Inevitable Overreach

Obama may end up being a one-term president. The economy sucks and things are not getting better, as there is nothing Obama can do about the major European banks collapsing one by one, and Greece and Italy and maybe France defaulting and kind of going out of business, and nothing he can do with the Republicans in firm control of the House, where all spending is approved, and those Republicans on record as vowing never to approve a dime of federal spending ever again. Sure Obama can call for a jobs program, but it has to be a jobs program where not a dime is spent on anything. That’s been settled. Yes, the federal government contracts out massive amounts of work, spending around half a trillion dollars a year on goods and services – and forty percent of those who do the work of the federal government are employed by private-sector businesses – but they want that to stop too. That ain’t a jobs program. A lot of private businesses will be firing a lot of workers. Of course this year Rick Perry will fire 130,000 Texas school teachers, to stimulate the Texas economy or something. Things will get worse, and Obama is the man at the top, so he may be toast. And he looks weak and vulnerable. If he can be stopped from getting a jobs program going he’s gone.

Then why is the solidly conservative Ramesh Ponnuru, writing a column for Bloomberg that everyone is citing, so worried that we’ll have four more years of Obama? He really is worried and the column is this – Obama’s Weakness Leading to Republican Overreach – arguing that the Republicans are just basically not very good at effectively and fatally kicking a man when he’s down, although he doesn’t quite put it that way. But the idea is that they do lack some sort of concentrated murderous brutality, as they keep getting caught up in spinning self-serving yarns that make them and their base gleeful, but do little else.

And Ponnuru opens with this comment on Obama’s general weakness:

Obama has never had to demonstrate great political skill in his general-election races. During both of them, he was blessed with good luck (a fringy opponent in his Senate race, and a collapsing economy during his presidential run).

That may underestimate Obama’s political skills – he cleverly set up Hillary Clinton so that we all got to see her spin her wheels and kind of self-destruct, and then he did the same thing to John McCain. Obama is not confrontational at all, but he’s damned good at giving his opponents enough rope, and standing back. And they invariably hang themselves, as the metaphor goes. There’s no one more deadly in debating things than someone who says to the other guy tell me more about that, and why you think that, and give me some examples, and explain what your general rationale is. That’s the rope. Politicians love to talk, and love to keep talking, far after they have anything to say. They do hang themselves.

So Obama may be no pushover. There are three words that should raise a red flag for any politician. Tell me more. When you hear those words, if you’re wise, you smile and mutter something about already having covered that and you move to the next topic. Ponnuru seems to think that this current array of Republican hopefuls don’t get it:

Texas Governor Rick Perry has suggested that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and that they should be replaced by state-run programs. There’s a reason no Republican candidate since 1964 has run on a platform anything like this one on entitlements: Both programs are extremely popular. …

Perry has also suggested that he disapproves of the New Deal, seeing it as a moment when the federal government began to exceed the constitutional limits of its power. He hasn’t said he wants to undo the New Deal, but it’s not out of bounds for Democrats to make the charge, given the importance he attaches to constitutionalism.

Perry seems to have brought along his own rope to hang himself, and Andrew Sullivan sees how this could play out:

In Perry, the Dems have someone who hates the whole concept of social security and Medicare. They used to fantasize about such an opponent. And Obama’s current weakness is tempting the GOP to dig even deeper into holes that will be impossible to get out of next year. They really intend to again prevent someone with pre-existing conditions from getting health insurance. They want to abolish the EPA. This is not an electorally viable platform, and yet the signs suggest that only Huntsman understands the gravity of the over-reach.

And Huntsman is dead last in all the polling. And Ponnuru is not happy:

Already the Republican primaries have seen candidates take positions that will be hard sells in the fall of next year. Both Bachmann and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, want to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. Polls suggest that while the public doesn’t consider environmental protection its top priority right now, it favors regulation and trusts Democrats over Republicans on the issue. Texas Governor Rick Perry has suggested that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and that they should be replaced by state-run programs.

And it’s even worse that the other candidates say nothing about such things:

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney hasn’t come out in favor of abolishing the EPA or getting rid of federal entitlement programs, but he hasn’t denounced these ideas or even used them as an argument against the electability of the candidates who have advanced them. Evidently he believes either that the primary electorate doesn’t think these positions are politically toxic, or that it doesn’t consider electability a key concern.

But that is a concern, if not the main point of all this stuff:

If Republican voters had electability on their minds, they would also want to see the candidates address issues that concern the broader public: how to get wages growing again after years when they stagnated even during periods of growth; and what to replace Obama’s health-care reform with. But the candidates feel no pressure from primary voters to outline plans on those issues, and haven’t done so. Instead, they are focused on issues such as the alleged threat of “sharia law” and the heavy share of income taxes paid by the rich – that are of interest only to the party faithful.

And Ponnuru sees that as hopelessly counterproductive:

In any presidential primary there’s a tension between the voters’ desire for a candidate who can win the general election and their desire for a candidate who shares their views – between, in other words, ideology and electability. The more beatable Obama looks, the more the balance for Republican voters will tilt toward ideology and away from electability.

