What a Little Moonlight Will Do

Yes, the Republicans have far too many debates, and they really shouldn’t hold them on the night of the full moon. On the last full moon it was that debate at Dartmouth, and that didn’t go well – at that one Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, then just the rising star of this group, said everyone should consider his 9-9-9 economic plan – what he says is a simple solution to restructuring the tax system. Everyone else at the table said it was just a new national sales tax, and Michele Bachmann said that, upside down, the Cain plan is 666 – the Mark of the Devil. She seems to have meant that as a joke. And it went downhill from there. And this time, on the night of the full moon, Wednesday, November 9, 2011, they chose to debate in Michigan, near Detroit and all its woes. After all, this was a debate that would be limited to the issue of the economy. And it was hosted by CNBC, the business channel, with a panel of their best business wonks – the fading market-babe Maria Bartiromo, the always-screaming former fund manager, Jim Cramer, and their calm political guy, John Harwood. And if you watched it you saw those three trying their best to remain calm and composed, when anyone could see they were aghast at the nonsense they were hearing from this crew. They know the markets, here and internationally, and have a pretty good idea of how things work, of how rates and prices and policies and odd financial instruments and all the rest interact. Those on stage obviously had no idea. It was painful. And here’s one write-up, from MSNBC:

“Oops.” A campaign blunder by Rick Perry stole the spotlight at Wednesday night’s presidential debate.

While a CNBC debate featured the most scrutiny to date of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s economic plans, and was highlighted by Herman Cain’s first debate appearance since the emergence of sexual harassment against him, a gaffe from the Texas governor took center stage and threatened to crystallize Republicans’ concerns about his candidacy.

Turning to Texas Rep. Ron Paul to boast, Perry said: “I’ll tell you: it’s three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone: Commerce, education and, the – uh – what’s the third one there? … Commerce, education and the uh, the uh…” before being interrupted by a question. “The third agency of government I would do away with – education, the, uh, commerce, and let’s see – I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops”

He followed up in a subsequent answer: “By the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for a while ago.”

In the Harry Potter books that one professor turns into a werewolf on the night of the full moon. Rick Perry turns into a clown. It was painful and that should be it for him.

As for the rest, whatever Obama has done was wrong – they’d have done the opposite. And that includes the bailout of the auto industry there, saving it, and all the jobs. That should have been a managed bankruptcy process — a private bankruptcy process. Governments should never do anything. And each of them had their list of which government departments should be eliminated – and the rest of them even remembered what was on their particular list. They were playing to the base. It had nothing to do with anything. Even Jim Cramer looked deflated.

And Andrew Sullivan followed it live, with comments like these:

8.10 pm. Cramer gets real antsy about the notion of allowing a global financial collapse. Ron Paul talks of the benefits of full liquidation. Cramer – who is starting at a volume and intensity level of 11 – is aghast. Huntsman argues, I think, in favor of breaking up the big banks.

8.17 pm. Gingrich doubles down on demonizing Bush appointee Ben Bernanke and repeats that he should be fired. Which he cannot. Gingrich then delivers a classic piece of crazy about evil Alinksy communism versus America. He’s playing direct to the talk radio base.

8.27 pm. Romney says that Democrats are against profitable companies. Seriously. Then he says that Obama doesn’t like business. Because he bailed out the auto companies. Successfully.

8.29 pm. Gingrich is running against the media. Bartiromo calls him on it. He has no real answer, except that he’d rather have seen someone in the media ask OWS the right questions. Bartiromo is easily the best interrogator of these debates so far – because she refuses to accept the premises of some of the answers. Gingrich speaks as if there is no inequality problem, and no social mobility problem. They don’t exist. Like the victims of Herman Cain’s sexual harassment.

9.01 pm. Gingrich is revealed as an emperor with no clothes on healthcare. His first response to what he would replace Obamacare with was he’d return to a relationship between a patient and a doctor. Then Medicaid to the states. Then some kind of crazy riff on brain science. Seriously, this is truly a pathetic spectacle, interspersed by occasional dogged attempts by Bartiromo to get them to address the reality outside their closed ideological cocoon.

