Out here in Los Angeles it’s been an odd year for the Lakers, for those who follow basketball. The superstars – Kobe and the rest – are getting old. It’s a young man’s game. And Phil Jackson is gone – the guy they call the Zen Master and probably the most successful coach in all of sports, ever. He’s in his mid-sixties and after the hip replacement surgeries, and all the years on the road, he’s quite happy puttering around his ranch in Montana or whatever. He’s as serene and inscrutable as ever – he really does do Zen – but he’s long gone, as is his mysterious Triangle Offense. And the new coach, Mike Brown, a big bear of a man, late of Cleveland, is now in charge – with a new offensive scheme and a new emphasis on brutal overwhelming defense, and a team of multimillionaires with giant egos who, for most of the season, just kind of ignored him. The Lakers, champions more often than not, now have made the payoffs – but they seem maybe the fifth or sixth best team in the league. And it’s not age, it’s that team thing. For most of the season each player was playing his own game, as a solo act, for fame and glory. You can win that way, with all that expensive talent, but there were far too many games when that twenty-point lead in the fourth quarter was gone soon enough, and the Lakers lost by a basket at the buzzer. And Mike Brown would say it was going to be fine, really – things would gel, eventually. And maybe now they have. The guys are now starting to notice each other at key moments on the court, and maybe they listen to Brown now. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they just formed a kind of informal players’ committee, to get the job done, and kind of blew him off. Either way, Mike Brown looks relieved. The team is winning again. He’ll have a job next year.
But leadership is tricky. You do have to take charge – someone needs to focus all the talent, encouraging the discouraged and benching the jerk who wants to do it all himself, and repeatedly saying just what’s what, that this is how we’re going to play the game, this is how we’ll approach this situation, and this is what we simply won’t do. And you shut down the showboats who think they’re in charge, if you can.
But it’s tough, and the Republicans have that very problem now, as Mitt Romney, as the party’s presumptive nominee the year, is the de facto leader of the party, the man in charge. If you want to win the game you listen to him. He’ll explain how it’s done, using your incredible talent of course. But your incredible talent will be part of a larger effort, the effort the coach orchestrates. So suck it up and be a team player.
But as Jonathan Weisman and Jennifer Steinhauer report in the New York Times, Mitt Romney is having his Mike Brown moment:
If Mitt Romney is considering a quick pivot to the center as he heads into the general election, he will find an imposing impediment: fellow Republicans in the House.
As Congress was set to reconvene on Monday, House Republicans said Mr. Romney could go his own way on smaller issues that may help define him as separate from his Congressional Republican counterparts. But, they said, he must understand that they are driving the policy agenda for the party now.
“We’re not a cheerleading squad,” said Representative Jeff Landry, an outspoken freshman from Louisiana. “We’re the conductor. We’re supposed to drive the train.”
Of course much of this has to do with the Ryan budget, the one Paul Krugman called ludicrous and cruel – as it does seem to shove money at the rich and take most everything from the poor and elderly, ending the government the people elected doing what people since the thirties have elected it to do, assuring the minimal survival of those who don’t have the big bucks at the moment. You don’t want to run on that. The Democrats will make you pay, and right now they’re salivating at the thought. But Romney, campaigning with Ryan at his side, and calling Ryan “bold and brilliant,” saying that budget is “marvelous.” But he knows better. Obama has already had fun with that – but then the House, and Ryan, are running the show, not Romney. Mike Brown benched the absurdly talented but goofy and childish Andrew Bynum for taking, and missing, an impossible and unnecessary three-point shot that lost the game. Romney doesn’t have that luxury. It’s no-compromise time. And there’s no compromise on protecting the wealthy and punishing those who aren’t good enough people to be wealthy.
But for Weisman and Steinhauer, there are echoes of the past here:
In 1999, as House Republicans grappled with far more modest spending cuts, George W. Bush was able to underscore his claim to “compassionate conservatism” by denouncing House efforts. “I don’t think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor,” he said.
Yes, George Bush said that. It’s on record. And it was a shock. But it was a shock that shouldn’t be repeated:
Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Republican House leader at the time, recalled that as a “defining moment” for the Bush campaign – one that blindsided Republicans. As Mr. Romney’s designated liaison to Congressional Republicans, Mr. Blunt said that one of his jobs was to make sure no one is surprised like that again.
