The Age of Rogues

There are ghosts here – the ghosts of Old Hollywood. This town was always drab and seedy, but that was cleverly disguised, for a time, when the movie industry took off in the early twenties and peaked in 1939 – the year that gave us The Wizard of Oz and Rhett and Scarlet at Tara. Oz and Tara were down in Culver City by the way – MGM built them from scratch there. We invent legends out here, and create stars, stars that seem to hang around forever, as ghosts. Few remember that the giant rococo Beverly Hills City Hall that went up in the mid-twenties used to be called Rogers’ Folly – as Will Rogers was Beverly Hills’ first mayor. He and the other stars funded that, as he wasn’t all that homespun, really. And now, if you head north from there, on Rodeo Drive, up the hill from all those impossibly expensive shops, where one shops by appointment only, at Sunset, across the street from the posh Beverly Hills Hotel with its famous Polo Lounge, you’ll find Will Rogers Memorial Park. It has a nice fountain and cool gardens, and then if you head west on Sunset to the sea, in Pacific Palisades you’ll find Will Rogers’ old estate, with the polo fields – now a public park too. Will Rogers was not a simple man of the people. He came from vaudeville. That was his shtick, and he rode it to fame and fortune. He was the master of homey aphorisms, one of which, often repeated, was that he didn’t belong to any organized political party, he was a Democrat.

That always got a big laugh, because it got to the truth of the matter. Democrats have always been a fractious and boisterous crowd, arguing with each other and anyone in site, sometimes just for the fun of it. It’s new ideas all the time, and if something doesn’t work when you try it, you tinker with it until it does, or just try something else that might work. FDR worked that way in the thirties, when the Great Depression had ruined the nation – he said he’d try anything that might work to fix things, and he did. The WPA worked, as did the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and new banking regulations, and social security and unemployment insurance. Other things, like expanding the Supreme Court to fifteen justices, to stop them from blocking all the new ideas, didn’t work out at all. FDR shrugged and moved on – and all the while Republicans seethed. Since Howard Taft, or before, they’d always had a laser-like focus on the tried and true – even if it led to disaster – hands off business, no matter what, and work to contain the unhappiness of the working stiffs out there, as those folks were useless anyway. That never varied, and Will Rogers found the contrast amusing. He was a proud and happily exasperated FDR Democrat, who played polo.

It’s just as well he’s dead now. He wouldn’t recognize the current political landscape. Will Rogers’ joke about the Democrats wouldn’t work these days. In 2008, Barack Obama simply out-organized Hillary Clinton, with a brilliant fifty-state field operation and a dedicated support staff that tracked everything about every potential voter, and then Obama did the same to John McCain. In 2012, Obama did the same thing to Mitt Romney, who in the end hadn’t even prepared a concession speech – his support staff had misread all the available data and his campaign’s get-out-the-vote software was still in beta-test and never actually worked. The organized political party turned out to be the Democrats. The Republicans were a clown show, and there was a hint of that back in 2008, when it became obvious that Sarah Palin didn’t have much use for John McCain. She had her own ambitions. The McCain people were in damage-control half the time. They couldn’t control her, which seemed to suit her just fine. It’s all in Game Change – she loved “going rogue” and McCain had made a career of it. There’s no way they could work that out. Everybody can’t go rogue. All you get is backbiting and recriminations, with a bit of name-calling thrown in.

Sarah Palin was a game changer, actually. She exposed the hidden contradiction that was there all along – a party that’s all about hands-off individualism and personal responsibility cannot be an organized political party. Organization implies the opposite, and matters weren’t helped with the rise of the Tea Party in the midterm elections which followed. Those folks had no use for Obama at all, but they also had no use for what are sometimes called establishment Republicans – so they ran true rogues in Republican primaries, principled no-compromise folks who knocked out the weak sisters in the party, and then lost in the general election, spectacularly. There were safe seats of course, places with nary a Democrat in sight, so fifty or more of these people made it to the House, and a few made it to the Senate, like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Those are the rogues, actually generated by the philosophy of the party, who are now tearing the party apart, as was inevitable.

Will Rogers would understand none of this. Sure, Republicans are still working hard to undo every single thing FDR did, on principle, but they’ve lost their focus. Now it’s all backbiting and recriminations on the other side, with a bit of name-calling thrown in, and there’s nothing happy about it:

America, are you ready for another beer summit?

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., seems to be, but his enthusiasm isn’t shared by Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with whom the senator has been feuding over the past week.

Paul is proposing hoisting a brew with Christie in an effort to put their spat over national security issues to rest.

“I think with Governor Christie it’s gotten a little too personal, so we’re ready to kiss and make up,” Paul told Fox News host Neil Cavuto on Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m inviting him for a beer,” Paul said. “Any time he would like to come down and sit down at the pub right around the corner from the Senate, we’ll have a beer.”

Chris Christie is having none of that:

I’m running for re-election in New Jersey. I don’t really have time for that at the moment. You know, if I find myself down in Washington, I’ll certainly look him up. I don’t suspect I’ll be there anytime soon. I’ve got work to do here.

