Navigating the New Normal

Teenage boys and eccentric old men like science fiction. The rest of us have enough to deal with in the real world – we don’t have time for fanciful alternatives. What Gene Roddenberry dreamed up in his Star Trek franchise was actually pretty cool however – a world where all sorts of different beings get along with each other quite well. The captain from Iowa is best friends with his Vulcan science officer, and later there was a black captain and a woman captain, although Sulu (George Takei) never did come out of the closet. That would have to wait until long after the original series wrapped, and in real life. Roddenberry’s alternative world really couldn’t be that alternative. He was positing an imaginary new normal, a world where tolerance and mutual respect, however unlikely, was simply a given – with that one exception. Still, to be fair, George Takei hadn’t come out at the time, and if he had, Paramount would have had a major marketing problem. The late sixties wasn’t the time to suggest that gay could be part of the new normal. It was just this year that the majority of the country decided they really have no problem with gay marriage at all, or with gay folks in general. Roddenberry didn’t imagine Ellen DeGeneres or Rachel Maddow, or Anderson Cooper – he couldn’t have. The new normal came along without Gene Roddenberry’s help.

Even slightly limited tolerance and mutual respect are good things of course, and George Lucas’ Star Wars world was much the same – everyone seemed to have a sidekick of another species – but all alternative worlds aren’t as jolly. Think of Orwell’s 1984 or Blade Runner or those Matrix movies – there the new normal is dystopian, with mind control and Big Brother and nothing but trouble, where everything is beyond hopeless. It’s as easy to look at the present and extrapolate a living hell in mankind’s future as it is to imagine the new normal will be just peachy, which is what makes science fiction so useless. The new normal is a best guess, informed by optimism and hope or, alternatively, by fear and loathing. It’s best to stick with the present, which offers its own challenges, and everyone says we’re already in the new normal anyway. This was the day we discovered that a majority of Americans actually think marijuana should be legalized – it’s just no big deal. That’s the new normal.

That should sound familiar. We’ve been told we’ve been living in the new normal since the September 11 attacks. Torture as a state policy, our policy, was the new normal, as was rendition and black sites, and now the targeted assassination of pesky folks anywhere in the world using those tiny remote-control aircraft. Secret drone warfare is the new normal and our own flying changed too. The TSA will pat you down – and your phone calls and email will be read and archived – all of them. Few object to any of this. It’s the new normal, as are few jobs, and those at low pay, and a new permanent class of those who know they will never work again, while the top one percent is ten times richer than ever and corporations have shown record-shattering profits for the last several years and are sitting on billions and billions in spare cash. The Occupy Wall Street folks put up a fuss, but everyone knows this is the new normal. Deal with it.

Politics changed too. Absolute and total polarization is the new normal. The days of compromise – from Henry Clay to Tip O’Neill – are long gone. Now Republicans are scared silly by their Tea Party wing – give an inch on anything, even talk to a Democrat at lunch, and they’ll find someone to run against you in the next primary, and you’ll be gone. Dick Lugar found that out, even if the Tea Party guy lost the general election. That wasn’t the point. You don’t work with the other side. It’s more important that those in office get that message than it is to hold onto any particular seat. All the seats lost by the new replacement Tea Party candidates, who lost their general elections, were necessary sacrifices.

This makes for a new normal, as we all saw in the first debt-ceiling crisis, the fiscal cliff crisis, the second debt-ceiling crisis, and then the recent threat to shut down the government, by refusing to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government, because the Ryan Budget, destroying almost all social services, had to be passed. It was one crisis after another – threatening chaos and destruction and the end of America as we know it – unless they got their way. It was the new normal. Each time, with each crisis, the Republicans gave in, but they got a little of what they wanted and promised to ruin everything the next time. That’s how you get things done now – hold the fate of the nation hostage until you get what little you can, give in, and then do it again the next time. This has been called a form of hostage-taking but the Tea Party crowd sees it as both heroic and pretty savvy. Those small wins add up. That’s worth the price of being seen as nasty jerks by the rest of America. Winning matters more than what some whiner thinks.

