The Samurai in the White House

Jujitsu – that’s what it is – manipulating your opponent’s force against him rather than confronting it with force. It’s a samurai thing from feudal Japan, a way to defeat an armed opponent when you have no weapon at all – use the attacker’s energy against him, rather than directly opposing it. Slip and slide, and when he swings his giant sword or whatever, use his own momentum to toss him over your shoulder and into the wall. He’ll come back at you, even angrier, and thus even less cautious. It then gets even easier for you – he’ll make moves that are even more wild and foolish, which you can effortlessly exploit, leaving him looking foolish, until he’s destroyed himself with his own energy. It’s the basis of all those martial arts – Kung Foo and all the others. All it takes is a bit of that inner peace stuff – stay calm and centered as your opponent loses it – and that’s why all those outraged Republicans, angry and infinitely ambitious, had it wrong. Obama wasn’t from Kenya at all. He was the reincarnation of a samurai of feudal Japan. He had this stuff down cold. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd sometimes called him Spock, like in Star Trek, and sometimes called him Bambi. Both were attempts to mock Obama’s apparent passivity. Yeah, well, she’s Irish. Others just called him No-Drama Obama, or called him lucky – but it wasn’t luck. He long ago mastered political jujitsu.

That’s what the 2008 primaries showed. He stated his positions calmly, as the very soul of reason, and as a caring and principled man, and he was often damned eloquent – but he never went on the attack. Maybe that’s not fighting fair, because it seemed to drive Hillary Clinton crazy. She got angry. She went off about his big speeches and fancy words that didn’t mean anything in the real world, and she gave a stab at being bold and manly, but Obama just smiled. That was deadly. Her own energy made her look desperate and she ended up saying some foolish things, and it was over. Then Obama did the same thing to McCain, who decided to harp on Obama’s caution and passivity, which sounded like a call for a lot more wars, everywhere, to the voters. Obama didn’t have to say a thing. That sealed it, that and McCain’s decision to suspend his campaign and rush back to Washington to solve the financial crisis, to get TARP passed. He only made things worse, which was beyond embarrassing. Obama didn’t bother with Sarah Palin at all. There was no point in subtlety redirecting anything she said. He just got out of the way as she made a fool of herself. That works too.

Obama did the same thing to Mitt Romney. He let him bury himself. Let him grin and tell an angry group at the Iowa State Fair that corporations really are people. Let him make his comments about the totally useless forty-seven percent of all Americans. Romney saw that sort of thing as his strength. It was child’s play to use it against him. His trip to the London Olympics was more of the same. Romney’s strength was that he had run the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, rather successfully, but telling the British that they were doing it all wrong was a bit of a blunder. Romney was practically run out of London. Obama had to do little in all of this, but that second debate with Romney allowed everyone to see the master at work. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and all the rest had been saying Obama never used the word terrorism when that attack killed our ambassador in Libya, and Romney could nail him on that, on being soft on terrorism and not even understanding it, and thus win the election. So Romney brought that up and gave Obama a cold sinister stare, and everyone remembers what Obama said next – “Proceed, governor.” Romney swung his big sword, so to speak, and Obama smiled and turned to the moderator. Did she know what had been said? She informed Romney that Obama had actually used that word, the very day it all happened. Romney was stopped cold. It was classic political jujitsu – use the attacker’s energy against him, rather than directly opposing it. Maybe that’s not playing fair, but it works. It also helps if your attacker is woefully misinformed. Obama thus also used Fox News and all that talk radio – the source of all Republican strength – against them. Their strength became their weakness.

A righteously angry opponent is always vulnerable. They revel in their strength. They threaten. They bluster, and they lose. And now, in the same manner, Obamacare, a rather modest market-based new healthcare scheme, is going to destroy the Republican Party. All Obama has to do is step back and let them destroy themselves, as Paul Waldman explains:

There’s a feud a-brewin’ between, on one side, congressional Republicans who hate Obamacare so much they want to cry, and on the other side, congressional Republicans who hate Obamacare so much they want to stamp their feet. The strategic question at play has to do with the fact that in order for the government to keep functioning, Congress is going to have to pass a continuing resolution in September. A continuing resolution is what you do when you haven’t passed an actual budget; it says that funding for everything will continue at its current level. Congress passes continuing resolutions all the time, because if you don’t, it’s kind of disastrous. But where you and I see disaster, someone like Marco Rubio, desperate to restore his Tea Party cred in the wake of immigration reform apparently failing, sees an opportunity. So he and a few other GOP senators like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are pushing their colleagues to make this threat: They’ll block the continuing resolution and thus shut down the government unless Congress votes (and President Obama agrees!) to defund the Affordable Care Act, for all intents and purposes repealing it.

