The Limits of Political Gamesmanship

And other forgettable August ended with another burst of the surreal:

Any hopes that a kinder, gentler bipartisan Washington would surface once Congress returns after Labor Day were summarily dashed on Wednesday when President Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner clashed over, of all things, the date and time of the president’s much-awaited speech to the nation about his proposal to increase jobs and fix the economy.

In a surreal volley of letters, each released to the news media as soon as it was sent, Mr. Boehner rejected a request from the president to address a joint session of Congress next Wednesday at 8 p.m. That is the same time that a Republican presidential debate – the first one featuring Gov. Rick Perry of Texas – is scheduled. Mr. Boehner proposed the following night.

Late Wednesday night, the White House issued a statement saying that because Mr. Obama “is focused on the urgent need to create jobs and grow our economy,” he “welcomes the opportunity to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday, Sept. 8.”

So Obama caved in again. He always does. Whatever the Republicans want he gives them, and then they sneer and vote against it anyway, laughing at him. But with this matter moving the date was probably better than having a situation where he showed up to address a joint session of Congress and no one showed up. And what does it matter? Anything Obama proposes to address the jobs crisis – even if all he proposes is exactly what the Republicans say they want, and not one single thing Obama or any Democrat wants – will be voted down. So what’s the point?

Ah well. He moved his address to Congress. And now he has to deal with what every Republican in office is saying – we can make this weak fool do anything we want. Hey, maybe we’ll have him sing Camp Town Ladies, like in the Mel Brooks movie. Well, that didn’t exactly work out as planned – but it was only a movie.

But this smelled like a set up, as Obama had started it, and when a reporter asked the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, if the timing of the speech, at the exact moment the Republican debate was to begin, had been meant to blow that away or something, Carney said no, as “one debate of many was no reason not to have a speech when we wanted to have it.” That was a pretty snarky.

So what we have is this. The House speaker fired off an angry letter to the president saying no – you will not be permitted to speak to Congress that night – period, end of story. Who do you think you are? And Boehner said the next night might be okay – he might allow the president to speak that night, as there was no Republican debate that night, just the start of the professional football season. So Obama did the Yes, Mister Boss Man thing.

Actually, to be fair, Boehner said he just needed another day, to ensure there would be “no parliamentary or logistical impediments” that might detract from Obama’s remarks. But no one knew what he was talking about, as there was nothing on the House calendar at all, other than one or two minor bills for naming a post office or two. That was his polite way of saying go pound sand, Obama – I win and you lose.

Yes, congressional historians said Boehner’s move was unprecedented. The Senate Historical Office said it knew no instance, ever, in which Congress refused the president permission to speak before a joint session. These things are always worked out in the background. But not this time – and Obama walked right into this wall. In fact, he seems to have set it up.

But why would he do that? This could be trouble:

The fracas also had the potential to rattle already jittery markets.

“If the objective of the White House and Speaker Boehner was to demonstrate to the American people that they have gotten the message from the markets and from voters that our economic straits are so dire that it is time to set petty politics aside, they have failed before they started,” said David Rothkopf, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration. “This childish gamesmanship regarding timing reconfirms to the world that Washington is a sandbox full of petulant children who don’t play well together.” He called Wednesday’s antics “late-summer silliness.”

In fact, Mr. Obama’s initial proposal to address the nation on the same night as the candidates’ debate immediately became fodder for heated talk-radio discussion over whether the president was trying to upstage the televised event.

Yes, this was the news story of the day.

The White House said officials talked to Mr. Boehner’s office about the date and time before sending the letter, and “no objection was raised by them.” Not so, countered Mr. Boehner’s office. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner, said the White House had not discussed any possible dates for a speech by Mr. Obama before sending its request. “We were told this morning that they were sending a letter to us,” Mr. Buck said. “They never discussed any dates with us. The letter itself arrived 15 minutes before the press had it.”

And it went on and on. And the nation wondered what the hell was going on.

But this may be tied to what Steve Kornacki argues here is Obama’s strategy going into 2012:

The looming jobs fight offers Obama a chance to further drive down the GOP’s standing (if that’s even possible). And the more reviled the Republican Party is, the more it raises the possibility that Obama – even if he himself is saddled with a poor economy and low poll numbers – might manage to squeak through to a second term in 2012.

“Adult in the room” strategy may not be the right term for this. What Obama is really hoping is that voters in 2012 will end up rejecting the snotty, bratty, tantrum-prone child in the room.

And this might be part of that grand plan. There will be a Republican debate on the first Wednesday in September, where they each will talk about how to create jobs – shut down the government, lay off millions of government workers at the federal and state and local levels, and begin to heavily tax the lazy undeserving poor and the smug elderly and freeloading veterans, to allow millionaires and billionaires and the giant corporations to pay even less in taxes, so that the one-tenth of one-percent – the Job Creators – will maybe hire a few more folks, maybe. They’ll do their cut-and-grow thing, with no competition that night, and the next night Obama will say, hey, look at what they said – austerity is prosperity, and shutting things down is growth. Folks, think about that. Do you really believe things work that way?

