After a life well-lived retirement can be mighty fine. After a curious life filled with strangeness and the unexpected, enjoyed and endured and savored and bitter far too many times, it’s just curious. It also seems flat, even here in the heart of Hollywood. There’s the small pension from the years in aerospace, and a Social Security check each month, and Medicare if anything goes terribly wrong, and what’s left in the 401(k) after the economy crashed a few years ago – so it’s easy enough to get by. All it takes is not doing anything too stupid. Two weeks in Paris each December is now out, and the passport expired long ago anyway. Still it’s best to be thankful for what a young and poor and cold Earnest Hemingway was always looking for in his Paris long ago – a clean well-lighted place. A small but comfortable apartment just off the Sunset Strip will do, and the view of the famous observatory across the hills helps. It’s warm too, and the light is always good. That’s why the movie industry is here. Except it’s an exile of sorts. Everyone from long ago is back east – in Boston or New York – and the real world is back there too. Everything happened three hours ago, on Wall Street or in Washington. Heck, even Saturday Night Live is tape-delayed out here and not live at all, and the ball falls in Times Square at nine in the evening each New Year’s Eve. It’s impossible not to feel a sense of dislocation, although dislocation can afford perspective. At least that’s the general idea. Ennui is another possibility. That’s a curious word.
It is possible, however, to savor and boast self-righteously about your dislocation. That very strange poet Ezra Pound did that – there’s that 1913 poem where he proudly says he has weathered the storm and beaten out his exile. That particular item, written from Paris, is a diatribe about all the philistines and fools that just didn’t understand his insight and talent and drove him out of America – but he wouldn’t have been happy remaining on the faculty of Wabash College anyway, and they wouldn’t let him. He was a pain in the ass. So he ended up elsewhere, getting Eliot and Joyce and Hemingway published, cleaning up their texts, and then doing propaganda broadcasts for Mussolini, and then, after the war, in an insane asylum in North Carolina, not far from Chapel Hill. They say that Chapel Hill is a Little Bit of Heaven in the South. For Ezra Pound that must have been like being back at Wabash College. The philistines won. Actually the dislocation that can afford perspective led to madness instead – or maybe it was hanging around with Gertrude Stein.
It doesn’t matter. Pound was a special case. No one really leads a spectacular life like that, at the center of the literary and intellectual universe, or has such a disastrous retirement. Everyone else just gets by, and then retires with too much time on their hands, living modestly, if they’re lucky, and keeping an eye on what funds are left for the years ahead.
Here, the nine-year-old Mini Cooper is on its last legs and something must be done. It’s time to tap the reserves in order to buy something more age-appropriate, a modest small Japanese or Korean sedan that will run forever, or long enough – a modest car for a modest exile. That shouldn’t be a problem, but out here in exile, something is always afoot back east on Wall Street or in Washington. Corporations sometimes sheepishly admit that they’ve spent all the money in the pension funds on current operations and there’s nothing left – sorry – and by the way, they’ve been bought by Bain Capital and they’re declaring bankruptcy. Add to that, for the fun of it, Republicans are always working on ways to cut Social Security benefits, and Medicare and Medicaid too – to get the deficit under control or because they have this notion that austerity leads to prosperity. Few economists agree with that notion, but that’s also a worry, and of course the reserves in the 401(k) are never safe. The markets jump up and down. That modest car for a modest exile may have to be very modest indeed, depending on the day of the week you pull the trigger.
That leads to a little ritual each evening – checking the market futures to see what sort of life you’ll be leading the next day. It’s always best to have a reasonable sense of what’s possible, or what’s no longer possible at all. Others, back east in the real world, determine that, and late in the day on Thursday, December 20, 2012, those futures fell off the cliff – the Dow futures down two hundred points and still falling. The 401(k) was in peril again. Something was up. Someone screwed up something, but this time it wasn’t the business-hating socialist regulate-everything Obama doing something that outraged the business community, driving them into a panic of doom and gloom. This time it was the other guy:
Speaker John A. Boehner’s effort to pass fallback legislation to avert a fiscal crisis in less than two weeks collapsed Thursday night in an embarrassing defeat after conservative Republicans refused to support legislation that would allow taxes to rise on the most affluent households in the country.
House Republican leaders abruptly canceled a vote on the bill after they failed to rally enough votes for passage in an emergency meeting about 8 p.m. Within minutes, dejected Republicans filed out of the basement meeting room and declared there would be no votes to avert the “fiscal cliff” until after Christmas. With his “Plan B” all but dead, the speaker was left with the choice to find a new Republican way forward or to try to get a broad deficit reduction deal with President Obama that could win passage with Republican and Democratic votes.
What he could not do was blame Democrats for failing to take up legislation he could not even get through his own membership in the House.
