Out to Prove Something

Maybe Vince Lombardi said it, or maybe he didn’t, but many a coach has repeated it to fire up his team. Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser. The general idea is that accepting defeat gracefully, and with dignity, is still accepting defeat, and one should never accept defeat, ever. Think like a winner, always. That’s intended to be inspirational advice, except that it leads to dark places. Yeah, stay angry. Keep that fire in the belly, as they say, but doing that can be counterproductive. Everyone’s seen it. The guys who are losing badly often do things to show they don’t like it one damned bit. In baseball, when a team’s down ten runs in the ninth, their pitcher might bean one of the opposing batters, just to prove how much he and his team hate what’s happening – to prove a point, that they’re not wimps, and they should be taken seriously. That’s always followed by a brawl, and that pitcher is ejected, usually along with his manager and a few others, but that really doesn’t matter anyway, because they proved their point. No one’s going to push them around. The only problem is that they lost anyway.

In football it’s the same thing – when a team’s down five touchdowns with thirty seconds to play, a proud and fired-up linebacker on the losing team might take out the other team’s star quarterback at the knees, ending that guy’s season and maybe his career. There will be a massive fine, and maybe a suspension, but the losing team made their point. They may have lost, but everyone should take them seriously, and respect them. Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser. If you can’t win, do irreparable damage on the way out. Everyone will remember you. That was Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders for decades, the most penalized team in football, and proud of it. Their fans loved it. It was almost as good as winning, except that it wasn’t winning. It was doing damage. Al Davis and his giant thugs on steroids confused the two. Vince Lombardi has a lot to answer for.

It seems to be the same in politics, where the Republicans are the losers who refuse, on principle, to be good losers. They lost the House and Senate in the 2006 midterms, and thus couldn’t stop passage of the Affordable Care Act after 2008 when Obama took office. They never won back the Senate, but in the 2010 midterms, they did win back the House, thanks to the gerrymandering that was possible due to that year’s census – and thanks to those elected from the Tea Party crowd, an unruly group who think establishment Republicans are wimps, but vote with the Republicans anyway, when they feel like it. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 is now law – signed, sealed and delivered, and declared quite constitutional by the very conservative Supreme Court – so they lost, but they can still do damage. It can be defunded. It can be without leadership, if the Republican minority in the Senate can find a way to block confirmation of key folks. The same goes with that Dodd-Franck financial reform package. They can find a way to make implementation of any of that impossible, even if it is the law. They will never confirm anyone to run its mandated consumer protection bureau. Obama could nominate Ted Nugent or Chuck Norris or Donald Trump to run the thing and it wouldn’t matter. The law requires such a thing, but there are ways around that. Irreparable damage can be done.

Yes, making it so thirty or forty million more Americans can have health insurance is a good thing, as is protecting all consumers from financial fraud, especially with mortgages – but those would be wins for Obama, not them. People might respect Obama for both, but the Republicans want respect too. If you can’t win, at least you can do real damage. People will be sorry if they decided they no longer needed to take Republicans seriously – and you see that play out with Obama too. They’ll block everything he tries, even if they thought of it in the first place, and everyone he appoints, even Republicans, no matter what damage that causes. The federal court system is running out of judges, but they’ll confirm none, and the court system could fall apart. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling could crash the world’s economy – they know that – but they’ll risk that too. They WILL be taken seriously. If Obama were a quarterback they’d go for his knees. He may have won the presidency twice, easily, but he can still be carried off the field on a stretcher. All they have to do is come up with a scandal that actually is a scandal. That’s not been going well – Benghazi didn’t pan out and the IRS thing wasn’t what they thought – but they’ll keep their eyes open for something else.

As for now, they’ll settle for irreparably damaging comprehensive immigration reform, passed overwhelming by the Senate, as fourteen Republicans there, who decided this was a good thing, joined all the Democrats and the thing passed by a wide margin. Now the Senate bill has gone to the House, and in fear that no one would ever take real Republicans seriously if the House simply passed it too, Republicans there are saying it won’t do. They want to write their own bill – or no bill at all – maybe we should forget the whole thing – otherwise no one would ever take them seriously again, or something. They need to do some damage. That’s the only option now.

This is driving David Brooks, one of the New York Times’ conservative columnists, over the edge:

Conservative commentators like my friends Bill Kristol and Rich Lowry are arguing that the status quo is better than the comprehensive approach passed by the Senate. The whole effort is in peril.

This could be a tragedy for the country and political suicide for Republicans, especially because the conservative arguments against the comprehensive approach are not compelling.

After all, the Senate bill fulfills the four biggest conservative objectives. Conservatives say they want economic growth. The Senate immigration bill is the biggest pro-growth item on the agenda today. Based on estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, the Senate bill would increase the gross domestic product by 3.3 percent by 2023 and by 5.4 percent by 2033. A separate study by the American Action Forum found that it would increase per capita income by $1,700 after 10 years.

Conservatives say they want to bring down debt. According to government estimates, the Senate bill would reduce federal deficits by up to $850 billion over the next 20 years. The Senate bill reduces the 75-year Social Security fund shortfall by half-a-trillion dollars.

