The Dead Zone

It seems that politics is not endlessly fascinating – traffic here has dropped off quite a bit in the last several days, even if the nature of these posts hasn’t changed. That had to happen – it’s impossible to make fascinating that which has turned tiresome, because nothing is endless, and our politics has entered a dead zone. There’s no debt ceiling crisis at the moment – no threats to ruin the world’s economy by defaulting on all our debt and declaring bankruptcy, never paying our bills again, unless… something or other. That was exciting – a game of chicken with the fate of the world at stake. Worldwide total economic collapse is inherently interesting, if not fascinating, but that got resolved – the Republicans in the House agreed Obama could borrow a few more bucks to pay the nation’s bills, or at least the interest now due, as long as everyone agreed there would be brutal automatic spending cuts later, to everything, unless both sides agreed on some way to get our fiscal house in order, as they say. That’s where all the sequester business came from – everything needs a name. Everyone agreed on something so horrible that eventually a deal would be cut to replace those massive crude spending cuts, so horrible for Democrats because of all the domestic spending cuts and so horrible for Republicans, because of all the defense spending cuts. This was dramatic, and then everyone forgot about it because it was an election year.

Elections can be fascinating, and even if they’re not, they’re inescapable. They are a big deal – the nation chooses its leaders, and really, chooses a theory of governance – a system where the government does a whole lot of things for the common good, or a system where the government pretty much gets out of the way, or something in between. That leads to endless arguments about freedom and community, which suddenly seem mutually exclusive. As Spock used to say on the old Star Trek show, fascinating…

The Republican primary debates which followed the debt-ceiling crisis were endlessly fascinating, or fascinatingly endless – all twenty of them, where Donald Trump, then Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich, then Rick Santorum and then Gingrich again, and then Santorum again, each tried to prove they believed in total freedom, and told us that talk of community and the common good was evil nonsense. You know, government is useless and personal responsibility is everything, and the government should just get out of the way. That’s a defensible idea, in the abstract, but the concrete was the problem – there were a lot of crazy ideas flying about in those primaries, and none of that crew seemed a plausible candidate. The party settled on Mitt Romney. He not only looked the part – one could imagine him as president with that good hair and square jaw – but he also seemed to be from this planet, even if he didn’t seem to be from this decade, or even this century. He had the air of 1953 about him, but he was the last man standing. They had to run him.

The election should have been fascinating, but even political junkies have to admit it really wasn’t. They had to pretend it would be close, but save for a week here and there when Romney gained some momentum and looked like he might, maybe, pull even with Obama, all the mathematical models showed Obama would win, which he did. The fascinating thing was the Republicans twisting themselves into knots, trying to explain how Romney would win this thing walking away. They had their own mathematical models, and theories about this voting bloc or that, and they spoke of the real mood of America, which no one had really accounted for, as Peggy Noonan and others insisted. It was all nonsense, but delusion is fascinating. Obama was a good man doing a decent job in difficult circumstances. Romney was a vague and exceedingly rich white man with no firm principles or positions, who was also painfully awkward and off-putting at just the wrong moments. Hell, even the Brits made fun of Mitt when he managed to say all the wrong things about their Olympics in London, when he was their guest there and all he had to do was smile. The outcome of the election was a foregone conclusion. Still, for all that, people did pay attention. They tuned in for the next episode of Adventures in Awkwardness. Last year it was the best reality show on television, especially that final episode with Karl Rove on Fox News insisting Obama hadn’t really won Ohio, and the whole Fox News crew setting him straight and kind of shaking their heads at his sad and desperate flailing about. It was a fitting end to the whole business.

Since then there hasn’t been much to be fascinated about. There was the fiscal cliff thing at midnight as the year ended, but the Republicans got skunked. The Bush tax cuts would expire for the rich, even if they got to keep all their loopholes to avoid paying too much at the old rates that has just kicked back in. There would be more revenue for the government, and all the talk of spending cuts was tabled. That was for later, for discussion of what to do when the Great Sequestration was scheduled to kick in, which they decided could be put off to the beginning of March, or put off until the end of March when the federal budget expires. At that point they could just pass another continuing resolution to keep the doors open and the troops paid. They’ve been doing that for years, running the country on some previous budget from three years ago, extended again and again, or they could refuse to pass anything, and shut down the whole government until Obama agrees to cut all domestic spending, and abolish the EPA and Department of Education, and abandon Obamacare, and wear sackcloth, and stop playing basketball with his buddies. They could also wait until the end of May, when the debt ceiling must be raised again, and make the same demands – do what we say, or else. They’re getting good at demanding everything the White House and the Senate and the American people hate – if you believe the polls. They don’t.

