It’s just not funny anymore. Sometimes that’s hard to accept, and that’s certainly the case here in Hollywood, where the whole point is to make a lot of money – but Airplane II was not as funny as wildly successful Airplane! The sequel almost recovered its production costs, and may yet, as it pops up on basic cable now and then, but that’s about it. The exact same jokes, involving the same cast, in a slightly different setting, are still the exact same jokes. It didn’t work, and the same is true for Major League II and Ghostbusters II – the sequels were depressing and flat. The folks at Columbia Pictures thought they could pry a few more bucks out of the public with Ghostbusters III of course, but the team that created the franchise rebelled – “No-one wants to pay money to see fat old men chasing ghosts.” Bill Murray was right, and that’s what’s so depressing about Hollywood right now – everything’s a sequel and an obvious attempt to pry a few more bucks out of the public. There are three more Avatar films on the way – to be shot simultaneously to minimize production costs and maximize profits, which might be an acknowledgement that each of the new films will most likely be as depressing and flat as almost all sequels are. The studios know that, but you stick with what made money, because there may be a few million to be made here and there, maybe, before no one shows up at all. It’s a risk-reward calculation. Go for the sure thing, even if the returns are meager, and diminishing. At least you’ll have something to show for it. It may not be much, but it’s something. What’s new and exciting isn’t ever a sure thing.
This describes the liberal-conservative divide in politics too. Conservatism is, at its core, about preserving what’s tried and true, and now, even if it’s not true anymore. Tom Edsall, that professor of journalism at Columbia University, offers a new comprehensive review of how Republicans are clinging to what they think is tried and true, even as they themselves know it’s not only not funny anymore, if it ever was, and it’s killing them. They attack anything new, and Edsall cites the usual:
Jeb Bush warned last year that both Ronald Reagan and his own father would have a “hard time” fitting into the contemporary Republican Party, which he described as dominated by “an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.”
A few months ago, Bush, who is expected to run for the party’s nomination in 2016, took it up a notch. At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in March, Bush declared:
“All too often we’re associated with being anti-everything. Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates, even though they share our core beliefs, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party.”
Two months later, Bob Dole – the Republican presidential nominee in 1996 and a 35-year veteran of the House and Senate — was asked on “Fox News Sunday”: “Could people like Bob Dole, even Ronald Reagan, make it in today’s Republican Party?”
“I doubt it. Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon wouldn’t have made it – because he had ideas.”
Edsall also cites William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard who he calls “one of the original architects of the bomb-throwing right” for good reason, offering this comment seven months ago:
The conservative movement – a bulwark of American strength for the last several decades – is in deep disarray. Reading about some conservative organizations and Republican campaigns these days, one is reminded of Eric Hoffer’s remark, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” It may be that major parts of American conservatism have become such a racket that a kind of re-founding of the movement as a cause is necessary.
It seems that the leadership, such as it is, of American conservatism are acting like Hollywood studio heads, approving sequels to what worked once, hoping for the best, which is pretty much a racket. One day no one will show up at all, but not just yet, or so they hope.
This is compounded by the ghosts of the Civil War:
A part of the Republican problem lies in the party’s disproportionate dependence on white Southern voters. These voters are well to the right of the rest of the nation, and they elect the dominant block of hard-right conservatives in the House. Of the 234 Republican members of the House, 97 – two-fifths – come from the 11 Confederate states, and these 97 are almost uniformly opposed to negotiation of any kind with Democrats.
It is the Southern conservatives who, along with their Northern Tea Party colleagues, seek to kill immigration reform and who insisted on removing the food stamp program from the recently passed Farm Bill.
These he calls “nostalgia” Republicans. They may be the fat old men chasing ghosts, but this sums it up nicely:
The Republican Party is struggling to resolve the conflict between its pragmatic establishment wing and its ideological-suicidal wing. Speaking right after President Obama’s re-election, Haley Barbour, a former governor of Mississippi and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, summarized the party’s problem succinctly. At a meeting in Las Vegas of the Republican Governors Association, Barbour said: “We’ve got to give our political organizational activity a very serious proctology exam. We need to look everywhere.”
Now it’s a new interview with the Daily Beast where Charlie Rangel, the Democratic congressman from New York, says the Tea Party crowd is basically the “same group” that fought for segregation fifty or more years ago:
“It is the same group we faced in the South with those white crackers and the dogs and the police. They didn’t care about how they looked,” Rangel said.
Because of this, Rangel said the Tea Party could be defeated using the same tactics employed against Jim Crow.
“It was just fierce indifference to human life that caused America to say enough is enough – ‘I don’t want to see it and I am not a part of it.’ What the hell! If you have to bomb little kids and send dogs out against human beings, give me a break,” said Rangel.
If you have to cut food stamps by twenty billion, or forty billion – they can’t decide which – you got your fierce indifference to human life right there. The same goes for Meals on Wheels – now cut drastically, as the Republicans wanted – so many of the elderly poor will now go hungry. The current FreedomWorks notion that they can cause Obamacare to crash and burn if enough good Americans decide to simply refuse to buy health insurance ever – so the risk pool would be minimal and unworkable – is a cool idea to destroy Obamacare. Think of the majority of Americans, or even more, simply refusing to carry any health insurance at all. That would, of course, ruin the whole plan and really put Obama in his place – except there’s a bit of a human cost. Charlie Rangel was onto something. That fierce indifference to human life burned them once. It could burn them again.
