Strange New Worlds

English teachers never liked the opening of the original Start Trek series, with that voice-over about exploring strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. It was the split infinitive. Feminists weren’t happy with the gender thing either, but a few iterations later, the Enterprise was off on its weekly jaunt to where no one – male, female or otherwise – had gone before. The infinitive, however, was still split. It just sounds better that way, and none of this mattered at all. Everyone tuned in for those strange new worlds, which, ironically, weren’t that strange at all. The idyllic planets were filmed in the Franklin Canyon nature reserve just north of Beverly Hills, and the nasty hostile planets out in Red Rock Canyon just beyond the San Fernando Valley. Anything stranger was matte paintings, and too, almost all the aliens, those new life forms, were basically human, or close enough. Paramount knew that no one wanted to see what was really strange and really new. That only upsets people, and the Star Trek franchise was the cash-cow that kept the studio solvent for decades. The strange new worlds had to be a bit familiar, so that viewers could feel comfortable. What’s really new appalls people. They change channels.

Maybe that’s the problem the Republicans are having right now. They seem to have decided to boldly go where no one – male, female or otherwise – has gone before. They lost the White House again, and it wasn’t even close, and they failed to regain control of the Senate as many had initially predicted they would, and more people voted for Democrats than Republicans in the House races, where they only held the House because state legislatures in states they controlled redrew the districts. They lost the Hispanic vote almost completely, and the black vote completely, and the women’s vote, and the vote of young folks too. Their talk on immigration was harsh, on the social safety net cruel, and their War on Women was real enough, what with all the talk of legitimate rape and how anyone who uses birth control is a slut and so on. Repeatedly saying gay folks were, sadly, evil didn’t help with young voters, who just don’t see what the big deal is there. The response to this was two-fold. First, the job was to remake the party as young, hip and diverse, which led to having Marco Rubio, the young first-term senator from Florida, who is a Cuban-American, deliver the response to Obama’s State of the Union thing this year. He’s Hispanic, even if he’s one of those special Cuban-Americans and not some lowlife from Juarez, and he’s also neither an absurdly rich businessman nor a torture-and-war neoconservative from the world of Dick Cheney and William Kristol. That should have worked, but that was a disaster – and of course both Stewart and Colbert were merciless in their mockery. The simultaneous alternative strategy, however, is to have their state legislatures continue to pass laws to make it as hard as possible for all those shiftless lazy black folks and Beaners and useless college kids to vote at all – using new and incredibly tight voter-ID laws and cutting early voting hours to next to nothing so the lines will always be so long that people just give up and go home. This last time, in Florida, that kept over two-hundred thousand eligible voters from voting the wrong way. So this is a strange new world. We love and respect you and want your vote, we really do, and we’ll make sure you can’t vote, because we don’t trust you. No one has tried that before. That’s bold.

It’s also appalling – but then, for the last four years, Republicans decided the best way to gain respect was to be the sour and mean and nasty party of no-to-everything. If Obama was for it, they were against it, even if it had been their idea in the first place. This was also a strange new world. Nothing could be worked out. There were no exceptions. The whole process of democratic government, which requires give and take to get anything done at all, was dead, or boldly dead. No one had tried this before, but of course some of that was structural. Quite conservative Republicans lost primaries to real fire-breathers who promised they’d never compromise on anything, and might not even talk to any Democrat when they got to Washington. That’s bold, but Republicans have come to be almost universally reviled for such nonsense, when folks aren’t laughing at them. Saying no to everything just doesn’t seem noble and principled to the general electorate. It just seems stupid – but then within specific carefully-drawn districts it doesn’t. This is the strange new world.

Now they’ve done something unprecedented, something that has never happened in American history. A minority in the Senate has filibustered a cabinet appointment, the guy who has the majority vote for confirmation as the Secretary of Defense:

Republicans successfully sustained a temporary filibuster of Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Defense, on the Senate floor Thursday evening.

The final vote was 58-40, with four Republicans – Sens. Mike Johanns (R-NE), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Thad Cochran (R-MS) – voting with the Democrats to end debate and move to an up-or-down vote on confirmation.

