Moderation Revisited

It wasn’t supposed to be this way – a prolonged cold snap in Los Angeles, with overnight lows near freezing and cold winds from the north all day, even if the sun is still shining as ridiculously as ever. Yeah, it’s the middle of January, but the highs are supposed to be in the seventies, not this, barely hitting sixty, at best. All the tourists must be puzzled. The kids won’t jump in the motel pool, much less the bone-chilling Pacific – and down in Venice Beach the sweet young things aren’t rollerblading in those tiny bikinis, or less. It’s no fun at all, and everything looks shabby too – dead palm fronds and plastic bags blowing down the streets and that sort of thing. In a few more days things will be back to normal – the warm Southern California the rest of America dreams about in the dead of winter, the one the songs are about – but for now there’s no reason to be here. It’s just another place, which means it’s now a place where you find yourself dreaming about somewhere else, and luckily that just got easier as the folks at Wikipedia just spun off a new site – Wikivoyage – sure to put all the guidebooks out of business. It’s not just that it’s free, it’s that anyone can add to it, and others will correct all errors, and it’s organized and layered and easy to navigate, and promises to be absurdly comprehensive, with links to cool pictures and useful reference material. They should have thought of this sooner. It would have made all those trips to Paris easier.

Ah, so a drab day here in Hollywood turned into a bit of stomping around on this new site, remembering Paris in the winter each year. It’s good to confirm memories, to be jogged into remembering minor details. No doubt someone in Paris was doing the same thing, reviewing the Los Angeles they remember. One does tend to forget the details, and the long and detailed item on Paris included this:

Paris has, in some respects, an atmosphere closer to that of New York than to that of a European city; which is to say, hurried, and businesslike. Parisians have, among the French too, a reputation for being rude and arrogant. Some of their reputation for brusqueness may stem from the fact that they are constantly surrounded by tourists, who can sometimes themselves seem rude and demanding. Remember that most people you’ll encounter in the street are not from the tourism industry and are probably on their way to or from work or business.

This is not to say that Parisians are in fact, by nature, rude. On the contrary: there are a considerable number of rules defining what is rude and what is polite in Parisian interpersonal relationships; if anything, the Parisians are more polite than most. Thus, the best way to get along in Paris is to be on your best behavior, acting like someone who is “bien élevé” (well brought up) will make getting about considerably easier. Parisians’ abrupt exteriors will rapidly evaporate if you display some basic courtesies.

That’s as good a summary as any for the problems that Americans have always had in Paris. We consider ourselves blunt truth-tellers. We have no use for Old World formalities. We say what we mean, right out loud, which either means we’re admirably open and direct, or else we’re loud braggarts with no self-control. That we admire those who let it all hang out, and want to be like that ourselves, and that we believe deeply that you should tell it like it is and let the chips fall where they may – or whatever cliché you choose – is a problem in a culture where politeness and precision are valued. A typical Frenchman is often appalled at the typical American’s lack of self-control, which is something the typical American is quite proud of – and a Republican doubly so, and Tea Party folks triply so, or more. It’s a recipe for disaster, although no self-respecting Tea Party enthusiast would ever set foot in France. Republicans, however, visit France to give those folks a piece of their mind – we saved your sorry cowardly butts in two World Wars and you’d better be grateful, and so on. That never goes well.

There’s also this:

Although known as the fashion capital, Paris is actually quite conservative in dress. So if you go out in bright colors expect to be stared at. Dressing this way… may attract unwanted attention. Also be aware that the French (and Europeans more generally) do not usually wear shorts shorter than above the knee outside of sporting events. It is not considered indecent but may stand out from the locals; shorts are for “schoolboys and soccer players” only.

It’s easy to spot the American in Paris. It’s the guy in the shorts with the wife in the fluorescent green running outfit happily shouting at each other, at the top of their lungs, in the fancy restaurant. The establishment will take their money – because they’ll spend a lot – but they’ll also feel their profit depends upon humoring spoiled kids who never grew up, or even tried. The French do have a reputation for being rude, even if it’s more like resigned exasperation, but we have our reputation too. We get exasperated with people who want to be all reasonable and careful, when the best thing to do is always to just shut up and do it, whatever it is. Nothing is ever as complicated as it seems, and precision is inaction, and courtesy is a waste of time. Say it loud and say it proud – whatever it is.

