The Unavoidable Sadness of Tradition

Everyone likes tradition – mistletoe at Christmas and fireworks on the Fourth of July. Tradition is comforting, and it’s profitable – right now it’s Fiddler on the Roof down the street on stage at the Pantages, with Topol doing Tevye one last time. And everyone knows the opening number, Tradition. You don’t even have to be Jewish to like that. But of course people will leave the theater feeling a bit melancholy. You know how things work out in that musical. The strongest traditions cannot hold the changes of the world at bay. The one daughter marries the wrong young man, and you deal with it, as she seems to be happy. There are the pogroms and the Cossacks arrive, and you’re off to America. But you hold onto the traditions anyway. They are your anchor. Not everything changes. There is comfort in that, and unavoidable sadness. The world is always changing. You will lose more.

In America, the political party associated with tradition is the Republicans. They call themselves conservatives – don’t mess with what has worked so well for so long. But of course change comes as it always will – the civil rights movement that started to pick up speed in the late fifties, the cultural changes of the sixties with all that long hair and free love and odd music and drugs, not to mention kids turning to Buddhism and Hinduism and whatnot, and questioning that war in Vietnam. Sure you could talk about how things should be – as they always were – and tell the scruffy hippies that this was America so love it or leave it. But it was their country too, and there were the traditions of free speech and letting people do what they felt best. If you were honest you had to give in, at least a bit – even as you loudly proclaimed you didn’t like it, not one bit. That was just venting. A decade earlier you could defend separate-but-equal treatment of the races, as we had our well-established traditions of whites not mixing with blacks – but like Tevye, you knew better. Brown versus Board of Education was decided in 1954 – schools would be desegregated, and a certain way of life would die, along with its traditions. Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2nd of that year. The original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof opened just after that, on September 22, 1964 – it was the right play for the times. And in the real world, William F. Beckley Jr. became the goy Tevye – “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!'” Luckily he only said that, he didn’t sing it.

And now, almost fifty years later, we are at it again with healthcare reform. The Republican position seems again to be don’t mess with it – our employer-based system with for-profit insurance corporations that has been evolving since the early forties represents who we are and what we do. The seven major health insurance corporations left standing, the giants, have been left standing for a reason – they made money. And people got healthcare. Maybe we can tinker around the edges, but there is such a thing as accumulated wisdom over long years – they don’t use the word tradition, but that’s the appeal. The other side holds that, be that as it may, all this doesn’t work anymore – nearly fifty million citizens have no health insurance, and we spend six thousand dollars more a year per person than any other nation in the world on healthcare, and rank maybe twentieth or thirtieth in life expectancy and infant mortality and all that other stuff. And, as people are dying for lack of care and others going bankrupt from medical expenses even if they are insured, what we know has worked well enough has become absurd – it doesn’t work now. Things have changed. And of course you can easily feel you’re in the middle of that damned musical – without the singing and dancing.

Well, Republicans don’t sing (save for John Ashcroft back in the day) – but they might as well be singing the Tevye song. And everyone loves tradition, really – even the Democrats. The merits of any proposals for healthcare reform aside, they do like another tradition. Senator Kent Conrad, the Democrat from North Dakota and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and thus a key player in all this, said the that the final healthcare reform package, whatever it is, absolutely must have Republican support – you see it is just “not possible” and certainly “not desirable” to reform the system any other way. We have our traditions.

This tradition goes back to Henry Clay (1777-1852), the Great Compromiser. Way back when, Clay brokered compromises on the slavery issue in 1820 and 1850, even if, eventually, we had to have that war about the matter. Clay held that war off for a bit. He was just trying to be sensible. In 1957, a Senate committee chaired by John Kennedy named Clay as one of the five greatest senators in American history – Clay could work with the other side and get things done for the good of all. Abraham Lincoln thought highly of Clay – Lincoln admired that man who held things together, however imperfectly, for so long. Kent Conrad knows his history.

And Steve Benen thinks that Conrad, like so many Democrats, most notably Max Baucus, is a bit of a fool:

This is, alas, not new. A wide variety of Democratic leaders on the Hill have said the process matters at least as much as the policy, if not more so. Near the very top of the priority list is support from members of an increasingly right-wing party, turned out of power by the electorate after their humiliating failures at governing.

This isn’t 1957, nor the Age of Lincoln – times have changed. And Benen points to Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post explaining just what has changed:

Bipartisanship ain’t what it used to be, and for one fundamental reason: Republicans ain’t what they used to be. It’s true that there was considerable Republican congressional support, back in the day, for Social Security and Medicare. But in the ’30s, there were progressive Republicans who stood to the left of the Democrats. Nebraska Republican George Norris, who for decades called for establishing public power companies to compete with price-gouging private companies, was the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the ’60s, Rockefeller Republicans supported civil rights legislation and Medicare.