This was an epic failure. The Republican Party, that controls the House, where all spending originates, fell apart. The guy they elected to represent them in all the negotiations on avoiding that fiscal cliff thing was rebuked by his own party. They basically said that he doesn’t represent them at all – his Plan B, preserving a tax cut for all but a tiny sliver of the top of the top of the very wealthy, along with massive cuts to food stamps and school lunches and deductions for student loans and all the rest, still meant someone’s taxes would go up, and they’d have none of that. His own party basically said that this man didn’t represent them, really – he was a fool for even suggesting such a thing – and it was time to shut down the House. Nothing will be done now. We will go over that fiscal cliff, proudly, sticking to our principles – taxing even a tiny sliver of the top of the top of the very wealthy a bit more is still raising taxes, damn it.
That’s what spooked the markets. The recap, as part of the deal last year to raise the debt limit, as usual, the agreement was to raise it on the condition that serious discussions about spending cuts and increased revenue would occur later. Republicans agreed that in exchange for refusing the government the means to pay the bills now due, for money already appropriated and spent long ago, thus crashing the world’s economy forever – their original threat – at the end of this year the Bush tax cuts would be allowed to expire as planned, suddenly raising taxes on everyone, which is a shock the still-fragile economy hardly needs, and there’d be matching spending cuts that both sides would find appalling. Those cuts would be at least twenty percent across the board, on all the spending on healthcare and social services and education, which would infuriate the Democrats, and on all defense spending too, which would infuriate the Republicans. In short, both sides created a major crisis for everyone out of thin air – now called the fiscal cliff no one wants to go over – and they then gave themselves an absolute deadline to solve this cooked-up crisis. Then they ignored the whole thing, save for a bit of occasional posturing, but now assorted chickens have come home to roost. There will be a major shock to the economy. The business community and the financial wizards – always siding with the Republicans, who always take care of them – just found out that they had things backwards. They were betrayed.
This can’t be fixed. Now, Obama has no one to negotiate with. John Boehner doesn’t represent the Republicans in the House. They said so by saying they’d not vote for his plan, ever. But no one now represents them, which leaves Obama to talk to himself.
It’s a mess:
The refusal of a band of House Republicans to allow income tax rates to rise on incomes over $1 million came after Mr. Obama scored a decisive re-election victory campaigning for higher taxes on incomes over $250,000. Since the November election, the president’s approval ratings have risen, and opinion polls have shown a strong majority not only favoring his tax position, but saying they will blame Republicans for a failure to reach a deficit deal.
With a series of votes on Thursday, the speaker, who faces election for his post in the new Congress next month, had hoped to assemble a Republican path away from the cliff. With a show of Republican unity, he also sought to strengthen his own hand in negotiations with Mr. Obama. The House did narrowly pass legislation to cancel automatic, across-the-board military cuts set to begin next month, and shift them to domestic programs.
That was Plan B – protect the very wealthy and overfund the military, and cut benefits to the poor and elderly and unlucky to pay for it all – and these guys wouldn’t even agree to that, although they did for to throw lots of money at the military. The only optimism was in this:
Democrats – and some Republicans – hoped the demise of the Boehner backup plan will usher in a last and final round of negotiations between the speaker and President Obama over a broad deficit reduction deal that raises more than $1 trillion in taxes over 10 years while locking in another $1 trillion in savings from entitlements like Medicare and other federal programs.
“The math changes” with a bipartisan deal, said Representative Steven C. LaTourette, a retiring Republican moderate from Ohio, who predicted Mr. Boehner could win at least half of House Republicans. “If there’s a negotiated settlement with the president, the speaker will put it on the floor and we’ll see where the chips fall.”
That’s odd. The idea is the Boehner would tell Obama he could deliver at least some Republican votes, so he and Obama should keep talking, but now Boehner has no leverage at all. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein looks at it this way:
Plan A, which was a deal with President Obama, was put on ice, many believe, because Boehner couldn’t wrangle the votes to pass anything Obama would sign. Plan B failed because Boehner couldn’t wrangle the Republican votes to pass something Obama had sworn he wouldn’t sign.
The failure of Plan B proved something important: Boehner doesn’t have enough Republican support to pass any bill that increases taxes – even one meant to block a larger tax increase – without a significant number of Democrats. The House has now adjourned until after Christmas, but it’s clear now what Plan C is going to have to be: Boehner is going to need to accept the simple reality that if he’s to be a successful Speaker, he’s going to need to begin passing legislation with Democratic votes.
Earlier in the day a very grumpy Andrew Sullivan had said this:
Not just the country’s fiscal standing, but the global economy rests on getting to a reasonably balanced big deal. But the GOP appears incapable of acting for the public good. They cannot operate responsibly within the constitutional framework of this country. Their absolutism even in the face of stinging electoral defeat and hefty public opposition is a function of their existing in a hermetically-sealed ideological universe where the only thing they care about is not being primaried by someone even further to their right. That’s right: the only thing. Not the country; not the debt; not the global economy; not the voters; not the American economy.