Obviously most Americans should never visit France, and most never do – because we value extremism. The first George Bush said he didn’t do the vision thing and his son said he didn’t do nuance. We were told that it’s all simple really – even when it obviously wasn’t, as with Iraq and the economy – and we must have assumed, as is our cultural habit, that straight talk was simply good clear thinking. It wasn’t, and John McCain probably shouldn’t have named his campaign bus the Straight-Talk Express. It’s not we turned French or anything, but Obama was cool and contained and unfailingly courteous, and precise and careful in what he said, and he won the presidency, twice. Any number of angry and unhinged Republicans called him an extremist out to destroy America with his far-left nearly communist or terrorist ideas, but none of that ever stuck. The man just seemed so damned reasonable that Americans gave him a chance at trying to solve a whole lot of awful problems, and then gave him a chance again. They knew who the dangerous real extremists were. Those were the Republicans.

There’s a history there. See Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party by Geoffrey Kabaservice, or David Frum’s Patriots – two books on just what happened to Republicans over all the years, which wasn’t pretty. Last October, Jonathan Chait reviewed both books here:

Mitt Romney has been running for president as the Republican nominee, de facto or de jure, for eight months now, and the grand historical joke of it has not yet worn off. A party that has set itself to frantically, fanatically expunge its moderates, quasi-moderates, suspected moderates, and fellow travelers of moderates, chose as its standard bearer the lineal heir, biographically and genealogically, to its moderate tradition. It entrusted its holy crusade to repeal Barack Obama’s hated healthcare law to the man who had inspired it and run, four years before, promising to do the same for the rest of America. The man and his historical moment could not be more incongruous. It was as if the Mongol tribes of the thirteenth century, setting out to pillage their way across the Asian steppe, had somehow chosen Mahatma Gandhi as their supreme khan.

Romney’s capture of the nomination required an incredible confluence of good fortune. Any one of several Republicans – Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan – could have outflanked Romney in both grassroots enthusiasm and establishment support but chose not to run. The one candidate with the standing and financial reach to challenge him who did grasp for the prize, Rick Perry, performed his duties with such comic, stammering ineptitude that his final oops-de-grace by that point was not even startling. What remained to challenge Romney was a gaggle of third-raters lacking the money or the rudimentary organization even to get their name on the ballot everywhere. Still, running even against the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (which is to say, running essentially unopposed), Romney still trudged laboriously to victory after endless weeks.

This was odd because of party history:

After all, moderates, or at least relative moderates, do continue to exist in the Republican Party. They merely do not exercise power in any meaningful, open way. They provide off-the-record quotations to reporters, expressing unease over whichever radical turn the party has taken at any given moment. They can be found in Washington and elsewhere rolling their eyes at their colleagues. The odd figure with nothing left to lose – say, a senator who has lost a primary challenge – may even deliver a forceful assault on the party’s uncompromising direction.

For the most part, though, Republican moderation is a kind of secret creed, a freemasonry of the right. It lacks institutions that might legitimize it, or even a language to express itself. And since conservatism is the only acceptable ideology, the party has no open arguments with itself. Thus the “debate” in the Republican Party is entirely between genuine ideological warriors and unwilling conscripts, with intraparty skirmishes generally taking the form of hunts for secret heresies.

In this sense, Romney’s capture of the nomination is perfectly emblematic of the state of the party. Conservative activists spent months resisting Romney, sometimes furiously, despite the fact that he was defending no positions that they disagreed with. Across the entire ideological spectrum – in social, economic, and foreign policy – Romney stood shoulder to shoulder with his party’s reactionary wing. When Romney took on his hapless opponents, he assailed them from the right, as soft on immigration or anti-capitalist. The sole point of hesitation centered on conservatives’ suspicion that Romney did not actually believe what he was saying.

In short, this was a mess, but one with a precise history:

Republican moderates in the early 1960s held a place of influence and comfort within their party that is hard to imagine today. The worldview of the party’s Rockefeller faction was formed and propagated with the help of organizations such as the Ripon Society, Republican Advance, and the Committee on Economic Development, and publications such as the New York Herald Tribune, Confluence, and Advance. And when the great wave of the Goldwater movement arrived in the early 1960s, with the explicit goal of cleansing the party of moderates and re-making it in the image of monolithic conservatism, the moderates fought back, albeit using more gentlemanly methods than those often employed against them.