Yeah, but you need sixty votes to move to an up-or-down vote on confirmation. That’s the new definition of a filibuster. In any vote the majority rules – fifty-one votes will do just fine – but you need sixty votes for cloture, the agreement to stop talking and hold that damned vote. This is the strange new world the Republicans explored just after Obama was elected the first time. Now you need sixty votes for everything, from naming a new post office to declaring National Chicken-Salad Day or whatever. It’s just that they’ve never used this for a cabinet appointment before. No one has, and this is for Secretary of Defense, while we’re at war. It’s bold, and it was close:

One senator – Orrin Hatch (R-UT) – voted present. If he’d voted ‘yes,’ the debate on Hagel’s nomination would’ve ended and he’d be on a glide path to confirmation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) changed his vote from yes to no, to preserve his procedural right to reconsider the issue at his discretion, likely after next week’s President’s Day recess.

This is a mess, and made a bit absurd because all of it is moot:

Multiple GOP senators, including John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), have all announced that they intend to switch their votes from no to yes when the issue comes before the Senate just over a week from now.

So call it a “filibuster.”

Ostensibly, a number of Republicans agreed to sustain the filibuster temporarily, to support the senators in their conference who had placed holds on the nomination pending more information from the Obama administration pertaining to an attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi last year.

Benghazi? Chuck Hagel has nothing to do with that. He wasn’t even in government at the time. This is pretty absurd, and Paul Kane in the Washington Post sees it this way:

The move was one more signal of how times have changed in the once-clubby Senate. Democrats say they think that some senior Republicans facing reelection in 2014 are so fearful of conservative primary challenges that they will ignore the bipartisan traditions of the Senate to be more in line with junior GOP senators elected on the strength of tea party affiliations. The result is that hoped-for bipartisan deals on such issues as immigration and budget matters could be harder to reach.

“It’s just unfortunate that this kind of politics intrudes at a time when I’m still presiding over a war in Afghanistan and I need a secretary of defense who is coordinating with our allies,” Obama said Thursday in an online forum hosted by Google.

Someone has to go to Brussels next week and discuss what’s next with the few allies we still have. Obama’s not going to send Ted Nugent or Clint Eastwood. Still, Kane puts this demand for information on Benghazi in perspective:

The clash marked an escalation in nomination wars dating to the 1980s, crossing into an area that has most retained an aura of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill: national security. …

Such demands are not uncommon, but they usually involve delaying confirmation for lower-level Cabinet posts or deputy secretary positions while senators seek information or rulings on regulations from the White House.

“This isn’t high school, getting ready for a football game or some play that’s being produced at high school. This is – we’re trying to confirm somebody to run the defense of our country, the military of our country,” an angry Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a floor speech Thursday morning.

Nope, this isn’t high school. This is just a strange new world, as Steve Kornacki explains here:

There are some potentially serious short- and long-term consequences to all of this, which should worry both parties. If Republicans are actually able to derail Hagel with a filibuster, it would shatter tradition and might lead to similar filibusters in the future – both for Obama’s nominees and for nominees of future presidents from both parties. It could also spur Reid to rethink his resistance to major Senate rules changes and to reopen the idea of using the nuclear option [getting rid of that cloture rule]. And even if the filibuster is broken, a mostly party-line vote on Hagel’s confirmation could set a bad example too. After all, the White House’s party controls the Senate now, so it theoretically has the votes to confirm its nominees (assuming they get up/down votes). But what happens if party-line votes for Cabinet picks become the norm and, sometime in the not-so-distant future, the White House’s party is in the minority in the Senate?

That’s where Andrew Sullivan jumps in:

What’s revealing to me is how it now takes a lefty like Kornacki to defend basic parliamentary tradition. No entity in our polity right now is more radical and revolutionary than the current GOP: their contempt for institutional custom knows few bounds when it comes to the short-term tactical possibility of impeding even a newly re-elected president, after losing the popular vote for the presidency, Senate and House. The whole concept of putting country before party is that sometimes you take the long national view rather than the short partisan one. You give the other party a chance to govern, as the Democrats did Reagan. But the anti-conservative revolutionary party that Gingrich began and Kristol egged on is now in its zombie stage – with no viable way back to majority status but lunging slowly and malevolently toward anything that is not far right. That includes the Constitution and its evolved customs and parliamentary traditions.

