Insults as Strategy

The old joke is that old people read the obituaries in the morning paper first thing – to find out if they’re dead yet. If you don’t see your name you turn to the sports section or whatever. You’ve got another day, even if famous people you thought were young, or thought of as young, are dropping like flies. Mick Jagger will be next, or Tuesday Weld.

It’s disorienting, especially when you discover someone you thought must be dead by now – an icon from an America that hasn’t existed for generations – is still around, and is just the same as ever. That happened Monday. The Los Angeles Times’ obituary page gave the personal all-clear – not dead yet – and there in the entertainment section was an extended interview with Don Rickles – the comic who hung around with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack and traded quips with Dean Martin. These guys were hip at the end of the Eisenhower administration, when cars had fins – prehistoric times – and they’re all dead now, except for Don Rickles. He’s still around. He’s eighty-seven, and he’s still insulting people.

That was what he did – that was pretty much the only thing he did – and that’s what made him rich and famous. People loved his nasty and not very inventive insults, which was probably everyman wish-fulfillment, because those crude insults were instantaneous, one right after the other, piling up impressively. If one insult fell flat, because it really made no sense at all, there were ten more that followed in a wave. Yes, it would be cool to just let it rip and say the first thing that comes to mind about the fools around you, and the next thing and the next – like Don Rickles. Blasting out rapid-fire random insults must be liberating. It must have seemed liberating even to watch, to watch what you dare not do yourself. Sinatra, a touchy natural bully himself, loved the guy. Maybe, for a time, we all wanted to be the nasty bully. That was the secret to Rickles’ success.

Then it stopped being funny. Bullies weren’t heroes any longer – George Wallace and Bull Connor were the bullies in the South, and they were the bad guys. The guys that got us into Vietnam and kept us there were the bullies. Nixon was a bully, even if he wasn’t very good at it. He did resign – his bullying led to articles of impeachment. Frank Sinatra, with his dismissive jet-set sneer and barely-concealed anger at lesser mortals, got buried by the Beatles. He became a rather fine world-weary nostalgia singer. Even Don Rickles mellowed out a bit. The Age of Insults was over.

No one told the Republicans. Those neoconservative guys were bad enough, sneering about their New American Century – we’d use our military might to slap the world around, making them all, whoever they were, do the right thing. No one else could, so we should, and that led to eight years of Dick Cheney insulting every nation on earth, friend or foe, and insulting the timid and foolish American people too. He called it strength. Donald Rumsfeld only insulted what he called Old Europe, all our major allies for the last fifty or more years. It was almost a Don Rickles thing. It felt so good to say all that stuff. We don’t talk with rogue regimes, we replace them. That’s what Cheney liked to say. That’s why we stopped talking to North Korea a week or two after Bush took office. That’s why we never talked to Iran, when we could. All back-channel discussions stopped. It would be insults, followed by shock and awe. The Bush-Cheney team even sent John Bolton to the United Nations to represent us – a recess appointment when the Senate wouldn’t confirm his nomination. He had a history of calling the UN a bunch of thieves and fools.

None of that worked out very well. No one really likes to be insulted, no matter how good it makes you feel. Enemies will redouble their efforts to do you harm. Allies will shrug and walk away. Obama has tried to reset things, but of course that crowd calls him weak and says he’s always apologizing for America. They see no range of alternatives to the pithy insult. It’s a somewhat limited, and limiting, point of view, even if worked for Don Rickles, until it didn’t.

Now it’s the week of big events, where Republicans, once again, find themselves locked in insults. First, the Supreme Court declared the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional – and every Southern state that had had to get clearance for changes to their election laws gleefully went for voter-ID laws, calling for expensive photo-identification cards that would be hard to get, and restrictive voting hours, and moving polling places to where no one could reach them in time to vote. This was their chance to make sure the black and Latino vote was as thin as possible, and they didn’t even try to hide that. This was an in-your-face insult to those groups, taunting them, because they’ll not be able to do a damned thing about it now. They seemed to take pride in rubbing it in. A younger Don Rickles would approve.

The next day they lost big when the Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and let the ruling that California’s Prop 8 was unconstitutional stand – the federal government will now consider gay marriage legal if a state does, and not argue the matter at all, and adjust federal benefits and the tax code appropriately. Antonin Scalia and everyone on the right raised holy hell, insulting the gay community and everyone who thinks gay marriage is no big deal, which is about eighty percent of everyone under thirty, Republican and Democrat. Fine, insult the gay folks and just about everyone under thirty, and anyone else who’s with them. You’ve spent two years insulting women. Why not go all the way?

The third day was the big breakthrough on immigration reform:

The Senate on Thursday approved the most significant overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in a generation with broad support generated by a sense among leading Republicans that the party needed to join with Democrats to remove a wedge between Republicans and Hispanic voters.

