Playing What-If

No third party in America has ever amounted to much of anything. Sure they exist – a Libertarian Party and a Green Party and a Socialist Party and so on – but no one pays a bit of attention to them. At best they’re occasional spoilers. That leaves us with what we are accustomed to – the same old same old, two parties that defend their positions, such as they are, subject to change, and work to perpetuate their existence. As previously discussed, that gave rise to a whole new class of political operatives – party hacks who spin things one way or the other, to take the stink off the latest gaffe or to spin the incomprehensible into something that sort of, maybe, sounds halfway reasonable.

We’ve all seen it. The weekend before the second president debate this time around, Ed Gillespie, Romney’s guy, was on Fox News explaining that there were six independent and authoritative studies showing the Mitt Romney’s tax plan – cut everyone’s taxes twenty percent, reducing revenue by five trillion dollars over the next several years, and also spend at least two trillion more on defense, putting us in the hole by seven trillion or so – would be revenue-neutral. Close a few tax loopholes, to be chosen later, and not a penny would be added to the deficit – this would cost nothing at all, really, and old folks would still get their Medicare and Social Security, and everyone would still get their fat mortgage interest deductions and so on.

This was too much for even Fox News. Their Chris Wallace laughed in his face – pointing out that those six independent and authoritative studies were minor blog posts and two op-eds from Romney staffers. Gillespie looked stunned. He didn’t expect that from Fox News, the voice of the Republican Party and at one time or another home-base for all Republican candidates – but it happened. Yes, the two-party system has cracks in it, although this may have been an anomaly. Fox News still invites an endless parade of Republican shills on their shows to spin this and that, and Obama’s folks turn up on the Rachel Maddow show, these days to say Obama is doing fine and the polls can be misleading, and no one ever invites any third-party folks to come on-air and chat.

No one knows what to make of them. Every time Ralph Nader, for a time forever running for president, would pop up on one of the political discussion shows he would say the oddest things – that there wasn’t a dime’s bit of difference between the two major parties. Nader said that both the Republicans and Democrats were in the pocket of big business – the big corporations and the few massive banks that actually direct the economy. Republicans and Democrats had been bought and sold years ago – but he hadn’t, so ordinary folks should vote for him. He had no interest in making the rich richer.

He wasn’t often asked back. This didn’t fit the ongoing narrative, the epic battle every four years between the bleeding-heart but well intentioned do-gooder Democrats, always harping on community and respect for everyone, and the tough-as-nails fiscally responsible no-pity-for-whiners Republican, always harping on personal responsibility and scorn for anyone who they said offended Jesus. That was always the story. There was no room for Ralph Nader in that ongoing tale. The only thing he managed to do was siphon off a whole bunch of Al Gore votes in Florida a dozen years ago, assuring a dead heat there that had to be resolved by the Supreme Court, packed with Justices appointed by George Bush’s father, assuring George Bush would be president. That’s not what Ralph Nader wanted, but presumably he would have been only marginally less unhappy with Al Gore. Gore was a tool of the rich too.

And here we go again:

When he was running for the Republican presidential nomination last year, Gary Johnson, the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, drew ridicule from mainstream party members as he advocated legalized marijuana and a 43 percent cut in military spending.

Now campaigning as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, Mr. Johnson is still only a blip in the polls. But he is on the ballot in every state except Michigan and Oklahoma, enjoys the support of a few small “super PACs” and is trying to tap into the same grass-roots enthusiasm that helped build Representative Ron Paul a big following. And with polls showing the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney to be tight, Mr. Johnson’s once-fellow Republicans are no longer laughing.

The Republicans have their own Ralph Nader to contend with this time and are working the problem:

The fear of Mr. Johnson’s tipping the outcome in an important state may explain why an aide to Mr. Romney ran what was effectively a surveillance operation into Mr. Johnson’s efforts over the summer to qualify for the ballot at the Iowa State Fair, providing witnesses to testify in a lawsuit to block him that ultimately fizzled.