They are vandals, not representatives, a rogue threat not just to this country but to the wider economic system in the world. They have already been prepared to abuse the debt ceiling and the filibuster in their adolescent anarchism. …
We have a constitutional crisis: an opposition party so ideological and so bent on its own power at the expense of everything else that the system cannot work. Only public opinion has a chance of swaying them. But when you’re as fanatical as these zealots, public opinion is about as relevant as the thought that they should actually exercise basic responsibility.
Sullivan wants his Republican Party back. That’s not going to happen. They just expelled John Boehner, for apostasy. Grover Norquist even endorsed Boehner’s Plan B – and now he’s considered a useless fool too. They both somehow became tools of Obama, and then Politico reported this:
Things were so bad for Speaker John Boehner Thursday night, support for his Plan B tax bill so diminished, the limits of his power with his own party laid bare, that he stood in front of the House Republican Conference and recited the Serenity Prayer.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Boehner nearly cried.
It is a sad story, with sad details:
Rep. Mike Kelly, a burly freshman from Pennsylvania, stood in front of a closed meeting in the basement of the Capitol and said his fellow Republicans were selfish. Boehner, he said, has done a good job.
It was too late. The meeting had adjourned. No heartfelt rhetoric from Boehner. He and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) simply read statements later delivered to the press, and went their respective ways. It’s unclear when the House will return. GOP aides said it could even be 2013, after big tax increases and spending cuts kick in, although they have been warned to be on 48-hour notice to return to Washington if necessary.
There’s this too:
“He’s tried his best,” said Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), a longtime Boehner confidant who is leaving Congress at the end of the year. “But sometimes your best isn’t good enough in the face of some people that just don’t want to find common ground.”
Rep. Buck McKeon, a California Republican who has served with Boehner for two decades, said what happened to the speaker is a “real shame.”
“He has worked his heart out to try to get the best deal he can, and to have this happen is very sad for the country,” McKeon said.
Perhaps so, but the man asked for it:
Some of the same members kicked off committees and denied leadership spots – Rep. Tim Heulskamp of Kansas and Rep. Tom Price of Georgia – led the resistance. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) put it plainly: “Nobody’s elected king in our conference.”
Boehner was doomed, and now we all are, and David Kurtz continues the sad tale:
The likely truth is that John Boehner never had the votes to cut a deal with President Obama. Any deal. Not a grand bargain of deficit reduction. Not a piecemeal deal that might have lessened the blow of all the Bush tax cuts expiring on Jan. 1. Nothing.
If that’s true, as I strongly suspect it is, then, yes, the last six weeks since the election have been a tour de force of kabuki theater. His Plan B was probably, in that scenario, his last ditch effort to escape this fiasco without having to admit that he never had the votes. Now that has failed, too, after a desperate 11th hour attempt to cajole, whip and bludgeon his Republican Members into voting for it.
It is easy to overreact to these things in the moment… but Speaker Boehner just put it all on the line. The entire nation was watching, and he was exposed. He knows it. His conference knows it. Anyone left in Washington who had doubts about this speaker’s clout now knows it, too. In a parliamentary system, he would resign and his party would elect a new leader. We don’t do it that way here … usually. But it’s hard to see how Speaker Boehner continues from here – or why he would want to.
Brian Beutler wonders what comes next:
Boehner has two problems: one with President Obama and another with his conference. And to the extent that he meliorates one he exacerbates the other. He can return to fiscal cliff negotiations with an empowered Obama, and try to eke out the sort of deal he just rejected, and then pass it through the House next week, on a bipartisan basis at but a huge risk to his Speakership.
That’s the course he told members he’d pursue in the conference meeting Thursday night. And the White House is open to it.
That, however, doesn’t help at all:
It sets up a scenario where Boehner’s old nemesis Nancy Pelosi suddenly is back in the driver’s seat, controlling the votes necessary to pass a deal.
But if a last ditch effort fails, or he chooses to rebuff Obama, he’ll set one of two unpredictable chains of events into motion.
He can still bring Senate-passed legislation to the floor, which would lock in the Bush tax cuts for income up to $250,000. That bill would face stiff resistance from many corners of his conference, but would likely pass with overwhelming Democratic support. It would leave unresolved issues like the sequester, Medicare physician reimbursement, expiring emergency unemployment benefits, annual appropriations, and the debt ceiling. And it would still leave him wounded leader, in a tough spot with his members.
Or he could turn toward the cliff, take the country over, try to breathe life back into his speakership, and grapple with the messy consequences next year.
Yeah, but that doesn’t help those of us in exile out here at the far end of the continent, where nothing really happens, trying to figure out what’s possible in the coming days, or what’s no longer possible at all. It’s one thing to weather the storm and beat out your proud exile, if you’re a famous half-mad poet in Paris in the twenties. If you’re just trying to get by, with an old car with bad brakes, with odd sounds coming from the clutch, it’s another thing entirely. Odd things that happen far away, three hours earlier, determine your fate. Ezra Pound was wrong. There’s nothing good about exile at all. It doesn’t free you.