In the Absence of Content

There are political junkies and policy wonks – and then there’s the rest of the country, those who find politics tedious, or absurd, or insignificant. Ask them about Newt Gingrich or Michele Bachmann and you’ll get a blank stare. Even before those two dropped out of the Republican race, in those few heady weeks when they were presumably high-profile important people, who just might change America, each was just background noise in most folks’ lives. Sure, Gingrich said the day he became president we’d have two-dollar gasoline, or maybe it was two-fifty, and by the end of his second term we’d have a colony on the moon, which might even be our fifty-first state. And Bachmann, when asked what people should pay in taxes – what would be a fair percentage of their income – said everyone should be able to keep every penny they earned. And then, a few seconds later, she backtracked – maybe you can’t run the most powerful and complex nation on earth entirely on voluntary contributions. But she had no percentage in mind. It was always hard to tell just what she had in mind on most everything.

And people knew what was up. Most politics is about nothing. It’s just likely-sounding talk, from some rather odd folks, about the greatness of America, and how they’ll somehow restore that greatness, without any specifics. They just want you to know that they certainly know, deep in their souls, that America is great – and they feel that much more deeply than that other person over there, running for the same office.

So it’s no wonder most people shrug and get on with their day-to-day lives. America may be great, or pretty good, or just another place – but it just doesn’t matter. You pay the bills, do what you can for your kids, remember the wife’s birthday, and hang with your friends. Maybe, come November, you’ll vote. Maybe you won’t. It’s not like your life depends on it. And you suspect that when whoever it is does get elected, your life won’t change all that much. Maybe if you’re rich, and a Republican is elected, you’ll suddenly have almost no taxes to pay at all. And if you’re struggling, and a Democrat is elected, maybe a number of programs that can help you get by, and get you on your feet again, won’t be eliminated, and there will still be public schools for your kids. But we always get something in-between. Change is incremental – or illusory. The nation stumbles on, much as before – and the politicians come and go.

But there are those who do get all hot and bothered about what should change, right now. The Occupy Wall Street movement shook things up for a time, and is still around, pointing out that the country has been taken over by that One Percent at the top, making all the rules, and making all the money too, and not giving most everyone else – the Ninety-Nine percent – a fair chance at any sort of life. But we’ve all met those who shrug and say that’s the way it’s always been – the rich run the place. And what are you going to do about it anyway? Try anything and they’ll crush you – so just get on with your life and do the best you can. Just as you can’t fight city hall, you can’t fight Wall Street. Yes, what you say about the rule of the rich is true, and noble and inspiring, but so was the triumph of the hobbits, the little people, in the Tolkien books. Get real.

Maybe that’s cynical, or that’s just realism – but many found the Occupy movement a bit too extreme – vaguely Marxist or something. But it was preceded by the Tea Party movement, another crowd all hot and bothered about what should change, right now – and in this case it seemed to have something to do with the “makers” – good – and the “takers” – bad. The government should stop supporting those who just take things – folks on welfare and unemployment, and on Social Security and Medicare. Those programs should be reserved for those who deserve such things – the good people. And America should get back to what it once was – a place where folks made their own way, without big government.

And of course, over time, the movement seemed to be mostly angry old white folks, worried that young folks, and brown and black folks, were taking their stuff, and using their own government to take their stuff. It got pretty nasty. And Steve Kornacki sees what it turned into:

Tea Party Republicanism: It isn’t really about ideology; it’s about governing tactics. … It’s not really about moving the GOP to the right; the party is already there, and has been for a while. It’s about reflexively opposing the other party on every issue, resisting compromise at all costs, and exploiting every available legislative tool to stymie the other side. This mind-set is already pervasive in the House, and as the Times story shows, it’s now making its way into the Senate.

The Times story is about the defeat of Dick Lugar – a pragmatic but quite conservative Republican, who had been their senator from Indiana forever, who lost the Republican primary to a Tea Party fellow – a fellow who thinks Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and ran on the idea that any kind of compromise on anything is evil – kind of pledging that he wouldn’t even say good morning to any Democrat in Washington, ever – even if it meant nothing got done. Lugar has a record of working with Democrats when something needs to get done and he rolled the dice, deciding to run as that guy who gets things done, as everyone concedes. But his party has now decided there are more important things than keeping the government running and solving problems – it’s more important to make a point on this issue or that. Lugar lost the primary. It wasn’t even close.