The Democrats seem to be having trouble adjusting to the new normal here. Some complain that this new Republican hostage-taking strategy is just not normal – things should be as they once were, with lively discussion and working things out with sensible give-and-take. Others say that’s wishful thinking – things have changed, forever, and the only thing to do now is do what the Republicans are doing – make absolute demands, concede nothing at all, ever, and grab what you can get. There’s no point in living in the past.

Now this had come to a head. President Obama knows we live in a new world. The new normal arrived two or three years ago, or even before that, as his presidency began, so he has a new plan:

President Obama next week will take the political risk of formally proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare in his annual budget in an effort to demonstrate his willingness to compromise with Republicans and revive prospects for a long-term deficit-reduction deal, administration officials say.

In a significant shift in fiscal strategy, Mr. Obama on Wednesday will send a budget plan to Capitol Hill that departs from the usual presidential wish list that Republicans typically declare dead on arrival. Instead it will embody the final compromise offer that he made to Speaker John A. Boehner late last year, before Mr. Boehner abandoned negotiations in opposition to the president’s demand for higher taxes from wealthy individuals and some corporations.

He plans to cut them off at the pass, but it’s tricky:

Congressional Republicans have dug in against any new tax revenues after higher taxes for the affluent were approved at the start of the year. The administration’s hope is to create cracks in Republicans’ anti-tax resistance, especially in the Senate, as constituents complain about the across-the-board cuts in military and domestic programs that took effect March 1.

Mr. Obama’s proposed deficit reduction would replace those cuts. And if Republicans continue to resist the president, the White House believes that most Americans will blame them for the fiscal paralysis.

In short, here’s what you want, so go ahead and reject it, just as you reject everything. He threw in chained-CPI – reducing cost-of-living payments for Social Security benefits, which his side hates, on the condition there’d be some new revenue in the deal, maybe not higher taxes but at least closing some really stupid tax loopholes. They’ll say no new revenue, ever, and look like jerks, and then they’ll give in again:

Neither the president nor senior aides privately hold much hope that Republican leaders – Mr. Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader – will compromise. So Mr. Obama’s strategy of reaching out to other Senate Republicans reflects a calculation that enough of them might cut a budget deal with the Democratic Senate majority. If that happens, the reasoning goes, a Senate-passed compromise would put pressure on the House to go along.

Obama’s friends were not impressed:

Liberals are mounting strong criticisms of President Obama amid news that his budget will include a Social Security benefit cut – an official endorsement of a policy compromise he’s offered Republicans for years – and warning Democrats not to dare vote to cut the cherished retirement program. …

“President Obama’s plan to cut Social Security would harm seniors who worked hard all their lives,” said MoveOn.org’s executive director Anna Galland. “That’s unconscionable. It’s even more outrageous given that Republicans in Congress aren’t even asking for this Social Security cut. This time, the drive to cut Social Security is being led by President Obama and Democrats.”

Stephanie Taylor of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee accused Obama of “proposing to steal thousands of dollars from grandparents and veterans” and threatened to subject any Democrat who votes for a Social Security benefit cut to a primary challenge.

“You can’t call yourself a Democrat and support Social Security benefit cuts,” Taylor said in a statement. “The President has no mandate to cut these benefits, and progressives will do everything possible to stop him.”

There’s much more, but they don’t see the new normal here. Matthew Yglesias does, but he sees Obama’s strategy as rather risky:

