Game Changed

America first knew Woody Harrelson as that not-so-bright assistant bartender in Cheers – he was the pleasant and essentially good guy who never quite gets it, whatever it is. It was standard stuff – that same guy has been pretty much at the core of all comedy since the Ancient Greeks, but by 1993, when Cheers ended, Harrelson had a problem. He had been typecast as the amiable goofball, and he was damned good at it, so no one would consider him for anything else. He would never play a tragic figure, or a dark one – he’d always be Woody Boyd, just as Leonard Nimoy would always be Spock. Nimoy hated that, but he got over it. See his two autobiographies – I Am Not Spock (1975) and I Am Spock (1995). He made his peace with Star Trek. There are worse things than being rich and famous for wearing pointy ears. You’re still rich and famous after all.

Woody Harrelson would have none of that. After Cheers he ended up in Natural Born Killers and then The People vs. Larry Flynt (as Larry Flynt himself) and then in The Messenger – as the Army guy who shows up at the family’s door to tell them their kid’s been killed in action. That was deep and dark, and last year he was in Seven Psychopaths – he was one of them. He’d left the not-so-bright amiable goofball far behind, and he could carry a film. That’s what he did in HBO’s 2012 movie Game Change – where he won every award in sight for his portrayal of Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s senior campaign strategist in 2008, the guy who saw it all falling apart and knew something had to be done. McCain was a smart and a good man, but getting nowhere against the charismatic Obama. They needed a game-changer and somehow settled on Sarah Palin. That didn’t work. Julianne Moore was amazing as Sarah Palin – you could see how this all happened – but the film was about how a smart and decent man, working for a smart and decent man, contains the damage that happens when you think there’s such a thing as a game-changer. There’s no such thing. Change happens organically, over time. One day you wake up and realize everything has changed, somehow. Later you can look back and decide this or that was a tipping point, or this event or that person was a game-changer, but no one really knew it at the time. That’s why we have historians. They tell us stories that make sense of it all, or we hope make sense of it all.

There has been much talk about how 2012 was a transformative election. The thoughtful and courteous smart-as-hell young black man won a second term as president, in spite of a deep recession and high unemployment, defeating a wildly successful older white businessman who surely knew more about how capitalism ought to work than anyone imaginable. That shouldn’t have happened. Obama had not fixed things for us.

Something had changed, but something had only slowly changed – there were more and more urban voters than ever before, a substantial number of them black, and more Hispanic voters than ever before, with more on the way. Dismissing those voters was a bad idea, but the Republican Party did just that, while at the same time offending a whole lot of women, quite a few Asians, quite a few folks with college degrees who kind of liked science, and a whole lot of young voters who didn’t get what the issue with gay folks could possibly be. Occupy Wall Street didn’t help much either – the movement fizzled but the idea that every-man-for-himself predatory capitalism was the best thing since sliced bread, and that the very rich should be worshiped as heroes, seemed more and more ridiculous. What started with Marx, and had faded as communism failed again and again, and then one last time, was back in a different way, but back nonetheless. The whole system was failing us. More and more people began to notice that.

None of this, however, occurred all at once. All of this had been building for years. There was no tipping point. Steve Schmidt, if he was still in the campaign strategist business, would have been in the same pickle four years later. There’s no quick game-changer that can counter the slow but massive wave of change that simply happens, no matter what. Schmidt again would be the pleasant and essentially good guy who never quite gets it, which might be why Woody Harrelson got the part. He can still play that character.

The rest of us just watch. One day you wake up and realize everything has changed, somehow – the Republicans are toast. The players are pretty much the same as before, and the policies are the same as always – low taxes, limited government, and unleash the awesome power of the free market, with few if any rules – but now everyone has decided they’re jerks:

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds just 29% of respondents say they agree “with most” of what Republicans in Congress have proposed versus 45% for Obama and 40% for congressional Democrats.

An identical 29% have a favorable view of the Republican Party (compared with 49% for Obama and 41% for the Democratic Party.

The public also believes the GOP is more partisan: 48% say Obama wants to unify the country in a bipartisan way, while 43% say he’s taking a partisan approach. By comparison, 64% say Republicans are taking a partisan approach, versus 22% who say it’s focused on unity.

Then there’s the other poll:

A majority of Americans think that the GOP is out of touch with the country, according to a new poll released Tuesday. Sixty-two percent of adults say the GOP is out of touch with the American people, 56 percent say it’s not open to change and 52 percent say it’s too extreme, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday.

This may be a lot of history coming to a head – those twenty Republican primary debates might have done a lot of damage – but now things are dismal:

“Opinions about the Democratic Party are mixed, but the party is viewed more positively than the GOP in every dimension tested except one,” the Pew survey states. “Somewhat more say the Republican Party than the Democratic Party has strong principles (63 percent vs. 57 percent).”

