Ah, finally a slow news day. Monday was the Republican debate – where Newt Gingrich was oddly subdued and methodically torn apart by Mitt Romney’s surprisingly focused ridicule of him – and then Tuesday was Obama’s State of the Union address – the usual list of things that should be done now, damn it, but of course won’t get done. Yes, some things can be done by executive order – directing that this or that law be enforced in a certain way, and appointing the people to do just that. But most everything else requires Congress to act, and with the House firmly in Republican hands, with eighty-seven new Tea Party zealots there now, out to shut down the federal government and free the American people from its intrusive oppression, the House will pass nothing, as a matter of principle. And the Senate has become dysfunctional. The minority Republicans have made what was once rare – requiring a cloture vote of a supermajority of sixty votes to allow an up-or-down majority vote on anything and everything – the norm now. And now everything, even when to go to lunch, requires at least sixty votes. The Minority of Forty can block the Majority of Fifty-Nine on everything, and make sure nothing gets done. And that has been the plan they’ve executed to perfection. Parliamentary procedure can be arcane, but it’s an effective weapon when you have no other. Their party sees the Minority of Forty as heroes. And maybe they are. They made the Senate useless, as, they seem to argue, it should be. See, the government does work! We told you so!
And of course now it’s an election year, so blocking anything the president and Democrats propose as something that should be done, even if you’ve always agreed with it, will be blocked. It won’t even come up for a vote. You don’t want to give the other side anything they can claim as a victory. So now there’s no hope for anything getting done. And the Republicans can point to the Democrats and say see, they can’t get anything done, so let’s run those useless twits out of office. But that’s politics. And the American people yawn. They knew politicians were useless anyway, all of them, on both sides. And there’s a sale at the mall, or a good game on television.
But after the debate and the State of the Union thing the American people got a day off, Wednesday, before the Thursday debate on CNN, where Mitt and Newt will insult each other again, and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul will look on, a bit befuddled, and try to get a word in edgewise when they can. And a day off is good. It gives you time to reflect and reconsider, and assess what the hell just happened, if you care to do so.
And as for Obama’s State of the Union address, in the cold light of day, Jonathan Chait decided he was impressed:
It was the speech of a man who realizes that he has only one thing left to do, and that is to win reelection. The Obama of 2009-2010 was a pure pragmatic wonk, and his inattention to politics hurt his standing. Through sheer bloody obstruction, Republicans forced him to the only available alternative, which was to use his office solely as a political platform. His agenda is dead, but his public standing has benefited. Perhaps one day Republicans will wish they had been a little more flexible, and had kept the old, wonky, bargaining Obama rather than the slashing populist who’s cutting their throats.
Ross Douthat argues here that the “address made plain” that “President Obama has decided to run for re-election as a full-throated liberal populist”:
There were rhetorical nods to deficit reduction, sensible regulatory reform and the Lincolnian idea that “government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” But the substance of the speech could be summed up in one word: More. More spending on education. More spending on infrastructure. More money for green energy projects. More assistance for homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages. More tax breaks for manufacturers – for high-tech manufacturers, for manufacturers who relocate to poor areas, for manufacturers who retrain workers, for manufacturers who don’t outsource jobs, for manufacturers who upgrade their buildings … O.K., I lost count. And all of it to be paid for, inevitably, by more taxes on the wealthy.
Yeah, so? If the Republicans want all government action to stop, cold, Obama has the right to lay out what he actually managed to get done, and what could be done, if they weren’t being such assholes. And UCLA’s Mark Kleiman loved the speech:
What can the Red Team say in response, except “Ouch!”? American isn’t great? Osama isn’t dead? Vulture capitalists ought to pay lower tax rates than workers?
On the other hand, Kevin Drum was just not impressed:
I’m a Democrat and a fan of the president, but even I found this speech formulaic, devoid of interesting ideas, and built almost solely for applause lines. Presumably this means that it’s going to poll through the roof. Joe and Jane Sixpack will love it. And with that, Campaign 2012 has officially gotten underway.