Yep, Obama set them up. They’re the opening act to his main act, and they’re not a tough act to follow. Back in the sixties The Spats and Cannibal and the Headhunters and such bands used open for Mick Jagger and the Stones. So let the Republicans stomp and hold their breath until they turn blue, so they get their own night to shine – let them do their snotty, bratty, tantrum-prone thing – and let that sink in. And then, after a short intermission, you get to be the main act. And who now remembers Cannibal and the Headhunters?

So who was the sucker here? Boehner was manipulated in saying NO, YOU CANNOT SPEAK! And Obama smiled – fine, I’ll wait, and you Republicans, knock yourself out.

And they may do that. It will be Rick Perry’s night to shine. And that should be interesting, as Kevin Drum summarizes Perry’s current shininess:

Rick Perry would like to repeal the 16th and 17th amendments, hates the New Deal, thinks Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and global warming is a gigantic hoax, and would pretty much like to roll back America’s entire social welfare edifice “from housing to public television, from the environment to art, from education to medical care, from public transportation to food, and beyond.”

Well, that is about it, and Drum points out that the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus is appalled:

Whoa! These are not mainstream Republican views – at least, not any Republican mainstream post-Goldwater and pre-Tea Party. Even Ronald Reagan, who had once criticized Social Security and Medicare, was backing away from those positions by the 1980 presidential campaign. …

Perry’s ideas range from wrongheaded to terrifying…. The subtitle of Perry’s book is “Our Fight to Save America from Washington.” Reading it summons the image of another, urgent fight: saving America from Rick Perry.

And Drum too is appalled, but for a slightly different reason:

Perry’s views are getting denounced by all the usual lefty suspects, but not much of anywhere else. And the reason for this is something very odd: in modern America, conservatives are largely given a pass for saying crazy things. They’re just not taken seriously, in a boys-will-be-boys kind of way. It’s almost like everyone accepts this kind of stuff as a kind of religious liturgy, repeated regularly with no real meaning behind it. They’re just the words you use to prove to the base that you’re really one of them.

And Drum is puzzled why there’s nothing like this on the left:

I’m not quite sure what the left-wing equivalent of this would be, but it would be something along the lines of Hillary Clinton writing a book that proposed repealing the 2nd Amendment and adding one that banned hate speech; limiting defense spending to 2% of GDP; raising the top marginal tax rate back to 90% on millionaires and 100% on anything above, say, $10 million; instituting British-style national healthcare; and spending half a trillion dollars on new programs for universal preschool, two-year paid leaves for new parents, and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

But in real life, Dennis Kucinich wouldn’t support a platform like this, let alone a frontrunner for the presidential nomination. And if one did, they’d be instantly tarred as an insane nutball and would never see the business end of a TV camera again.

And here’s the real puzzle:

But when Republicans say the mirror image of stuff like this, it just gets a shrug. Sure, Perry apparently wants to roll things back to about 1900 or so. But hey – it’s just a way of firing up the troops. Nothing to be taken seriously.

But why not?

Well, Obama just opened up a chance for that to happen, for folks to consider whether to take these guys, and the gal, Bachmann, seriously. He let them publicly pout and whine and say IT’S JUST NOT FAIR, IT’S JUST NOT FAIR – until they got their very own night to tell America that jobs are created by eliminating as many of them as possible, and roads and bridges and dams will have to fall apart, for the good of our children and their children, and you’re on your own, because you really don’t want a government that does anything for you when you’re in trouble. And you’ll understand all this when you’re very, very, very rich. Only little people pay taxes, by the way.

That’s not a tough act to follow. Yes, conservatives are largely given a pass for saying crazy things. But now the nation will actually listen. They’re the opening act, as they self-righteously demanded. But there is that problem with opening acts. You surely remember The Spats’ big hit – Gator Tails and Monkey Ribs of course. Yeah, right.

But what will Obama say after the Republicans sputter and rant? It seems that Eugene Robinson has some thoughts on that:

President Obama’s promised jobs plan needs to be unrealistic and unreasonable, at the very least. If he can crank it all the way up to unimaginable, that would be even better.

This is a moment for the president to suppress his reflex for pre-emptive compromise. The unemployment crisis is so deep and self-perpetuating that only a big, surprising, over-the-top jobs initiative could have real impact. Boldness will serve the nation well – and, coincidentally, boost Obama’s re-election prospects.

The Republicans will vote down anything, so Obama can use that against them:

Obama can quite likely win by convincing voters that even if they’re unhappy with his economic policies, the nation is better off sticking with him – because any of the Republican candidates is likely to make things much worse.