This is kind of strange:

So threatening to shut down the government has become the all-purpose means by which some Republicans believe they can achieve almost any policy goal. Can’t cut food stamps? Shut down the government! Can’t repeal Obamacare? Shut down the government! “Mr. Chairman, if our proposal to declare August to be National Ted Nugent Appreciation Month is not passed by this body, we will have no choice but to shut down the government!”

Fortunately, many Republican senators are sane enough to realize that shutting down the government in an attempt to stop Obamacare would be a political catastrophe for the GOP, so they’re not going to let it happen. But the whole thing is sure to breed plenty of displeasure and resentment. Just what the party needs.

For a time any number of voices on the right were saying Obama was out to destroy the Republican Party. That’s not quite right. He just won’t stop them from doing it themselves. Why would he? Let them have at each other:

The schism within the Republican Party over whether or not to gut Obamacare grew wider on Friday with one of the most conservative senators splashing cold water on the idea.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) told conservative writer Byron York that, while he’d “love” to cut funding for the new health care law, it’s an unrealistic push by the handful of GOP senators who have pledged to oppose any continuing resolution or appropriations bill that funds Obamacare.

“I’d love to defund it,” Coburn said. “I’d be leading the charge if I thought this would work. But it will not work.”

The Oklahoma Republican said the lawmakers who are leading the defunding charge – a group that includes Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT, Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) – are being “dishonest” with their base about what they can actually get done.

“It’s a denial of reality mixed with a whole bunch of hype to promote groups and individuals who are saying, ‘I’m going to give you hope’ for something that we can’t do,” Coburn said.

Coburn’s fellow Sooner State Republican, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), also slammed fellow party members who have threatened a government shutdown unless Obamacare is gutted. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), meanwhile, said Thursday that the effort to shut down the government if the health care law isn’t defunded “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.”

There are the pundits too. The National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru in his latest Bloomberg column suggests the growing conservative demands that this year’s fiscal showdown, now about defunding Obamacare, can only lead to trouble:

The chance that Democrats would go along – would give up on their signature legislative initiative of the last decade soon after having won the presidential election and gained Senate and House seats – approaches zero percent. So if Republicans stay firm in this demand, the result will be either a government shutdown or a partial shutdown combined with a debt default.

Either would be highly unpopular, and each party would blame the other. The public, however, would almost certainly blame Republicans, for five reasons.

First, Republicans are less popular than the Democrats and thus all else equal will lose partisan finger-pointing contests. Second, the executive has natural advantages over a group of legislators in a crisis atmosphere. Third, people will be naturally inclined to assume that the more anti-government party must be responsible. Fourth, some Republicans will say that government shutdowns or defaults are just what the country needs, and those quotes will affect the image of all Republicans. And fifth, the news media will surely side with the Democrats.

This also means that Republicans would swing their kill-Obamacare-or-we’ll-blow-up-the-economy sword without any alternative health care plan, and folks might notice:

Bringing the federal government to a standstill would confirm the Democrats’ caricatures that conservatives are reflexively hostile to all government. And Republicans would be doing it without proposing a plausible replacement for Obamacare. So Democrats would be able to say that Republicans were crippling the government and credit markets in order to take health insurance away from 30 million people.

Yes, and they’d be right to say that, and the Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore takes it from there:

Let’s just stick to the political arguments here, which are overwhelming enough without getting into the vicious immorality involved. Why, then, are at least 60 House Republicans and 12 Republican senators publicly demanding this disastrous strategy?

For some, it’s undoubtedly an intraparty message they are sending to “the base” and to right-wing primary voters that they are willing to send the country to the bottom of hell in pursuit of “conservative principles.” That’s probably why Marco Rubio, who is understandably frantic to deal with the destruction of his Tea Party street cred by his role in immigration reform, is prominent in this effort. It may also explain why all three House members from Georgia who are competing for the U.S. Senate nomination in a more-conservative-than-thou frenzy signed on. Others may simply be maneuvering to maintain or increase their leverage on Republican congressional leaders. Still others (certainly Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Michele Bachmann) are serious “constitutional conservatives” who view the enactment of Obamacare – or for that matter, of Social Security and Medicare back in the day – as patently unconstitutional, and want the GOP to stand for the proposition that no popular majority can violate limits on government established by the Founders and/or God Almighty.