The strong 68-to-32 vote in the often polarized Senate tossed the issue into the House, where the Republican leadership has said that it will not take up the Senate measure and is instead focused on much narrower legislation that would not provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country. Party leaders hope that the Senate action will put pressure on the House.

It won’t. The bill will die there, although Republicans do know they have a problem, and they’ve been working on it:

After Mitt Romney’s loss in November, top Republicans immediately began formulating a way to improve the party’s standing with Hispanics, who have flocked to Democrats. A group of top Republican political and business officials who support an immigration overhaul met at the downtown Washington office of the anti-tax leader Grover Norquist on Jan. 17 with memories of Mr. Romney’s poor showing in their minds.

Optimism ran high at the session, which included Mr. Norquist, the former national party chairman Ed Gillespie and representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican “super PACs.” Reeling from a second consecutive presidential loss and with Mr. Rubio taking the place of Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, as the face of the immigration reform movement, the strategists were hopeful that the wall of conservative opposition that blocked immigration legislation under President George W. Bush could be breached.

Now, even after the lopsided Senate vote, the prospects appear grim for the pro-overhaul Republicans. And Mr. Rubio, the 42-year-old Cuban-American who is seen as a prime White House contender in 2016, is confronting rising criticism from conservatives for pushing legislation with Democratic boogeymen like President Obama and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York.

“Before the Gang of Eight and the immigration debate, I think many conservatives as well as some establishment Republican folks saw Senator Rubio as a possible bridge candidate between the conservative Tea Party base of the GOP and more establishment GOP voters,” said Greg Mueller, a conservative public relations executive who opposed the Senate bill. “That position is on much shakier ground today because conservatives and the Tea Party see the immigration bill as a big-government piece of legislation resembling Obamacare.”

The issue is internal to the party, and the Senate tried to address that:

The bill’s largest, and perhaps most critical, change came in a package that promised to substantially bolster security along the nation’s southern border. The proposal, by Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota, both Republicans, would devote about $40 billion over the next decade to border enforcement measures, including adding 20,000 Border Patrol agents and 700 miles of fencing along the southern border.

The amendment, which passed Wednesday with broad bipartisan support, helped bring along more than a dozen reluctant Republicans. But even that measure does not seem to have altered firm House resistance to the Senate bill. Speaker John A. Boehner threw cold water on any hope that the House would vote on the Senate plan, and he insisted that whatever immigration measure his chamber took up would have to be supported by a majority of his Republican conference.

“I issued a statement that I thought was pretty clear, but apparently some haven’t gotten the message: the House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes,” he said Thursday morning. “We’re going to do our own bill.”

That means starting over, and what the House comes up with the Senate will hate, so there’s a problem here, as Brian Beutler explains:

Republicans will be left to carry the blame if they can’t, or choose not, to move a comprehensive bill of their own with a pathway to citizenship through the House.

Given the immediacy of the situation, and every indication that they’re going to drop the ball, what they need to do is figure out a way to avoid that blame, or even better to turn it back on Democrats. The problem for them is, see paragraph one. And paragraph one is leading them into amazing displays of public reasoning like this from deputy whip Pete Roskam.

“If you’re the White House right now,” Roskam told reporters, “and you have a signature law – that is, Obamacare – that is completely a legacy issue for the president, and it’s looking like implementation is going to be a disaster, and if you’re on your heels in terms of these scandals, and you’re flummoxed by the NSA, there’s one issue out there that’s good for the White House. That’s immigration. The question is: How much energy does the White House actually put into getting the legislation, or do they want to keep the issue for 2014?”

What? Beutler tries to explain:

That’s a tortured way of saying Obama probably wants Republicans to kill immigration reform so he can distract the public from various other failures in 2014. You’d think the obvious move for Republicans would be to deny Obama the satisfaction by passing something that we’d all recognize as immigration reform. But they can’t do that. So they’re left with claiming their inability to do what they set out to do after the election is a somehow the result of Obama’s mysterious conniving.

Got it? No? It doesn’t matter:

An argument like that might work if Obama was out there making demands the House couldn’t possibly meet. But what he’s doing is asking the House to pass something more than a dozen Republican senators think is good immigration policy. And more to the point he’s asking the House to pass something the House could easily pass if they’d just allow a vote and let Democrats carry it.

Consider a wife who sends her husband to the store with $60, and says she’ll cook him dinner if he buys some meat and veggies. Instead, an hour later he comes home with 48 beers and a trash novel and everyone goes hungry. He might later try to claim his wife made him do it but nobody’s going to buy that.

Boehner looks like he’s fixing to buy beer and a trash novel.

