Christmas with the Cranks

A quiet evening here in Hollywood – the eve of Christmas Eve – the presents wrapped and all is well for the drive in the morning, down the endless freeways, with the blue Pacific on the right – for the family stuff. And there’s no need to think about politics. In fact, some hours ago, Air Force One must have passed high over Los Angeles, carrying Obama out to Hawaii, for Christmas with his family, as things political got wrapped up in Washington, although it wasn’t pretty:

The US Congress has approved a short-term renewal of a payroll tax cut, a day after House Republicans caved in to overwhelming pressure on the issue.

The bill extends the tax cut as well as unemployment insurance for two months.

Lawmakers held voice votes on the deal, requiring only a few members to be present.

A joint conference committee will work on a year-long deal after the holiday recess. Mr Obama signed the bill before leaving for Hawaii for the holidays.

In a statement at the White House, he urged Congress to work on a longer extension to the package “without drama, without delay” in the new year…

Well, good luck with that. This was all about drama, and delay. And it was a fight about nothing, really. Although the Republicans had originally opposed extending the payroll tax cut – such tax breaks, unlike massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, really don’t stimulate the economy – they had come around. They were suddenly all for continuing a small tax break for one hundred sixty million Americans – as they must have realized such folks vote. So this was going to happen, one way or another. But how it was going to happen became the issue.

And there it got odd. The president and the senate got stuck on what the Democrats had to give up in order to get any Republican votes to get this done – allowing a cross-country pipeline, abolishing the EPA or the Department of Education and that sort of thing. And the Democrats, being told they’d get no Republican votes unless this tax cut was also paid for, suggested a small tax increase on anyone earning more than a million dollars or more. The Republicans were aghast – those are the very people you should never, ever tax – the job creators, you know. So the whole matter stalled. And then everyone came up with a compromise – let’s leave things are they are for two more months, and come back after the holidays and see how we can work this out. John Boehner, speaker of the House, said fine – you guys work out the details of the two-month extension and the House will pass whatever you come up with, so we can have an all-out battle when everyone gets back in town – to see who gives up what and gets called weak and foolish and looks stupid and all the rest.

So everyone agreed on the compromise – even all but seven Senate Republicans – and Boehner went to his House caucus and basically said let’s do this, go home for the holidays, and then come back for another real fight, where we’ll get the Democrats to cave in on everything their base thinks is even halfway important, as they always cave in.

And his caucus said no. He had underestimated the mood of the Tea Party folks there. They wanted the fight now. There should be no two-month extension, deferring things. The Democrats would cave to every demand they could think up – the wilder the better – as Democrats always cave. And they must have claimed that they had the Democrats in a tight spot here – if they didn’t cave then one hundred sixty million Americans would suddenly, on the first day in January, have a whole lot less money to spend, and two to four million people would lose their unemployment benefits and face starvation and disaster, and additionally, as a part of this, doctors who treat Medicare patients would find Medicare reimbursements paid to them dropping nearly thirty percent – and it would be very likely that the country would plunge into another deep recession. And everyone would blame the Democrats for not doing what was asked of them. This was sweet! They told Boehner that he’d be a fool to agree to this compromise. This was a real opportunity. And he certainly wouldn’t have their vote on any compromise, to work things out in two months… The idea was he should just say let’s fight now, or we will make sure a national disaster happens in ten days.

So Boehner went back on his word to his Senate counterparts, and pretended he never said what he had said previously about getting this done later, and went before America and said look, we fight about this now, not later, or the country gets hurt real bad in ten days. You don’t want that, do you? He had been rolled by the Tea Party.

This was not the thing to say at Christmastime – there is enough stress in the air anyway, and threatening economic pain and possible disaster when everyone was out Christmas shopping, buying what they couldn’t afford anyway, was just boneheaded. And since all parties agree the tax cuts and unemployment benefits will be extended for the full year anyway, and the doctors paid – with the details to be worked out in February – this really was a fight about nothing. Everyone agrees on what needs to be done, and agrees it will be done. The rest is bullshit – or more precisely, political posturing. And this, this time, makes you look like a thug. That may be fine at times, to some – but this odd fight had to do with actually taking money out of people’s pockets – now. And the worst thing is that the whole dispute was pointless. It was a fight about when to fight – about something that’s going to happen anyway.