The point is a sizable group of Republican lawmakers are largely impervious to the kind of prudential arguments Ponnuru is making. Trouble is, the more noise they make, and the more it is echoed by conservative activists and opinion-leaders, the more attractive the defund-Obamacare-or-else position will become to other Republicans who want media attention, small-dollar campaign contributions, or perpetual shelter from a primary challenge.

That’s short-term thinking, as an item in Politico reviews the longer term issue:

Republicans head into 2014 heavily favored to retain control of the House. Thanks largely to the recently-completed redistricting process, which shored up many Republican incumbents, only a few GOP seats are considered to be truly in jeopardy. The Cook Political Report actually projects that Republicans will expand their 17-seat majority by between two and seven seats.

To lose the chamber, Republicans argue, something drastic would need to happen – an epic event that Democrats could blame them for. Something, say, on the magnitude of a default or a government shutdown.

Such a scenario could complicate the party’s already uphill climb to capture the Senate.

“If you ask me what the one thing is that could reshuffle the deck on an otherwise stable mid-term environment in 2014, the answer is a government shutdown,” said Brock McCleary, a GOP pollster and former NRCC deputy executive director. “Convincing voters that the other side is to blame would become a game of high-stakes politics.”

Another strategist who is deeply involved in the House GOP’s planning for the midterms said: “A government shutdown could change the current 2014 dynamic and put a number of seats in play that aren’t in play today.”

Yes, and Obama, the samurai, smiles:

In a recent interview, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director Kelly Ward said her party planned to highlight “the inability of Republicans to actually govern and the impact that that failure in their leadership has on the American people – and that is a real narrative that is developing…”

“We don’t have to create that message or that pattern, they’re doing it,” she said. “Every big issue that comes up, the chaos and dysfunction of this caucus really drives the agenda and the way they cater to the extreme tea party base within their caucus really drives their output on legislation, and it’s a real problem for the American public.”

Some Republicans say the party shouldn’t shy away from the fiscal battles. Voters, they say, want to see the GOP take a hard line on spending – even if it means some brinksmanship.

That last assessment may be bluster. Bluster is defeat. Hillary Clinton realized that, and then worked hard to get Obama elected, and now John McCain has realized that:

The unlikeliest of alliances forged between two once-bitter rivals stands to upend the status quo of congressional gridlock and potentially resolve a bitter partisan chasm that has characterized the modern era of crisis governance.

Yes, President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) are essentially working together against GOP leadership and the tea party to break the Senate out of its current situation and resolve major budget rifts that have plagued Washington for years.

McCain has emerged as a kingmaker of sorts in a chamber where various rank-and-file members of the Republican minority have lost their patience with leaders’ strategy of routinely blocking or slowing down legislation and high-profile nominees advanced by Democrats.

Most recently, he played a leading role in securing the confirmation of seven Obama nominees to run important departments and agencies. He was a seminal figure in writing and shepherding immigration reform through the chamber with a large bipartisan majority. He’s broken with nearly all other Republicans in saying his party shouldn’t filibuster Obama’s three nominees to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. And he’s been actively pushing his members to stop blocking budget negotiations with the House.

Now, as the White House and members of Congress prepare for a potentially ugly battle to keep government open and continue paying its bills this fall, Democratic leaders see McCain as a pivotal figure in their effort to reach a compromise and force tea party conservatives to stop holding routine government funding and debt ceiling bills hostage. Some of them privately joke that he’s the new minority leader.

McCain would rather that his party not be destroyed, because it thinks it’s so big and bad and strong, and of course he likes being in the center of things again. He also has learned from Obama, and he still gets to be the maverick:

“Senator McCain is the Senate Republican leadership’s worst nightmare,” said a senior Democratic aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “He is very interested in fixing sequestration, he has railed against the tax loopholes, he is clearly not afraid to defy them when he thinks it’s the right thing to do, and he takes 10 Republican members with him. We definitely see him as an important part of the path forward on a budget deal.”