Maybe it is racism too, as it was originally, but Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall argues that’s not quite it:
The biggest news of the earlier 21st century in American politics isn’t that there’s more racism or less but that the political impact of racial division has changed. For decades, the irresistible political catnip of the right was the political appeal – more or less veiled – to racial division. It was, in most cases, undeniably good politics. But that’s not clear at all anymore.
He sees two factors at work here:
One is a process we’re all happily familiar with: the declining role of racism in our society. We see it in public opinion data – especially among the young, the rise of interracial marriages, willingness to vote for non-white candidates and many other ways. We all realize that in racial terms we’re not living in 1955 or even 1995 for that matter. The second is the rapid growth of the non-white voting population.
But talking about less ‘racism’ is too muddled and imprecise a way to put it, though it’s fine as a short hand. What we’re really talking about is a declining percentage of the white population that believes whites are or need to be the dominant social group in the country. To be clear, the converse of that doesn’t mean instituting apartheid or hating blacks or Hispanics or Asians or anyone else.
It’s a question of who is in control and whether whites need to be the ones in control:
At the moment we’re moving toward one party that is genuinely multi-racial in composition, and another that is increasingly a white persons’ party, albeit having limited minority representation and a small number of non-white officeholders. There’s a small but substantial minority of the population that finds a new America where whites really aren’t the overwhelmingly dominant group, simply in numbers, very frightening. I’d put the number at somewhere between 20% and 25% of the population. And they are overwhelmingly in the Republican Party or they’re right-leaning independents who vote Republican.
Those are the fat old (white) men chasing ghosts, like congressman Steve King saying that almost all DREAMers are drug mules and criminals, with calves that look like cantaloupes. King isn’t fat – he’s rather trim, actually – but he is one of those guys, and is, as Marshall notes, a problem for the party:
He’s now been denounced by John Boehner, Raul Labrador (one of the biggest border security hawks in Congress) and others. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their rebukes. But King is speaking for the raw, undomesticated voice of that slice of the electorate for whom these social and population trends spell a basically non-stop state of white panic expressed through Obama conspiracy theories, fears of marauding Mexican hordes, hyper-opposition to primarily Latin American immigration and so much more.
Yes, King is more intemperate, voluble and perhaps more hateful than most. But he does speak for that relatively small slice of the electorate which makes up a pretty big slice of the GOP electorate and keeps the GOP anchored in opposition to immigration reform and to policies which put most of the non-white population off-limits to the party indefinitely. That’s why the whole plan to ‘double down’ on the ‘whites only’ strategy now increasingly favored by Republicans isn’t so much of a strategy as a recognition that it can’t break free or discipline that mammoth part of its voter base.
That’s why studios make sequels too. Go for the sure thing, even if the returns are meager, and diminishing.
The economist Paul Krugman frames it this way:
In the short run the point is that Republican leaders are about to reap the whirlwind, because they haven’t had the courage to tell the base that Obamacare is here to stay, that the sequester is in fact intolerable, and that in general they have at least for now lost the war over the shape of American society. As a result, we’re looking at many drama-filled months, with a high probability of government shutdowns and even debt defaults.
Over the longer run the point is that one of America’s two major political parties has basically gone off the deep end; policy content aside, a sane party doesn’t hold dozens of votes declaring its intention to repeal a law that everyone knows will stay on the books regardless. And since that party continues to hold substantial blocking power, we are looking at a country that’s increasingly ungovernable.
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein puts it this way:
The campaign against Obamacare began as a campaign for self-interest. Obamacare, conservatives promised, would raise your taxes, take away your doctor and possibly put you in front of a death panel. The fight to keep it from passing was a fight to keep bad things from happening.
But the effort has devolved into something much weirder: A campaign of self-sacrifice. The current crop of Republican strategies asks conservative congressmen to hurt their constituents and their political prospects, conservative governors to hurt their states, and conservative activists to hurt themselves. It’s a kamikaze mission to stop Obamacare.
It’s just not funny anymore:
Take Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio’s effort to shut down the federal government unless the Obama administration agrees to defund its signature piece of legislation. If they managed to gather enough support to make good on the threat, the result would be a painful government shutdown that the public would – rightly – blame entirely on the Republican Party. They would’ve hurt their constituents and their chances of retaking the Senate majority in 2014.
“If I thought this would work, I would support it,” writes my colleague Charles Krauthammer. “But I don’t fancy suicide. It has a tendency to be fatal.”
There’s more too:
In the states, Republican governors are saying no to billions of dollars in Medicaid money (and, in a number of cases where they said “yes,” their even-more conservative legislatures have said “no” on their behalf). That cuts them off from much-needed funds and cuts their poorest constituents off from free health insurance. Moreover, it means their safety-net hospitals lose money they were relying on to survive – forcing devastating cuts to care. The result is a poorer state, worse-off residents and a health system under terrible financial stress. But at least they’ve taken a stand against Obamacare!