The public reaction to this was swift. This was stupid, and that finally sunk in:

Boehner and his caucus were pilloried by fellow Republican lawmakers, Bush White House strategist Karl Rove and even the conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. On Thursday, the embattled House Speaker told members of his party they would make a u-turn, during a muted conference call where they could not ask questions.

He’d had enough. He didn’t want to be Scrooge. And Jonathan Chait frames the whole matter this way:

The payroll tax debacle is now the third suicidal episode undertaken by the House Republicans since they took control at the beginning of the year. The first was when they voted almost unanimously for Paul Ryan’s budget, which was filled with grist for attack ads – huge cuts to Medicare, big tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulating Wall Street – despite it having no chance of passing this term. The second was when they played chicken with the debt ceiling and turned a once-routine procedure into a white-knuckle game of chicken with the world economy. And then this week, when they attempted to extract concessions in return for extending the payroll tax holiday, an anti-recessionary measure with strong support from economists, businesses, and voters. These are not just gestures. The right-wingers are really trying to off themselves.

This was suicidal, but perhaps inevitable:

The payroll tax debacle most closely resembles the debt ceiling fight, which probably explains why House Republicans decided to do it. During that episode, a large chunk of Republicans genuinely did not want to lift the debt ceiling, and others either did want to, or were willing to, but decided to use the threat of economic calamity to wring policy concessions out of President Obama. The episode cost Republicans public support, but it hurt Obama as well, and it did get them the spending cuts they wanted.

So they decided to try it again with the payroll tax holiday.

But it was a bad idea:

One reason is that, since the debt ceiling debacle brought about in part by his own weakness, Obama has found his political footing by detaching himself from congressional procedure and standing in stark opposition to Republicans. The second reason is that the Obama administration was genuinely terrified of failing to lift the debt ceiling, and while it wants to extend the payroll tax holiday, missing the deadline in a game of chicken wouldn’t cause massive, irreparable harm.

They didn’t get it:

Republicans, possibly overconfident from their debt ceiling hostage caper, seemed not to contemplate the possibility that Democrats would hold together then blame them for failure. They ended up eroding their own credibility on taxes, general competence, and willingness to take action to help the economy.

It was just boneheaded, and Kathleen Hennessey and Lisa Mascaro, of the Los Angeles Times’ Washington Bureau, have a few things to say about Boehner:

House Speaker John A. Boehner likes to call himself a happy warrior. On days when Washington politics get rough, he whistles “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in the hallways.

But most of Boehner’s Republican troops – particularly the tea-party-influenced freshmen – think of themselves more as freedom fighters. To get fired up during the payroll tax standoff this week, they took turns recalling the wild-eyed, chest-thumping battle scenes of “Braveheart.”

Their decision to dig in against a bipartisan tax compromise – and thereby risk an average $86-per-month tax increase on 160 million workers – put an end to Boehner’s whistling.

But there is another way to look at this:

The fallout was a notable shift from the deft management Boehner demonstrated much of his first year as speaker. The new Republican House majority believed it had been elected to roll back Obama’s vision of government, without compromise. Boehner, a veteran legislator accustomed to the give and take of deal-making, gave punch to their cause and pursued their priorities but did not let the House go over the edge.

The government did not shut down. There was no federal default. Republicans pushed Democrats to consider once-unthinkable reductions in the size and scope of government and largely controlled the conversation in Congress most of the year.

“It’s important to note how we’ve changed the debate here in Washington and the direction of our government,” Boehner told a group of reporters in his suite of offices this fall. “We’re not talking about spending more money; we’re talking about spending less. It’s probably been the most dramatic change we’ve seen over the course of this year.”

Well, maybe so, but the New York Times’ Jennifer Steinhauer offers this:

The central conflict that has dogged Speaker John A. Boehner is this: how to answer the hue and cry of the far-right corner of his conference – especially the most conservative of the 87 freshmen who often seem willing to walk to the point of legislative disaster over a point of principle – and actually get things done.

Mr. Boehner finally chose to slam the door on his highly opinionated conference on Thursday afternoon, telling lawmakers that their view on the extension of the payroll tax break was no longer of interest. He was, he said, ready to accept the Senate’s short-term solution, which passed both chambers and was signed by President Obama on Friday.

As they say, he finally grew a pair, although it may be too late:

Mr. Boehner says he is confident he has control. But the question remains of what will happen next year, when these Republicans have a chance to speak back to their speaker – there is no mute button in the caucus room.