Well, he was right about Joe and Jane, as we see from Stan Greenberg’s findings after tracking fifty voters in a focus group responding to the speech:
The dials spiked when the President made his strong populist pitch for the “Buffet Rule,” with Democrats exceeding 80 on our 0-to-100 scale and both independents and Republicans moving above 70. There was no polarization here, as voters across the political spectrum gave Obama high marks. And Obama’s framing of the economic challenges facing the country through the lens of post-World War II America was particularly effective. He also received high marks for his proposal to change the tax code to encourage “insourcing” instead of “outsourcing,” his call to change our “unemployment system” to a “re-employment system” and his appeal to make it easier for entrepreneurs and small business to grow and create jobs.
Yes, what can the Red Team say in response? They’re getting pushed into a smaller and smaller corner, even if a lot of what Obama said was kind of corny.
And David Frum recognizes that:
Yep, the speech was pretty corny. Flags, Seal Team 6, we got each other’s backs … large parts of the writing seem to have come from the kind of movies satirized by Team America. And guess what? People will like it. I could feel those focus group dials whirring faster and faster as the speech wore on.
From its endorsement of the DREAM act amnesty for young illegal aliens – to the robust defense of direct government investment in energy and infrastructure – its proposal that states be mandated to give high school diplomas to every student, the speech piled boondoggle upon fantasy. The speech whipsawed between complaining that the corporate tax code was too costly and too complex – and then promising to render the corporate tax code even more complex with new deductions, credits and penalties according to where and how the corporation sited jobs.
Well maybe Obama gave up on being a wonk, all careful and precise. What had that gotten him, after all?
And Frum adds this:
In the absence of recovery, the president is offering social reform: a more redistributive tax system to finance more government benefits. That’s the first argument. The second argument was an argument that Congress’ failure to deliver on prior reform proposals reflected institutional failure in need of correction. These two arguments – higher taxes for more benefits; reform of Congress to expedite social reform – are the president’s big offers to the country for November.
Well, fine – Frum hates that sort of thing. But what’s the alternative? What are Newt and Mitt offering? And who are these guys anyway? This sort of question drives the conservative columnist Ross Douthat to despair:
There are 300 million people in the United States of America. There are millions of political activists, volunteers, organizers and would-be officeholders. There are hundreds of thousands of elected officials. Yet somehow, out of all this multitude, the Republican Party has been unable to find a candidate for the White House in 2012 who inspires anything but weary resignation from its voters.
What’s remarkable is how often this seems to happen. As weak as this year’s Republican field has proved, it’s not that much weaker than a number of recent presidential vintages, from the Democrats’ lineups in 1988 and 2004 to the Republican field in 1996. In presidential politics, the great talents (a Clinton, a Reagan) seem to be the exception; a march of Dole-Dukakis-Mondale mediocrity is closer to the rule.
Maybe it’s just the Republicans’ turn this time, and Douthat suggests some general principles:
First, a great politician needs the gift of management. A would-be president has to be the CEO of his or her campaign, with a flair for fund-raising, an eye for talent, and a keen sense of when to micromanage and when to delegate. This is the arm-twisting, organization-building, endorsement-corralling side of presidential politics, and not surprisingly it tends to favor insiders and deal-makers and old Washington hands.
But successful insiders and deal-makers are rarely comfortable with the more public, rhetorical, self-advertising side of politics. The great manager is unlikely to be a great persuader, capable of seducing undecided voters with his empathy, or inspiring them with what George H. W. Bush (who lacked it) called “the vision thing.” He’s also unlikely to be a great demagogue, capable of demonizing his enemies and convincing his supporters that they stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord. The manager can play these roles, but there will always be a hint of irony, a touch of phoniness, a sense that he’d much rather get back to the inside game…
When a politician somehow hits the manager-persuader-demagogue trifecta, he can seem unstoppable. (See Roosevelt, Franklin, and his four terms in office.) But just going two for three is usually enough to create an immensely formidable candidate.