The core issue is that this is a compromise the GOP has already rejected. They’ve rejected it in its details, and they’ve also rejected it as a general concept. So if this budget is meant to underscore Obama’s eagerness for a deal and willingness to compromise it doesn’t really achieve that. So what it’s really meant to do is throw the extent of GOP unreasonableness and unwillingness to compromise into stark relief. But I don’t know what the cash value of that strategy is. To any reasonable person, the fact that the GOP ran in 2008 and 2010 and 2012 on a platform of all-cuts deficit reduction makes that clear. If you need further evidence you can look at the GOP’s negotiating strategy during the 2011 debt ceiling battle, during the fiscal cliff in the 2012 lame duck session, and all throughout the sequestration controversy. You can ask John Boehner. Or Eric Cantor. Or Mitch McConnell. There’s a lot that’s murky in American politics, but it’s incredibly clear that the reason we don’t have a grand bargain on the budget is that Republicans don’t want one. It’s time for John Boehner to show some leadership and get a deal done, but he doesn’t want to. It’s crystal clear and utterly unambiguous. The White House is frustrated by the fact that lots of folks in the media don’t seem to see it the way I do and this budget is, among other things, part of a strategy to turn that around. But that’s a doomed strategy. The ways of bipartisanthink are mysterious and won’t be unraveled by any new proposals. To many people, the fact that a deal hasn’t been made is all the proof they need that both sides are equally at fault.

Yglesias sees two risks:

Inside the Beltway, Republicans can say “well, look, we disagree about taxes but why don’t we just do these entitlement reforms that even the president thinks we should do.” Meanwhile, outside the Beltway Republican candidates can run ads castigating Democrats for bankrupting the country so badly that they want to add Social Security cuts to the dastardly Medicare cuts they already implemented.

Maybe so, but Kevin Drum adds an interesting twist:

This will be an interesting test of the theory that one of the things preventing a deal has been simple Republican ignorance of what Obama has offered. Once these things are in the official budget, there’s simply no way to ignore them. They’ll get a ton of coverage – including massive outrage from the liberal base – and there will be enough detail that even Bill O’Reilly should be satisfied that Obama is offering a “real plan.” The fact that Obama is proposing serious cuts in entitlements will finally be impossible to ignore.

It’s just that such things don’t matter much:

Will this pave the way for a deal? I have my doubts, because I never thought that ignorance was truly a roadblock. Any Republican paying even minimal attention knew what Obama was offering earlier this year, and the ones not paying minimal attention simply didn’t want to know. Their ignorance was mostly a deliberate strategic choice: it allowed them to continue railing against Obama without having to engage with the facts of what he was offering, and that was pretty convenient for most of them. This option will be taken away next week, but since it was never the true roadblock, they’ll simply switch to other objections.

At least, that’s my guess. As a strategy to change the media narrative, this might work, but as a strategy to change Republican priorities, it won’t. It will simply be the latest in a long line of preemptive concessions, none of which have worked before. Republicans will treat the spending cuts as a new baseline to negotiate down from, while treating the revenue increases as dead on arrival.

But I might be wrong! Certainly it will change the tone of the conversation, and the more outraged liberals get about this the better it will be for Obama.

The man is playing the long game, and Greg Sargent explains the White House thinking this way:

They believe a Grand Bargain is good for Democrats in general, because it essentially would lock in a medium-term agreement over core disputes – about the safety net and about the size of government, and who should pay for it – that have produced a debilitating stalemate in Washington.

Yes, Republicans would continue railing about government spending, the thinking goes, but no one would listen, since they would have already endorsed a deal stabilizing the deficit. This would deprive Republicans of the ability to focus attention on one of their core targets – Big Government – as a way to avoid grappling with other issues, such as jobs and long-term middle class economic security, immigration, guns, and perhaps even climate change. Reaching a deal on the deficit will force Republicans to confront those problems more directly and to choose between real cooperation on them or continue to calcify as a hidebound, reactionary party incapable of addressing major challenges facing the country.

Drum is not impressed:

Yeah, maybe… Of course, that’s also a pretty good reason for Republicans to refuse to cut a deal. Why bother if all it does is pave the way for Obama to spend lots of time on wedge issues that are good for Democrats and bad for them?

The truth is that, for the most part, the deficit isn’t a real issue for Republicans. They don’t want to raise taxes; they don’t want to cut defense spending; they don’t want to cut entitlement spending on seniors (the core of their base); and cutting future entitlements doesn’t affect the deficit any time soon. The only thing left is cutting spending on the poor, and although Republicans think that’s a fine idea, even they can’t cut social welfare spending enough to have a serious impact on the deficit.