Moderates at the GOP convention in 1964 proposed a resolution condemning extremism of all varieties. Goldwater supporters voted it down, their position echoed by the candidate’s famous declaration that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Many moderates stalked out of the convention, including Michigan Governor George Romney and his teenage son, Mitt. Romney subsequently penned a twelve-page letter to Goldwater explaining why he had not endorsed him. When conservatives defeated moderate California Senator Thomas Kuchel, he lashed out at what he called a “fanatical neo-fascist political cult” in the grips of a “strange mixture of corrosive hatred and sickening fear.”

In essence, this fight has been going on ever since. That fanatical neo-fascist political cult, with its strange mixture of corrosive hatred and sickening fear, has taken over the party, and it whipsawed Mitt Romney one way or the other, but also knows it cannot win a national election against a man who seems so damned reasonable. They needed that teenager who walked out of the 1964 convention. They just needed him now to say that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue – and he did give it a shot, but he wasn’t very good at it.

Chait goes on to discuss the two books in question, in detail, but that’s ancient history now, and now Chait offers this:

The Obama presidency has been an agonizing time for those few remaining moderate Republicans. They fully oppose their party’s extremism, but the gravitational loyalty of partisan attachment prevents them from confronting it head-on. The most common coping mechanism is to imagine a moderate future for the party that always lies just around the corner, merely awaiting the latest promising Republican to flesh out a few details.

A more interested approach is displayed in the work of Michael Gerson, a former Bush administration speechwriter and a key figure in the development of the “compassionate conservatism” slogan. Gerson’s method of reconciling his party loyalty and disdain for the party’s stance is to blame it all on Obama.

That is what Gerson does in a new column and Chait comments:

The topic is the fiscal showdown between Obama and the House Republicans. Gerson argues that the House cannot responsibly threaten not to lift the debt ceiling and that the reasonable compromise would be to reform the tax code in a way that raises revenue while also trimming spending on retirement programs. (He endorsed the latter view more fully a week ago.) That is also Obama’s position, but Republicans in the House reject it.

Gerson sees this standoff as confirmation of Obama’s cynicism. Obama, he writes, “knows that Republicans are forced by the momentum of their ideology to take positions on spending that he can easily demagogue.” They’re forced by ideology. There’s nothing they can do about it! The ideology has momentum. Republicans are merely along for the ride.

In detail, Gerson says this:

In cliff negotiations, Obama had one overriding goal: to make Republicans vote for rate increases on the wealthy. For 20 years the refusal to raise taxes has been one of the core issues that held together the disparate groups of the GOP. If Obama saw his job as bringing together a broad coalition to fix the long-term debt problem, he would have maneuvered Democrats to take on some of their core issues as part of a package, just as Republicans had to do. But Obama did not view his job this way. He wanted Republicans to swallow their humiliation pure.

Kevin Drum is amazed:

That’s not even close to reality. Obama’s first fiscal cliff offer was a $1.6 trillion bargain that included something like $600 billion in spending cuts. His second offer contained about $900 billion in spending cuts, including reductions in both Medicare and Social Security that Democrats would have had a hard time swallowing. This was only three weeks ago, but apparently Gerson has forgotten already.

Then he goes on to admit that refusing to raise the debt ceiling would be irresponsible.

It’s just that this admission is qualified:

Given this weak Republican position, Obama must be tempted by a shiny political object: the destruction of the congressional GOP. He knows that Republicans are forced by the momentum of their ideology to take positions on spending that he can easily demagogue. He is in a good position to humiliate them again – to expose their internal divisions and unpopular policy views. It may even be a chance to discredit and then overturn the House Republican majority, finally reversing his own humiliation in the 2010 midterms.

Drum is even more amazed:

Holy cow! Obama might be tempted to expose Republicans’ internal divisions and unpopular policy views? The fiend! And Republicans are helpless to resist because… the momentum of their ideology doesn’t allow them to be reasonable. They literally have no choice except to surrender to fanaticism. What’s next on Obama’s agenda?

Gerson says it’s this:

Force the GOP to surrender on the debt limit, with nothing in return. Require Republicans to accept new taxes in exchange for any real spending reductions. If they agree, their caucus is fractured (again). And if they refuse (which they are likely to do), paint them as obstructionists and extremists who are willing to destroy the economy/the nation’s credit rating/the military for their own ideological purposes.