That doesn’t just mean they will be more likely to support candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, who will have trouble winning votes from independents and Democrats. It also means the terrain of the primaries will shift: The candidates will place more emphasis on outflanking one another on the right and less on showing they can win in November 2012.

Yep, Obama is in trouble. Fourteen million are unemployed, officially, and maybe seven million more unemployed but not counted, and wages are stagnant, and you can pin that on Obama. But with corporations showing record profits, and awash with two trillion in cash-on-hand and nowhere to spend it, these guys are saying deregulate more so they have more cash, and stop taxing the rich so damn much, as good things will happen if you do, sooner or later. And layoff more public workers, and private sector workers who have government contracts, as good things will happen if you do, sooner or later. And look! Sharia law! Mexicans! Gay people! Abortions!

Ramesh Ponnuru is not happy about all this. And Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway reviews the most recent Republican candidates’ forum:

If the GOP spends the primary season focusing on stuff like this, on whether Social Security is an unconstitutional Ponzi scheme, or on whether the Department of Education should be abolished as Michele Bachmann suggested at one point during yesterday’s forum, people are going to notice. For the most part, these are discussions that outside the mainstream of American politics right now – and most certainly they aren’t the issues that the public is most concerned about. The media attention that the GOP will get from being the only party with a primary fight in 2012, but they’ll also be taking a risk – the risk being that extended attention to Republicans talking about things that appeal to ideology rather than electability will sour the public on whomever the eventual Republican nominee ends up being, and make it easier for the Obama campaign and the Democrats to paint that nominee as extreme.

In 1964, the GOP nominated the most conservative candidate possible, and they lost in a landslide. In 1980, the party nominated the most conservative electable candidate possible (by any measure, Phil Crane was more conservative than Ronald Reagan I would argue), and they won in a landslide. If Republicans want to win in 2012, they’d do well to keep those two years in mind.

But at the Ricochet Conversation Feed there’s this:

I tend to think people overstate the conflict between electability and ideology. I mean, for some political adherents there might be a conflict – but obviously whichever candidate wins had a base with no conflict. But more than that, I think we forget that so-called moderate candidates have a huge demotivating factor. They depress turnout. Sure, not everyone is going to vote for someone more ideologically rigorous than John McCain, but that candidate probably has a good chance of energizing the base and creating an actual movement that can, you know, win an election.

Well, that adds a twist – at least Bachmann and Perry motivate the base, and you don’t want the base staying home in the general election. It gets tricky:

So how best to approach this? President Obama’s implosion gives right-of-center folks a huge opportunity? How to avoid squandering that without overreaching?

This is a problem on the right, but “Skydancing” has a bigger problem:

Both parties have these terrible pathological behaviors. The Republicans are overrun at the moment by the craziest of the crazies with ideas that would bring down the republic. Democrats can’t seem to do anything but dither and try to find new buzz words to repackage already failed ideas that hand over everything to the donor class. Lost in all of this are hard working American people who do not understand why normal governance stuff is not getting done. It just seems like more and more of what used to make American strong is going, going and gone. A pox on both their houses – I want an alternative.

And Rod Dreher, writing in the American Conservative, is in the same boat:

I didn’t vote for Obama, and, unsurprisingly, haven’t been pleased with his governance. The two things I hoped for from him – serious Wall Street reform, and a non-Bushian foreign policy – he’s whiffed on. (Then again, if you’re a Democrat who is going to treat foreign policy and financial elites like a Republican, you shouldn’t be surprised when people prefer the real thing.) Like I said, though, I never expected much from Obama, and he’s delivered. Still, he hasn’t been a disaster, and if the economy were in better shape, I could reconcile myself to a second Obama term. But it’s not, and I can’t get the line “Jimmy Carter is alive and well and living in the White House” out of my head.

But the Republicans? Good grief. The ideological recklessness with which the GOP treated the debt ceiling issue made me fearful of what they would do if they captured the White House again. Plus, I had foolishly hoped that the loss to Obama would compel the GOP to take a hard look at its ideology in light of conservative first principles, and make some changes. Instead, they seem to have doubled down on Bushism. It’s hard for me to see what significant differences there are between Bush’s policies and those proposed by the leading GOP candidates, Romney and Perry. Sure, they may well make the usual Tea Party arguments about how Bush was a big-spending fool (and he was), but they’re not going to make any significant moves against popular programs. And they certainly aren’t going to raise taxes, not even on billionaires, who can well afford it – not even if raising taxes in a limited way is a prudential move for the stability of the economy.

But nothing can work now:

It seems to me that both parties are such hostages to their own rhetoric and interest groups that they cannot move in creative ways to deal with the world as it is. And not only parties, but the people who support them. There are no outrages (e.g., extra-constitutional wars in Libya, mollycoddling bankers) that Democrats won’t put up with as long as nobody touches Social Security, no homosexual is denied a wedding or a military commission, and no abortion is ever discouraged. There are no outrages Republicans won’t put up with as long as no taxes get raised, and the GOP commits itself rhetorically to opposing gay marriage and abortion. Above all, the raison d’être of each party seems to be, at the core, demonizing the Other. I’m tempted to believe that the GOP Congressional leadership would just as soon see the country suffer rather than yield a political inch to Obama.