So it’s mostly a charade. And it’s a good one! One of the very best, in fact! Cutting the deficit polls well, it lends itself nicely to demagoguery, and it’s an all-purpose excuse to oppose any spending proposals they don’t like. So why on earth would you cut a deal to take it off the table? That would be crazy. And if they’re forced to swallow a tax increase as well, that makes it even crazier. There’s literally no benefit at all in this for Republicans.

They won’t do it, and Drum adds this:

Obama’s real hope – since I assume he’s not an idiot and knows all this perfectly well – is that Republicans will indeed refuse to make a deal, and, as Sargent suggests, this could turn the public against them in the 2014 midterms. I suppose that’s possible, depending on how well he plays his hand. It’s certainly more possible than assuming that Republicans will voluntarily commit electoral suicide by agreeing to a deal.

No one said that navigating the new normal would be easy, and Paul Krugman just throws up his hands:

So what’s this about? The answer, I fear, is that Obama is still trying to win over the Serious People, by showing that he’s willing to do what they consider Serious – which just about always means sticking it to the poor and the middle class. The idea is that they will finally drop the false equivalence, and admit that he’s reasonable while the GOP is mean-spirited and crazy.

But it won’t happen. Watch the Washington Post editorial page over the next few days. I hereby predict that it will damn Obama with faint praise, saying that while it’s a small step in the right direction, of course it’s inadequate – and anyway, Obama is to blame for Republican intransigence, because he could make them accept a Grand Bargain that includes major revenue increases if only he would show Leadership (TM).

Krugman also knows that the Republicans will soon start running ads saying that Obama wants to cut your Social Security. This is a hard game to play, and Digby (Heather Parton) says he’ll lose the long game anyway:

I also think this has to do with his original desire to be the trans-partisan president who broke down all the partisan walls and “changed Washington.” If his legacy is the signing a private sector style health care plan while cutting “entitlements”, lowering the deficit, allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for those making more than 400 thousand a year, reversing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and turning Bush’s Global War on Terror into a Global Covert War on Terror, he will have succeeded in mostly pleasing people who hate him and disappointing those who placed their hopes and dreams in his hands – which by Village standards is the ultimate accomplishment.

And that’s not much of an accomplishment:

The problem is that it will not have changed Washington – it will merely have changed the Democratic Party. Republicans will never acknowledge him as someone who “met them halfway.” A good number of them literally believe he’s the anti-Christ. So, they’re not going to give him any credit, ever. I think his liberal legacy is probably in bigger trouble (and definitely is if he ever signs a bill to cut Social Security, veterans benefits and Medicare.) But I think he’s counting on the Villagers pushing the idea that he did all the “tough” things, jumped on the third rail, passed health care, raised taxes etc. – all the bad medicine these wealthy elites insist the silly rubes need to swallow in order for the country to be healthy again.

She’s bitter, but that too is the new normal. The silly rubes – the poor and the middle class – do need to swallow their nasty medicine in order for the country to be healthy again. Everyone knows this. Gay marriage is fine, marijuana should be legal, and serious people know that sticking it to the poor and the middle class is the responsible thing to do, to keep the very few rich very happy, so they might create a few extra minimum wage jobs here and there, if they feel like it. And the politicians we elect will of course refuse to talk to each other, which is heroic or something.

There’s a reason people watch old Star Trek reruns. That may be a totally false future, but it is pleasant. The future we stumbled into isn’t.

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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 Obama Budget Plan, Political Gridlock, Republican Hostage-Taking, Republican Obstructionism, Social Security and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Navigating the New Normal

  1. BabaO says:

    The difference in tactics between Paul Ryan and his wealthy brain trust, and those of Baby Dear Leader Kim and his huge-hatted retinue are so miniscule as to be invisible. Whine, screech and ocassionally dance on the saber’s edge – all to obtain by gift something[s] that they’re incapable of producing for themselves, and all at no cost to themselves.

    Separated at birth should be a working theory. Ignoring their babble might be a reasonable working practice.

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