But the guys on his side don’t even make that bar. He’s an unhappy conservative, and in this item notes he’s not alone:
The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol has continued to pine – publicly, unstintingly, immune to either embarrassment or fatigue – for another candidate to jump into the race. He’s dreamed of Mitch Daniels, touted Chris Christie, talked up Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, name-dropped Jeb Bush, and circled back to Daniels once more. …
And do you know what? He’s been right all along. Right that the decisions by various capable Republicans to forgo a presidential run this year have been a collective disgrace; right that Republican primary voters deserve a better choice than the one being presented to them; and right, as well, that even now it isn’t too late for one of the non-candidates to change their mind and run. True, any candidate who jumped in would have a necessarily uncertain path to the nomination (requiring, at the very least, more than one convention ballot), and by casting themselves as a white knight they would risk embarrassment on a significant scale. But with the field having been winnowed and their opening clear, their path would be smoother and their odds higher than many successful presidential candidates in the past – Barack Obama in 2008 very much included.
Hey, it could happen:
Contrary to what some of my more excitable colleagues in the press corps have been claiming, the weekend’s results didn’t demonstrate that Newt Gingrich could actually win the Republican nomination, or prove that Mitt Romney could actually lose to him. … But the last week was a reminder, after months in which the incompetence of his rivals made him look better than he is, that Romney remains a tremendously weak frontrunner, whose strengths don’t compensate for a style that leaves conservatives cold and a background that will leave him open to attacks across a variety of Democratic-friendly fronts in the general election. I don’t think he can lose the primary, and I still give him decent odds of winning in November. But those judgments have everything to do with his political environment, and very little to do with the man himself. And under such circumstances, it seems absurd and pathetic that both the party and the country won’t have the chance to consider another option besides Newt the Great and Terrible.
Absurd, pathetic, and pretty much inevitable –
Ah, the good guys are cowards, and the lame guys ambitious – what a world, what a world.
But in the American Conservative, Daniel Larison says this is nonsense – fantasy candidates look strong because they haven’t been subjected to all the nasty (or justified) attacks real candidates have to face. The guys Douthat thinks are way cool simply “don’t have the qualifications that Romney has, they all have their own weaknesses with conservatives and/or with the general electorate, and all of them decided for various reasons to save themselves the trouble, toil, and humiliation that a presidential bid would have entailed.”
And then there’s Jonathan Bernstein:
What Republicans could have used both this cycle and last is a candidate who raised no suspicion from any important party faction and also had conventional credentials. Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty, and perhaps Fred Thompson all came close, but none of them really achieved that. Given the GOP’s wild pivots on so many issues over the last decade, perhaps no one can, and someone like Romney – who holds orthodox views on all issues right now, but hasn’t for long enough to build long-term trust – is the best they can do.
Maybe he is, but Matt Steinglass argues here that the Republican field this year was bound to be terrible regardless of the candidate:
This is an extremely important point to keep in mind. Mitt Romney looks like a weak phony in this election campaign because he has to pretend to believe with all his heart in orthodox tea-party conservative positions that he transparently doesn’t really believe in. We know this because in the past, Mr Romney supported health-care reform including an individual mandate along the lines of the system he instituted in Massachusetts, essentially the same system as Obamacare. And in the past, he supported a cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse-gas emissions to address climate change.
But at the time, both of those were orthodox Republican Party positions. The fact that they are anathema today is a legacy of the reactionary fury that has driven the party for the past three years. Conservative voters responded to their epic loss in 2008 with a partisan Kulturkampf that labeled every major initiative launched by the Obama administration socialism, and declared the very existence of global warming to be some kind of Communist-scientist hoax. There were very few established Republican politicians who hadn’t taken positions in the George W. Bush era (or the Newt Gingrich era!) that pose ideological problems for them in the tea-party era. Mr Gingrich himself can fleetingly outrun the problem because, like most voters, he has the long-term intellectual consistency of a goldfish. But YouTube never forgets.