It’s just that strong principles aren’t necessarily the right principles:

Thirty-six percent of Republicans say the GOP is out of touch the American people, compared with 77 percent of Democrats who say the GOP is out of touch, according to the poll.

Republicans are more critical of their own party than Democrats are of the Democratic Party. Thirty percent of Republicans say their party is not open to change, while 10 percent of Democrats say their party isn’t open to change.

Among independents, 54 percent say the Democratic Party is open to change while only 39 percent of them think the GOP is open to change.

What happened here? There may be no one thing – no tipping point game-changer. This has been a long time coming, and the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has more.

President Obama traveled to Newport News, Virginia, today to highlight the damage the Sequester will do to the military-heavy area. He took special care to give a shout out to GOP Rep. Scott Rigell, who was at the event, having previously called on Congressional Republicans to consider new revenues to avert the sequester cuts.

The highlighting of Rigell contained a clue as to how Democrats will proceed in the sequester battle, and as to why they are content to wait Republicans out in hopes that they’ll cave in the end. Democrats are hoping that the Sequester deepens the divide between defense hawks and spending hawks in a way that makes the GOP position untenable over time.

Obama is dealing with conflicted and confused opponents, and Brian Beutler adds more:

The most important factor in this fight is probably the reality that Obama doesn’t have to face voters again and thus is willing to veto sequestration replacement bills if they’re composed of spending cuts alone. Congressional Democrats are fully aware of this, too, and that creates a powerful incentive for them to hold the line.

So sequestration will begin. Obama won’t cave. And then the tension sequestration was intended to create – and in fact has created – between defense hawks and the rest of the GOP will intensify and actually splinter the party. If that doesn’t happen quickly enough, then the sequestration fight will become tangled up in the need to renew funding for the federal government at the end of March. If Republicans don’t cave before then, they’ll precipitate a 1995-style government shutdown, public opinion will actually begin to control the outcome, and it’ll be game over.

So there are real dynamics at work here that can break the GOP’s resolve in this fight but that can’t easily be turned against Obama.

Nothing happened quickly here, but everything changed, and Sargent adds this:

Democrats have literally no incentive to do anything other than follow this course. After all, there’s no reason for them to agree to any package of cuts to replace the Sequester, since no package of cuts is preferable to them. What’s more, the current public opinion environment favors Democrats on not one, but on two levels. The public overwhelmingly favors the Democrats’ approach to bringing down the deficit – through a mix of spending cuts and new taxes on the wealthy – so Dems are already favored to win the basic policy argument that will unfold and be dramatized for voters throughout the month of March. Democrats will be arguing that we should replace the cuts with something voters actually want. Republicans can only continue to argue for more spending cuts to replace The Sequester – which will only deepen the public’s identification of Republicans as the party of the sequester cuts in the first place.

The Republicans are toast:

It remains unclear how many Republican officials will break with the leadership in the spending/defense divide… defense hawks like Lindsey Graham and John McCain have now signaled an openness to new revenues. If they mount a very public campaign (including the Sunday shows) to pressure their leadership to accept new revenues, it’s conceivable that divide could deepen. And when the threat of a government shutdown looms, that could grow worse, with public opinion suddenly looming as large as it did during the shutdown fight in the mid-1990s. As we’ve seen in the payroll tax cut fight and fiscal cliff battle, these sorts of pressures can result in sudden, unexpected stampedes of GOP officials coming out and calling on their leadership to admit that the game is over.

Bringing in Sarah Palin won’t fix this, but she’s busy elsewhere, while someone else isn’t:

As its name might suggest, the Conservative Political Action Conference is one of the year’s largest conservative gatherings – it showcases high profile activists, prominent politicians, and rising stars in the Republican Party – and this year’s CPAC will not be any different. Mitt Romney will give a speech – his first since November – and audiences will hear from Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and other emerging leaders in the party.

But as ABC News notes this morning, this year’s CPAC will have a hole in the line-up: Chris Christie, the outspoken governor of New Jersey, has not been invited to speak at CPAC, despite his massive popularity (he has a 73 percent approval rating) and growing national appeal.

Palin will speak too, but Chris won’t, and Jamelle Bouie adds this to the item:

There’s still some time before the conference, so this may not stand. But if it does, it’s not hard to see why conservative activists made the decision. Just a week before the presidential election, Christie praised President Obama for his handling of Hurricane Sandy – angering the Romney campaign – and last month, he criticized the Republican leadership for holding up Hurricane Sandy aid. At the moment, he seems more interested in protecting the Chris Christie brand – and thus securing another term as governor – than he is in furthering Republican Party goals.

For now, as a red governor in a blue state, this is a smart play. But if Christie is interested in the 2016 Republican nomination, he’ll have to back away from his current persona. As it stands, Christie’s ability to speak for the GOP is hampered by his place on the ideological spectrum – he’s much more liberal than the median Republican member of the House, and substantially more liberal than a Republican base voter. To have any chance at winning the nomination, he’ll have to abandon previous views, renounce earlier statements, and position himself as a mainstream conservative.

