A long, long time ago, before there was punk and then grunge and then rap and then techno-trance, hit songs had to have a linguistic hook – just the right turn of phrase, a short combination of words that just sounded right, or sounded just right. The words didn’t have to make sense. Sometimes just the cadence would do. We all live in a yellow submarine? No, we don’t. No one lives in a yellow submarine – but for a time everyone was bopping along to those very words. Then it was Bye-Bye Miss American Pie – a song about the day the music died, which was pretty much a paean to all the stupid rhyming plays on words that pop songs left in our heads over all the years, shaping our lives. In 1971, Don McLean sang them all back to us, so we’d remember, but his lament was premature. Two years later everyone was bopping along to Stuck in the Middle with You because of its linguistic hook – “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, and here I am, stuck in the middle with you.” The cadence was just right, and this time the words made perfect sense. Those words always make sense. Life’s like that.
As shallow and musically uninteresting as that song is, it may return, as a bit of a novelty item, used politically. The cable news networks could use it to segue into or out of their endless panel discussions of the current government shutdown, if they dare – but there may be royalty issues, and it might seem as if they’re mocking their guests, those experts they’ve implied everyone should take very seriously. The American, people know better, however, so it might be worth a shot. People would get the joke, and appreciate it. Ted Cruz could use the song too, having it blare away as he bounds onto the stage to deliver another speech about stopping Obamacare by any means possible – shutting down the government or forcing America into default unless America does the right thing. He’s always talking about clowns to the left of him – those absurd Democrats who have devised a way for thirty or forty million more Americans to have the chance to buy low-cost subsidized health insurance from private-sector parties and got that passed into actual law – and jokers to the right – various Republican senate colleagues who have called him a fool for insisting on something that can’t be done and will make them all look like spoiled brats. Cruz doesn’t call them jokers of course. They’re squishes, but it’s pretty much the same thing. So this is his song – he’s stuck in the stupid middle. The Affordable Care Act was passed three years ago, signed into law, and survived a furious Supreme Court challenge, as is now being fully implemented – but Obama will cave and call it all off. Obama will have to, given the damage that could be done if he doesn’t just drop the whole thing. Cruz still says this would work, beautifully, but for the clowns to the left of him and the jokers to the right.
Others aren’t convinced:
Ted Cruz faced a barrage of hostile questions Wednesday from angry GOP senators, who lashed the Texas tea party freshman for helping prompt a government shutdown crisis without a strategy to end it.
At a closed-door lunch meeting in the Senate’s Mansfield Room, Republican after Republican pressed Cruz to explain how he would propose to end the bitter budget impasse with Democrats, according to senators who attended the meeting. A defensive Cruz had no clear plan to force an end to the shutdown – or explain how he would defund Obamacare, as he has demanded all along, sources said.
They also pressed him about all his talk about jokers to his right:
Things got particularly heated when Cruz was asked point-blank if he would renounce attacks waged on GOP senators by the Senate Conservatives Fund, an outside group that has aligned itself closely with the Texas senator.
Cruz’s response: “I will not,” according to an attendee.
They’re still squishes, obviously, all of them, but this was interesting:
At the Wednesday lunch, Cruz was asked what he would have done had GOP senators united to filibuster the House bill.
“He kept trying to change the subject because he never could answer the question,” the senator said. “It’s pretty evident it’s never been about a strategy – it’s been about him. That’s unfortunate. I think he’s done our country a major disservice. I think he’s done Republicans a major disservice.”
Maybe he shouldn’t use that song after all, considering this from Grover Norquist:
There’s unanimity among Republicans. They all voted against the thing being created and for it being repealed.
The only confusion that comes out is that Cruz stood on the side and confused people about the fact that every Republican agrees. He said if you don’t agree with my tactic and with the specific structure of my idea, you’re bad. He said if the House would simply pass the bill with defunding he would force the Senate to act. He would lead this grass-roots movement that would get Democrats to change their mind. So the House passed it, it went to the Senate, and Ted Cruz said, oh, we don’t have the votes over here. And I can’t find the e-mails or ads targeting Democrats to support it. Cruz said he would deliver the votes and he didn’t deliver any Democratic votes. He pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away.
