Painful to Watch

Some things are just too painful to watch. Back east, at the moment, it’s the woeful Boston Red Sox, and out here on the west coast it’s the impossible San Diego Padres – long baseball games which offer a few fine moments, followed by a seemingly endless series of embarrassments – you know, like the Republican primaries. Jon Huntsman was cool, sly and smart, but then it was Michele Bachmann and then Donald Trump and then Rick Perry and then Newt Gingrich, then Herman Cain, then Gingrich again, and finally Rick Santorum. And none of them were really ready for the big leagues. They just didn’t know how to play the game, or else they weren’t very good at it. None of them could hit the curveball – the unexpected question or the surprising new issue of the day. And if you want to drive the metaphor into the ground, time after time you saw them take that big homerun swing and whiff, or stand there frozen and not swing at all, called out. Third strike – you’re gone. And you know what happens. Those Red Sox and Padre loyal fans have moved from outrage to cynicism to indifference, and Republicans probably have too. Sure, that’s your team, but now you don’t expect much.

And now the Republicans have to be satisfied with Mitt Romney, the guy who’s kind of like the reliable but rather boring utility infielder who only hits singles, now and then, but enough of them to keep him on the active roster. And he doesn’t commit all that many errors on the field – he can handle a grounder well enough. He’s solid, as they say, but no more than that. Often that’s enough to win a few games.

But at least the almost-too-painful-to-watch Republican primaries are pretty much over:

Mitt Romney claimed victory in the Republican presidential nominating contest Tuesday after decisively sweeping five East Coast primaries, saying his triumph marked “the beginning of the end of the disappointments of the Obama years.”

Mr. Romney gave what amounted to an acceptance speech for the nomination after sweeping to primary victories in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island.

“After 43 primaries and caucuses I can say with confidence – and gratitude – that you have given me a great honor and solemn responsibility,” Mr. Romney told a crowd of supporters in New Hampshire.

“A better America begins tonight,” he said.

Of course he’d say that. It’s conventional and safe and he doesn’t commit dumb-ass errors – and he did win more than sixty percent of the vote in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island and impressive majorities in Pennsylvania and Delaware. And Rick Santorum, who was always swinging for the fences, finally dropped out, leaving no other plausible nominee.

And apparently a better America begins in New Hampshire, where he opened his campaign in June last year. And he’s a careful fellow, only now pivoting to attack President Barack Obama:

“Over the last three and a half years, we have seen hopes and dreams diminished by false promises and weak leadership. Everywhere I go, Americans are tired of being tired, and many of those who are fortunate enough to have a job are working harder for less.”

He also said: “To all of the thousands of good and decent Americans I’ve met who want nothing more than a better chance, a fighting chance – to all of you, I have a simple message: Hold on a little longer.”

Mr. Romney spelled out a vision for America that is “driven by freedom, where free people, pursuing happiness in their own unique ways, create free enterprises that employ more and more Americans.”

But as mentioned previously Obama will also be urging fairness and everyone playing by the same rules, and everyone, with no exceptions, pitching in for the common good. But now Romney will be talking about fairness too – where there are few rules, if any, and you get to keep your stuff, all of it if you want, and you can do anything you want, which is what made this country great. Maybe you are your brother’s keeper – maybe we all are – but do you get to decide that, when and if you want on any given day, or will it be written in the tax code and the new laws about healthcare? It’s a matter of deciding to chip in for the common good, which you really might do, or being required to chip in, which you resent. And there is the matter of personal responsibility. Shouldn’t people man-up and take care of their own problems? We don’t want a nation of whiners who think the government will take care of them. Or maybe we want a system in place for those down on their luck and seriously ill, who need some extra support so they can eventually rejoin the Great American Prosperity Machine – and maybe we should assure that all old folks live out their final years with at least a little dignity, and maybe enough to eat. On the other hand, maybe that’s not the government’s business. Or maybe it is.

So there you have it. This election will be a referendum on what government is for, on what the heck it’s supposed to do. The contrast has never been quite as defined as it is this time. This is about as basic as it gets and Romney isn’t going to fudge the issue, as he knows the basic disagreement:

He also put new emphasis on “fairness” – a signature Democratic theme that polls show resonates with voters. The president, too, sharpened his campaign arguments Tuesday, focusing on energizing college students and other young people. He called on Congress to block a planned July 1 increase in interest rates on new federally subsidized student loans.

Is it fair to raise those loan rates? Well, keeping those rates low costs money. And why should taxpayers pay for someone else’s college education? Romney talks a lot about his wildly successful father – the long-time CEO of American Motors and many-term beloved governor of Michigan – who never went to college at all. So, implicitly, what good is college anyway? On the other hand Romney earlier broke with his own party and came out for keeping those student-loan rates low. He is a careful man. He doesn’t swing for the fences. Sometimes he bunts. And this stuff gets complicated.