I see both parties, and think of them as ghosts who keep performing the same rituals, because they don’t know what else to do.

Yeah, but there is that one line – the Republican congressional leadership would just as soon see the country suffer rather than yield a political inch to Obama. Is that overreach, assuming folks, beyond the hardcore Republican base, love that idea? Ezra Klein in the Washington Post has some thoughts on that idea:

Want to know why President Obama is going to have such a hard time persuading Republicans to support his jobs proposals this week? Don’t ask a pundit, or a politician, or a pollster. Ask a psychologist.

It has become common for Republicans to deride the very concept of stimulus as absurd, to mock Keynesian economics as an ivory-tower fantasy, and to oppose temporary tax cuts as a recession-fighting measure. But during the Bush administration? All that was orthodox conservative policy.

And he reviews the history – those guys all talked up stimulus, even Grover Norquist and Paul Ryan – Klein documents it all. So what happened?

Well, it’s complicated:

Some say the explanation for all this is obvious: Republicans want the economy to fail because that is how they will defeat President Obama. After all, didn’t Sen. Mitch McConnell say, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”? How much clearer can it be?

I don’t believe this sort of behavior is quite that cynical. Psychologists and political scientists talk often of a phenomenon known as motivated skepticism. The idea, basically, is that we believe the evidence and arguments we want to believe, and reject ideas and information that undercut our preferences.

And Klein reviews this study by Yale’s Geoffrey Cohen:

He had a control group of liberals and conservatives look at a generous welfare reform proposal and a harsh welfare reform proposal. As expected, liberals preferred the generous plan and conservatives favored the more stringent option. Then he had another group of liberals and conservatives look at the same plans, but this time, the plans were associated with parties.

Both liberals and conservatives followed their parties, even when their parties disagreed with their preferences. So when Democrats were said to favor the stringent welfare reform, for example, liberals went right along. Three scary sentences from the piece: “When reference group information was available, participants gave no weight to objective policy content, and instead assumed the position of their group as their own. This effect was as strong among people who were knowledgeable about welfare as it was among people who were not. Finally, participants persisted in the belief that they had formed their attitude autonomously even in the two group information conditions where they had not.”

I tend to think there’s much more motivated skepticism in politics than outright cynicism, much less economic sabotage. But it’s a distinction without a difference, at least so far as policy outcomes go.

And we are, unfortunately, where we are:

Until quite recently, both parties supported the idea that you combat bad economies with stimulus spending. Now, during an extremely bad economy, the Republican Party has completely abandoned that position. That has left them without plausible solutions – the GOP talks now of things that have very little role in boosting short-term demand, such as deficit reduction and regulatory reform – and has left the Democrats without the votes to pass anything. And that’s left the country deep in the hole.

Steve Benen in the Washington Monthly sees the same thing:

Up until 2009, the debate wasn’t about whether to stimulate the economy during downturns, but how. Both sides believed in bolstering demand, but disagreed with the methods – Republicans believed tax cuts would lead to more spending, which would increase demand and grow the economy; Democrats believed tax cuts were indirect and inefficient, and preferred public investments.

But they were at least part of the same conversation.

And now they’re not, but Benen comes to a different conclusion than Klein:

Ezra believes GOP officials aren’t that cynical; I believe they’re absolutely that cynical. Indeed, I tend to agree with a different piece Ezra wrote last week, when he argued that the “fundamental fact” of American politics right now is that Republicans are principally concerned with winning in 2012, not fixing the economy. “Boehner,” he wrote, “simply will not cut off his party’s candidates at the knees, especially its presidential contenders, by handing Obama a major economic accomplishment.”

That’s pretty cynical, and I think it’s entirely correct: Boehner is willing to hold back the economy, on purpose, as part of an election strategy.

It’s unlikely that Republicans want the country to suffer, per se, but it seems plausible to me that they see this as a temporary approach – they’ll undermine the economy and abandon their previous principles for just a little while, and then see what they can do to help Americans in 2013. They can’t act sooner, though, because it might help Obama.

Okay, they’re nasty and cynical and destructive and quite dangerous, or they’re suffering from that odd phenomenon known as motivated skepticism and, well, such things happen – or Ramesh Ponnuru has it right, that they’re feeling their oats and all caught up in their own nutty pet ideas when they should just go in for the kill and stop being so damned ideologically pure.

Which is it? No one can say, but Obama can step back and watch them hang themselves with their own rope they conveniently brought with them. He just may get that second term. It’s almost being handed to him.

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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.
This entry was posted in Jobs Crisis, Obama - Master Politician, Obama Traps his Opponents, Republican Obstructionism, Republican Opposition to Stimulus Package, Republican Sabotage and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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