9.13 pm. Santorum is asked how he could compromise with Democrats when he refuses any tax increases at all. His answer is: they will agree with us. Seriously.

9.29 pm. Ron Paul argues for total privatization of college education and an end to student loans; and Perry would abolish the Department of Education. Gingrich says that government student loans are an “absurdity”. The complete indifference to the questioners was striking. Perry is now an extra in The Walking Dead. But less articulate.

That’s just a little taste of someone who struggling to take these people seriously, but Sullivan said he finally began to really lose it watching this crew:

There are only two faintly plausible, credible presidents up there, both Mormons. The rest is beyond an embarrassment, and at this moment in history, the sheer paucity of that talent is alarming. Did anyone up there give you confidence he or she could actually lead the world countering this metastasizing debt and unemployment crisis? At best, there were noises about removing burdensome regulation on businesses and a simpler tax code. But who up there could actually bring that about?

In fact, this crew may have actually turned Bartiromo and Cramer into Registered Democrats. And that is related to something else Sullivan notes:

First: Romney’s claim that Democrats hate profitable companies. It’s an absurd statement on its face, but as a comment on reality, it’s surreal. Profits are at record levels. If lack of profits is the reason for our employment crisis, there would be no crisis. Second: the boos for questioning a man in power who is credibly accused of sexual harassment and has settled such cases in the past is a sign of real contempt for women in such a situation. Both reveal to me a party that has completely lost its way.

So Sullivan sees it this way:

I’m beginning to wonder if these debates are helping Obama more than his own primary debates did in 2007 and 2008. Next to these doofuses, he seems reassuring.

That seems about right, and in another item, Sullivan says you can blame what the Tea Party did to the Republican Party:

Suddenly, we found the right even more defined and dominated by talk radio, Fox News, and the far right blogosphere (yes, Mr Erickson, that would be you), and its resort to 1980s dogma as a cure-all for its woes. Hence the description of a centrist health insurance reform, based on many Republican ideas, to the right of the Clintons’ and far to the right of Nixon’s, as a form of enslavement. Hence the absurd notion that the stimulus had no impact, simply because it was too small to fill the hole in demand that the statisticians in 2009 did not accurately measure or predict.

Hence the attacks on collective bargaining for public sector workers, and the draconian anti-illegal-immigration initiatives from Arizona to Alabama. Hence the total denial of climate change and a desire to abolish the EPA. Hence a Supreme Court happy to find radical new interpretations of the Constitution, including the unlimited right of corporations to influence elections, and turning the Second Amendment into something more radical than anything previously contemplated. Hence the even more bizarre defenses of the banks who gambled with the country’s core financial stability to make even more grotesque bonuses than they had been earning already. Hence too the total silence when it comes to anything that could not just repeal but “replace” Obamacare. The uninsured simply don’t exist in the mind of the GOP.

And Sullivan sees a number of key reasons this happened:

The first is that, quite simply, much smaller legislative parties tend to include fewer moderates (because they’re the ones likeliest to lose in swing districts) and so the atmosphere skews far right or far left (my two main historical examples of this are British: Labour after Thatcher’s first victory, the Tories after Blair’s). This was intensified by the pre-2010 purge of any moderates and selection of an even more ideological freshman class in the House of Representatives.

But the second is most interesting, having to do with the dominance in the Republican Party of what Sullivan chooses to call the Media Industrial Complex:

When there is so much money to be made from politics-as-entertainment, the dominant public figures on the right tend to be provocative, polarizing media stars. From Limbaugh to Levin to Hannity, the premium is on conflict and provocation for ratings. After a while, this is all you’ve got in the Republican psyche, and no moderating forces acting against it. In that atmosphere, you need talk-show hosts as president, not governors or legislators. Herman Cain is drawn precisely from that media industrial complex. Mitch Daniels and Jon Huntsman are excluded for the exact same reason.

