Gaming the System

Politics is a grand game, where real people die. That’s the problem. How do you cover politics?

Well, there is the first option. Over the last decade or more we have developed an industry that essentially covers the game, the game of who is gaining power and influence, or losing both, and what clever maneuvers they use, and what boneheaded mistakes they make, and who comes out a winner or loser on the big day. That is what the cable news channels do. They cover the game, as a game, and the commentary is much like you get with a basketball game – great shot-block, shouldn’t have tried that three-pointer, faked the other guy out of his shoes – and someone has the momentum and the hot hand, and is a real closer. And there are winnings strategies, and sometimes trick plays, and there are times when the team chokes, or the big star does. In the last election there was all that detailed coverage of Obama bowling, briefly, in Altoona. He was bad at it – and it wasn’t exactly Dukakis in the tank with the funny hat, but everyone agreed, for hours on end, that having Obama go bowling had been a tactical mistake, and maybe a deadly mistake.

But no one died. And this was just game-coverage, like the stuff ESPN provides for the fans, the sports junkies – all that talk about the importance of points in the paint, or managing the clock, or the effective double-screen or whatever. There is an audience for that sort of thing. And there seems to be an audience for the political equivalent of that. Some people just love the game.

And one of those is Chris Matthews, a regular fixture on MSNBC with his show Hardball. And he’s become a bit of a joke – excitable and prone to saying foolish things, out of sheer joyful enthusiasm, as he’s fascinated by the game, or obsessed by it, or blinded by it. And a few years ago he had written a book about the grand game, and how it’s played, and how it’s won. It was a detailed inside view of all that. But then he made the mistake of going on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show to promote the book.

That was a bad idea. That led to the legendary Interview from Hell. And it really was brutal:

Matthews: You’re trashing my book.
Stewart: I’m not trashing your book. I’m trashing your philosophy of life.

But of course Stewart is a media critic, always mocking the foolishness of how politics are covered – Matthews should have known better. After all, Stewart was the guy who had told the two on CNN’s show Crossfire that the premise of the show was awful, and its execution even worse – this wasn’t a game, so please stop hurting America by making it into one. CNN then dropped Crossfire – and told one of the hosts, Tucker Carlson, to just go away. And CNN’s new President at the time, Jonathan Klein:

Mr. Klein specifically cited the criticism that the comedian Jon Stewart leveled at “Crossfire” when he was a guest on the program during the presidential campaign. Mr. Stewart said that ranting partisan political shows on cable were “hurting America.” Mr. Klein said last night, “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise.” …

Matthews didn’t stand a chance. And that makes Jon Stewart a policy wonk, not a political junkie. Yes, how you get to a leadership position is fascinating in a way. But there’s a difference between political junkies and policy wonks. The latter are those who find politics – the process of gaining and holding power – a somewhat unsavory means to an end. The end is policy. The social and economic-monetary and foreign policies of the nation matter. They determine how we live, and who gets the goodies, and who succeeds and who fails, and often who lives and who dies, as with war, obviously, and social programs that might keep people from starving, or get them to a doctor in time. Who gets to set those policies is rather important. Those who win the election one way or another – the cut-throat master at winning, or the charismatic cool dude, or the goofy underdog – will find themselves in office. Then what? Political junkies want to know who wins the game, and why they won. Policy wonks don’t find that all that fascinating. What will the winner do now? It’s not getting there. It’s being there.

But we do get caught up in the game, and on Tuesday, April 5, 2011, it was the game of chicken – the second or third Continuing Resolution to keep the government running, in the absence of a budget everyone could agree on, was to expire by the end of the week, and without an agreement on a budget, or another resolution, the government would shut down – agencies would close, our troops wouldn’t get paid, social security checks wouldn’t go out, vendors would not be paid, most government activity would grind to a halt, and so on. The last time that happened – Gingrich versus Clinton back in 1995 – the nation hated it, and Gingrich, who had forced the issue, became the nation’s villain. His party lost the House and Senate over that. It’s a strange tactic to get your way. And it causes real harm, and needless pain and suffering. But that was the Republican ploy – give us what we want or we’ll force a total shutdown, and America will blame you for all the needless pain and suffering, because all you had to do was agree to everything we want, and you didn’t.