Obama wants Republicans to accept new taxes in exchange for spending reductions? Apparently the man will stop at nothing. …

So there you have it. Obama refused to negotiate over the fiscal cliff. His only goal is humiliation and unconditional surrender. The Republican position on taxes should be viewed as a law of nature, so it’s unfair to expect them to back off their fanatic position by even a dime – and the end result of all this will be to turn the United States into another Greece.

Drum has this final assessment:

Gerson has synthesized every Republican phantasm into a concise 800 words. This is how they view things. And then they wonder why they have so much trouble negotiating with someone whose policy views are still firmly rooted in the real world.

Chait puts it this way:

In Garson’s mind, adopting a sensible, popular stance is a devious ploy, as it will inevitably force Republicans to reject it and thus “expose their internal divisions and unpopular policy views.” As a result, Gerson concludes, Obama’s scheme of agreeing with Gerson on the long-term debt “delays any serious action on long-term debt.”

Yes, that makes no sense, but Chait also adds this:

Here’s the really devious part of Obama’s gambit. After Republicans are forced to reject his sensible and popular positions, they will likely shut down the government, thereby hurting the public and making them like Obama even more and Republicans even less.

He is a sneaky one, that Obama.

Yes he us, and the French are rude too – unless the problem is you, not them.

But this just goes on and on – NRA’s New Ad Calls Obama “Elitist Hypocrite” For Having Secret Service Protection For His Children and Reagan AG Says Obama Can Be Impeached Over Guns (former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese of course) and Sandy Hook Truthers Claim the Newtown Massacre Never Happened along with This Man Helped Save Six Children, Is Now Getting Harassed For It and Texas Proposal: JAIL Any Federal Officials Trying to Enforce New Gun Restrictions in the State and so on. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, and As Inauguration Approaches, Obama’s Most Virulent Foes Want the Celebration Stopped – because he was born in Kenya or something. It almost makes you understand the French.

What can Obama do? Dana Milbank suggests this:

Arguably, Obama’s no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy approach is good politics. His first-term experience made clear that he gained nothing from Republicans when he took a passive approach. Yet… it’s tempting to wonder whether Obama could achieve more if he could establish personal connections with Republicans on Capitol Hill. But Obama disparaged the notion… that a better bedside manner could help his agenda.

“I like a good party,” the president informed [the reporter asking the question] after attesting to his “friendly guy” status. “Really what’s gone on in terms of some of the paralysis here in Washington, or difficulties in negotiations, just have to do with some very stark differences in terms of policy.”

That may be true, but until recent years, sharp disagreements were smoothed by personal ties. On Monday, by contrast, Obama showed unrelenting hostility toward the opposition, accompanying his remarks with dismissive shrugs and skeptical frowns.

Kevin Drum is having none of that:

I continue to wonder what it will take to put a stake through the heart of this hoary Beltway meme. It’s true that Obama isn’t the schmooziest president in history, but how much evidence do you need to convince yourself that schmooziness simply isn’t the problem here? We know for a fact that Republicans constructed their strategy of total opposition before he was even sworn in. Eight days after his inauguration, House Republicans voted against the stimulus bill unanimously. In the Senate, Republicans embarked on a strategy of total opposition to everything from Day One, filibustering every bill, every appointment, and every judge. Senate Democrats spent months negotiating over health care reform – without Obama playing a role – and eventually learned that Republicans never had the slightest intention of agreeing to anything. After winning control of the House in 2010, the GOP’s top priority was to engineer a hostage crisis over the debt ceiling. This isn’t arcane knowledge or ancient history. It’s common knowledge.

Over the last four years, one thing has become crystal clear: The mere fact that Obama supports something almost guarantees united Republican opposition. Schmoozing doesn’t matter. Golf dates don’t matter. Invites to the White House bowling alley don’t matter. Milbank implicitly admits as much, and yet he’s still “tempted” to think that Obama could smooth things over if only he’d hoist a few more beers with Eric Cantor. After all, that kind of thing used to work.

Drum knows magical thinking when he sees it:

The reason it doesn’t work anymore isn’t because Obama is insular. It doesn’t work because the Republican Party has become a party of zealots.

Yes, and that’s enough reason to spend a dreary January afternoon in Los Angeles remembering what it was like to kick around Paris alone for a week or two each winter, over there in the land of formal courtesy and quiet self-control. They last zealot they had was Robespierre – the Barry Goldwater of his day. Maybe we’ll move on too.


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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