Conservatives say they want to reduce illegal immigration. The Senate bill spends huge amounts of money to secure the border. According to the CBO the bill would reduce illegal immigration by somewhere between 33 percent to 50 percent. True, it would not totally eliminate illegal immigration, but it would do a lot better than current law, which reduces illegal immigration by 0 percent.

Conservatives say they want to avoid a European-style demographic collapse. But without more immigrants, and the higher fertility rates they bring, that is exactly what the U.S. faces. Plus, this bill radically increases the number of high-skilled immigrants. It takes millions of long-term resident families out of the shadows so they can lead more mainstream lives.

What’s the big problem here? Brooks reviews all the Kristol-Lowry arguments, one by one, and finds them silly, which may or may not be fascinating, depending on whether you like watching conservatives argue with each other, but this is telling:

The final conservative point of opposition is a political one. Republicans should not try to win back lower-middle-class voters with immigration reform; they should do it with a working-class agenda.

This argument would be slightly plausible if Republicans had even a hint of such an agenda, but they don’t. Even then it would fail. Before Asians, Hispanics and all the other groups can be won with economic plans, they need to feel respected and understood by the GOP. They need to feel that Republicans respect their ethnic and cultural identity. If Republicans reject immigration reform, that will be a giant sign of disrespect, and nothing else Republicans say will even be heard.

Andrew Sullivan carries that forward:

This is what so many on the right just don’t understand. Their very arguments against universal healthcare and gay marriage and immigration reform are all made as if the working poor, gays, and illegal Latino immigrants were not in the room. You think we don’t hear that in the tone and content of what they are saying? It’s the way in which people who desperately need healthcare are dismissed as abstractions, or in which gays are never offered any actual policy but avoidance and disdain, or in which hard-working immigrants – living in a kind of radical insecurity no white native-born Republican has ever fully experienced or imagined – are simply told to hang around for a few more years, or “self-deport.” That bespeaks a disconnect that obscures any capacity to govern this country as it actually is – rather than as they would like it to be.

Sullivan sees something terribly wrong here:

Actual conservatism should not be averse to an imperfect compromise to resolve a festering and difficult socio-economic problem. Actual conservatives should see the essentially conservative case for reform that Brooks outlines. But, alas, we are not dealing with actual conservatives, prepared to negotiate or reform the bill for the better. We are dealing with what Richard Hofstadter called “pseudoconservatives” – alienated, paranoid, visceral loathers of any concession to the party that just won popular vote majorities for House, Senate and the presidency.

One might also blame Vince Lombardi, but the New York Times’ other conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, offers a counterargument:

Take away the legalization-first provisions, and you lose the bill’s unanimous Democratic support; take away its promise of cheap labor, and you lose its key right-of-center constituency (the Chamber of Commerce and business in general); take away both, and the bill starts to look like the kind of much more modest legislation that the House has already passed. And if you prefer that kind of modest, “let’s have more high-skilled workers” reform to what the Senate bill sets out to do, it’s hard to see how an amendment or a conference is going to close the gulf between the two approaches, and simply ridiculous to say that opponents should vote yes now and save their objections till the next debate or “the next generation.” On the contrary: Opposing the central features of a major piece of legislation is pretty much the definition of a good reason to cut bait and just vote “no.”

In short, do enough damage, stripping out this provision and that, and there’s nothing to argue about and nothing worth passing – problem solved.

Sullivan will have none of that:

But since the entire point of the bill is to do something about the plight of millions of illegal aliens already in the country who cannot be rounded up and deported en masse, criticizing it for doing just that is absurd. It’s not a “modest version” of the bill to restrict it to just high-skilled workers. It’s a gutting of the entire point of it. It reminds me of the GOP’s response to healthcare reform. They simply assume that all those who need healthcare can do without it – or besiege emergency rooms as they now do. All they want is their ideologically pure versions of laws … or nothing whatever.

They’re sore losers, who miss the whole point anyway:

Legislation exists to solve or ameliorate tangible, emergent problems. But for Ross, the uninsured can just disappear and illegal immigrants can be ignored when they are not being deported. This is why this approach is nihilist. It has no intention of doing anything to address these bleedingly obvious problems. It just wishes them away because they require some ideological adjustment or a willingness to work within the system with a duly elected president and Senate and make compromises. And wishing them away consigns millions to radical insecurity in their lives, jobs and health.

It’s also worth noting that Ross is attacking core tenets of Catholic teachings on both universal healthcare and immigration. That would not matter if he didn’t portray himself as an advocate for Catholic policies over all. But believing that the poor can do without healthcare and that illegal immigrants can simply survive as useful outcasts in this country is so counter to the core teachings of the Gospels it’s still striking to see a leading Catholic legitimize them. Why does Ross not acknowledge how opposed he is to the church’s teachings on this issue? And explain why?

Yes, Sullivan is trying to shame Douthat, one Catholic trying to shame another, so Sullivan enlists another Catholic, the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, by citing what the third guy says:

I think the interests of illegal immigrants have some weight, because they’re people, and if the lot of any group of people can be improved that is, all else equal, worth doing. But offering them legalization is not a requirement of justice, and so it’s fine to haggle over terms.