This is a big change:

McCain’s new posture is a radical departure from his ferocious attacks on President Obama after his 2008 defeat, and the rightward lurch on a variety of issues leading up to his reelection in 2010. In one example of their bitter post-election rivalry, McCain ran an ad accusing Obama of “leading an extreme left-wing crusade to bankrupt America” and boasted that “I stand in his way every day.” At a White House summit the following month, Obama chided McCain by saying, “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over.”

Those days are long gone. Today, the two share common goals, and McCain may hold the key to ending the practice of Congress heaving from crisis to crisis as the U.S. government’s very ability to address important fiscal problems hangs in the balance. And his relationship with the Democratic leaders who share his goal appears to be stronger than ever.

“Sen. McCain and I must have talked 30 times this weekend,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) after the nominations crisis was resolved. “I was on my bicycle leading a bike ride at the DSCC and I was on the phone with Sen. McCain in Martha’s Vineyard.”

McCain learned his lesson, but Paul Krugman suspects others won’t learn:

Even as Republican politicians seem ready to go on the offensive, there’s a palpable sense of anxiety, even despair, among conservative pundits and analysts. Better-informed people on the right seem, finally, to be facing up to a horrible truth: Health care reform, President Obama’s signature policy achievement, is probably going to work.

And the good news about Obamacare is, I’d argue, what’s driving the Republican Party’s intensified extremism. Successful health reform wouldn’t just be a victory for a president conservatives loathe – it would be an object demonstration of the falseness of right-wing ideology. So Republicans are being driven into a last, desperate effort to head this thing off at the pass.

They’re afraid it might just work:

Although you’d never know it from all the fulminations, with prominent Republicans routinely comparing Obamacare to slavery, the Affordable Care Act is based on three simple ideas. First, all Americans should have access to affordable insurance, even if they have pre-existing medical problems. Second, people should be induced or required to buy insurance even if they’re currently healthy, so that the risk pool remains reasonably favorable. Third, to prevent the insurance “mandate” from being too onerous, there should be subsidies to hold premiums down as a share of income.

Is such a system workable? For a while, Republicans convinced themselves that it was doomed to failure, and that they could profit politically from the inevitable “train wreck.” But a system along exactly these lines has been operating in Massachusetts since 2006, where it was introduced by a Republican governor. What was his name? … And no trains have been wrecked so far.

The question is whether the Massachusetts success story can be replicated in other states, especially big states like California and New York with large numbers of uninsured residents. The answer to this question depends, in the first place, on whether insurance companies are willing to offer coverage at reasonable rates. And the answer, so far, is a clear “yes.” In California, insurers came in with bids running significantly below expectations; in New York, it appears that premiums will be cut roughly in half.

That’s the problem right there:

Health reform will help millions of Americans who were previously either too sick or too poor to get the coverage they needed, and also offer a great deal of reassurance to millions more who currently have insurance but fear losing it; it will provide these benefits at the expense of a much smaller number of other Americans, mostly the very well off. It is, if you like, a plan to comfort the afflicted while (slightly) afflicting the comfortable.

And the prospect that such a plan might succeed is anathema to a party whose whole philosophy is built around doing just the opposite, of taking from the “takers” and giving to the “job creators,” known to the rest of us as the “rich.” …

So will Republicans actually take us to the brink? If they do, it will be crucial to understand why they would do such a thing, when their own leaders have admitted that confrontations over the budget inflict substantial harm on the economy. It won’t be because they fear the budget deficit, which is coming down fast. Nor will it be because they sincerely believe that spending cuts produce prosperity.

No, Republicans may be willing to risk economic and financial crisis solely in order to deny essential health care and financial security to millions of their fellow Americans.

Yeah, but they see that as their strength. It’s that personal responsibility thing. Essential health care and financial security are the responsibility of individuals. Sink or swim. It’s not the government’s business. That’s the righteous sword they’ve been swinging for a long time. Obama has been unarmed against that all along. He’s Spock, or Bambi. He’s defenseless and will get the crap beat out of him.

That hasn’t happened yet, and it’s not going to happen. Didn’t any of these guys ever watch a Bruce Lee movie, or even those Kung Foo Panda movies? Obama ain’t from Kenya.

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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.
This entry was posted in No Drama Obama, Obama Traps his Opponents, Republican Civil War, Republicans in Disarray and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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