He won’t do that. He knows the Republican Party is toast, or knows that CPAC has become a joke – although no one quite knows when that happened – and then he did this:

Chris Christie of New Jersey on Tuesday became the latest Republican governor to support the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

“It’s simple. We are putting people first,” Christie said in a speech before the legislature unveiling his budget. “Which is why, after considerable discussion and research, I have decided to participate in the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.”

“Let me be clear, refusing these federal dollars does not mean that they won’t be spent,” he said. “It just means that they will be used to expand health care access in New York, Connecticut, Ohio or somewhere else. … In fact, [New Jersey] taxpayers will save approximately $227 million in fiscal year 2014 alone.”

Christie seems to be arguing that it would be both immoral and dumb as dirt not to take the money, which is a way of saying his fellow Republicans are both, even if few get the message:

The decision makes Christie the eighth Republican governor to call for expanding Medicaid, as authorized by Obamacare and made optional for states by the Supreme Court. The others are Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Jan Brewer of Arizona, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota. Numerous prominent GOP governors have so far rejected it, including Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania and Rick Perry of Texas.

The long-developing issues here have come to a head:

Republican governors have been caught between the desire to accept a generous deal and the internal party politics of being seen as siding with Obamacare. While conservative activists are pushing governors to turn down the expansion, the influential retirees group AARP and the hospitals industry have been pressuring states to accept it.

Christie’s decision is the latest in a series of blows to the anti-Obamacare apparatus, which views the ability to opt out of Medicaid as its last line of defense against the law.

Christie’s decision here is not a tipping point or a game-changer, of course – just part of a long process. Turn around and everything is different:

Top Republicans, including veterans of the George W. Bush administration, former members of Congress and ex-governors, are calling on the Supreme Court to support same-sex marriage.

More than 80 prominent leaders will file a friend of the court brief this week in advance of the justices hearing oral arguments in two gay marriage cases. These Republicans are essentially saying gay couples have a constitutional right to marry and want the court to strike down California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.

The signers currently include former governors Jon Huntsman of Utah, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and William Weld of Massachusetts; former White House chief of staff Ken Mehlman and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley; and retired members of Congress, such as Mary Bono Mack of California and Deborah Pryce of Ohio.

Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman is also on record as backing the legal brief, which is a change of her previous position. When she ran unsuccessfully for California governor in 2010, Whitman supported Proposition 8. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., is the only active member of the House currently listed as supporting the brief.

Steve Schmidt signed on too. There was no tipping point. This just happened, and it had been a long time coming. Also see Apple Joins Morgan Stanley to Back Gay Marriage at Supreme Court  – major corporations are on board now. How did that happen?

And then there’s this:

After nearly a year of resistance that has damaged them politically with women voters, House Republicans have found a clever way to back down on the reauthorization of an expanded Violence Against Women Act…

The original plan was for the Republican majority in the House to pass its version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization and then go to conference committee with the Senate. The Senate has already overwhelmingly passed a more aggressive bill, with protections for LGBT, Native American and undocumented women that have been at the heart of the dispute with House Republicans.

But all that changed Tuesday night. The Rules Committee instead sent the House GOP’s version of the Violence Against Women Act to the floor with a key caveat: if that legislation fails, then the Senate-passed version will get an up-or-down vote.

That’s kind of tricky, but the Republican House bill – which forbids the police to do anything about gay women or Native American women, or women who don’t have papers that say they can be here legally, from getting beat to death – is dead. It will get a vote and not pass, so the Senate version bill gets passed. Fans of the original House bill can vote on that bill – as a symbolic gesture. But this is a fold:

The House Democratic aide piled on.

“This is the third time in the last two months that John Boehner has tried so hard to appease the crazy wing of his party, and it’s the third time that he’s failed to do it,” said the aide, referring to votes to avoid the fiscal cliff and to provide Hurricane Sandy relief, which passed with mostly Democratic support. “There’s no bridge that he can construct between what the tea party caucus wants in Congress and what the rest of his partners in government are open to doing.”

That’s just some of it, from one day in February. The Republican Party has fallen apart, as everyone now sees – but there was no tipping point, no one thing that changed the game. This is the result of accumulated sewage that finally clogged the pipes, although that metaphor may be unkind. It just happens to be apt.

If you’ve seen Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt in that movie about Sarah Palin, you’ve seen a wonderful portrayal of what happens when you try to contain such slowly accumulated damage. You think there’s such a thing as a game-changer. There’s no such thing. Changing it all will take a generation. Perhaps one day Republicans will wake up and realize everything has changed again, somehow – but not soon. And they’ll never understand what brought them back to respectability, as it’s never one thing. All you can do is keep playing the game.

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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