We shall see. And there’s the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson on how Boehner’s problem children will always be with him:

They’ll try their best to resume the practice of absolute anti-Obama unity, which has worked quite well for them. But no one can erase what voters have seen this week, and it wasn’t pretty.

There are only two possible reasons for House Republicans to behave the way they did. Maybe they are so blinded by ideology that they no longer care about the impact their actions might have on struggling American families. Or maybe their only guiding principle is that anything Obama supports, they oppose.

But there’s a lesson for Obama too:

One reason for all the Republican angst was that public opinion has become more sensitive to issues of economic justice. This may be partly due to the Occupy protests. But I’m convinced that Obama’s fiery barnstorming in favor of his American Jobs Act has played a big role. People are hearing his message.

The president has been on the offensive. It’s no coincidence that – for the first time in quite a while – Republicans are backing up.

And Ezra Klein speculates on what will happen in sixty days when the payroll tax cut is set to expire again:

One possibility is that the Republicans decide that fighting the payroll tax cut is simply too much trouble. If that’s their conclusion, then the next extension might pass easily. But another possibility is that House Republicans are furious at having been forced to buckle this time, and their takeaway is that, next time, they need a better strategy, and they need to make sure Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are on the same page. In that case, the next extension will be an even heavier lift.

By the same token, the lessons the Democrats’ took matters, too. And that one seems easier to predict: don’t spend too much time negotiating with Republicans.

Yes, don’t spend too much time negotiating with Republicans, as they fight about nothing, really, and those fights are the nastiest, and most pointless.

And along those lines, at Business Insider, there’s Henry Blodget:

All that resulted from the last month of bickering is that we agreed to waste another two months of government time on absurd posturing and positioning and sound-biting… when we already know the outcome and when there are dozens of other more critical issues and problems for our government to deal with and solve.

But Slate’s David Weigel, seeing that the crew in the House did get Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, to name a conference committee, has a warning:

Republicans get one of their demands, and another chance. They’ll have to eat some “Republicans in disarray” headlines for a few days, but reporters are heading home and offline, too. Democrats won the immediate fight. Republicans didn’t lose too much in the war.

Not so, according to the guy who used to work for Fox News, Major Garrett:

House Republicans have horrible politics squared. Now and two months from now – unless they figure out a way to balance the desire of taxpayers for a continuation of their payroll-tax cut against their desire to reduce the size and scope of government. That failed once and visibly so. Unless House Republicans reverse that trend, February could look like Groundhog Day. Except it won’t be nearly as funny as Bill Murray’s version.

Garrett just doesn’t see the Republicans finding that sweet spot, that balance. And if you’re keeping track, we’ve now covered three famous Hollywood movies – Song of the South, Braveheart and Groundhog Day. No one has yet to mention Titanic, or Snow White.

But Jonathan Chait sees a pretty big disaster here:

There is a debate about whether it is actually possible for a congressional party writ large to actually turn the public against it. Some research suggests that the public, except for strong partisans, pays little attention to politics and holds the president responsible for everything, so Republican misgovernance is liable to hurt Obama at least as much as it hurts Republicans. (This seemed to happen during the debt ceiling crisis, when both Obama and the congressional GOP lost public support.) Others suggest it isn’t so obvious this will hold up – that the Republicans have flouted public opinion more brazenly and dangerously than any previous congressional party.

And the captain of the Titanic sailed full-speed into that ice field. He should have known better. In fact, James Fallows cites precedence:

Who knows what this episode of overreach by the House Republicans means – for the political balance, and for press coverage? Right at this moment it feels at least slightly similar to Newt Gingrich’s overreach and miscalculation with the government shutdown in 1995.

And Andrew Sullivan looks at it from the other end:

My own view is that perception of Obama has gone from his being weak to his being steady. One should never forget the emotional temperature. The president looks like an adult, and has the temperament to back it up. The House GOP – and the GOP candidates – look like moody adolescents, throwing hissy fits, and seemingly indifferent to real-life questions.

In a period of great uncertainty, steadiness matters. And if the GOP continues on this course, the case for Obama as a stabilizer in this system becomes more appealing to independents.

Steadiness matters. It’s Christmas. We didn’t need this.

But it’s over. Have some eggnog, spiked.

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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