Here is where politics ceases to be endlessly fascinating. Obama was reelected. He gave his State of the Union talk, which the Republicans hated, saying he was out to annihilate the Republican Party or something, and then things settled down into a dull routine. There are no upcoming elections – the midterms are almost two years off and the 2016 presidential election is way out there in the future – so all of politics now is the same old same old. Government is useless and personal responsibility is everything, and the government should just get out of the way – and taxes are theft, taking money from the makers and handing it over to the takers (the moochers). No, it’s everyone’s government and as such can do useful things for the common good, and community is a good thing, where we have each other’s backs and all that – and by the way, taxes are everyone chipping in for the common good, willingly, because we agree on the common good, in elections. How many ways can you say these two things. What other variations are possible?

It’s no wonder people have turned away from politics. We’re in that dead zone after elections have settled matters, and where those who lost will say things aren’t settled at all, and create crisis after crisis to prove it. All the arguments about the debt ceiling and spending cuts and revenue, and the proper role of government, will be hashed out again and again, with the losers forced to find a way to make tired arguments fascinating one more time. The only way to do that is threaten to end the world as we know it, to prove your point, or prove something. But even that gets tiresome. What’s the damned crisis this week? Didn’t we have that crisis already? Guys, it can’t always be the end of the world. Don’t you have something better to do?

People do recognize nonsense, but sometimes it’s surreal:

Senator Rand Paul has ended his filibuster blocking Senate confirmation of President Barack Obama’s CIA nominee, nearly 13 hours after he began.

Paul, a Kentucky Republican and tea party favorite, stopped his self-described filibuster early Thursday morning. Paul had been blocking confirmation of John Brennan to lead the CIA. GOP colleagues who were listening to Paul’s closing statement applauded as he yielded the floor.

Paul, a critic of Obama’s unmanned drone policy, started just before noon Wednesday by demanding the president or Attorney General Eric Holder issue a statement assuring the unmanned aircraft would not be used in the United States to kill terrorism suspects who are U.S. citizens.

The Obama administration has said the federal government has not conducted such operations inside U.S. borders and has no intention of doing so.

That’s dramatic, like Jimmy Stewart in the movie, and maybe heroic, but Rand Paul has no problem with John Brennan – he likes the guy and may vote for his confirmation. This was about something else – Attorney General Holder hadn’t been clear enough in his testimony on drones, and the White House hasn’t sent over enough documentation about drones, and Rand Paul wanted to do a Jimmy Stewart. This was one of the very few “talking” filibuster in many decades, so it was all over the news – as a curiosity. Rand Paul has other ways to get what he wants. This wasn’t the end-of-the-world crisis of the day. It’s no wonder people have turned away from politics – it’s the Drama Queens.

Talking Points Memo notes that there’s more going on here:

The Senate’s leading champion of filibuster reform called for renewing the effort to weaken the minority’s obstruction power, concluding that a modest rules change enacted in January has failed to discourage Republicans from grinding the chamber to a halt.

In an interview on Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the author of a proposal to place more of the burden of sustaining a filibuster on the minority party – including forcing filibustering senators to speak on the floor – echoed remarks by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) earlier in the day about the need to revisit filibuster reform.

“Senate Republicans have demonstrated that they have absolutely no intention of ending their assault on the ability of the U.S. Senate to function,” Merkley told TPM, saying he had hoped the bipartisan rules change would ease gridlock. “Many of my colleagues are absolutely beside themselves with frustration, and that frustration is rapidly turning to fury.”

Kevin Drum explains that fury:

Merkley tried to convince his fellow Democrats to pass real filibuster reform earlier this year, but it got watered down to almost nothing in negotiations with Mitch McConnell. Democrats apparently thought that McConnell had tacitly agreed to ease up on filibustering everything that moves in return for their agreement to weaken Merkley’s reforms, but today Republicans filibustered Caitlin Halligan, an Obama nominee to fill a vacancy on the DC Circuit Court.

There was no gentleman’s agreement between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, and Talking Points Memo adds this:

Senate Republicans have unleashed a string of filibusters since the bipartisan rules change deal, which did not change the 60-vote threshold, was enacted in January. They include the first-ever filibuster of a secretary of defense nominee (Chuck Hagel), a letter by 43 senators vowing to filibuster any nominee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the filibuster of a bill to avoid sequestration, and the filibuster of judicial nominee Caitlin Halligan. It was the Halligan filibuster Wednesday morning that set off Durbin and Merkley.


We’ll see what happens. My guess is that McConnell agreed to nothing, tacit or otherwise, and any Democrats who thought otherwise were just fooling themselves. Republicans, for their part, have convinced themselves (as usual) that this is a special case: Halligan, they say, is a dangerous radical because of a single gun-related case she pursued years ago that earned the ire of the NRA.