Today, no such Republicans exist. In New England and New York, historically the home of GOP moderates, Republicans occupy just two of 51 House seats. Nationally, the party is dominated by Southern neo-Dixiecrats. In their book “Off Center,” political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson compared congressional Republicans of different eras and concluded that a Republican House member in 2003 with a voting record that placed him at the median of his party was 73 percent more conservative than the median GOP member of the early ’70s.

Meyerson says these Democrats are living in a dream world, or actually, in the past:

Max Baucus, then, isn’t negotiating universal coverage with the party of Everett Dirksen, in which many members supported Medicare. He’s negotiating it with the party of Barry Goldwater, who was dead set against Medicare. It’s a fool’s errand that is creating a plan that’s a marvel of ineffectuality and self-negation – a latter-day Missouri Compromise that reconciles opposites at the cost of good policy.

The final Missouri Compromise was Henry Clay’s doing. It’s a different world now, Tevye.

Benen notes that Republican opponents of Social Security and Medicare used some of the same arguments then that we’re hearing now – creeping socialism and doom. And he adds this – “It’s worth noting, though, that in those eras, there were plenty of centrist and center-left Republicans who rejected the nonsense and worked with Democrats on achieving progressive policy goals.” Now all the Republicans “reject the goals the majority hopes to achieve through reform.” There’s nothing to work with – “This is hopelessly twisted, and evidence of a political system that not only doesn’t work, but doesn’t know how to work.”

It’s quite simple actually, as “bills with bipartisan support have traditionally been the result of one party reaching out to moderates from the other party to put together a reasonably good-sized majority.” When there are no moderates on the other side, you’re shit out of luck. And Conrad is, it would seem, as stuck as Tevye ever was, imagining a world that was so nice, except it is long gone:

Under the current circumstances, though, the expectations for the majority are skewed – Republicans have almost entirely excised moderates from their ranks, and voters have handed Democrats a huge majority. It creates a ridiculous dynamic – demanded by Republicans, touted by the media, and accepted by a few too many Democrats – that the majority’s legislation is only legitimate if it’s endorsed by some liberals and some conservatives, as if the parties and ideologies of members aren’t supposed to have any meaning. As if it’s Democrats’ fault Republicans have become too conservative. As if elections don’t matter.

It is kind of sad, too. Ezra Klein also notes that it was inevitable:

Rather than liberal Republicans coming together with liberal Democrats, or conservative Democrats coming together with conservative Republicans, the nearly total decimation of the moderates in both parties has meant that a bipartisan deal means a very different sort of bill than it once did: It’s not a compromise between people who share principles but potentially disagree on means. It’s a compromise between people who don’t share principles, which requires a bill that’s vague on key areas and weak on others.

Perhaps you can blame Karl Rove for that, with his strategy that got Bush elected twice – fire up the extreme base and forget the independents and swing voters, just make everything black and white and the other guys into total villains, cowards and traitors, and make do with your fifty-percent plus one vote, as you can probably make just enough Americans so angry and outraged you can hook them. Rove proved that purposefully nasty and rather mindless extreme polarization could work to win elections, even it was always going to result in a close call. But when you won, that didn’t matter. That’s why they called him a genius. You could see his fingerprints on the McCain-Palin campaign.

The problem was always with what happened after you won. The parties changed, and the atmosphere changed. You couldn’t get anything done. There was no good will, no possibility of working with anyone. You scoffed at that whole idea to get elected, loudly and publicly, mercilessly mocking anyone you could – there wasn’t any point in even talking to them. So… now what? You had to slam through what you could. And as what you did do was not tempered by anyone willing or able to offer any thoughtful critique, or raise any what-if worries, what you got done was crap – it just didn’t work that well. The whole Iraq adventure was the result.

But then none of that was ever about actually governing, was it? And then the whole strategy stopped working – just enough people got tired of being told how angry and outraged they should be. Hell, it was exhausting. The Democrats rode that wave of outrage-fatigue to control of Congress in 2006, and Obama rode the same wave to the White House two years later.

But the damage had been done, and bipartisanship had become structurally impossible. And Ezra Klein takes us back to 1964 again:

The archetypal example of bipartisanship – the reason everyone brings up the name Everett Dirksen – is the Civil Rights Act. But the reason that Northern Republicans joined with liberal Democrats on that bill was that they, like the Democrats, believed in civil rights. Conservative Democrats didn’t.

And now all members of each party have nothing in common with any member of the other party:

A Northern Republican is no longer more like a Democrat than a Southern Democrat is. The modern version of bipartisanship would be a compromise between Democrats who did believe in civil rights and Republicans who did not. The bill’s strongest provisions would thus be gutted, and we’d have a Civil Rights Act in name only – but at least it would be bipartisan.

Henry Clay just wouldn’t understand. The political world was never like this before.

Tevye would understand.

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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