And times have changed, as Thomas Byrne Edsall explains in his new book, The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics:

One of our most prescient political observers provides a sobering account of how pitched battles over scarce resources will increasingly define American politics in the coming years – and how we might avoid, or at least mitigate, the damage from these ideological and economic battles.

And the thesis:

In a matter of just three years, a bitter struggle over limited resources has enveloped political discourse at every level in the United States. Fights between haves and have-nots over health care, unemployment benefits, funding for mortgage write-downs, economic stimulus legislation – and, at the local level, over cuts in police protection, garbage collection, and in the number of teachers – have dominated the debate. Elected officials are being forced to make zero-sum choices – or worse, choices with no winners.

Resource competition between Democrats and Republicans has left each side determined to protect what it has at the expense of the other. The major issues of the next few years – long-term deficit reduction; entitlement reform, notably of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; major cuts in defense spending; and difficulty in financing a continuation of American international involvement – suggest that your-gain-is-my-loss politics will inevitably intensify.

Yes, that is what’s in the air, and Michiko Kakutani reviews the Edsall book here:

The book suggests that the venomous partisanship oozing through Washington and the rest of the country today; the gridlocked Congress’s inability to deal with the nation’s problems; mounting deficits; two costly wars; and continuing economic fallout from the crash of 2008 are all knit together in one noxious dynamic.

The “optimism underpinning our politics and our social policy depends on the conviction that success in this country is not zero-sum,” Mr. Edsall writes. It’s not just that the promises of the American Dream have been predicated on the idea of growth: the expanding Western frontier in earlier times and more recently the post-World War II economic boom.

It’s also, he says, that compromises between left and right, between “one political party promoting a social safety net and the other party asserting that hard-earned tax dollars unjustly finance those benefits,” have required an expanding economy: a growing pie that could be divvied up through deals and negotiation.

But now that has all changed:

With a ballooning deficit, aging baby boomers (who will inflate the costs of Social Security and Medicare) and stubborn unemployment (due not just to the recession but also to the migration of jobs abroad and new corporate efficiencies), he says, America has “entered a period of austerity markedly different from anything we have seen before.”

With it, he contends, “a brutish future stands before us,” with Republicans and Democrats “enmeshed in a death struggle to protect the benefits and goods that flow to their respective bases” – a “dog-eat-dog political competition over diminishing resources.”

So that is what this election is about:

He writes that “conditions of scarcity work to the advantage of conservatives, undermining the willingness of voters to sacrifice – pay higher taxes – for the less fortunate,” and adds that the Republican Party has demonstrated “a willingness to go for the kill” and “a facility in deploying wedge issues.”

Over the long term, however, Mr. Edsall contends that the GOP tends to overestimate “ideological support from the general public.” Though it has won elections for four decades “by mobilizing white voters, especially white married Christians,” he says, this base is “steadily eroding, while Democratic voting blocs – Hispanics, African-Americans, other minorities, and single women – are expanding as a share of the electorate.”

Because of these changing demographics, he adds, Republican leaders “see the window closing on the opportunity to dismantle the liberal state.” The 2012 election is therefore “positioned to be the most ideologically consequential contest since 1932,” fought over the size and scope of government and the allotment of diminishing resources.

So here we go again:

From the moment President Obama took office, Mr. Edsall writes, “Republicans have deliberately engaged this conflict” over a smaller pie, “determined to protect the interests of their more middle-class and affluent constituencies”; the 2010 midterms produced a sharp shift to the right, particularly among the elderly.

“These voters,” he argues, “saw Obama’s trillion-dollar health care reform legislation, which included a massive $506 billion cut in Medicare over 10 years, as a threat to both Social Security and Medicare. In 2009 and 2010 the administration and the Democratic Congress were seen as transferring scarce tax dollars away from seniors to a younger, poorer, disproportionately minority electorate, not only through expanded health care but also through the billions spent on extensions of long-term unemployment insurance – which shot up from $35.1 billion in 2007” to $160.1 billion in 2010.

Yep, everyone should get to keep their stuff, all of it – it’s only fair. Or we all should chip in for the greater good so everyone has a chance to prosper, or at least survive – it’s only fair. Take your choice. But the problem is scarcity of resources:

For instance, in arguing that prosperity tends to encourage a spirit of generosity, while hard times do the opposite, Mr. Edsall uses Arizona as a case study. In the early and mid-2000s, he says, growth fueled support for expansive state programs like an extension of Medicaid coverage. But with the collapse of the housing bubble and an unemployment rate that tripled from April 2007 to July 2010, he goes on, the Republican governor and Republican state legislature cut programs for the poor, “most infamously the removal of 310,000 adults from Medicaid and the termination of Kids Care, a health care program for 47,000 low-income children.”

Austerity, Mr. Edsall argues, not only makes “middle-class voters want to preserve and protect what they have,” but also goads them to regard “needy constituencies” as “a drain, a burden, a cost.”