Andrew Sullivan puts things this way – “I see it as a cultural protest, a kind of nullification of modernity.” And that too is extreme.

All this may alienate the masses, so to speak, from politics in general, but this is interesting:

Americans Elect, the deep-pocketed nonprofit group that set out to nominate a centrist third-party presidential ticket, admitted early Tuesday that its ballyhooed online nominating process had failed.

The group had qualified for the general election ballot in 27 states, and had generated concern among Democrats and Republicans alike that it could wreak havoc on a close election between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

But just after a midnight deadline Monday, the group acknowledged that its complicated online nominating process had failed to generate sufficient interest to push any of the candidates who had declared an interest in its nomination over the threshold in its rules.

Yes, they couldn’t find a candidate. There are the extremists and everyone else, who find politics tiresome. And Paul Krugman comments:

Basically, about seven people were actually excited about the venture – all of them political pundits. Actual voters couldn’t care less.

And his analysis confirms that most people know that our politics are now about nothing, and what we have now might do just fine:

What went wrong? Well, there actually is a large constituency in America for a political leader who is willing to take responsible positions – to call for more investment in the nation’s education and infrastructure, to propose bringing down the long-run deficit through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. And there is in fact a political leader ready and willing (maybe too willing) to play that role; his name is Barack Obama.

But we had Americans Elect, which might have been inevitable:

There exists in America a small class of professional centrists, whose stock in trade is denouncing the extremists in both parties and calling for a middle ground. And this class cannot, as a professional matter, admit that there already is a centrist party in America, the Democrats – and that the extremism they decry is all coming from one side of the political fence – because if they admitted that, they’d just be moderate Democrats, with no holier-than-thou pedestal to stand on.

And then there’s real life:

The large numbers of people who believe in all the good stuff the centrists claim to favor are, you know, going to vote for Obama. The large numbers of people who don’t believe in any of that are going to vote for Romney.

And that’s that. Most hot and heavy politics is really about nothing. It’s the boring centrist pragmatists, like Obama, who keep things running, and sometimes actually get good things done.

But of course Obama can play hardball politics:

After a brief flare-up in the Republican primary, Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital is back on the table. President Obama’s re-election campaign on Monday accused the Republican nominee of causing untold misery for former workers at a steel company in Missouri, from unsafe conditions and reduced benefits to eventual mass layoffs.

“I personally saw the last bit of steel go through the furnaces,” Joe Soptic, a worker at GST Steel who lost his job when the company went under after being acquired by Bain, said on a campaign conference call. “To me it was like watching an old friend die and there was nothing you could do.”

Soptic described how his wife went on to wage an expensive, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful fight against cancer that he said was made even harder by the loss of family health insurance in the bankruptcy. But even as the company’s workers struggled to pick up the pieces, Bain ultimately made a significant overall profit off its acquisition, from fees and dividends even as it ultimately collapsed under the weight of heavy debt, Soptic and Obama campaign officials stressed.

This came with a new two-minute ad from the Obama campaign, full of testimonials from people who lost their jobs at the newly Bain-owned companies, and Romney had to fire back:

The centerpiece of Mitt Romney’s campaign today is a web video on the human cost of the “Obama economy.” It focuses on three individuals, still out of work, and ends on this note: “Hope and change has not been kind to millions of Americans, but they still believe in this great country, and deserve a leader who believes in them: Mitt Romney.”

The four-minute ad is at the link, if you want to watch, but it’s really about Mitt and the greatness of America, implying how he will somehow restore that greatness, without any specifics. You are supposed to understand that he certainly knows, deep in his soul, that America is great – unlike that other person over there, running for the same office. And at the link, Jamelle Bouie dives into the nothingness:

Like the Bain Capital ad from the Obama campaign, this works because it keeps the Romney campaign out of the way, and gives individuals the space to tell their stories. What’s more, if the Bain Capital ad was an effective attack on Romney’s claim to competence, then this is an equally effective attempt at obscuring the Republican roots of the economic crisis, and pinning all blame on President Obama.