But what does that mean, that Romney won’t go all sensible on them, to win the general election, or that he’ll give them a heads-up so they can prepare something unifying and uplifting to say, when Romney says the poor and elderly really aren’t smelly losers who deserve nothing? Who’s in charge here? Roy Blunt is trying to negotiate that:
In the past two weeks, he has set up meetings between Mr. Romney’s policy shop and key representatives and staff. They included a meeting between Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan, as well as one between the Romney staff and the Republican Study Committee, a group of the most conservative House members.
“There will be issues where the governor needs to steer his own course, no doubt about that,” Mr. Blunt said. “My biggest interest is that they have all the information they need to have.”
That’s a hell of a way to run a winning team, as instead of leading, you hope:
Undoubtedly, House Speaker John A. Boehner and Representative Eric Cantor, the majority leader, will move mountains to make sure House Republicans and the Romney campaign speak and act in lockstep toward the greater goal of defeating President Obama in November and retaining the House. At the same time, Mr. Obama has shown a desire to take advantage of the public’s low regard for Congress by likening Mr. Romney’s agenda to that of House Republicans.
But Mr. Romney may learn the lesson that has been imparted to Mr. Boehner throughout the 112th Congress – that the most conservative members will steer their own course, and loudly.
That happens when you have a basketball team of multimillionaires with giant egos, or a House filled with no-compromise zealots. The new coach is in trouble. Still the team, with its showboats, gets the general idea:
Party leaders insist that House Republicans and Mr. Romney are united on issues that matter most. “On the big issues – spending, taxes, what we do with the deficit – I just don’t see much difference,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the Republican leadership, “and more importantly, I don’t see an escape.”
Indeed, most Congressional Republicans feel certain that the key issues of the campaign will be employment, the economy, the budget deficit and the health care law, matters in which there is little light between Mr. Romney and most Republicans.
“We have led and will continue to lead,” Representative Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania said of House Republicans.
Ah, we have to lead, and the coach will just have to follow. He will bend to our will. But if elected he cannot govern, as sooner or later he will have to ask for a little more spending here and there. And now, as he cannot even suggest that, he’s boxed similarly in:
Both Mr. Romney and House Republicans plan to increase spending on defense, and both have promised to cut tax rates and slash the deficit.
That means sharp cuts to domestic spending. The Ryan plan would cut domestic programs under Congress’s discretion, including education, law enforcement and health research – by 25 percent over 10 years compared with spending if programs were allowed to grow with inflation, or 21 percent below spending caps agreed to in July by Mr. Obama and Congress.
Having taken that politically risky course, Republicans are going to make sure their nominee does not leave them hanging.
And there’s no respecting the new guy brought in to run things:
“If there was to be a difference of opinion on this, then I think I would make my feelings known,” said Representative Tim Griffin, Mr. Romney’s Arkansas campaign chairman. “I would say, ‘Wait, what are you doing?’ If he says something I disagree with, that’s his right, but I am going to say I disagree.”
Think about that in terms of basketball. On the sidelines, in the tense last time-out, the coach diagrams the in-bounds play that could win the game in the final two seconds, and a key player walks over to the two ESPN guys who have been doing the play-by-play for the national audience, and tells them the coach is full of crap. It’s curious, although the Romney camp is trying to make the best of it:
A campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said in a statement: “Mitt Romney is in this race to turn the economy around and get Americans back to work, and he will need the help of Congress to do that. Governor Romney will welcome the help of Congress to enact his agenda and get the country back on track.”
And Weisman and Steinhauer report the obvious, starting with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – the first law Obama signed as president – that eliminated the statute of limitations for women to sue to receive equal pay for performing the same jobs as men, and moving outward:
On Wednesday, the Romney camp said the candidate had no problem with a Democratic law making it easier for women to sue in equal pay cases – though House Republicans had denounced it as a trial lawyers’ bonanza.
Mr. Romney said one of his priorities as president would be to deal with China’s currency manipulation in a manner similar to the one outlined in a bill written by Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, co-sponsored by Senator Lindsey E. Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and passed by the Senate last year.