Yes, Herman Cain, after the Godfather’s Pizza CEO gig, essentially made his living as a motivational speaker. And that’s how he campaigns. And that is what he offers as a potential president – he will motivate us, or others, or something – just don’t bother him with the details. At least Rick Perry thinks the major details are important, even if he cannot remember what they are – but he still knows they’re important. As for the minor details, see Matthew Yglesias:

Nobody should be allowed to get away with hazily waving at whole cabinet departments without talking about what – exactly – it is they’re saying should happen. My strong suspicion is that Perry actually has no idea what are the scope of the Energy department’s defense-related activities and is just running his mouth off.

Well, yes, but he did at least knows the actual names of two of the three departments he wanted to eliminate. That should count for something. After all, Michele Bachmann said she, when she becomes president, would abolish Obamacare with the stroke of her pen – she’d just sign the order to stop it, now. But things don’t work that way. The Affordable Care Act is now law, and the president’s job is to execute and enforce and carry out the laws congress passes, and to do it faithfully. That’s kind of in the Constitution. But she seems to think any president can point and say, nope, that one over there – sorry, that’s not a law now. Nope, it’s not that simple. But if we deal with politics-as-entertainment, and the dominant public figures on the right tend to need to be provocative, polarizing media stars, this is what you get. It’s often called nonsense.

All this could kind of make you miss Bill Clinton – love him or hate him, the man knew his stuff. He always had all the details of everything at his fingertips – ask him about Medicare and he would walk you through the rate tables and demographics of access, state by state, county by county – from memory, and with a smile. And ask him about, say, Turkey, and he’d run through the political history there since Ataturk and then talk about the various Kurdish rebel groups in play now, and mention the current state of bad feelings between Greece and Turkey over that Green Line in Cyprus. He was a true policy wonk, on top of everything. Obama’s good, but Clinton was a master at that sort of thing. And that makes these Republican debates painful to watch. Just what is it that they actually know?

And the odd thing is that on the morning of this latest Republican debate, the Los Angeles Times ran a review of Bill Clinton’s new book, Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy – a glowing review from Carolyn Kellogg – “The former president issues a rallying cry for Americans to see beyond partisan politics and sets out a blueprint for a return to prosperity.”

Isn’t it pretty to think so. But at salon.com Andrew Leonard says not so fast there – “the agenda set forth by Clinton is not substantively different from what Obama has attempted to execute.” Good ideas, fleshed out with real details as to what to do and when, and exactly why, just don’t get you there now:

One could reasonably argue that Clinton would have done a much better job facing down McConnell, Boehner and Cantor on the debt ceiling and government shutdown showdowns. But his program for smart governmental intervention in the economy would have constituted exactly the same kind of anathema to a Republican Party determined to prevent him from accomplishing anything as everything hitherto proposed by Obama. Clinton would also have discovered that when you come into office on the heels of a fiscal quarter in which the economy contracted by almost 10 percent, while facing a Senate opposition determined to filibuster your every move at a historically unprecedented rate from Day One, recovery would be slow and painful and politically costly. Furthermore, any notion that Bill Clinton might have been tougher than Obama on the banks or Wall Street, while fighting for his beloved middle class, seems especially dubious. Let’s not forget, Obama’s economic team was largely staffed by veterans of the Clinton administration, and some of the key deregulatory measures that contributed to the financial crisis were passed during Clinton’s administration with the enthusiastic support of those very same men.

So it comes down to this:

“Back to Work” includes a cogent analysis of where the U.S. has gone astray, is full of sensible ideas to encourage job creation and economic growth, and makes a robust defense of the notion that strong government is a good thing. But so what? The people who will buy and read this book not only already agree with just about everything that’s in it, but they also already know it all. There’s almost nothing here that hasn’t been proposed by the Obama administration, or that isn’t already a stock part of the mainstream Democratic agenda – which makes it all completely meaningless in the context of current political gridlock. Clinton wants us to get back to a government based on doing things that work – but as has become abundantly evident in the past few years, congressional Republicans are content with a system that doesn’t work. And neither Obama nor Clinton has any leverage to change that reality, unless Democrats enjoy a surprising victory in the 2012 election.