What stands out about this video is that the Romney campaign has moved away from acknowledging any roots to the crisis, which would require a nod to the previous, Republican president – and treating the Great Recession as a random event – like a bad hurricane or tornado – for which no one is responsible.

And here’s the core of the nothingness:

In this narrative, the GOP didn’t mismanage the economy into the deepest downturn since the Great Depression. Rather, the economic crisis simply happened, ex nihilo, and Obama did nothing to stop or mitigate it. What’s more, he made things worse, with government spending and an explosion of debt. Romney will rely on this version of the past when he gives a speech this morning, in Des Moines, Iowa, where he’ll focus on the “unprecedented growth of government, spending and debt under President Obama.”

Presumably, it’s government action – and not Republican policies followed by obstruction – that is responsible for our sluggish economy.

But Bouie knows nonsense when he sees it:

The Bush administration actually happened, and its actions – or rather, its active disinterest – helped create a juggernaut of risk that almost toppled the economy. The stimulus package passed in 2009 stabilized things, and the Obama administration took further efforts to extend unemployment benefits, expand food stamps, and extend more aid to states. If government spending hasn’t worked to bring the unemployment rate down to pre-recession levels, it’s because there hasn’t been enough. Even still, the economy has created 4.2 million jobs since Obama entered office, besting George W. Bush’s eight-year total by 1.2 million jobs.

Moreover, government spending hasn’t increased much under President Obama. The deficit is a product of historically low revenues and an economic downturn. When you remove both from the equation, government spending has gone down substantially under Obama; spending is nearly 2 percent lower now than it was at the beginning of his term. By contrast, government spending had climbed by 6 percent at this point in Bush’s term. Given our economic straits, this isn’t a good thing. But it’s simply false to say that we’re witnessing some unprecedented explosion in the growth of government.

That’s all well and fine, and true, but Bouie sees Obama hitting a wall here:

The problem for Obama is that, from where most voters sit, this is fairly esoteric. No one actually cares whether Obama is really responsible for government spending, or if he’s been hampered by constant Republican obstruction. They want relief, and Mitt Romney has offered his expertise. For Obama to succeed, he needs to show – convincingly – that Romney is peddling a false narrative and failed policies. Given the degree to which the fundamentals are leaning against him, this is not an easy task.

And add to that that most people, long ago, decided politics is really about nothing at all. And Andrew Sullivan adds this:

After Obama’s first budget, the Republican right immediately blamed all the pre-existing debt and all the future debt on the president in office barely a month. They don’t want a narrative. They require amnesia.

But exploiting public discontent by simply blaming the dude in power is effective, if crude, politics.

Yes, it is – when politics are about nothing, really. But politics ought to be, given this David Sanger item in the New York Times:

During the Republican primary debates in January, when Mitt Romney was still trying to outmaneuver the challengers who were questioning his conservative bona fides, he made a declaration about Afghanistan that led a faction of his foreign policy advisers to shake their heads in wonderment.

“We should not negotiate with the Taliban,” the former Massachusetts governor declared, just as diplomats dispatched by the president were in Qatar trying to get those negotiations going. “We should defeat the Taliban.” In case anyone missed his meaning, he drove home the point, saying the best strategy was, “We go anywhere they are and we kill them.”

Set aside for the moment that many of Mr. Romney’s supporters and foreign policy advisers argue that after a decade at war, the only option is a political settlement, which means talking to some elements of the Taliban.

This long item then goes on to try to capture the Romney Doctrine. But there isn’t one – all his advisors, pretty much the Bush-Cheney team reassembled, argue with each other and feed him positions, which he gets wrong, or completely misunderstands – probably because he’s used to campaigning on likely-sounding nothingness. And Sanger reports that this is driving his foreign policy advisors crazy.