In short, he has a real job. That’s wasn’t nice, but they are having a spat:

Paul and Christie have been engaged in a weeklong war of words that began with Christie criticizing Paul over his statements that some domestic security efforts could violate citizens’ rights to privacy.

“I mean, these esoteric, intellectual debates – I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. And they won’t, ’cause that’s a much tougher conversation to have,” Christie said at a roundtable discussion in Aspen, Colo.

Paul responded forcefully.

“Chris Christie worries about the dangers of freedom. I worry about the danger of losing that freedom,” Paul said in a post on his Facebook page. “Spying without warrants is unconstitutional.”

The battle escalated, with Paul calling Christie the “king of bacon” for seeking federal aid to help the state recover from Superstorm Sandy. Christie retorted that New Jersey gives more in taxes than it receives in federal aid while Paul’s Kentucky gets more than it gives.

That led to this:

“I don’t know why Senator Paul is so out of whack about this,” Christie said. “At the end of the day, I never called him any names, yet he called me names. I didn’t use any childish-type phrases like ‘gimme, gimme, gimme.’ He did. And I just have to assume from that that he’s just trying to get attention. That’s fine. … He’s not the first politician who’s used me to get attention in the national media, and I’m sure he won’t be the last.”

They’re not going to work this out. They both want to be president. It’s kind of like Palin and McCain way back when, but they’re not alone:

Ted Cruz is taking his hardball tactics to a whole new level.

The Texas freshman senator and his senior aides are unleashing a barrage of attacks on their fellow Republicans for refusing to support their plan to choke off Obamacare as a condition for funding the government. Cruz’s chief of staff is lambasting fellow conservatives like Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn for serving in the “surrender caucus.” His top political strategist has compared Mitch McConnell to Barack Obama. And the senator himself has said many Republicans are “scared” to wage this fight.

Yep, he’s calling them chicken, and they think he’s a fool:

The essence of the clash is this: Cruz can’t comprehend why his GOP colleagues don’t welcome the fight, while more senior Republicans think the junior Texan simply doesn’t understand – or care – about the dire political consequences for their party of a government shutdown. Plus, Cruz’s critics think the plan to repeal Obamacare is destined to fail.

It will, but Cruz may be a fox rather than a fool. The Tea Party crowd loves him, although the blogger BooMan isn’t so sure that helps much:

Senator Cruz is pretty obviously going to run for the Republican nomination for president, and he’s positioning himself as the most far-right candidate in the race. Everyone else is a coward. Everyone else is corrupted by Washington. Only Senator Cruz has the steel to fight. Republicans who don’t want to shut down the government have to defend themselves from these attacks, and presidential aspirants will have to be willing to do it in the presidential debates and somehow win the argument with the Republican base. Either that or they will fall in line with Sen. Cruz. That’s what Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have done.

The 2016 election is still a long way off, and ObamaCare will be well-established by then. People will be very tired of dysfunction and gridlock by then, too, and there are no signs that the problem will have abated before 2016.

Even though the Republican leadership and consultant class does not want to follow Ted Cruz’s government shutdown strategy, none of them dare argue against the underlying principle, which is to repeal ObamaCare. That will remain an orthodox article of faith that no Republican can deviate from. It’s a sickness.

And Senator Cruz is spreading the disease.

This is a good way to destroy the party, but then there’s new polling:

Today, a new Pew Research survey suggests that Republican presidential candidates won’t find it easy to move toward the center. The poll shows that Republicans recognize the need for change – with 59 percent even suggesting they need to change on the issues. But when it comes to the specifics, most Republicans support maintaining the party’s current positions or even moving further to the right. When asked about the party’s current stance on gay marriage, immigration, government spending, abortion, and guns, at least 60 percent of Republicans said they thought the party was about right or too moderate.

It’s a party of rogues:

Desire for change was greatest, if still very limited, on cultural conservative issues. On gay marriage, 31 percent of Republicans said they wanted the party to moderate. But 27 percent thought the party wasn’t conservative enough (do they want a return to sodomy laws?) and another 33 percent were satisfied with the party’s current stance. The numbers were similar on abortion: 25 percent wanted the party to moderate, but 26 percent thought the party wasn’t conservative enough, and another 41 percent were satisfied with the party’s current position.

On immigration, where the party’s current position is potentially less clear to voters, the Republican rank-and-file isn’t itching to get behind a compromise. 17 percent support moving to the left on immigration, compared to 36 percent who want the party to get more conservative. More generally, 67 percent of Republicans think the party is compromising too much or the right amount with Democrats.