You’re in trouble when the president of Americans for Tax Reform and the creator of the anti-tax pledge that nearly every Republican in Congress has signed says things like this. Grover Norquist could sing that song too. It’s universal.
How could this all work out? The American people certainly feel stuck in the middle, between the clowns and the jokers. This nonsense can’t go on much longer, but at the New Republic, Noam Scheiber sees little progress:
The latest news out of the alternate reality known as the House GOP is that Republicans will try to combine the fight on the continuing resolution (which would reopen the government) with the debt limit fight (which is necessary to avoid a default) and insist on a fiscal grand bargain (presumably a deal that cuts trillions in spending) as the price of doing both. This is of course complete lunacy.
That is, however, what Politico reports – the House Republicans see this as a sign of their willingness to compromise – “GOP lawmakers have rolled back their demands significantly. They wanted to completely defund the health care law. … In a large-scale deal, Republicans say they could settle with a repeal of the medical device tax if there’s enough savings elsewhere.”
Now they want some sort of grand bargain, which amazes Scheiber:
What the Republicans are essentially demanding now is a repeat of the 2011 arrangement, in which they refused to raise the debt ceiling until Obama agreed to cut trillions in spending. That’s a strange notion of compromise, given that the 2011 saga had disastrous short- and long-term effects on the economy (rattling financial markets, giving us that sequester), and given that Obama is in a far stronger political position today, having won re-election, and with the Tea Party having lost any sheen of popular appeal.
On the other hand, this particular piece of lunacy may hold out the first hope of an end to the standoff, and one that gives Obama an overwhelming victory. As Obama reiterated on Wednesday, he’s always been willing to negotiate on a fiscal deal as long as the GOP drops its blackmail tactics.
Obamacare continues to roll out and there are endless talks about the budget, but that’s better than a perpetual crisis, and maybe this is the way out:
Republicans are implicitly acknowledging that their strategy of refusing to open the government or raise the debt limit unless the president walks back Obamacare is a complete dead-end. The GOP leadership appears to realize that, since there is no conceivable endgame that gives them Obamacare concessions, continuing to focus on Obamacare means there is no conceivable endgame that doesn’t make it blindingly obvious they’re surrendering. After all, even the dimmest bulb in your caucus can tell you’re retreating when you throw the car in reverse and back straight down the street you drove up.
The challenge, then, is to come up with a way out of the dead-end that isn’t just the reverse of the way they drove in. And that’s where the fiscal negotiation comes in. If the GOP can essentially fold on everything Obama insists they fold on, but come away with some deficit-related totem that gives the Tea Partiers the impression they won something – well, that wouldn’t look so much like a pure retreat. That’s where Boehner appears to be headed, even if he won’t admit it yet.
This actually might work:
In essence, I think Obama can basically give Republicans a trumped-up, impressive-sounding version of what he’s already offered: You guys reopen the government and raise the debt limit, and then I will dispatch my vice president and my entire economic team to negotiate face-to-face with Paul Ryan over a long-term deficit deal every week for two months (or whatever), after which they will report back to me, and John Boehner and I will discuss what they’ve come up with. Obama would have essentially offered no concessions for the reopening of the government and the raising of the debt limit. He will have committed to no cuts and no deficit-reduction targets of any kind. But he will have given Boehner a fig leaf that he can show his rank and file to persuade them that this whole suicide mission wasn’t entirely futile.
Yep, Boehner and crew can go back and say look, we huffed and puffed and forced Obama to send someone to talk to us, about budget numbers! And this will produce… a REPORT!
