Something in the Air

Manhattan realtors call the area Clinton but it used to be called Hell’s Kitchen – from the late nineteenth century until a decade or so ago a rather rough place, west of Sixth from Thirty-Fourth up to Fifty-Ninth, not that it got that much better in the blocks north of there. But times change – Lincoln Center replaced the crap at the north end and everything south started to get gentrified and quaint, except for the towering high-rises with those glass-walled penthouses that will set you back six or seven million. The gangs and low-end mobsters aren’t murdering each other there now. Midtown West is safe now, and damned expensive. It’s not like West Side Story anymore – the Jets and Sharks are long gone. They were singing and dancing and knifing each other back in 1957 in that musical, on West Sixty-First actually, when Tony was singing Something’s Coming – the air is humming and all that. No one knows what the change will be, but bring it on! He had no idea the change would be a Starbucks on every corner and the young executives in the three-thousand dollar suits crowding the exclusive restaurants specializing in the cuisine of some country he’d never heard of. Hopeful optimistic people always sense there’s something in the air – something’s coming – they just know it. They just never know what it is. That whole world disappeared.

It’s like that in politics too. Karl Rove just knew a permanent Republican majority was coming, but it wasn’t. Rove may have been Bush’s Brain but he wasn’t his mouth, or his attitude, and Rove’s attempts to be the invincible master strategist of the party since then have been kind of sad. He told reporters they were wrong – the Republicans would hold the House and Senate in the 2006 midterms – and they lost both. And in 2008 Obama was in the air. Rove was wise enough to be rather tepid about McCain and Palin, and in the 2010 midterms the Tea Party was the big thing, which seemed to confuse him – but this last time around he was all in. A small group of billionaires paid him hundreds of millions of dollars to work out a way for Republicans to retake the Senate and win back the White House, and none of it worked. Their money was wasted, and Rove was reduced to that odd incident on Fox News where he kept insisting Obama hadn’t really won Ohio with the whole Fox News crew setting him straight and kind of shaking their heads at his sad and desperate flailing about. It was embarrassing. At least he didn’t sing that song from West Side Story.

It’s easy to misjudge what’s in the air, and Benjy Sarlin reports that it just happened again:

Sure the GOP may need a little outreach here and a little fine tuning there, but Republicans in Washington say they’re confident that a principled message of low taxes and cuts to social services will eventually propel them back to victory. They may want to take a look at Louisiana first.

Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA), considered a leading presidential contender in 2016, is suffering a political meltdown in his home state. His approval rating plummeted to 38 percent in a poll last week by the non-partisan Southern Media Opinion & Research, down from 60 percent just a year ago. In an ominous sign for national Republicans, the immediate cause is a sweeping economic agenda with strong parallels to the House GOP’s latest budget.

A principled message of low taxes and cuts to social services is not what’s in the air:

On Monday, Jindal scrapped his own proposal to eliminate the state’s income and corporate taxes and replace them with a statewide tax on sales and business services. His retreat was a concession to the reality that the proposal was headed towards a humiliating defeat – and taking Jindal down with it along the way. Jindal said in a speech to lawmakers that the backlash against his plan “certainly wasn’t the reaction I was hoping to hear,” but that he would respect the public’s wishes and start again.

He misread the last election, thinking he could outdo what had already failed:

Jindal’s proposal was different than tax plans by national Republicans like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in that it planned to eliminate income and corporate taxes entirely instead of just lower rates, but the provisions that inflamed the public against it overlap plenty with national GOP proposals. Namely, both plans generated complaints from economists that they would require regressive tax increases on the poor and middle class to pay for lower taxes for the wealthy.

Grover Norquist, the intellectual leader of the anti-tax crowd in Washington, had praised Jindal’s plan as “the boldest, most pro-growth state tax reform in U.S. history.” He noted that it was particularly significant, because with Obama positioned to veto anything resembling the House GOP’s budget for the next several years, Louisiana might be Republicans’ best chance to show off their tax ideas on the state level.