Sullivan:

What’s so striking about this is that the fact that illegal immigrants are human beings is a concession here. It seems to me that in a humane society, let alone for a Catholic, that is a premise, not a concession. And haggling over terms is what legislation is about. It’s precisely what the GOP refuses to do – on anything.

That gets to the heart of it, but Catholic theology aside, and human decency aside, it should be noted that in the real world you don’t get points for doing damage. Hell, in the sports world you don’t get points either. You may prove something, but you still lose. John Sides suggest that Republicans just do the math:

One prominent theory of party identification is that people identify with the party that they associate with social groups they like or belong to. So it’s not so much about policy, or what the parties “stand for.” It’s who the parties “stand with.” The challenge for the GOP is that even if it supports other policies that many Latinos support, its hostility to immigration reform may be the driving force behind a broader impression: that the Democrats are “the party of Latinos.” And once those impressions are formed, they are very difficult to change. As I’ve noted, the perception that the GOP is the “party of the rich” really has not changed for 60 years.

Now, how firmly established is any impression that the GOP is not “the party of Latinos”? Probably not that firmly established, especially in the minds of Latinos that are not yet citizens. Most are unaffiliated, as noted, and only 25% identify as Democrats and 3% as Republicans. But among those that are naturalized citizens? Nearly half – 44% – identify as Democrats and only 15% as Republicans. In other words, the 22-point advantage Democrats have among non-citizen Latinos becomes 29 points among Latino citizens. This, to me, suggests that the “political environment” is not currently working in Republicans’ favor.

And if immigration reform were to fail, it is hard for me to see the environment becoming any more favorable.

It pays to look at the scoreboard now and then, unless you’re more interested in doing damage, so people take you seriously, rather than being interested in actually winning.

If you’re interested in actually winning, you don’t do things like this:

House lawmakers approved a scaled-back version of the farm bill Thursday after stripping out the popular food-stamp program used by 48 million Americans.

The bill narrowly passed on a 216-208 vote, largely along party lines. A dozen Republicans voted against the measure while no Democrats voted in favor.

Yes, no more food stamps, unless they get around to that later, and Jonathan Chait provides some background:

Should the government subsidize business owners because their business is agriculture? The answer – even to somebody relatively friendly to government, like me – is obviously not. Running a farm is not inherently more virtuous or necessary than running a gas station or a bookstore. Farmers earn more than the average American. Washington should get out of the business of paying farmers directly (or indirectly, through price supports that drive up food costs) altogether.

The political complication that comes into play is that farm subsidies have traditionally been packaged together with food stamps. Food stamps strike me as an especially meritorious program. Giving people money because they’re so poor they struggle to eat regularly makes way, way, way more sense than giving people money because they’re in a particular (and generally lucrative) line of work. You could replace food stamps with some other kind of cash grant, but the main idea of helping people because they’re poor is sound.

Historically, the two programs have passed together. There’s some policy rationale for this. Some of the farm subsidies drive up the price of food, making it harder for poor people to buy the food and thus making it more necessary to subsidize them. But the main rationale for joining food stamps is political. It gets urban liberals to vote for farm subsidies that hurt their constituents, and it gets rural conservatives to tolerate food stamps that they’d otherwise oppose. And since advocates of both farm subsidies and food stamps fear losing their program more than anything else, they strongly endorse keeping them together.

No longer – that’s now over as things have changed:

It’s no longer novel that conservative Republicans have positioned themselves to Obama’s left on domestic spending that benefits their own constituencies. We have seen three years of Republicans attacking Obama for robbing Grandma’s Medicare. But at least Medicare is a justifiable program. The existence of farm subsidies is insane, and the fact that a party that hates government so much it engages in a continuous guerilla war of shutdowns, manufactured currency crises, and outright sabotage can’t eliminate it may be the most telling indicator of the GOP’s venality. They only hate necessary government spending. Totally unjustifiable spending is fine with them.

Even Ross Douthat this time thinks this is madness:

This is egregious whatever you think of the food stamp program, and it’s indicative of why the endless, often-esoteric debates about the Republican future actually matter to our politics. Practically any conception of the common good – libertarian or communitarian or anywhere in between – would produce better policy than a factionally-driven approach of further subsidizing the rich while cutting programs for the poor. The compassionate-conservative GOP of George W. Bush combined various forms of corporate welfare with expanded spending on social programs, which was obviously deeply problematic in various ways … but not as absurd and self-dealing as only doing welfare for the rich.

Ah, they just wanted to make a point. They CAN make the poor starve and die – they can do real irreparable damage, widespread national fatal damage in this case – so everyone had better take them seriously. Maybe they’ll agree to keep the food stamp thing going, later, or maybe not – but know they are a force to be reckoned with.

That’s not exactly true, as the Senate will never pass this House version of the farm bill, and if they somehow actually did, Obama has confirmed he’ll immediately veto it – so they’ve already lost. But they knew that. In sports and in politics that’s when you try to do as much damage as possible, because good losers are actually just pathetic losers. Vince Lombardi said so, or might have. Maybe he was a psychopath. He created enough of them.

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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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