So we have a system problem:
Republicans’ disenchantment with their current presidential candidates is not an incidental characteristic of this crop of candidates. It’s a structural feature of a contemporary Republican Party whose pieces don’t hang together. Pro-Iraq-war neoconservative Republicans cannot actually live with Ron Paul Republicans. Wall Street-hating anti-bail-out Republicans cannot actually live with Wall Street-working bail-out-receiving Republicans. Evangelical-conservative Republicans cannot actually live with libertarian, socially liberal Republicans. Deficit-slashing Republicans cannot live with tax-slashing Republicans. Medicare-cutting Republicans cannot live with Medicare-defending Republicans. These factions have been glued together over the past three years by the intensity of their partisan hatred for Barack Obama, and all of the underlying resentments that antipathy masks.
And that’s why nothing gets done:
Republicans have buried their differences by assaulting everything Mr Obama supports, and because Mr Obama is a pretty middle-of-the-road politician that includes a whole lot of things that many Republicans used to support. They are disenchanted with their candidates because their candidates are incoherent, but their candidates are incoherent because the base is incoherent. If the GOP wins this election, the party’s leaders are going to be confronted with that incoherence pretty quickly. Unfortunately, so will the rest of us.
Now THAT’S scary. Get a day off to step back and think about things and you find out they’re worse than you thought.
Judging by the whooping and hollering of the CNN debate audience, the GOP’s neo-Confederate wing wishes for nothing less than an electoral replay of Pickett’s charge – the doomed infantry attack at Gettysburg most historians believe marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War. A sizable proportion of South Carolinians have yearned for a rematch ever since.
And they don’t think they’re going to get it with Mitt Romney, a Yankee’s Yankee who goes around babbling passionless truisms like this gem unearthed from his standard stump speech by the National Review’s Mark Steyn:
“I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.”
Do what? (That’s Southern for what the hell?)
Romney’s just not the guy:
There’s little sign of anger in his personality. But then why would there be? The son of a failed candidate, Romney gives every indication of wanting to be president simply because, well, he deserves to be president.
To a GOP base bombarded with Manichaean propaganda depicting President Obama as a veritable antichrist that may not be good enough. They don’t simply want to prevent Obama’s reelection. They want to see him obliterated, humiliated and shamed. Watching Gingrich verbally pummel Fox’s Juan Williams and CNN’s King – antagonists who, by definition, can’t fight back – sharpened their appetite to see him take on Obama.
Republican debate audiences that have boisterously cheered Texas’ use of the death penalty, booed a gay soldier serving in Iraq, hooted at Fox News’ Williams for asking about racially stereotyping food stamp recipients, and even applauded torture, appear to find Gingrich’s surliness and ill-concealed personal resentments a perfect match for their own. Newt’s ability to channel their anger resembles Richard M. Nixon’s, albeit without Nixon’s self-discipline.
Fox News’ Steve Doocy spoke for them all, predicting that, if nominated, “Newt is going to take off the head of the president” (lovely metaphor) in debates. Many actually believe that Newt’s a brilliant extemporaneous thinker like Rush Limbaugh, while Obama’s an affirmative action hire who’s helpless without his teleprompter.
Meanwhile, back in reality, the saner kinds of Republicans are running scared.
And Lyons concludes with this:
I think even the perception that Newt could get under Obama’s skin is badly mistaken. In a presidential debate, the guy sweating and glowering is the guy losing. The sorehead right, however, won’t believe it until they’ve lost the visceral confrontation they so crave.
In that sense, a Gingrich nomination could end up being very good for the country.
Well, that’s a pleasant thought on the day off between major political events, but there are more debates to endure, and another ten or eleven months of Congress trying to stop the government from doing much of anything, and probably succeeding. Maybe it’s best not to have a day off from the big political events, with time to think about what’s really happening. Sometimes a pause can be refreshing, and sometimes alarming. But the nonsense will resume soon enough, and we can pretend that it’s all great fun. Or we can move to Malta.