Libertarians suspect it is why Republican state officials in Michigan blocked Mr. Johnson from the ballot after he filed proper paperwork three minutes after his filing deadline.

And it is why Republicans in Pennsylvania hired a private detective to investigate his ballot drive in Philadelphia, appearing at the homes of paid canvassers and, in some cases, flashing an FBI badge – he was a retired agent – while asking to review the petitions they gathered at $1 a signature, according to testimony in the case and interviews.

Johnson is still on all the ballots – various courts have ruled in his favor in these disputes. Of course the Republicans have also said this is all a plot by the Democrats, but no one really believes that. Johnson’s pro-marijuana and antiwar positions appeal to the “youth vote” – that odd Ron Paul crowd of young folks who think Obama is way too conservative – while all the antigovernment and anti-spending stuff excites conservative “fiscal hawks” – those who hate the government completely and suspect Romney is just too damned liberal. Johnson could draw votes from both Romney and Obama. Or maybe not – Johnson could be more John Anderson than Ralph Nader – insignificant.

No one knows, but maybe Ralph Nader, and really all third-party candidates, are really onto something, that it doesn’t make a damned bit of difference whether the Democrat or Republican wins. Only this time there’s a new variation. It doesn’t matter who wins because neither guy will be able to do much of anything in the next four years.

It’s structural. If Obama wins, he’ll still face a House controlled by the Republicans, who will block everything he tries, and even if the Democrats do well they still won’t have a full sixty votes in the Senate, so the minority forty can filibuster everything and nothing will ever reach the Senate floor for an actual vote. If Romney wins he’ll have the House but nor the Senate, so he won’t be able to get anything passed either. The system is now in permanent gridlock, and perhaps will be forever. Maybe it doesn’t really matter who you vote for.

Ed Kilgore addresses this:

After all, between the features of our system that inherently frustrate political majorities and the objective difficulties of the problems the country faces, it’ll be Gridlock City either way. This observation, of course, is often paired with an injunction that both parties bend to some sort of Bowles-Simpson magic, but the underlying sense is that both parties are equally incapable of governing without pixie dust of some sort. (There is, of course, a very different school of thought that the election doesn’t matter because both candidates are advocates of the same basic ideology of corporate neoliberalism, but that won’t get any airing in the mainstream media).

Jonathan Chait, looking at the wide array of campaign rhetoric, puts that a slightly different way:

It seems natural to conclude from all this vapid, buoyant patter that neither candidate has a plausible blueprint to avoid political gridlock, and that whoever wins, the stalemate of the past two years will grind on into the next four. President Obama would still likely face a Republican House, and President Romney a Senate in which Democrats can mount a filibuster.

Yet all the signs suggest both candidates do have strategies in mind to prod the creaky machinery of Washington to life and effect the dramatic change they vaguely but ardently promise. In fact, shortly after the next Inaugural Ball – perhaps very, very shortly after – the great stalemate between socialism and social Darwinism will break open and likely turn decisively in one direction or the other.

This is followed by a long discussion of how gridlock really could be broken, and specifically, how if Romney wins, there is a good chance that the draconian Ryan budget plan will actually become law:

Let’s first imagine that, on January 20, Romney takes the oath of office. Of the many secret post-victory plans floating around in the inner circles of the campaigns, the least secret is Romney’s intention to implement Paul Ryan’s budget. The Ryan budget has come to be almost synonymous with the Republican Party agenda, and Romney has embraced it with only slight variations. It would repeal Obamacare, cut income-tax rates, turn Medicare for people under 55 years old into subsidized private insurance, increase defense spending, and cut domestic spending, with especially large cuts for Medicaid, food stamps, and other programs targeted to the very poor.