Zombies aside, Fred Kaplan in this item rips into the Senate Armed Services Committee:

It’s been clear, at least since the 2012 election, that the Republican Party has abrogated its role – really, abandoned any interest – in shaping or seriously discussing American foreign policy. But only recently has this indifference shifted into toxic territory, and on Tuesday the fumes formed a poisonous cloud, the likes of which hadn’t been witnessed in decades.

Here’s part of Kaplan’s narrative to prove that:

Hagel’s Jan. 31 confirmation hearings had been appalling enough – not just for his own lackluster performance, but more for his inquisitors’ bizarrely narrow focus. They asked almost nothing about the issues that will face the next defense secretary: the budget, the roles and missions of the Army, the balance of drones vs. manned aircraft, the size of the Navy, the future of Afghanistan, or the “pivot” from Europe to Asia. Instead, they hectored the nominee about the adequacy of his fealty toward Israel, his animosity toward Iran, and whether he was right or wrong about the 2007 troop-surge in Iraq.

There was all that in the follow-up session on Feb. 12, plus a whiff of paranoia and sedition that’s rarely been cracked open since the days of Joseph McCarthy.

The stench started wafting through the air with the comments of Sen. David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, who trumpeted the warnings that in 2008 Hagel gave a speech to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. Vitter called for halting the hearings until a video of the speech could be found, to see whether the nominee had voiced extremist or anti-Israeli comments.

Then came Sen. Ted Cruz, freshman Republican from Texas, who seemed to be explicitly angling for McCarthy’s inheritance. Cruz shuddered that Hagel had made $200,000 over a two-year period from Corsair Capital, which has contracts abroad, yet he could not tell the committee whether any of that money came from a foreign government. It would be “relevant to know,” Cruz intoned, “if that $200,000 … came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea. I have no evidence to suggest that it is or isn’t,” but there should be an investigation.

At that point, Sen. Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, lambasted Cruz for having “impugned the patriotism” of Hagel, for accusing him of getting “cozy” with terrorists.

Then it got interesting:

Now Cruz is but a freshman; his idiocies can’t be ascribed to his party as a whole. But Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is the Armed Services Committee’s top-ranking Republican, and he not only sided with Cruz but snapped back at Nelson’s admonitions. Hagel’s nomination had been “endorsed” by the Iranian government, Inhofe said. “You can’t get any cozier than that.”

That was too much for Sen. Carl Levin, the usually amiable and tolerant committee chairman. “I have been endorsed by people I disagree with totally,” he said. “I don’t want people who hate me to ruin my career by endorsing me.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill went further, warning Inhofe and Cruz, in a “have you no shame, senator” moment, to “be careful” with their tactics of character-smear and guilt-by-association.

Even Sen. John McCain, the erstwhile Republican leader, seemed abashed by the storm he’d helped unleashed against the nominee a month before. “I just want to make it clear,” McCain said, “Sen. Hagel is an honorable man. He has served his country. And no one on this committee at any time should impugn his character or his integrity.”

Yep, McCain had to do what he did when Sarah Palin unleashed her attacks on Obama. The guy had palled around with terrorists, after all, and he talked about the rich chipping in a bit more so he was a socialist, or maybe he was even a communist. There was no evidence for it, but maybe he had been born in Kenya, or was a Muslim, or an Arab, or something. Soon there were the McCain-Palin supporters shouting “Kill Him!” and “Treason!” and “Terrorist!” and “Off with His Head!” at rally after rally. This scared McCain – he did try to put a stop to it, not that it did much good. Now he had to do it again, and Kaplan ends with this:

Not to sound like a Golden Age nostalgic, but there once was a time when the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee prided themselves on having an understanding of military matters. They disagreed in their conclusions and sometimes their premises. But most of them worked to educate themselves, at least to the point where they could debate the issues, or ask questions of a general without coming off like complete idiots. The sad thing about this new crop of senators – especially on the Republican side – is they don’t even try to learn anything; they don’t care if they look like complete idiots, in part because their core constituents don’t care if they do either.