Someone really is chasing ghosts here:
Over the past couple of years, Republicans have responded to minority status by adopting more extreme political tactics. Chief among them is hostage taking: threatening to shut down the government, or breach the debt ceiling, if they don’t get their way.
But now Republicans have taken themselves hostage. They’re threatening to hurt themselves and their states and their voters and their most committed activists if Democrats don’t give them their way on Obamacare. It’s evidence of their extraordinary dedication to the cause, but also to their increasingly extreme view of how American politics works.
Actually, this is how American politics works:
Obamacare beat a filibuster. It beat the right’s legal challenge. Its namesake beat the Republican Party’s nominee for president. Come 2014, it will start helping millions of Americans afford health insurance, and come the 2016 election it will have been delivering health care to tens of millions of Americans for almost three years. That’s not the kind of program that just goes away in American politics.
And so Republicans are desperate to stop it from going into effect in October, and from working smoothly after that. But desperation doesn’t always lead to good strategies.
That’s why the third Ghostbusters movie was never made. Bill Murray and the rest of the original group could smell the desperation in the air, and they wanted no part of it, and Slate’s John Dickerson captures the Republicans’ current desperation:
On Friday, the House voted for the 40th time to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Though each week presents new reasons to not like the bill – premiums up 40 percent in Ohio – the votes are as pointless as ever because the legislation isn’t going anywhere. But this isn’t as insane as it looks because the goal isn’t repealing the legislation. The vote is entirely symbolic. The conservative base likes it and we are heading into a non-presidential-election year where the base is important. (Sen. Mike Lee is raising money from his effort to kill the bill.)
But while House Republicans can pass bills that do nothing, they could not pass an appropriations bill, which is a basic requirement of being in charge of the place. House leaders had to pull the vote on an appropriations bill for transportation and housing at the last minute on Wednesday because they could not find the votes. The spending cuts were too deep for almost all Democrats and even some Republicans. Conservatives also voted against it for not cutting enough. Mix that opposition together and the effort went THUD, the appropriate shorthand used to refer to the bill (Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development).
They can’t do a thing, but they can go for the sure thing, even if the returns are meager, and diminishing:
When you spend your time doing base maintenance and not basic maintenance, something has gotten out of whack. But it’s all about maintaining your base more than ever in Washington these days, whether it’s your ideological base or your fundraising base. The more time you spend raising money and fighting off primary challenges, the less time and inclination a lawmaker has for governing. Not coincidentally, Congress takes its mid-year break having passed the fewest laws in its history. Congressional approval has been so low for so long the store of metaphors describing how low it has fallen is bankrupt, too.
It’s all about those last few dollars you can pry out of your fans, and that alone:
The money story is a familiar one. Lawmakers may not be highly productive when it comes to creative solutions or passing bills, but they are productive when it comes to raising money. Politico did an analysis this week which showed that Senate incumbents running for re-election in 2014 are building up their war chests faster and larger than ever before. If you are raising that much money, you’re not doing your day job. The hunt for money also infects your day job because you are more inclined to do what your money backers want. When you’re stooped in a permanent grovel, it’s hard to straighten up.
It’s not just the fundraising requirements that have moved candidates to election mode earlier. If you define yourself or your opponent early, you can make your job easier later. Or, you can scare them out of the race with a robust set of early attacks. That is how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell scared actress/activist Ashley Judd from running. To be ready to pounce, you’ve got to start your next campaign the day you win your seat.
This has nothing to do with governing:
The fear of an electoral ejection has moved into the twitch muscles. Everyone must be on the lookout. The old cliché is that an incumbent either runs scared or runs unopposed, but now GOP candidates have to stay in a perpetual state of fear, even if they are unopposed. You might get a challenger any day, and the old barriers to entry don’t stop the challenges.
Politicians have always acted politically, but there were holidays. After elections you could vote your conscience, provided you had one. Or seniority and institutional structure allowed you to attend to long-term problems free from the push-button will of the people.
That’s just not the case now:
Speaker Boehner says he can pass the THUD bill when the House returns in the fall. He could do so by increasing the funding levels to make it more palatable to moderate Republicans and maybe some Democrats. That would anger the grassroots focused on reducing the size of government. They are wary that Boehner, who likes to cut spending but also needs to run the place, might capitulate. If the House speaker can’t find a solution, this problem will face him on a host of appropriations bills, a debt limit agreement, and immigration…
He’s trapped, and as much as liberals of all sorts take great glee in watching these guys flail around and fail again and again, unable to pass even their own legislation, it’s just not funny anymore. Charlie Rangel speaks of their fierce indifference to human life, which is no laughing matter, were what they talk about to pass into law, nor is it funny how they paralyzed the government, which isn’t quite as bad, but bad enough. This is just not working, and maybe, sooner rather than later, no one will want to be part of it – but it won’t be moral outrage. It’ll be something much simpler. No one wants to watch fat old (white) men chasing ghosts.