Few voters understand just how rapidly Romney could achieve this, rewriting the American social compact in one swift stroke. Ryan’s plan has never attracted Democratic support, but it is not designed for bipartisanship. Ryan deliberately built it to circumvent a Senate filibuster, stocking the plan with budget legislation that is allowed, under Senate “budget reconciliation” procedures, to pass with a simple majority. Republicans have been planning the mechanics of the vote for many months, and Republican insiders expect Romney to use reconciliation to pass the bill. Republicans would still need to control 50 votes in the Senate (Ryan, as vice-president, would cast the tiebreaking vote), but if Romney wins the presidency, he’ll likely precipitate a party-wide tail wind that would extend to the GOP’s Senate slate.

It could happen:

One might suppose that at least a handful of Republicans might blanch at the prospect of reshaping the entire face of government unilaterally. But Ryan’s careful organizing of the party agenda has all taken place with this vote as the end point, and with the clear goal of sidestepping any such objection. When Republicans won control of Congress during the 2010 elections, Ryan successfully lobbied the party to take a vote on his budget plan the following April. The plan stood no chance of passage (given Obama’s certain veto) and exposed dozens of vulnerable House members to withering attacks over its unpopular provisions. So why hold a vote carrying huge potential risk and no chance of immediate success? So Ryan could get the party on record supporting his plan, depriving quiet dissidents of any future excuse to defect should the real vote come in 2013.

On the other hand, Chait also suggests a Romney administration could get surprising:

Romney has built his campaign on the promise of alleviating the immediate pain of the recession, yet his program to reduce unemployment is vague bordering on nonexistent. (“If we win on November 6th, there will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country,” he told donors during his infamous, secretly recorded Palm Springs diatribe. “We’ll see capital come back and we’ll see – without actually doing anything – we’ll actually get a boost in the economy.”) Republicans fervently believe the Ryan plan would restore prosperity over the long run, but even they recognize it has essentially no relation to the economic maladies of the moment.

The Obama administration’s approach to the economy has been to follow the tenets of Keynesian economics, which prioritizes stimulating consumer demand (through government spending and/or tax reductions), by deliberately jacking up short-term deficits. During the 2001 recession, Republicans agreed with this theory – advocating quick tax cuts – and they appeared to be heading in the same direction in early 2008. But since Obama’s election, they have turned wholesale against Keynesian economics, instead suggesting that an immediate reduction in deficits could boost the recovery. Recent history, especially in Europe, has not been kind to these austerity enthusiasts.

So there’s no telling what to expect:

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that Romney and his advisers have never bought into their party’s anti-Keynesian mania. The two main economists advising him, Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard and Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw, argued for short-term deficit spending at the outset of the crisis.

Is there really a difference between the two parties? Maybe there isn’t. And as for a second Obama term:

Last summer, Obama was pleading with Boehner to give him $800 billion in additional revenue. Come January, he’ll have $5 trillion in higher revenue without doing anything. Since Obama’s own budget proposes to raise only $1.5 trillion in new revenue and trim entitlement spending, he could then offer Republicans a deal that cuts taxes (by, say, a couple trillion dollars), increases military spending, and reduces entitlement spending. In other words, he could offer a right-wing bill – and the end result would be a mix of policies to the left of his own budget, and to the left of the Simpson-Bowles proposal.

That would break the gridlock too, or not, but Ed Kilgore is worried:

Chait is a lot more confident than I am that Obama will be able to sell (or harder yet, convince Republicans to help him sell) an alternative fiscal agenda as a tax cut with increased defense spending, instead of a tax increase with defense cuts. But it’s a plausible scenario, or at least a lot more plausible than the official Obama expectation that an electorate defeat will “break the fever” of GOP extremism and make bipartisan action possible once again.

Still there are other structural problems:

Putting aside the intentions of the two candidates, there are other “it doesn’t matter” arguments you hear. Some Democrats figure the next president will be massively unpopular, and would prefer a one-term Obama presidency followed by a real, enduring Democratic comeback in 2014 and 2016. Others think the next president will benefit from a cyclical economic recovery which will vindicate the great wisdom of his policies. And quite obviously, the long list of potential GOP presidential candidates who gave ’12 a pass was motivated in part by the willingness to concede this election and make ’16 The Big One.