Time’s Michael Crowley is a bit alarmed:

Romney is surrounded by foreign policy experts frustrated enough with him to feed the Times a negative story, to the point of implying that Romney doesn’t thoroughly understand or possibly even care much about foreign affairs. (“Romney doesn’t want to really engage these issues until he is in office,” one adviser confides to Sanger.)

But why should he care about foreign affairs? This is politics – he wants to win. And to win you offer generalized nothingness, not what might stand up to logic. And Peter Beinart applies that logic:

Beneath the fratricide in the Romney foreign-policy camp lies the deeper problem that, at least since Sept. 11, GOP foreign policy has largely assumed that limitations of public money, and public will, should not constrain American foreign policy. And during the primaries, when Romney advocated bombing Iran and rejected negotiations with the Taliban, he embraced those assumptions, too. But now, forced to lay out their candidate’s views in greater detail for a more attentive press corps and a more skeptical general-election audience, the Romney camp is struggling. And they’re going to continue to struggle because ultimately, the problem isn’t Romney. The problem is a Republican foreign-policy narrative that pretends that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis have not imposed serious new limitations on American foreign policy.

Yes, there’s a real world, and Andrew Sullivan adds this:

I find Romney’s foreign policy statements rather alarming for their surreal 1960s view of the world. Romney has one template for foreign policy, gleaned from the Cold War. Hence his inability to even recognize Obama’s foreign policy (Romney often said in the debates that Obama had “none”). But he will back more intense settlement of the West Bank, a war against Iran, and aggressive hostility to Russia and China. The contrast really is stark this time around – both at home and abroad.

Who knows what Romney would do on those issues? He lives in another world, in politics, that world of nothing in particular – or at least nothing terribly specific. And Obama’s base periodically is angry with him, for being a centrist and pragmatic and doing as much as can be done, given the circumstances, and not raising holy hell and calling out the other side with thundering words of pure truth and so on. But someone has to get things done, those things in the real world. Someone has to be the adult in the room.

And really, politics is about nothing. The people know that. And that’s why Romney polls well. He’s comfortably what you expect.

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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1 Response to In the Absence of Content

  1. Rick says:

    As for your observation, “it seemed to have something to do with the ‘makers’ – good – and the ‘takers’ – bad.”

    Nice distinction, although, of course, what’s really in dispute between the two sides is, which is which?

    In other words, are the rich — the so-called “job-creators” — the makers, while the people on unemployment the takers? Or is it the other way around? After all, it could (and should) be argued that the real job-creators in an economy are the consumers. When people buy things, jobs get created, and when people stop buying things, those jobs go away. So in effect, all the money is really being “made” in the lower rungs of the economy, while too much of it is being “taken” by those on the upper rungs.

    As for Andrew Sullivan’s, “After Obama’s first budget, the Republican right immediately blamed all the pre-existing debt and all the future debt on the president in office barely a month. They don’t want a narrative. They require amnesia.”

    Exactly. But then they take it a step further by preempting any charge that this mess they’re blaming on Obama actually started under Bush by saying, “And another thing! Obama won’t even take the blame for his own mess! He’s always shifting the blame onto someone else!” And of course, all those people who aren’t really paying attention, because they’re not all that interested in politics, store that away in their brains in a mental file folder marked “Other Things Obama is Doing Wrong.”

    What I find frustrating is a Republican campaign logic that seems to be a “Hail Mary” — that is, a desperate long shot that really shouldn’t work, but that seems to be working!

    While on the one hand the Obama campaign shows the hollowness of Romney’s claim that he can fix a sick economy by showing us people who lost their jobs specifically because of things Romney and his company did, you have on the other hand the Romney campaign running ads showing people who are suffering in this economy — with the general implication, and without specifying any cause-and-effect, that Obama is to blame for the ailing economy — which everyone who has been paying attention at all remembers got sick under Bush.

    But when it comes right down to it, if Obama is responsible for any part of this bad economy, it would be in failing to defeat Republican attempts to stand in the way of his solutions. It’s like arguing that, since God and goodness have not been successful in defeating Satin and evil in the world, we should all join up and side with Satan.

    After all, even if God is on the side of the angels, nobody really likes a loser.

    Rick

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