No Side of Rice

In all sports it’s considered bad form to run up the score. In college football for example, if you’re a top-ranked team playing some nowhere team from a school no one has ever heard of, one that was put on the schedule as an afterthought years ago, and you’re ahead by nine touchdowns in the first quarter, you put in the subs. They need a bit of game experience anyway, and there’s no point in risking any of your hot-shot starters twisting an ankle or something, and there’s also something simply distasteful about rubbing it in and sneering when the other guys are, really, trying their best. It’s a matter of good sportsmanship. Allow the other team to score a touchdown, or at least kick a field goal, or at least try. You’re going to win anyway. Allow the other guys a scrap of dignity. It’s the decent thing to do. It costs you nothing. Be a mensch, not an asshole.

There’s the backlash football coaches should consider too. The broadcasting team from ESPN will be on your case all game long as you run up the score to the stratosphere for no good reason, calling you names, and sportswriters will spend the next week doing the same, for a wider national audience. Then there’s the reaction from the losing coach, who after the game, at midfield, turns his back on you and walks off the field. He refused to shake your hand but somehow he’s the good guy and you’re not. Additionally, there’s always the possibility of revenge. A few years ago Appalachian State opened the season by beating the then top-ranked University of Michigan. For those who have repeatedly had their dignity stripped away, revenge is sweet and everyone cheers for them, not you. So there’s a matter of self-interest. Give a little when you’re winning big and there’ll be no trouble later. It’s always important that everyone gets something, even if it’s the dignity of not being shut-out and shamed.

That’s why it’s important that this happened:

U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice withdrew her name Thursday as President Obama’s leading candidate for secretary of state, saying the administration could not afford a “lengthy, disruptive and costly” confirmation fight over statements she made about the extremist attack in Libya that killed four Americans.

Rice called Obama on Thursday morning, before sending him a letter officially withdrawing from consideration. Rice said in an interview that she had concluded early this week that what she and Obama considered “unfair and misleading” charges against her over the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, would impede the president’s second-term agenda.

She said it was her decision, and maybe it was, but she also put her decision in the context of the nasty negotiations on how to avoid that fiscal cliff thing, where each side says they won’t give an inch, and upcoming shouting back and forth about immigration reform, and the current threat from the Republicans to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, causing the United States, for the first time, to default on its debt obligations – we just won’t pay our bills for what we’ve already spent, destroying the bond market and crashing the world’s economy as there will be no more safe haven anywhere for capital – unless Obama does exactly what the Republicans want. He’ll have to make those massive cuts in Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and if they want, abolish all taxes on the rich too, and abandon Obamacare, and they really mean it this time. Rice says she doesn’t want to add to all this turmoil, which is perhaps noble – but all the reporting is that Obama didn’t even try to talk her out of it. One way or another, even if those fiscal cliff negotiations work out or even if those negotiations fail, taxes on the rich are going up. The Republicans know this. They lost. The tax debate was the 2012 election itself, and they lost there, decisively, so they’re feeling pretty low, and also pretty angry, with nowhere to direct their anger. They decided, some months ago, to direct that anger at Susan Rice, for no good reason. That pent-up anger with no logical target made them dangerous. The answer to that was to let them score a touchdown, or at least kick a field goal, to give them the dignity of not being totally shut-out and shamed. Always allow the other guys a scrap of dignity. It defuses things, and she hadn’t been nominated anyway. John Kerry, the likely actual nominee, will do just fine. This cost Obama nothing.

Some will interpret this as a stinging defeat for Obama – the perpetually outraged Republicans finally put it to Obama, stopping him from getting what he wanted. It plays well with the somewhat crude Republican base too – this was another uppity black woman that Obama tried to foist on America or something. The analogy from sports is, however, something to consider. When the hapless team from Nowhere State, down by nine touchdowns, kicks a field goal, against the other team’s subs, they haven’t won. They just feel a little better about themselves, and that’s a good thing. This triumph of the Republicans, on this, makes the negotiations on everything else easier. They have something to show for themselves. They can go back to their base and say look, we did stop Obama from getting what he wanted. They can say it can be done. Even if they lose every other battle, and the game, that may keep them in office.