The what-if game gets tricky:

And then there are a few Democrats I’ve talked to who really do buy the Moderate Mitt Meme and figure – particularly if he “lucks into” a Senate still controlled by Democrats – he’ll take office looking for any excuse to sell out his party, his allies, the people who financed his campaign, and all those earnest Foot Soldiers of Conservatism he is counting on in the battleground states.

Personally, I find this assessment of Romney’s morality far harsher than anything I’ve ever suggested about the man. Even if it’s possible under some scenarios, I’d hardly bet the farm on any consequence of a Romney presidency other than a direct assault on the entire public policy legacy of the 20th century (with the exception, of course, of a hegemonic defense budget).

Sometimes, Chicken Little is right: the sky is falling.

It does matter which of these two you vote for after all. And, having seen Obama in office, you might want to consider Romney’s claim that his experience in the private sector, building a business and making a profit, is the very reason to vote for him. There’s nothing wrong with building a business and making a profit, but there is the matter of how Bain Capital actually worked and works still – private equity is an odd business. And now there’s this long item from David Stockman, a longtime participant in the leveraged buy-out industry, and he kind of spills the beans. The entire business model was and is based on a rigged system, where the tax code, written mainly by lobbyists, encourages absurdly unsustainable debt and nasty quick capital gains:

Mitt Romney was not a businessman; he was a master financial speculator who bought, sold, flipped, and stripped businesses. He did not build enterprises the old-fashioned way – out of inspiration, perspiration, and a long slog in the free market fostering a new product, service, or process of production. Instead, he spent his fifteen years raising debt in prodigious amounts on Wall Street so that Bain could purchase the pots and pans and castoffs of corporate America, leverage them to the hilt, gussy them up as reborn “roll-ups,” and then deliver them back to Wall Street for resale – the faster the better.

That is the modus operandi of the leveraged-buyout business, and in an honest free-market economy, there wouldn’t be much scope for it because it creates little of economic value. But we have a rigged system – a regime of crony capitalism – where the tax code heavily favors debt and capital gains, and the central bank purposefully enables rampant speculation by propping up the price of financial assets and battering down the cost of leveraged finance.

Romney is hardly the hero of free-market capitalism bringing the best possible stuff to us all, at the lowest price. He’s worked a rigged system for the house, and as they say in Vegas, the house always wins:

The vast outpouring of LBOs in recent decades has been the consequence of bad policy, not the product of capitalist enterprise. I know this from seventeen years of experience doing leveraged buyouts at one of the pioneering private-equity houses, Blackstone, and then my own firm. I know the pitfalls of private equity. The whole business was about maximizing debt, extracting cash, cutting head counts, skimping on capital spending, outsourcing production, and dressing up the deal for the earliest, highest-profit exit possible. Occasionally, we did invest in genuine growth companies, but without cheap debt and deep tax subsidies, most deals would not make economic sense.

In truth, LBOs are capitalism’s natural undertakers – vulture investors who feed on failing businesses. Due to bad policy, however, they have now become monsters of the financial midway that strip-mine cash from healthy businesses and recycle it mostly to the top one percent.

Andrew Sullivan adds this:

Mitt Romney is as much a creature of the corporate welfare state as anyone out of their luck is a creature of the actual welfare state. Except he uses it to make a fortune and funnel money from the poor to the rich; and they use food stamps to maintain basic nutrition. If I were cutting welfare-spending (and we need to) I’d start with the corporate kind first, wouldn’t you?

It does matter which of these two you vote for after all, and Ron Beasley adds this:

Mitt Romney is really not much different than the professional gambler in Las Vegas except the table was fixed for him to win most of the time. He’s a banker more than a businessman. If a venture he was involved in created jobs it was in spite of him rather than because of him. It’s the Mitt Romneys of the world that created the financial crisis. Mitt Romney will be a repeat of the very policies that created the crash. Oh, and did I mention he’s a sociopath.

He is? Maybe so – and maybe then there’s really no need for a third party. Play a little what-if. You’ll see.

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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