That’s all they’re going to get:
Fortunately, I suspect Boehner increasingly understands this. Members of the GOP leadership have publicly said they think combing the continuing resolution (CR) and the debt limit maximizes their leverage. This is a strange proposition, since there’s no reason Obama should be more inclined to make concessions for a package of measures than its constituent parts. (If I tell you I’d pay zero for your steak knives and zero for your food processor, why would I pay $25 for them together?) In reality, this looks to me like a bet by Boehner with no real downside: If it turns out Obama is bluffing about refusing to negotiate, then Republicans get to save face on the shutdown and extract some concessions for the debt limit. And if, as seems nearly certain, Obama isn’t bluffing, then Boehner has found a way to end the crisis by diverting the Tea Party’s attention to the fiscal negotiations that come after it.
That’s where the Republicans are now, as summed up the ultra-conservative Washington Examiner by Byron York:
Sometimes fights become so intense and so tangled that the original cause becomes obscured. In the government funding battle, the issue that sparked it all, Obamacare, was no longer center stage less than 24 hours after the shutdown began. The fight is now about the shutdown itself, and Obamacare has been pushed to the side.
That would explain the quote of the day:
“We’re not going to be disrespected,” conservative Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., added. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”
That gave Obama, in a speech later in the day at a big factory in Maryland, a chance to address this fellow’s anger about being disrespected:
Think about that. You have already gotten the opportunity to serve the American people. There’s no higher honor than that. You’ve already gotten the opportunity to help businesses like this one. Workers like these, so the American people aren’t in the mood to give you a goodie-bag to go with it. What you get is our intelligence professionals being back on the job. What you get is our medical researchers back on the job. What you get is little kids back into Head Start. What you get are our national parks and monuments open again. What you get is the economy not stalling, but continuing to grow. What you get are workers continuing to be hired.
That’s what you get. That’s what you should be asking for. Take a vote. Stop this farce, and end this shutdown right now. If you’re being disrespected it’s because of that attitude you got – that you deserve to get something for doing your job.
Then he said that if regular people did what the House Republicans are doing they’d get fired. He was hammering his jokers on the right, but Salon documents that the consequences of their nonsense are dire:
Amid media stories about closed memorials, there’s been comparatively little attention to the government shutdown’s impact on the poor – including federal dollars denied to Head Start and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). But advocates warn of a severe shutdown toll.
“The lives of low-income and working families don’t stop because those guys take time off, you know, in a pissing contest basically,” said Diana Spatz, who founded and directs the Oakland nonprofit Low-Income Families’ Empowerment through Education (LIFETIME). Spatz warned of “a large risk of putting more families into homelessness, because they’re already on such thin margins.” For however long the shutdown lasts, Spatz told Salon, “millions of children and their families are at risk.”
“More people are calling us for help” said Spatz, whose group offers services and benefits counseling for low-income families. “Where can they get emergency batches of food?” Further, she told Salon, “If Head Start shuts down, you can’t go to work, you can’t go to school, you’re at risk then of being sanctioned for not doing your welfare-to-work hours.”
With WIC, said Spatz, “you get to buy a bunch of milk. For folks not to have that, it’s going to make it impossible for them to feed their kids.” When kids face “disruption in their basic needs,” she told Salon, “you always see more kids getting ill, you see more people in the hospital, you see more children missing schools because they can’t pay attention in school because they’re hungry. You know, we just had a kid crying in our office, talking about how, ‘we run out of food stamps by the third week in every month.’”
The rest of the item goes on to discuss the actual facts and figures – dry stuff, but the dry stuff is what the Republicans in Washington note. It’s different on the street, and it might be different on Wall Street too, as there’s a panicked new report from the Treasury Department:
The United States has never defaulted on its obligations, and the U. S. dollar and Treasury securities are at the center of the international financial system. A default would be unprecedented and has the potential to be catastrophic: credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, U.S. interest rates could skyrocket, the negative spillovers could reverberate around the world, and there might be a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse.