Yeah, yeah – everything is a special case, like in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. When crises become the standard way of getting things done, they’re not crises. It’s just another day in Washington, and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times suggests that the entire crisis over spending cuts and revenue and the deficit is silly, because both sides have already agreed on what needs to be done:

If you listen closely to Obama and leading members of both parties in the Senate, you’ll find that they’ve already reached a rough consensus about how to shrink the federal deficit in a smarter way. They’ll cut the same amount, but they’ll spread it around differently and perhaps delay some of the cuts. Then they will make changes in “entitlements” (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) to reduce their future cost. And they will enact tax reform to raise federal revenues, not by raising tax rates but by making more income taxable at existing rates.

There will be plenty of wrangling over the details, of course. But a bipartisan majority already agrees on these basic elements.

Kevin Drum disagrees and adds this:

This is insanity. Republicans have very decidedly not agreed to any kind of tax reform that raises federal revenues. This is the whole crux of the debate. They have never agreed to anything other than revenue-neutral tax reform.

Might they change their minds someday? Sure. But the history here is plain. A small handful of Republican senators have suggested we might need to raise taxes eventually as part of a grand bargain. That’s it. There’s no consensus about this in the GOP Senate caucus, and there’s certainly no consensus on this in the GOP House caucus. Quite the contrary – McManus even kinda sorta admits this toward the end of his column.

Obama wants a long-term budget deal that combines spending cuts with tax increases. Republicans, with only a few scattered exceptions, are united on demanding a budget deal that cuts spending but doesn’t include even a dime in higher revenues. That’s it. That’s been their position for at least the past two decades and there’s no evidence at all that it’s going to change anytime soon.

Look at the history here:

Remember, back in July 2011, John Boehner walking away from a proposal for huge spending cuts when his caucus revolted over accepting modest, but real, tax increases as part of the deal, not just fake “dynamic scoring” revenue increases? Remember, during a Republican presidential debate a few days later, the instant and unanimous show of hands opposed to a deal that was 10:1 spending cuts to tax increases? More recently, remember the mantra among Republican leaders that “taxes are done”?

Nothing changes:

Republicans have refused to accept tax increases as part of a deficit deal since 1990. They continue to refuse. They agreed to the fiscal cliff deal not because they accept the need for higher taxes, but because the Bush tax cuts were expiring automatically and they flatly had no choice in the matter. Why do so many smart people keep trying to make this more complicated than it is?

Why do people follow politics at all? Nothing changes.

At least the House Republicans just voted to not shut down the government later in the month and fix the sequester stuff too, or as Slates’ Dave Weigel reports, they at least started the process:

It wasn’t even close. Shortly after 1 p.m., with plenty of time to catch flights home, Republican members of the House voted to approve the continuing resolution to fund the government through September. As written, it plussed-up the defense funds that had been stricken by sequestration…. Almost all Republicans, 214 of them, voted aye, and a Republican aide announcing the vote to reporters reminded them that they only needed 210 votes to pass it.

The defense cuts get restored and the sequester cuts then would then turn into a pure domestic spending cuts. Obama might not sign onto such a thing if that’s the bill he gets – he might risk a government shutdown by vetoing it. You don’t screw the poor and the sick and the young even worse, and shut down the CDC and all that too, to goose up the military. That wasn’t the agreement. Fair is fair.

It doesn’t matter. Weigel misunderstood, as reported later in the Washington Post:

The measure the House passed on Wednesday would provide new flexibility to the Pentagon to manage the sequester’s deep spending cuts, but would otherwise leave the reductions in place for the year.

It’s an administrative thing. The folks at the Pentagon get special permission to distribute the cuts in clever ways, permission no one else gets – but they still have to cut the same amount as before. The big news was no news. America yawned.

There was no need to get excited, unless you’re Charles Hunt in the Washington Times:

That’s right, you, the American voter, have become Mr. Obama’s voodoo doll, and he is jabbing you all over with sharp pins and placing demonic hexes on you right now as you read this. This is gonna hurt and you are going to feel it! He wants you to feel writhing pain and he wants you to associate that pain with the leaner government espoused by his political opponents – as well as the majority of American voters. In four short years, Obama has gone from hopeful orator promising a bright new future to economic terrorist, a spending jihadist.

Politics may have become tiresome, but that doesn’t help. Delusion isn’t always fascinating. Sometimes it’s a bit scary.

Luckily most politics, save for election time, is not all that scary – but at the present time it’s not endlessly fascinating either. Of course readership here has dropped off. We’re in the dead zone now – more of the same, with carefully constructed dire crises intended to prove this issue – the one right here, right now – is something new that will change the world forever, or end it.

People know better. They move on – and those of us who discuss this stuff might do that too one day. People do blog about cars and fashion and art and travel and all sorts of things after all. The next post here might be about Paris bookstores – but probably not. Politics is also fascinatingly endless.

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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