However, House leaders have no intention of bringing that bill – which would order the Commerce Department to impose tough tariffs on certain Chinese goods, to the floor this year – and Mr. Boehner has referred to the measure as “dangerous.”
So who will Obama be running against? Steve Kornacki suggests Obama would do well running against this Congress:
The Republican Party’s standing with the public plunged in the wake of last summer’s debt ceiling standoff and has yet to recover. Just 35 percent of voters, according to a recent poll, have a favorable view of the GOP, while 58 percent have an unfavorable one. By contrast, nearly 50 percent of voters view the Democratic Party favorably.
The poisoning of the GOP brand can probably be linked to a few factors, but the compromise-resistant ideological absolutism of the House seems to be the biggest single driver. Thus, the prevailing assumption is that Mitt Romney will at some point stage a dramatic break with House Republicans on some defining issue, a reassuring gesture to swing voters who want to get rid of Barack Obama but who are queasy with the Obama-era GOP’s radicalism.
But that puts Romney is a bind:
He came to the national stage with a reputation as a moderate, then adjusted his positions until they were in almost perfect alignment with his party’s conservative base. This is why his emergence as the presumptive nominee does not represent a rebuke of Tea Party Republicanism; conservative purists may deeply distrust Romney, but so far as a candidate he’s basically given them everything they wanted. It was enough to secure the nomination for Romney, but it won’t buy him the benefit of the doubt from the right if he now makes any big steps back to the middle.
And Kornacki comments on Bush, being the compassionate conservative in 1999, saying that you just don’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor, because that’s just wrong:
It’s worth considering the Bush example a little more closely. It came as the fiscal year was coming to a close at the end of September ’99, when House Republicans proposed delaying earned income tax credit payments in order to avoid relying on Social Security money to balance the budget. Then, as now, House Republicans were hurting the party’s national image. In the fall of ’99, the GOP’s favorable score was on the upswing (it had cratered at 31 percent during the Clinton impeachment saga of 1998 and early ’99), but it was still nowhere near the Democrats’.
Bush was the overwhelming Republican front-runner at the time, and while it’s true that his remark produced some real outrage from House Republicans, he was never in danger of facing a true revolt from the right. In fact, days after his “backs of the poor” comment, he delivered a speech in which he distanced himself even more from the perceived ideological excesses of the House…
In fact, as Kornacki notes, Bush said this:
Too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah. Too often, my party has focused on the national economy, to the exclusion of all else – speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers. Too often, my party has confused the need for limited Government with a disdain for Government itself.
That’s George Bush sounding a whole lot like Paul Krugman, or Michael Moore, but Kornacki argues that Bush, and the party, had no choice at the time:
Bush was allowed by his party to get away with this kind of talk throughout the 2000 campaign. Sure, his primary season opponents played it up and some conservative leaders raised hell too, but Bush came to the race with broad support from many of the right’s most influential figures.
This represents a key difference between where the party was in 2000 and where it is today. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was the product of the GOP’s futility in battling Clinton. After swamping him in the 1994 midterms, Republicans watched in horror as Clinton regained his popularity by portraying the GOP Congress as a band of ideological extremists bent on destroying the country’s social safety net. Over and over, he beat them soundly – the 1995 government shutdown, the 1996 election, the ’98/’99 impeachment ordeal.
For conservatives, the basic appeal of Bush was that he’d be their own Clinton – someone with similar charm and charisma who’d finally be able to deflect the Democratic attacks. They didn’t want him straying too far ideologically, but they were more than happy to give him a lot of room to roam.
But this is not then:
Today’s conservatives aren’t looking for another Clinton. They haven’t faced a humbling defeat at Obama’s hands (not yet, at least) and they believe adamantly that rigid adherence to their ideology is a winning national strategy. This doesn’t mean Romney won’t try to distance himself, but if he does, he’ll face a much fiercer backlash than Bush ever did.
The coach has no leeway with these players. They’ll do what they want, and mock him.
So maybe the best thing Romney can do is say very little, in public:
Mitt Romney went well beyond his standard stump speech at a closed-door fundraiser on Sunday evening, and offered some of the most specific details to date about the policies he would pursue if elected.