As Mr. Edsall sees it, clashing left and right austerity strategies will shape the 2012 election, but that election is unlikely to resolve anything because “incentives to sustain partisan warfare far outweigh the rewards of bipartisan cooperation.”

And that too will be painful to watch.

And then you have Michael Moran, the director and editor-in-chief of Renaissance Insights at the investment bank Renaissance Capital – and the author of The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy, and the Future of American Power – who sat down for a public chat with Edsall at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and offered this the following morning:

Can a democratic system function efficiently in an advanced economy in our modern, globalized world? A system based, say, on a couple of 18th century documents updated occasionally by nine people in black robes and a two-chambered legislature that must devote at least as much time to the raising of funds to re-elect itself? I think it can – eventually – but not everyone agrees. … People are skeptical, and they are right to be.

Would Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and other American architects of our own system necessarily design precisely the same system that grew out of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Bill of Rights if they faced today’s realities? At a time when the primary challenges facing the U.S. include increasing inequality of income distribution; a collapse of critical infrastructure; and the rise of other global powers that will compete for resources, influence, and power, would the system (just for instance) insist that elections take place every two years at the national level, thus ensuring a nearly permanent stage of politicking?

So these two had their chat:

Edsall, like me a longtime journalist who could stand and watch the train wreck of our national dialogue no more, puts forward a radical proposition – that the future will be an increasingly ugly fight between the rich and poor in this country over dwindling resources. This means a “brutish future stands before us,” with Republicans and Democrats “enmeshed in a death struggle to protect the benefits and goods that flow to their respective bases” – a “dog-eat-dog political competition over diminishing resources.”

Here, for once, was someone gloomier than me…

But then he finds himself disagreeing with Edsall:

To me, scarcity is not the primary thing preventing the two or three back-room deals that are necessary to recalibrate U.S. spending and agree on a “stimulate now, balance later” approach to our economic problems. The answers are there – just as they answers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been clear for years. It is a matter of political will.

The real problem is the civil war raging within the GOP, whereby a weakened elite – willing to make a deal – has lost control of its nativist, willfully ignorant right flank. Nothing less than electoral failure will bring that war to an end, and in spite of early polls showing a race in November, I think failure is precisely what awaits the GOP in November. There is no teacher, after all, like failure.

But that’s obvious. Everyone says that. But not everyone says this:

Over the past few weeks, though, this question keeps arising. Is the job of running the world’s largest economy and most powerful military simply too complicated for our 18th-century template?

In Mountain View, Calif., I gave a Google Talk that involved an audience wired to reject the idea that anything can be too complex to solve. But there, too, skepticism about the human element – particularly when ensconced in Washington – prevailed. Why, one member of the audience asked me, would any logical foreign country continue to invest its money in U.S. Treasury bills – the “loans” that enable our deficit spending – given the conduct of our political class?

It is an excellent question – and, as I’ve been saying, in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, Brasilia, Moscow, Mumbai, and Jakarta, financial specialists are hard at work trying to create an alternative to the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

It may be that only then, when that alternative exists, that the deciding votes in the GOP’s civil war, and the wider battle over America’s future, are cast.

But of course those casting those deciding votes will be the very people who see no need to put America’s best interests first, the current cast of characters:

The sad truth is that in a modern, complex world, citizens have to hope that they have elected representatives who will, if only rarely, take a far-sighted approach to issues even if it bucks popular opinion. The average person simply does not have time to consider the relative value of free trade accords, talks that would demilitarize outer space, proposals to unwind Fannie and Freddie, and countless other problems that any honest attempt at solving requires serious focus.

In theory, the job of our congressional representatives in particular should be to avail themselves of the enormous resources of the federal government to learn all that is possible to know about every issue before them and to cast the vote that facts compel them to cast.

In fact, most of our representatives and senators lazily take the advice either of their party’s leadership – calibrated almost entirely for electoral purposes – or from wealthy special interests of one ilk or another – calibrated entirely for the benefit of a corporation, political cause, or micro-segment of the population.

So Moran argues that we will need “something other than a well-meaning former community organizer, nine judges, and a Congress of self-interested fundraisers.” The whole system stinks, you see, and to return to the original metaphor, maybe we shouldn’t even be playing that old and quaint game of baseball anymore. It is an anachronism and far too painful to watch – like the Republican primaries or the whole of our political system:

For whatever Edsall and I disagree on, we agree on this: Our political system is broken and incapable of fixing itself.

So the infuriatingly careful and uninspiring Romney won the almost-too-painful-to-watch Republican nomination process, not making too many errors, or very few, and now he’s going to fight the good fight for fairness, whatever that means in this age of severe scarcity, where everyone is angry and, additionally, we’re playing an old game that makes no sense anymore. And it is painful to watch. And the Red Sox and Padres are still in last place.

But what else is new?

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 Mitt Romney, The Politics of Resentment, The Primaries and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Painful to Watch

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    Alan, you are simply the best synthesizer around. Just the best.

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