This line of argument has the benefit of being true. Does Mitt Romney have anything to offer except the warmed-over policies of tax cuts and deregulation that landed us in this mess? How will Rick Perry explain his view that Social Security is an unconstitutional Ponzi scheme? Can Ron Paul persuade Americans to carry satchels of gold dust to the mall? Does Michele Bachmann have an economic program at all?

So it may be time to go all out:

Roosevelt won re-election in the midst of the Great Depression not by convincing voters that his opponents would make the economic situation worse but by demonstrating his utter determination to return the nation to prosperity, no matter what obstacles he had to overcome.

Obama and his advisers know very well that this is the wrong time to cut government spending. They know that using federal money to seed big new initiatives – to upgrade the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, jump-start the “clean energy” industry, to retrain the unemployed so they can compete in tomorrow’s job market – would give the economy a much-needed boost. They know, too, that federal action to buoy the housing market would help revive consumer spending, thus giving corporations a reason to invest the estimated $1 trillion they’re sitting on.

Such ambitious proposals would demonstrate that the president is willing to think big – that he is not willing to accept the Republican narrative of massive retrenchment and, by implication, inevitable decline.

And the time is ripe:

It is hard to overstate how apprehensive most Americans are about the future. Boldness from the president may or may not get the nation’s mojo working again. Timidity surely won’t.

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives would immediately declare any such ambitious program dead on arrival. The president should welcome their opposition – and campaign vigorously against it. He can offer voters a choice between a pinched, miserly vision of the country’s prospects on the one hand and an optimistic, expansive view on the other. He needs to demand what’s right, not what the other side is willing to give.

Well, Obama has set up the circumstances for all this, and he may do what Robinson urges, but there are other matters to consider, like maybe there is nothing much that can be done.

Consider manufacturing, and in the New York Times, Jon Gertner offering this:

On both sides of the world, the fundamental appeal of expanding manufacturing is jobs. It is a curiosity of modern life that information companies can create extraordinary social disruptions and vast shareholder wealth but relatively few jobs. Facebook has about 2,000 employees worldwide. Google has about 29,000. Even in its new, slimmed-down state, General Motors, a decidedly less valuable company, has about 200,000 employees.

What if there are no jobs? In the Economist, Ryan Avent argues here that our odd nostalgia for manufacturing is silly, and goosing up manufacturing is no more than a wealth transfer mechanism:

It could be the case that Americans feel that some income redistribution is necessary, and they prefer to do it through effective subsidies to manufacturing employment rather than through disability payments to the long-term unemployed, or funding for retraining, or investment in infrastructure. From an efficiency standpoint, that’s an extremely peculiar preference, but from a political economy standpoint it isn’t too hard to understand. It sure is troubling that that seems to be the direction of enthusiasm in America, however.

And in the Atlantic, Patrick Appel cites one of his readers:

The problem we see in manufacturing and elsewhere is that technology is constantly allowing us to do more with less. From a resource perspective this is vital if we’re to continue to maintain economic growth in a world of finite resources. However, this same innovation is also allowing us to be more productive with fewer employees. We have factories full of robots to build our cars and computers. Who needs a secretarial pool when you have e-mail, copy machines, and printers?

Up through roughly the 1980s, if you had a minimal education, you could still find gainful employment that could provide a middle class income. That is less and less the case now – and it will only get worse in the future. So how do we, in a capitalist democracy, address the fact that some people will be incapable of a meaningful contribution to productive output? People who do not have the skills and are not capable of learning those skills will be unable to make a living, much less rise up from poverty. So we will find ourselves with an ever increasing underclass that has no economic opportunity available to them.

Well, neither party is about to address this structural problem, where more and more people, year after year, will become incapable of making any meaningful contribution to productive output. The inevitability of this being so is obvious, and depressing – technology makes most people quite superfluous. They have nothing to offer the new world, and no money even to be useful consumers, as they have no jobs.

And that assures trouble:

This disparity of opportunity is one of the main reasons we have such a polarization in US politics today is because this issue has continued to go unaddressed. The Tea Party is not angry at government as such, but rather angry about getting screwed by the system. But their right leaning politics assumes that the target of their ire should be the government. The left, similarly angry, blames large corporations. While the object of their derision may differ, both left and right are fundamentally reacting to the same sense that the future is looking ever bleaker.

And this is what happens:

Of course as poverty rises, wages stagnate, and unemployment remains high for less educated workers, politicians are all too happy to demagogue, blame the other side, and make the situation even worse. So we wind up with a self-reinforcing problem where greater inequality leads to greater polarity and makes real solutions more difficult to achieve. In the end, this is unsustainable.

And the writer ends there. There are no suggestions to deal with this. And as for what the Republicans will say in their big debate, or what Obama will say the following night, it isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem. G. K. Chesterton said that of course. Those words are up top in the masthead of this site for a reason.

But at least we got a good fight over who get to speak on which night – as if that really matters.

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 Jobs Crisis, John Boehner, Obama as the Grown-Up, Obama Needs to Step Up, Obama Traps his Opponents, Political Melodrama and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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