In a speech to donors in the backyard of a private home here, the former Massachusetts governor and presumptive GOP presidential nominee outlined his plans to potentially eliminate or consolidate federal agencies, win back Latino voters and reform the nation’s tax code.
This fundraiser was held inside a fancy Palm Beach mansion, for the guys with the big bucks who are bankrolling Romney, but his remarks were clearly audible to reporters gathered outside. Oops. No one else was supposed to hear what he’d actually do once in office. And Kornacki comments on this too:
From a policy standpoint, the biggest revelation appears to be that he would look to eliminate the second home mortgage deduction and deductions for state and local taxes in order to keep his promise to cut tax rates across-the-board without lowering the overall share of the tax burden that wealthy Americans shoulder.
Perhaps more notable, though, were comments from Romney – and his wife – about his campaign’s strategic thinking.
Romney spoke in broad terms about his desire to merge or eliminate various departments and agencies and floating HUD as a possible contender for elimination, before saying: “But I’m not going to actually go through these one by one.” He then apparently told the crowd that he would overhaul the Education department but wouldn’t eliminate it altogether, in part because trying to do so would cause severe political blowback.
And here’s one way to look at this:
Essentially, Romney was admitting to his donor friends that his goal as a candidate is to avoid letting voters see the fine print on most of his promises, lest they find something to object to. This smacks of the intentional campaign trail vagueness that he’s been accusing Obama of. It also reflects the same calculation that Democrats say defines the Paul Ryan budget blueprint that Republicans have rallied behind, a document that calls for paying for massive tax cuts by closing loopholes and ending various deductions without specifying any.
And this is even trickier:
Romney also acknowledged the struggles he faces with Hispanic voters, among whom he trailed Obama by 56 points, 70 to 14 percent, in one recent survey. Here, Romney’s problems are twofold. There’s the ultra-hard-line posture on immigration he adopted in this year’s Republican primaries, and then there’s his party’s overall reputation for similar hostility. He told the donors that “we’re going to be able to get Hispanic voters” by running on the GOP’s version of the DREAM Act and focusing attention on the economy.
Now all they have to do is come up with their special version of the DREAM Act – somehow. And this last bit is interesting:
Both Mitt and Ann Romney were apparently gleeful in talking about the comment from Democratic talking head Hilary Rosen that the Romney campaign pretended last week was an attack by an “Obama advisor.”
That went like this:
“It was my early birthday present for someone to be critical of me as a mother, and that was really a defining moment, and I loved it,” Mrs. Romney said.
Gov. Romney went further in engaging the so-called “war on moms” that followed in the media – upon which his campaign has been aggressively fundraising – calling it a “gift” that allowed his campaign to show contrast with Democrats in the general election’s first week.
When Romney accused Obama of keeping his real plans from voters a few weeks ago, it demonstrated his desire to wage an “I’m rubber, you’re glue” general election campaign. … If Romney wants to pull this off, his campaign might want to make sure he really is behind closed doors the next time he talks to a roomful of donors.
But the most curious thing was in the Wall Street Journal account:
“Fox is watched by the true believers,” Romney told donors, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We need to get the independents and the women.”
Oh man, you just don’t say THAT in public. Being the new leader of the party is damned hard. Leaders do need followers. The team may not listen to a word you say, as Mike Brown knows, and as Romney knows now, but you do need a team of some sort.
But of course Romney does know what to say in public, to the little people, the easily-manipulated non-millionaires, and that goes like this:
Acting very much like the GOP nominee, Mitt Romney sent a curt message to President Obama today: “Start packing.” The message, delivered with a chuckle, came in an exclusive interview with “World News” anchor Diane Sawyer who asked the presumptive GOP nominee if he had something to say to the president.
Yeah, right. That’s the kind of thing beaten-up coaches say when their surly group of sulking showboats is about to face the young and eager team that’s won almost all their games, time and time again, with unselfish beautifully coordinated real teamwork. It’s trash-talk.
But leadership is hard, as the other big story of the day was this – Newt Gingrich Bitten by Penguin at St. Louis Zoo. Yes, some people get no respect.