All you had to do was look at the most recent debate to see the problem. It’s hard to deal with sad clowns bent on anarchy. Leonard reminds us things have changed:

For most of his two terms, Bill Clinton enjoyed a huge wind at his back – a stunning period of economic growth that was in large part fueled by two things he can take zero credit for: the end of the Cold War and the massive tech boom. And even without the black hole of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression sucking at his presidency from the moment he moved into the White House, Clinton still managed to make a pretty big mess of things in his first two years. His efforts to push through the first priority on his political agenda – healthcare reform – failed miserably and contributed heavily to one of the worst midterm election defeats faced by a sitting Democratic president in a century. The Obama midterm debacle was even bigger, but in some ways less embarrassing. Until Clinton came along, Democrats had held a majority in the House of Representatives for 40 years.

Today, there is a rosy glow associated with the Clinton years. We tend to forget such things as the tawdry impeachment scandal, for a simple reason: The economy grew quickly and millions of jobs were created. If you couldn’t find a job in Northern California in the late ’90s, you weren’t breathing. The warm tint of the rearview mirror imbues Clinton with the authority to lecture us all now on how we should be doing a better job getting people back to work.

Still, Leonard is impressed with the detailed list of what we can do, right now, to get the economy back on track:

Clinton is a bit more supportive of the debt-reduction proposals that came out of Obama’s Erskine-Bowles commission than most serious liberals will feel comfortable with, but aside from that, most Democrats will find themselves nodding their heads at his proposal to spur green job creation through investment in renewable energy, his call for a big infrastructure buildup, and his plan to fix the housing sector. Clinton’s always been a wonk’s wonk – he clearly enjoys wallowing in the nitty-gritty details of policy. There’s meat in “Back to Work.”

But along with the meat, Clinton also offers this:

If there are any militant anti-tax folks still reading this book, I can hear the counterattack forming in your minds: “Clinton wants European-style social democracy! He wants to tax us to death. He’s for too much government! He doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism! He doesn’t even love America anymore, or he wouldn’t be telling us all this bad stuff!”

Clinton says that’s all nonsense, but Leonard doesn’t think so:

Well yeah, sure, except for the annoying little fact that it’s nonsense that represents the expressed views of most of the Republicans currently elected to Congress. And indeed, it’s mild nonsense that doesn’t even come close to the intemperate nastiness of the rhetoric routinely hurled at President Obama. …

The sad truth – and this is something that Clinton is surely aware of – is that all the well-meaning and pragmatically effective job creation tools in the world are worth nothing when matched up against the scorched earth tactics and extreme calcified ideology of the current Republican Party. Clinton’s great 1990s nemesis, Newt Gingrich, is a moderate when compared to the GOP’s Tea Party backbone – something Gingrich learned to his shock when he had the temerity to criticize Paul Ryan’s budget as “right-wing social engineering.”

So it’s time to get real:

It doesn’t matter how compellingly Clinton makes the case for smart government (and higher taxes) in an era when the opposition party has never been more anti-tax or more resolutely opposed to government action. It doesn’t matter how bad we look when compared to other rich countries, when we are considered by definition incomparable. It doesn’t matter how much sense Clinton makes – in Washington in 2011, sense is irrelevant.

But you knew that. You watched the Republican debate.

Still, you might want to read the new Clinton book:

If you’re in the market for an alternate reality, pick up “Back to Work,” mix yourself a strong drink, and pretend to your heart’s delight that if we just had the right wonk in office, pushing the right kind of policy proposals, unemployment would be falling while the economy boomed.

But if you want to change reality, just make sure you go vote.

And don’t vote for those odd and vague folks who like to debate on the night of the full moon. You do know that full moons are traditionally associated with temporal insomnia, insanity (hence the terms lunacy and lunatic) and various magical phenomena such as lycanthropy (that werewolf stuff) – and a study of the Bradford Royal Infirmary found that dog bites were twice as common during a full moon. Think about that. Maybe that explains that odd Republican debate in Michigan.

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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