John McCain led the charge against Susan Rice and Slate’s Fred Kaplan adds this perspective:

This was certainly a political confrontation, and Obama backed down. But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that he lost or that McCain won – at least not on any issue beyond whether Susan Rice will be nominated as secretary of state, something Obama hadn’t yet done in any event. It doesn’t necessarily tilt the outcome of any conflict to come.

Rice’s withdrawal might even work to Obama’s favor, in the end, if he goes ahead and nominates his presumed second-favorite candidate for the job -Sen. John Kerry. I’ve written (and I’m far from alone in this view) that Kerry was always the better choice. As longtime chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he has a thorough grasp of all the issues on the agenda; he served as Obama’s de facto envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, cleaning up some of that region’s messier political disputes; he navigated Obama’s New START nuclear arms-reduction treaty to ratification by a resistant Senate; and, not least, he is largely responsible for Obama’s political rise, picking him to be keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic convention when he was a mere Illinois state senator. Clearly Kerry wants this job; surely he deserves it.

That raises the possibility that Rice was never going to nominated anyway. Maybe this was just a head-fake, and a clever one at that. Obama can now nominate the best person for the job, after having tricked most of the Republicans into going on record saying that John Kerry was really the right choice in the first place. He also tricked them into once more getting all hot and bothered, mostly on Fox News, about the frightening possibility of one more too-smart-for-her-own-good woman of color running things. Old white men fuming about that is always good politics. Add to that no one liked the woman much in the first place – yes, she is superbly educated and widely and deeply experienced – but in the 2008 primaries, as Obama’s foreign policy guru, she openly sneered at Hillary Clinton’s notions, insulting her in public, and she once flipped the bird at Richard Holbrooke of all things. She can be pretty nasty – or a strong woman, depending on your sense of propriety. She has what is called a prickly personality. She’s been great representing us at the United Nations, listening carefully but taking no crap from anybody. Running the State Department might be another matter, where she would supervise many thousands of career diplomatic employees. She’d be the boss from hell, and maybe both she and Obama knew that. Maybe she was never going to be nominated anyway. That Obama is a tricky fellow. Let the other side have their little victory. You’re going to win anyway. Their three-point field goal doesn’t mean a thing, and it will keep them happy and thus unlikely to get too pesky.

They’re hapless anyway, and burying themselves. Chuck Todd and his crew at First Read have the new dismal polling:

The clock is ticking over whether President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner can avoid going over the so-called fiscal cliff at the beginning of next year. But our new NBC/WSJ poll shows that the Republican Party has already gone off one cliff, per co-pollster Peter Hart (D) – the image cliff. The GOP’s favorable/unfavorable rating in the poll now stands at 30%/45% (minus-15), which is down from 36%/43% (minus-7) right before the election. That’s compared with the Democratic Party’s 44%/35% rating (plus-9).

It gets worse:

Other than self-described Republicans and conservatives, just two other groups have a net positive view of the GOP: folks who live in rural America (39%/33%) and folks who live in the South (39%/38%), that’s it. What’s more, asked to give a word or short phrase to describe the Republican Party, 65% offered a negative comment, including MORE THAN HALF of Republicans. The top responses: “Bad,” “weak,” “negative,” “uncompromising,” “need to work together,” “broken,” “disorganized” and “lost.”

Yep, that’s falling off the image cliff. Blocking the hypothetical Rice nomination just reinforces their negative image. They stopped something, but what do they want to do? Greg Sargent actually wonders how much longer Republicans can ignore public opinion:

That isn’t meant as a rhetorical question. I’d genuinely like to know whether Republicans are grappling with it, and how. That’s because the GOP finds itself trapped in a contradiction that will require that question to be dealt with sooner or later.