That’s a colorful way to put it, but Slate’s David Weigel puts it this way:

It’s a paradoxical theory with a little whiff of projection. Roskam (like many Republicans) was saying that a desperate White House would rather run against Republicans in 2014 on the immigration issue than pass a bill and remove the issue. With that in mind Roskam was saying Republicans would probably kill the bill, thus keeping the issue alive. How far has Obama crawled inside their heads?

Kevin Drum answers that question:

Either Obama is way inside their heads, or else Roskam is desperately flailing around to figure out a way to avoid having Republicans take the blame for the failure of immigration reform. Maybe a bit of both.

Here in the real world, we know perfectly well why Obama is keeping a low profile: because everyone on both sides of the aisle wants him to. Obama Derangement Syndrome is so virulent on the right that speaking in favor of the bill would almost certainly doom the whole enterprise. That’s the reality of the Republican base these days, and Roskam knows it. We’ve already got Obamacare, Obamaphones, and Obamacars, and this would just add ObamaMexicans to the list.

Of course, the conundrum for House Republicans is that Roskam is right: Killing the bill probably would be good for Democrats in the short run. It would gin up lots of Latino resentment against Republicans and probably help Democratic turnout in 2014. Conversely, passing the bill would be good for Republicans. They wouldn’t get a ton of credit for it right away, but at least it would blunt Democratic efforts to rally the Latino community to the polls. Relatively speaking, that’s a win for the GOP, which would then have a freer hand to set the terms of debate for next year’s midterms.

That’s a tad complex, but it comes down to insult-theory. Kill immigration reform and insult the fast-growing Hispanic vote, which pleases the base but causes no end of trouble, for decades, or pass the bill and insult the base, and be better positioned for future elections, which leads to what Drum finds peculiar here:

Democrats are fighting to pass a bill because it’s the right thing to do, even though they’ll probably take an electoral hit from it. Republicans are fighting to kill a bill, even though it would be an electoral winner, because a small part of their base hates it. It’s basically electoral suicide because they simply can’t get out from under the tea party elephant that’s strangling the life out of them. They built a monster, and now it’s turned on them.

At least no one is calling for a declaration of war on Mexico, yet. The House wants no path to citizenship and no amnesty for anyone. That’s the whole point of the Senate bill. Immigration reform is dead. Just don’t tell these folks:

As the Senate passed the immigration reform bill, a protester dressed in a blue cap and graduation gown stood up in the visitor gallery and chanted, “Si se puede!”

Other activists dressed in turquoise and orange shirts joined in with the chant, which in English means, “Yes we can!” Some chanted, “Yes we can” in English as well.

Maria Cabello, who was sitting nearby, said she was thinking of her parents, who emigrated with her from Mexico to Texas 10 years ago.

“They’re undocumented,” said Cabello, who works with the United We Dream advocacy group. “Now they’re one step closer to getting citizenship, and my mom might get to see her parents again.”

There are folks who want to be real citizens, and good citizens. Why insult them too?

William Kristol has the answer:

With respect to the 2014 congressional elections, it’s increasingly clear that allowing any form or permutation of the Senate bill to become law would divide and demoralize potential Republican voters. So if Republicans want to win House and Senate seats in 2014, John Boehner should kill the Senate bill – first refusing to take it up in the House, and also by making clear the House will refuse to go to conference with it. The House can still pass specific bills to address particular immigration issues this session (which presumably the Senate won’t take up – but let Harry Reid explain his refusal to do so). But the key is for Boehner to kill “comprehensive” immigration “reform” in this session of Congress.

The primary and indeed sufficient reason to do this is of course because the Senate legislation is such bad public policy. But it may be reassuring to elected officials that doing the right thing won’t hurt politically in 2014 or most likely 2016. And it’s also the case that Republican presidential candidates can set forth whatever proposals they think right in 2015 and 2016, so they’re not just saying no. But the House GOP, for the sake of party and country, should say no: No Capitulation, No “Comprehensive” Bill, No Conference.

Heather Parton responds:

I do hope the Democrats pass this piece around to the Latino community so they’ll know – and will tell their grandchildren – that immigration reform was blocked because allowing current immigrants to live and work in this country without fear of deportation is “bad public policy” – and that allowing it “to become law would divide and demoralize potential Republican voters.”

In other words, Republican voters will have a fit if immigrants they don’t like can become official Americans. …

Latinos should know about this so that they can vote with that in mind. Everybody should know about this so they can vote with that in mind.

It’s pretty simple. No one really likes to be insulted, no matter how good it makes you feel. Enemies will redouble their efforts to do you harm. Allies will shrug and walk away. Don Rickles’ act got old. Insults aren’t strength, and they aren’t at the core of any effective strategy. They were only comedy, for a time, long ago.

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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