Fox News they would have stoned him to death for heresy. As it was, folks later asked for his autograph. Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill, the real word came down from on high:

Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that election losses last November would not deter his party from pressing its vision of reducing the size of government and turning government health care programs largely over to the private sector – with no more tax increases.

Insurance companies want to make money – lots of it – so that will create the best possible healthcare system the world has ever seen. The profit motive creates good for everyone. You can trust the insurance companies to do the right thing, screwing no one, because that would be bad for business – just like you could always trust the guys on Wall Street. Those election losses last November were not about such things at all:

In an interview, Mr. Boehner said that candidates and personalities – not Republican proposals on Medicare and spending cuts – accounted for the party’s defeats, taking a hard line on further budget talks even as Senate Republicans met with President Obama in a search for common ground.

“There are a lot of things that decide an election, especially the two candidates that you have, the personalities that they have, positions they have taken,” he said.

“There are a lot of factors that went into that election,” he added. “I don’t know that that’s the issue. Eighty percent of the American people think that Washington has a spending problem.”

Yeah, but they don’t want to be screwed either, or lose all the benefits they paid for, or see the government do nothing at all. In spite of this interview, Boehner knows better:

The chances of a government shutdown at the end of the month keep going down.

On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner avoided one more tripwire when he rejected conservative demands that Republicans use government funding legislation to pick a fight over defunding the Affordable Care Act.

“Trying to put Obamacare on this vehicle risks shutting down the government,” Boehner told reporters at his weekly Capitol briefing. “That’s not what our goal is. Our goal is to reduce spending.”

He may be severely conservative, but he’s not suicidal, and he doesn’t want his party to be suicidal either. Sometimes it’s best to avoid train wrecks, as exciting as they are.

It’s just that train wrecks are now unavoidable, as Jonathan Chait explains:

The continued inability of President Obama and House Republicans to reach some sort of compromise in the budget wars has inspired an endless stream of advice, pleas, psychoanalysis, and befuddlement. Why oh why can’t the two sides meet in the middle somewhere?

The impasse has many causes, but the most fundamental of them may be that the entire left-right conception may be misplaced. If the goals of the two parties can be plotted along a left-right axis, then a sane negotiation ought to locate some sort of midpoint – a bit more tax here, a bit less spending there. But the release of the budget documents, first by House Republicans and then by Senate Democrats, suggests that the disagreements don’t lie along a simple left-right axis. The parties can’t find a middle ground because a middle ground does not exist.

Here’s the problem. Obama wants to give in to cuts on retirement programs, perhaps to avoid a gradual increase in taxes and to appease the folks on the right, and he wants a delay in deficit reduction until the economy has actually recovered a bit, and he seems to think that economic inequality needs to be addressed and really shouldn’t be allowed to increase. Chait notes that the cuts in retirement programs are a real concession to the Republicans that Paul Ryan doesn’t even acknowledge in his plan. Ryan just wants his voucher system that transforms everything, and “rather than postponing his cuts to avoid economic contraction, Ryan would implement those cuts immediately” – and he won’t compromise on that – as Chait explains. “Where Obama insists that deficit reduction not widen income inequality, Ryan views it primarily as an opportunity to widen income inequality. Indeed, the inequality-widening characteristics of his budget are far more concrete than its deficit-reducing characteristics.”

That’s classic – two locomotives speeding toward each other on the same track. It’s a great Hollywood bit, but gets us nowhere:

In either case, Ryan views budget reforms as primarily an opportunity to defend the makers from the takers, and only secondarily as an exercise in fiscal balancing.

Viewed in this light, the impasse looks very hard to bridge. Obama and Ryan aren’t proposing different solutions to the same problem. They are attacking completely different problems, and the things each of them defines as a problem, the other side does not. The only path to agreement would seem to involve Obama going around Ryan and picking off a minority of Republicans unable to stomach sequestration and willing to compromise. Consummating a deal with Ryan seems ideologically impossible.

The only hope is to take back the House in 2014, and John Sargent says the Democrats have a plan for that:

I’m told that national Democrats are planning to mount a major campaign to hammer Republican candidates – particularly ones in swing areas – over a specific aspect of the Paul Ryan budget: The possibility that it could result in middle class tax hikes.

The idea, a source tells me, is to tie this back to the political trap that ensnared Mitt Romney during last year’s campaign – his inability to explain how his massive tax rate cuts, including on the rich, would be paid for without closing loopholes enjoyed by the middle class.

Yes, people do like writing off interest on the mortgage, and taxes credits and deductions for children. Ryan is silent on those matters. He just wants the rich to pay twenty-five percent, not the marginal rate of thirty-nine percent or so, and everyone else to pay ten percent. He’s not sure how to keep the government running on that revenue steam – cut some loopholes maybe, but he won’t say which. That’s for later.

Maybe the Democrats can make something of this, but its’ still pretty vague. You trust the man or you don’t. He’ll say no more.

Whether you trust the man or not, or his party, depends on whether you believe the Republican Party is no longer the Train Wreck Party, addicted to the excitement of doom and disaster, like the studios out here in Hollywood. Tim Dickinson at Rolling Stone says don’t bet on it:

Even the Republicans’ best efforts to demonstrate that the party is moving forward have backfired. The Violence Against Women Act expired in 2011, and Republican obstructionism blocked its reauthorization. After the election, GOP leaders were desperate to put the issue behind them. But to pass VAWA in February, Speaker Boehner had to suspend normal House rules, which require a majority of the majority party to pass a bill, and team up with Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats to reauthorize the law. In all, 160 House and Senate members voted against the act – all of them Republicans.

If this is the “new” Republican Party, it looks even more radical than your father’s, or even your grandfather’s. A leading new face on the party’s right flank – Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – recalls a famous 1950s Republican right down to the crook in his nose. Channeling Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Cruz has declared Barack Obama to be “the most radical” president in our history, adding that Obama was educated at Harvard Law School by “Marxists” who, Cruz insists, “believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.”

It may be tempting to believe that danger posed by the GOP’s lunatic fringe is cabined off in the House and the states of the Great Flyover. But 2014 is already looming, and vulnerable Democrats will be contesting Senate seats in red states from Alaska to Arkansas and Louisiana to South Dakota, as well as in hotly contested battlegrounds like Virginia and North Carolina. Flip just six seats, and the GOP will control Congress – and set the agenda of the last two years of the Obama administration. Here’s hoping that when the next wave of Todd Akins or Richard Mourdocks charge onto the scene – mouthing off about “legitimate rape” or the latest Tea Party cause célèbre, that the American body politic has the good sense to shut that whole thing down.

Maybe we can contain the intentional train wrecks to Hollywood, or maybe not. Everyone loves a good disaster movie. Republicans like them in real life. That’s a problem. But take a look – even that crew on Hollywood Boulevard knew it was all nonsense, for the rubes.

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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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