Some of the party’s most sacred principles lead to positions that are deeply unpopular. At the same time, many individual GOP lawmakers have clear incentives to continue to hold those positions. They come from safe districts where majorities agree with them, and standing behind them earns praise from conservative interest groups and media. Yet those positions – and their underlying principles – are damaging the party as a whole. Regular association with them may be increasingly damaging the party’s “brand” – Republicans lost the election in part because they were seen as patrons of the wealthy – and they constrain the party from reaching the compromise with Dems the public overwhelmingly wants, hurting its overall image further still.

Given current polling (Sargent cites this Pew poll) it’s pretty simple:

Majorities broadly see the Democratic Party as in line with their priorities on many issues and with their basic sense of how government should solve our problems.

By 53-33, Americans see the GOP as “more extreme in its positions,” while Dems are seen as more willing to work with the other party by 53-37. Fifty five percent say Obama is seriously trying to work with Republicans, while 32 percent say GOPers are trying to work with the President. There’s rising support for the Dem solution to the fiscal mess – a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts – which is now up to 74 percent. Big majorities oppose specific spending cuts – such as cuts to education and infrastructure – and oppose raising the retirement age on entitlements.

Yet individual GOP lawmakers continue to have strong incentives to stick with an increasingly unpopular overall posture: That we should sooner cut deeply into cherished government programs that benefit millions and millions of Americans in order to avoid raising tax rates on the top 2 percent. This predicament is one of the GOP’s own making.

Sargent cites Jonathan Chait:

It was Republicans who elevated the unpopular cause of low income tax rates for the rich to a sacred principle, built an entire party theology around punishing even the slightest dissent from that principle, and then enacted the sacred agenda through a rickety budget mechanism that caused it all to expire after a decade.

It’s no wonder that more and more conservatives are calling on Republicans to permanently extend the middle class tax cuts and simply let the high end rates go up, so they can fight it all out again using the debt limit to blackmail the country to get what they want. That may not be as easy as sandbagging Susan Rice, but now they know they can score a few points.

They just can’t win, as Sargent sees it:

The GOP vision of government seems to be fundamentally and increasingly out of step with how majorities view its proper scope and role. The Pew poll finds Dems with significant leads on many other domestic issues, like education, energy, health care, and Social Security. And Republicans are so dedicated to seeing deep (and unpopular) entitlement cuts that they are preparing a showdown over the debt ceiling to achieve them. It’s true that the politics of the debt ceiling don’t automatically favor Dems (because people associate it with over-spending in the abstract). But the GOP brand is so tarnished – even as Obama’s popularity is rising – that the public may implicitly trust the President in the next showdown, too, particularly if he opposes the sort of entitlements cuts the GOP wants.

Still they want to stage that one big showdown. Obama let them have their side of Rice, but he won’t let them have anything else, and Andrew Sullivan is not happy with these guys:

We should be clear what using the debt ceiling as blackmail really is; it is not an attempt to cut spending, which is accomplished through budget legislation. It is a refusal to make good on the very decisions the Congress has already made on spending and taxation. It is the equivalent of not paying your rent as a way to protest the price you already signed up for. It’s grotesquely irresponsible, and after the last election, reflects a near delusional amnesia and contempt for the voters.

Sullivan cites David Frum with the shorter version of that:

Mr. President, give us what we want or we’ll blow up the government. In return for your concessions, we’ll … refrain from blowing up the government.

Sullivan calls this anti-conservative:

When you see a political party that openly flaunts these attacks on the American constitutional balance and the country’s credit for purely partisan reasons, you begin to see how deep the rot has gone. This is not a party worthy of any role in government. It’s a destructive, self-interested faction, threatening the stability of this country’s constitution and economy. Obama is absolutely right not to yield on this. This anti-conservative radicalism is anti-American, uncivil and unpatriotic.

It must not be appeased. It has to be ended.

Those are strong words, but it seems Obama is trying something else here. Let them have their imaginary little victories, and let them crow about them and generally make fools of themselves. That’s not exactly appeasement. In the end they may be reduced to saying they lost every battle, but they did win one. They stopped the nomination of Susan Rice – except that she wasn’t nominated in the first place. And there’s another question that Republican voters may ask in a year or two. Susan Rice? Who?