There’s much more of this, but basically the idea is they all know the party should change a bit, and must, but they see no reason to change anything really. Will Rogers would smile. He had seen this, with another party, and the Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore adds this:

Now it’s important to note two things about the survey right off the bat. First, it includes Republican “leaners” who probably boost the number of self-identified “moderates” in the survey, and also the number of those who don’t regularly participate in Republican primaries. And second, when it asks Republicans what direction they want the party to take, it’s not always clear how they perceive the party’s current direction. …

In any event, there’s not much comfort in this poll for those who are looking for signs that the “fever is breaking.” Yes, there’s less rank-and-file identification with the Tea Party than there was in 2010, but since there is very little actual disagreement (only 11% of Republicans in this poll) with the Tea Folk, that may simply reflect the belief of some that the Tea Party is the Republican Party. Since some observers are already looking at Chris Christie as a potential fever-breaker, it’s notable that in this poll his standing is a lot iffier than that of other named potential ’16ers (a favorable/unfavorable ratio of 47/30, which, as the New Republic’s Nate Cohn points out, is worse than Mitt Romney ever performed in a similar poll during his high-wire run to the GOP nomination). If, as we have every reason to expect based on turnout patterns and the ’14 landscape, Republicans have a non-disastrous midterm cycle, there’s no reason to believe Republicans are going to demand massive changes in messaging or strategy, and every reason to suspect those most adamant for change will mainly want a more feverous party.

Hey, Sarah Palin started it!

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog sees where this is leading:

Notice what’s been going on in the polls for a long time now: Voters hate the Republican Party, according to polls, and really hate congressional Republicans.

The reason the GOP’s poll numbers are much worse than the Democratic Party’s is that Republicans, unlike Democrats, tell pollsters they don’t like their own party. See, for instance, the recent Marist poll in which 68% of Democrats said they approved of the Democrats in Congress, but only 35% of Republicans approved of congressional Republicans.

None of this, mind you, prevents disgruntled Republicans from voting Republican. There’s a simple reason for that. Republicans may dislike their party, but the majority of them dislike it because it’s not right-wing enough. So, come Election Day, they’re obviously going to vote for the most right-wing major party on the ballot, even though it falls short of their conservatively pure standards.

What we have here is a party that hates itself:

In general, Republicans dislike their party, even though they vote for it. Teabaggers in particular see the party as a sinkhole of appalling squishiness – and they vote more than non-teabaggers.

This explains Ted Cruz on Obamacare, and the business with no immigration reform, which a reader at Talking Points Memo frames this way:

Grant that a failure to pass immigration reform would be a large and durable setback for the Republican Party among Hispanic voters. How much would passing a reform bill really help the GOP?

From what I can see, not very much at all – to appease the anti-immigrant crowd within the Republican base, even Reform supporter Lindsay Graham has boasted of advocated [sic] a military-style “surge” to stop Hispanics from crossing the southern border. Congressional Republicans in favor of reform are insisting on a path to citizenship easily portrayed to Hispanics as onerously long and cumbersome.

And on top of this it is almost certain that a sizable minority (in the best case) of Congressional Republicans will vote against any reform bill. It just seems to me that avoiding complete disaster for the GOP among Hispanic voters – by getting just enough Republican votes to pass immigration reform – still leaves Republicans having suffered significant damage that could last for several election cycles.

The damage is already done. There’s no point to any of this, and as Elias Isquith notes at Salon, this leaves the party paralyzed:

There was a time, about two summers ago, when Republicans in Congress opposed the president for a reason. The reason wasn’t exactly an honorable or stirring one, but at least it had a logic to it. The thinking, reportedly articulated by Paul Ryan among others, went a little something like this: Any grand bargain, no matter how tilted to the right wing, would only help Obama win reelection. But all-out intransigence, when paired with a weak economy and looming debt, would make Obama look ineffectual, weak, and in over his head. And that was the way back to 1600 Penn.

But then Mitt Romney happened, and we all know how that went.

Cut to yesterday, more than two years later, and depressingly little has changed. There Obama stands; still president, still trying, and still finding no serious partner with whom to bargain. But whereas the original grand bargain was truly sweeping in its ambitions, trading (too few) tax hikes for (too many) cuts to social insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security, this latest iteration of what some have called the president’s white whale is far more modest. And yet Republican resistance is, if anything, even firmer.

This time around, Obama is essentially asking to trade a cut to corporate tax rates in exchange for greater investment in jobs programs and public infrastructure. It’s a perfectly sensible deal, too, one in which each side gets something they’ve long wanted, and each side gives the other something they’d, in a perfect world, probably rather not. Needless to say, Republicans hate it.

Of course they do. This is pure reflex, not logic: They have lost their focus, and now there’s this:

Sen. John McCain says if it in 2016 came down to Sen. Rand Paul or Hillary Clinton for president, he might have a hard time making up his mind.

Asked about the possibility in a new, lengthy interview with The New Republic, McCain (R-Ariz.) quipped: “It is gonna be a tough choice [laughs].”

It’s Will Rogers’ ghost that’s laughing. Rogers got it all wrong. McCain, always a rogue, is impressed with Hillary Clinton and has called Rand Paul and Ted Cruz “whako birds” – although he later apologized. That was undignified. He didn’t say he had been wrong.

This had to happen. A party based on hyper-individualism will inevitably, and proudly, tear itself apart. A party that’s based on community and everyone getting a chance, as we’re all in this together, will pull itself together, eventually. Will Rogers just didn’t stick around long enough to see it.

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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.
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