They’ve boldly gone where no one’s gone before, and Slate’s David Weigel adds the gritty detail:

On February 7, Breitbart News’s Editor-at-Large Ben Shapiro published an explosive-looking story under the headline – “Secret Hagel Donor? White House Ducks Question on ‘Friends of Hamas.'” Quoting “Senate sources,” Shapiro claimed that crucial documents on Hagel’s “foreign funding” might be kept from the Senate Armed Services Committee because “one of the names listed is a group purportedly called Friends of Hamas.”

It was a short item, three paragraphs, the third paragraph consisting of White House assistant communications director Eric Schultz blowing off Shapiro. It caught fire on the right in no time. “That is quite the accusation,” wrote Moe Lane at RedState. “All they have to do to debunk it is to have Hagel reveal his foreign donors.” In the National Review, Andrew Stiles reported that “rumors abound on Capitol Hill that a full disclosure of Hagel’s professional ties would reveal financial relationships with a number of ‘unsavory’ groups, including one purportedly called ‘Friends of Hamas.'” Arutz Sheva and Algemeiner, conservative pro-Israel news organizations, ran versions of the story based 100 percent on links to the Shapiro original.

This exploded on the right, but there was just one problem:

There’s no proof that “Friends of Hamas” actually exists. At best, it’s an organization so secret that nobody in government has thought to mention its existence. At worst, it’s as fake as Manti Te’o’s girlfriend. The Treasury Department, which designates sponsors of terror, has done so to many charities tied to Hamas. “Friends of Hamas” is not among them. The State Department doesn’t designate it, either. And a bit less holistically, a Lexis search for the group reveals absolutely nothing.

I’ve been unable to find any Senate staffer who knows where the “Friends” rumor came from, and Dave Reaboi, communications director for the (generally conservative) Center for Security Policy, shared my confusion about the alleged group. “Looking back to the 1990s, there were several groups (some affiliated with Holy Land Foundation, some not) that functioned as fund-raisers,” he said in an email. “I wouldn’t put it past these people to refer to it this way in private, but I doubt highly that they’d actually call a legit group ‘Friends of Hamas.'”

So, naturally, Weigel tries to figure out what’s going on here:

This morning I wrote Shapiro to clear up the accusation. “Have you found any more proof that this group exists?” I asked. “Is it just shorthand for some people who might support Hagel, or a real group?”

“The original story is the entirety of the information I have,” he said.

It was just something Shapiro had heard from someone who had heard someone who’d heard this. There was no “source” per se. You know how these things are, in this strange new world.

Kevin Drum is quite puzzled by all this:

So why are Republicans doing this? I can’t quite figure it out. Is it a pure pander to the Israel lobby? A way of ginning up the Tea Party base? Revenge against Hagel for betraying them? Knee-jerk opposition to anything Obama wants? An expression of sheer, uncontrollable rage?

It could be all of the above, or none of the above. Kirk and Spock just zoomed off to new worlds. They didn’t say why, but Daniel Larison has similar thoughts:

The impressive thing about the anti-Hagel effort is how politically tone-deaf it is. It’s not just that their opposition is misguided, but they stand to gain nothing from it. No one outside of a small core of hard-liners sympathizes with what Senate Republicans are doing. While they may not be losing any votes over this, they are making sure that all of the moderates, independents, and realists that they have alienated over the last ten years will keep running away from them. Except for dedicated partisans, no one can look at the display most Senate Republicans have put on over the last eight weeks and conclude that these people should be in the majority.

Paramount faced the same problem with Star Trek. No one wanted to see what was really strange and really new. That only upsets people, so all the strange new worlds were always somehow familiar, so that viewers could feel comfortable. What’s really new appalls people. They change channels. In this case they will be changing their votes. You really don’t want to boldly go where no man has gone before. That’s overrated.

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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