As for the debt ceiling as a tool for the Republicans to win back their dignity, Matthew Yglesias helpfully offers this:

The debt ceiling, recall, is a curious American institution that we share exclusively with Denmark. Back in the nineteenth century, Congress specifically authorized each issuance of federal bonds. When World War I came along, this became tedious, so Congress simply appropriated the funds it thought would be required for the war and authorized the federal government to borrow a bunch more money as needed to spend what Congress had directed it to spend, up to a certain cap – the debt ceiling.

It simply got out of hand over all the years since:

Congress would pass laws setting the tax code, laws shaping entitlement spending, and annual appropriations for the military and civilian functions of government. When a gap arose, as it often did, the Treasury Department would, obviously, borrow the money. But every so often the combination of economic growth and inflation would guarantee that the government would run up against the authorized borrowing cap. At this point opposition party members of Congress would take potshots at the president. Back in 2006 when George W. Bush had to ask for an increase in the debt ceiling, then-Sen. Barack Obama called it “a sign of leadership failure” and proclaimed “Americans deserve better.”

The whole thing was a bit of a joke, but then it wasn’t:

Republicans began making noises about using the debt ceiling as leverage to force spending cuts. The Obama administration miscalculated that they could turn lemons into lemonade by forging a broad deficit-reduction deal involving spending cuts and more revenue, metaphorically “breaking” the GOP dogma on taxes. What we got instead was total Republican intransigence, a panic that crushed consumer confidence, and ultimately a kludge deal that helped set the stage for today’s fiscal cliff.

The White House, naturally, doesn’t want to do it again. Once the debt ceiling has been weaponized as a tool for extracting real policy concessions, it creates a dangerous situation. Sooner or later one party or the other will set off the bomb, and actually send the United States into default.

To prevent this, the Obama administration has embraced a plan once floated by Mitch McConnell that will replace actual debt-ceiling threats with symbolic grandstanding. The Treasury Department will say it needs to borrow more, and Congress can pass a resolution of disapproval if it disapproves, and then the president can veto the resolution. All the grandstanding, none of the white-knuckle panic!

The administration is actually serious about this, but the Republicans cannot be:

What makes this so tricky to resolve is that Republicans, with some justice, see a debt-ceiling concession as a major one on their part. Holding it in their back pocket gives them a lot of leverage, leverage they don’t want to give up for free. But Democrats, with some justice, see a debt-ceiling resolution as an apolitical good government measure separate from ideological disagreement over the size and scope of government. The 2011 hostage-taking was unprecedented, and if it becomes routine it won’t systematically advantage either party – it’ll just hurt the country.

And unlike on taxes, military spending, Medicare eligibility, or anything else it’s hard to split the difference on the debt ceiling. The administration feels, as a matter of process and sound policy, that there’s no point in any deal that doesn’t defuse the debt ceiling. Republicans feel that the debt ceiling is the best bargaining chip they have. But to bargain for it would undermine the whole point of the administration’s new stance, namely that the debt ceiling is too dangerous to be used as a negotiating ploy.

So, do you want sensible process and sound policy, or do you want to go with the guys who are willing to blow up the country, and maybe the world, to get exactly what they want, even if what they want is not at all what the country wants, given the results of the election and what’s been seen in every public opinion poll since the election? They can do that, no matter what the American people think or want, you know – they did stop Obama from nominating Susan Rice to State after all. They did do that – unless Obama was already ahead by nine touchdowns and just letting those guys kick their feel-good little field goal, against his second-string. After all, there is no point in running up the score. It’s always important that everyone gets something, even if it’s only the dignity of not being completely shut-out and shamed. And it keeps those guys from Nowhere State from making trouble next time.


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 Debt-Limit Debate, Debt-Limit Negotiations Break Down, Fiscal Cliff, Public Opinion, Republican Denial of Reality, Republican Implosion, Republican Phyrric Victories, Republicans in the Wilderness, Susan Rice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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