America would have a chance to see what real tax reform looks like – not the Romney-Ryan half-measures – and they’d love it. They didn’t, at least in Louisiana. Twenty-seven percent of voters there supported the plan. Sixty-three percent didn’t. It’s didn’t even have majority support among Republicans. Grover Norquist had no idea what was coming as he and Jindal sniffed the air. Common sense was in the air:

Opposition to his tax reforms expanded in early April as religious leaders joined advocates for the poor in complaining the sales tax increase would hurt working families. Jindal’s staff countered that they’d make sure the cost of the tax cuts would mostly fall on businesses instead of individuals, but that concession prompted the influential Louisiana Association of Business and Industry to come out against it as well. Meanwhile, an analysis by the non-partisan Public Affairs Research Council suggested that Jindal would need to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars more in revenue to make the numbers add up at all. With both the progressive left and pro-market right united against it, Republicans in the legislature began to rebel.

There was also the spending part of this too:

Jindal’s not doing himself any favors there either, drawing at least as widespread a backlash to his proposed reductions to health care and higher education funding. Seventy-eight percent of respondents told SMOR they opposed further cuts to the state health care system, and 60 percent said they believed the budget had been cut enough in general already. It doesn’t help that Jindal refuses to take federal money from the Affordable Care Act to expand the state’s Medicaid system.

Sarlin adds this:

Given that the House GOP’s plan would cut Medicaid spending by nearly one-third in the next decade, it may be time to rethink just how popular the whole “starve the beast” approach actually is with voters.

Jindal sensed the air was humming – something’s coming. It wasn’t what he thought, but it’s easy enough to misjudge things:

The public tide is shifting on gay marriage. But Rick Santorum will not be moved – nor his party.

The former Pennsylvania senator and failed Republican presidential candidate, who heads to Iowa (the state that goes first in nominating presidential candidates) next week, told the Des Moines Register that it would be “suicidal” for his party to back same-sex marriage.

Santorum also predicted the Supreme Court would not rule in favor of gay marriage rights. Last month, of course, the nation’s highest court heard arguments for striking down Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriage, and on the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples.

“I think you’ll see, hopefully, a chastened Supreme Court is not going to make the same mistake in the [current] cases as they did in Roe v. Wade,” the staunch social conservative, who last year won the important, first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, told the newspaper. “I’m hopeful the Supreme Court learned its lesson about trying to predict where the American public is going on issues and trying to find rights in the Constitution that sit with the fancy of the day.”

He says America will never back gay marriage. He’s sure of that. Something’s coming!

It has already come, and gone, and Frum sees a problem here:

As the saying goes, the first step toward recovery is to acknowledge the problem.

The problem in 2012 – as in 2008, as in the near-death experience of 2004, as in the popular vote loss of 2000, as in the loss of 1996, as in the loss of 1992 – was the GOP’s failure to offer an economic program relevant to the problems of middle-class Americans. The party’s present three front-runners would not only repeat that failure, but double down on that failure.

The Republican Party desperately needs renewal and its early presidential front-runners are characterized by their rejection of change.

He gets specific. The Republican field is led by two freshman senators – Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida – and the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, who lost, and that’s pretty sad:

It is not only Washington-based, but it’s all congressionally based. There is no governor in the top three, no general, no former Cabinet secretary, nobody with any notable private-sector accomplishment.

It’s light on accomplishment. Ryan has to date been the most productive of the top three, but none of his famous budgets have been passed into law. Paul can cite no legislative accomplishments at all, only a stunt filibuster against the entirely imaginary menace of drone strikes against American citizens on American soil. Rubio has taken a lead role in immigration reform but must make some tough decisions about whether his future is best secured by negotiating a deal or scuttling one. None of the three Republican front-runners has any administrative experience to speak of.

It’s intensely doctrinaire. Ryan was the author of much of the Republican Party’s post-2009 tea party program. Rubio has to date shown himself an undeviating follower of that program. Paul dissents from some aspects of that program but in the direction of even greater extremism. Rubio: No special pathway to citizenship…

He suggests the party might look for an outsider nominee, given the party’s unpopularity. They did that with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, winning the White House after five defeats. Or they could “allow an insider some latitude to edge back toward the political center” as the Democrats did with Clinton. But that’s unlikely now:

At a time when voters reject generic Republicanism, Republicans themselves are rallying to two of the most generic Republicans in the party – and a third, Paul, who diverges from generic Republicanism only by offering voters even more of what they most dislike about today’s GOP.

The party talks about learning from its mistakes. Thus far, the main thing the party seems to have learned from those mistakes is how to repeat them.