That didn’t go as planned. The Republicans forced the shutdown – and came off as total jerks, and the often goofy Bill Clinton came off as the adult in the room, as they say. No one admired the principled refusal to compromise of the noble Republicans. But they think it will be different this time.

And this is all very odd. One third of the government, excluding the courts – the Republican-held House – represents the one third of the country that wants practically no government anything. Polls show almost eighty percent of the nation says don’t touch the social safety net programs and, generally, at least keep things running. But the House says Americans are really fed up with the whole idea of government itself – they just know it, and that is, after all, why they won the House this time around. That’s their evidence. And that they have the means to do all this – to effectively abolish those programs and shut things down at will, to get what they want – is a quirk of how we first set up things – the rules of checks and balances. This should be interesting. They say that when they won control of the House, well, America spoke, and they listened. They may have that wrong. Selected congressional districts spoke. But you can see how hope and insecurity may have been a problem here.

As for the state of play, Steve Benen has a bit of a play-by-play of what the hang-up seems to be. The week before, House Speaker John Boehner was privately in agreement with Democrats on a target for spending cuts – thirty-three billion dollars. The Democrats finally agreed to that – they gave in – but Boehner went back to his folks and the Tea Party contingent said no dice. It had to be double that. Boehner turns around and then chats with the Democrats – and they say no way. He goes back to his side, and weeps or whatever he does, and they tell him maybe forty billion in cuts will do, but no less than that. He tries, but that’s not going to work.

And then there was this:

House Republicans huddled late Monday and, according to a GOP aide, gave the speaker an ovation when he informed them that he was advising the House Administration Committee to begin preparing for a possible shutdown. That process includes alerting lawmakers and senior staff about which employees would not report to work if no agreement is reached.

They will turn him into Newt Gingrich, whether he likes it or not. They want this shutdown. America will love and respect the Tea Party for doing this. And Benen adds this:

First, Boehner is an embarrassingly weak House Speaker, serving less as a leader than as a message boy for his right-wing caucus. I don’t know if there’s ever been a Speaker with less control and influence in his own chamber.

Second, if House Republicans are seriously prepared to shut down the federal government over $7 billion, they’re hopelessly insane.

And third, in case there’s a temptation to think, “Oh hell, if giving them $7 billion more will end this mess, Dems should just give them what they want,” remember, this process doesn’t really work that way. If Dems give in, go beyond the agreed-upon $33 billion, and accept $40 billion, there’s a very real possibility Republicans will say, “Now that you mention it, I’m afraid we can’t go below $45 billion.”

So it comes down to this:

Boehner has a very good deal sitting on the table. Turning it down – and shutting down the government – because his caucus is a little too ridiculous should make the Speaker little more than a national embarrassment.

But that is all gamesmanship. Real people get hurt here, and Robert Reich offers this:

I was there in 1995 when the government closed because of a budget stalemate. I had to tell most of the Labor Department’s 15,600 employees to go home and not return the next day. I also had to tell them I didn’t know when they’d next get a paycheck. There were two shutdowns, actually, rolling across the government in close succession, like thunder storms. It’s not the way to do the public’s business.

And this is not a game:

Newt Gingrich got blamed largely because his ego was (and is) so big he couldn’t stop blabbing that Clinton should be blamed. (Gingrich’s complaint of a bad seat on Air Force One didn’t help.)

But the larger loss was to the dignity and credibility of the United States government. When average Americans saw the Speaker of the House and the President of the United States behaving like nursery school children unable to get along, it only added to the prevailing cynicism.

But then maybe cynicism about government was the point, as that actually works to the Republicans’ advantage in the grand scheme of things:

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled a plan today that should make every American cringe. It would turn Medicare into vouchers whose benefits are funneled into the pockets of private insurers. It would make Medicaid and Food Stamps into block grants that allow states to ignore poor people altogether. It would drastically cut funding for schools, roads, and much else Americans need. And many of the plan’s savings would go to wealthy Americans who’d pay even lower taxes than they do today.