On October 17, the Treasury Department will only have about thirty billion in cash on hand to pay its bills - and it won’t be able to borrow any more money unless Congress lifts the debt ceiling. The federal government would start defaulting on some of the bills it owes, from bond payments to Social Security checks. Then all bets are off. The Treasury Department is stuck in the middle too, and economists agree – the GDP would drop by five percent and we’d be in the mother of all recessions, or worse. Oh well.
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein explains how it came to this:
The Obama administration bristles at the idea that they’ve been unwilling to negotiate or compromise. They went on a widely covered “charm offensive” back in the spring. The president held multiple dinners with Senate Republicans. He invited over key House Republicans. The meetings were so frequent that the participants were nicknamed “the diner’s club.”
Nothing came of those meetings. Republicans still weren’t willing to talk on taxes. And so the White House grimly accepted that they couldn’t move the dial on spending. The CR, they note, funds the government at the GOP’s number of $988 billion. It is itself a compromise, and one they don’t like. But they made it, because they couldn’t pass anything else through Congress. And then the Republicans decided to shut down the government because they couldn’t pass a delay or defunding of Obamacare through Congress.
Obama got stuck in the middle, but Klein describes the clowns and jokers a different way:
As the White House sees it, Speaker John Boehner has begun playing politics as game of Calvinball, in which Republicans invent new rules on the fly and then demand the media and the Democrats accept them as reality and find a way to work around them.
Yes, that would be Calvinball like in the cartoon – and Klein describes the Republican version:
First there was the Hastert rule, which is not an actual rule, but which Boehner uses to say he simply can’t bring anything to the floor that doesn’t have the support of a majority of his members.
The shutdown, the White House argues, is now operating under a kind of super-Hastert rule in which a clean CR is supported by a majority of House Republicans but Boehner has given the tea partiers in his conference an effective veto over what he brings to the floor.
Then there’s Boehner’s demand for further concessions on the debt limit, which he now says he can’t back down on, but which he made knowing that it would make it harder for him to back down.
These really are those classic jokers on the right, like in the song, and the administration has also deliberately chosen not to play any absurd cartoon game:
The White House has decided that they can’t govern effectively if the House Republicans can keep playing Calvinball. The rules and promises Boehner makes are not their problem, they’ve decided. They’re not going to save him. And that also rules out unusual solutions like minting a platinum coin or declaring the debt limit unconstitutional. The White House doesn’t want to break the law (and possibly spark a financial crisis) in order to save Boehner from breaking a promise he never should have made.
That leaves only one option:
Top administration officials say that President Obama feels as strongly about this fight as he has about anything in his presidency. He believes that he will be handing his successor a fatally weakened office, and handing the American people an unacceptable risk of future financial crises, if he breaks, or even bends, in the face of Republican demands. And so the White House says that their position is simple, and it will not change: They will not negotiate over substantive policy issues until Republicans end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.
This traps the Republicans. They have only one option, to cave and accept that offer of talks, later, about some hypothetical grand bargain, later, which leads Paul Waldman to ask an interesting question:
The question is, if eventually they have no choice but to accept that the argument over the ACA is settled, what on earth will Republicans do with themselves – because over the last four years, opposition to Obamacare has taken on such an extraordinary power within the movement that all other issues have paled before it.
Sure, they could revert to the old standbys – Cut taxes! Cut regulations! Strong defense! But those are just positions you can take. Obamacare was a war to be fought. And nothing galvanizes, energizes, and defines us like our wars. That’s particularly true of the zealots who are driving the Republican Party and form such a key part of its base. And if they aren’t fighting Obamacare, who will they be?
Who knows? At least they won’t be those jokers on the right. The Democrats have always had those clowns to the left of them, like in the song, but they didn’t hand the Democratic Party over to them, save for some nonsense in the late sixties and early seventies. You remember those days, when the words of this or that song were just right, summing up everything at the moment. Someone was paying attention, and maybe that song will return now.