They’ve simply misjudged what’s going on. Something’s coming, but it’s not what they think or could even imagine. They imagine Reagan returning, or Margaret Thatcher, but they’re both dead and Andrew Sullivan reminds us of how they got Thatcher quite wrong:

Thatcher was a firm believer in international law – and opposed the US invasion of Grenada and Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands as a violation of that order. She was a strong supporter of nuclear deterrence and containment – as opposed to pre-emptive war. She wanted UN support for any intervention in Iraq, and insisted it be limited to restoration of the old borders. She cut taxes but, unlike the GOP under Reagan and the second Bush, she also cut spending seriously. She didn’t have any time for the loopy idea that cutting taxes would increase net revenues.

She inherited and handed over a fully socialized medical system, and, while tearing apart the government’s control of the economy, did not undo the welfare state in any profound way. “The National Health Service Is Safe with Us” was her constant refrain. Her policies on healthcare make Obama’s modest private sector-based reform look positively right-wing. She loathed Europe but signed the Maastricht Treaty, and deepened British ties to the Continent. She was the first Cold Warrior to respond to Gorbachev. In all this, she remains pragmatically alien to the current Southern-based GOP. And her undemonstrative Methodism was never worn on her sleeve.

Like Reagan, in other words, she could never be a contender in today’s GOP. She was far too conservative, in the proper sense of that word.

And it’s a different world too. After reviewing the change in public approval for gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana – both majority opinions now – Sullivan senses something bigger is going on:

I think we are wrong to see the current fiscal stalemate or economic situation as the most dispositive aspects of Obama’s presidency.

I think what he may well be remembered for will not be his careful stewardship of a very sick economy back from intensive care. Given the nature of the economic collapse, he was never going to get a Reagan recovery anyway. All he needed was a recovery strong enough to get re-elected, and a winning coalition that remade America as a cultural entity. And that’s what we are now seeing. The 2012 election was a watershed for cultural change – and I suspect the sudden jump in support for marriage equality and marijuana legalization reflects a bandwagon effect in the wake of Obama’s overwhelming cultural victory.

The idea here is that the Republicans’ woes aren’t so much political woes as a whole shift in the culture:

Obama has presided over the moment when white America came to accept that it no longer has the demographic clout to ignore non-white America – a huge symbolic step in national self-understanding, literally epitomized by a multi-racial, multi-cultural president. It looks likely that his presidency will be the most significant one for gay rights in American history. He has established the principle of universal healthcare in America – another huge shift in the cultural identity of the country. He has harnessed the political power of American women to decimate the GOP’s coalition. If he presides over immigration reform, we will be a different country culturally than we were only a decade ago. And he will have ended – perhaps permanently – the entire idea of militarily occupying foreign countries to advance our geo-political goals, and, if the sequester continues, will have cut defense in ways even Clinton couldn’t dare to.

This is a cultural revolution. He did not create it. He organized it. And he epitomized it. We are now looking very closely at various political, tactical moments – the budget, entitlement reform, taxes – exacerbated by the new instant and universal media. What we are missing is the strategic cultural revolution that has been occurring all the time, and that he has very carefully guided.

And he is quite happy for us to miss it. Because that stirs up less resistance. But the change goes on…

As in the song, the air is humming. Something is up. Something’s coming. It used to be fine to attack those icky gay folks, grinning and sneering as you did, and now it’s not. Attacking the useless poor who have no sense of personal responsibility, the moochers, the takers not the makers, used to be fine – then, with the economy in ruins, that just wasn’t cool anymore. Mitt Romney discovered that what he thought was the future of how people would think really wasn’t. Reagan’s talk of welfare queens driving Cadillacs won’t fly now, nor will talk of the noble captains of industry and the financial wizards who will save America. America now knows better. The ground keeps shifting. It shifted on immigration reform. It seems to have shifted on gun control – the majority of Americans want assault weapons banned, and high-capacity magazines too, and ninety percent of us want those universal background checks. America now knows better, even if politicians, Republican and Democrat, are the last people to get it, whatever it is. Dead children, guys, dead children! The ground may even shift on climate change.

Could be! Who knows? It may come cannonballing down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose! It could be around the corner, or whistling down the river… That song from West Side Story goes on and on, and if Sullivan is right, that’s Obama’s song. He’s riding some sort of fundamental massive culture change, aligning himself with it and nudging it along, in tune with the times and more than fine with what’s going down. It’s the future.

Republicans see dead people – Reagan and Thatcher – and the corollary is obvious. They’ll be stuck in Hell’s Kitchen forever. And it’s not even there anymore.


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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