Ryan’s plan has no chance of passage – as long as Democrats are still in control of the Senate (even Democratic deficit hawks like Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson are appalled by it) and the White House.

But this so-called “blueprint” could be a blueprint for America’s future when and if right-wing Republicans take charge.

So they encourage cynicism and the shutdowns do work for them:

Republicans may get blamed now. But if the shutdowns contribute to the belief among Americans that government doesn’t work, Republicans win over the long term. As with the rise of the Tea Partiers, the initiative shifts to those who essentially want to close it down for good.

So he gooses Obama:

That’s why it’s so important that the President have something more to say to the American people than “I want to cut spending, too, but the Republican cuts go too far.” The “going too far” argument is no match for a worldview that says government is the central problem to begin with.

Obama must show America that the basic choice is between two fundamental views of this nation. Either we’re all in this together, or we’re a bunch of individuals who happen to live within these borders and are mainly on their own.

So Obama could say, look, this is not a game:

The President needs to remind us that as members of the same society we have obligations to one another – that the wealthiest among us must pay their fair share of taxes, that any of us who loses our jobs or homes or gets terribly sick can count on the rest of us, and that we have collective obligations to our elderly, our children, and the rest of the planet.

This is why we have government.

Well yes, that is the general idea. How did we lose that thought?

Maybe we lost it because the media covered it all as a game. And you don’t want downers – no interviews with someone who lost a child because they couldn’t get health insurance, no one who lost everything and starved when the small Social Security checks just stopped coming. We get the talking heads shouting at each other, then the BMW commercial followed by the peppy ad for the local Indian resort-casino-spa – and then back to the shouting. FDR had it easier – you can pass Social Security and all the New Deal stuff when people are dying in the streets. That takes the “game” out of it pretty effectively.

It’s like war coverage, and there Zeynep Tufekci argues that access to graphic content is a social necessity:

I understand that there are awful things happening somewhere, every minute, and we cannot always be immersed in such misery and sorrow. However, I am firmly of the opinion that the massive censorship of reality and images of this reality by mainstream news organizations from their inception has been incredibly damaging. It has severed this link of common humanity between people “audiences” in one part of the world and victims in another. This censorship has effectively relegated the status of other humans to that of livestock, whose deaths we also do not encounter except in an unrecognizable format in the supermarket.

Maybe on these social policy issues graphic content would do some good – unless you believe there is no such thing as common humanity. And the Republicans haven’t been told by the Tea Party contingent to go there just yet.

And in that National Journal, Charlie Cook is finding strange new nervousness among Republican leaders and key pundits. If their party forces a government shutdown or refuses to increase the debt limit, there may be problems:

Look no further than late February’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff… 75 percent of Republicans thought government was trying to do too much while 27 percent thought government should do more. But among independents, 51 percent thought government should do more, with 47 percent saying government was trying to do too much.

While those numbers among independents are effectively tied, they are a far cry from the 60-38 percent of independents who thought government was trying to do too much in the mid-October, pre-election poll and a lot more like the numbers that existed in spring 2009, before Democratic prospects began to nosedive. That poll was conducted February 24-28 among 1,000 adults and has a 3-point error margin, larger among sub-groups.

Shut it all down, because America will love you for it? Ah, that might not be so, guys.

But see David Brooks on Paul Ryan’s new long-term budget proposal:

Today, Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, is scheduled to release the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes…. His proposal will set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion…. This budget tackles just about every politically risky issue with brio and guts…. Paul Ryan has grasped reality with both hands. He’s forcing everybody else to do the same.

But see Kevin Drum:

Courageous. Serious. Gutsy. I imagine that within a few days this will be the consensus view of the entire Beltway punditocracy.

A plan dedicated almost entirely to slashing social spending in a country that’s already the stingiest spender in the developed world, while simultaneously cutting taxes on the rich in a country with the lowest tax rates in the developed world – well, what could be more serious than that?

I think I’m going to be sick.

Well, that’s because it’s not a game, or it’s a game when you’re running for office, one that ends when you win. Then you have to do something, or someone is going to die. And someone ought to break that news to Chris Matthews. Jon Stewart told him, but it didn’t sink in. Somehow it never does.

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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