Bold and Principled Pitilessness

The problem with the Statue of Liberty is that it’s French – designed and built in Paris, of all places, and shipped over here in crates. Sure it was a gift on the centennial of our revolution, but it was finally completed a bit over ten years late, and the sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, modeled the face after that of Charlotte Beysser Bartholdi, his own mother. That’s no American lady. There was also a problem with the arm holding up the lamp, so Bartholdi turned to Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel and his structural engineer, Maurice Koechlin, to design the interior iron truss tower that holds the whole thing up. It’s an Eiffel Tower in disguise, and thus it’s a bit surprising that in the run-up to the Iraq War, when the French insisted we were making a mistake, that angry Republicans, and many others, didn’t call for the thing to be torn down. We settled pouring expensive French wine in gutters and renaming French fries – although Freedom Fries never really caught on and the wine in the gutters, only here and there, was the cheap stuff. All was forgiven when the French elected Nicholas Sarkozy as their president, that mean and nasty little man who was about as far-right as the French have ever been able to manage. He’s gone now – the French came to despise him – but at the time that was a sign someone finally agreed with our general approach to all affairs domestic and international – bold and principled pitilessness – and thus no one got around to suggesting that the Statue of Liberty should be torn down and sold for scrap.

There’s still a problem with Lady Liberty, however. It’s those words from Emma Lazarus at the base – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Those words are a tad inconvenient for Republicans in the current debate over immigration reform – Emma Lazarus may have been good buddies with Ralph Waldo Emerson and all that, but she didn’t add “under certain conditions” to her text. She didn’t understand the morality of stern pitilessness. This is the land of personal responsibility. The poor have shown that they don’t have that. They’re hopeless. Mitt Romney said so – the forty-seven percent are hopeless, and undocumented immigrants will self-deport if we show them no pity at all, which was what he proposed, and he wasn’t alone. Things have changed since the days of Emma Lazarus.

That’s what the New York Times’ Charles Blow sees, as he hits the highlights:

Today’s America – at least as measured by the actions and inactions of the pariahs who roam its halls of power and the people who put them there – is insular, cruel and uncaring.

In this America, people blame welfare for creating poverty rather than for mitigating the impact of it. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in June found that the No. 1 reason people gave for our continuing poverty crisis was: “Too much welfare that prevents initiative.”

In this America, the House can – as it did in July – pass a farm bill that left out the food stamp program at a time when a record number of Americans, nearly 48 million, are depending on the benefits.

In this America, a land of immigrants, comprehensive immigration reform can be stalled in The People’s Branch of government, and anti-reform mouthpieces like Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan can warn that immigration reform will be the end of the country.

And in today’s America, poverty and homelessness can easily seep beneath the wall we erect in our minds to define it.

This is followed by a lot of facts and figures which hammer his point home, but facts and figures don’t seem to make much difference these days. Few are expressing outrage and showing empathy, which Blow explains this way:

Part of our current condition is obviously partisan. Republicans have become the party of “blame the victim.” Whatever your lesser lot in life, it’s completely within your means to correct, according to their logic. Poverty, hunger, homelessness and desperation aren’t violence to the spirit but motivation to the will. If you want more and you work harder, all your problems will disappear. Sink or swim. Pull yourself up. Get over it. Of course, that narrow conservative doctrine denies a broader reality: that there are working poor and chronically unemployed – people who do want and who do work and who do want to work, but who remain stuck on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

In this regard, Republicans have all but abandoned the idea of compassionate conservatism and are diving headlong into callous conservatism.

Yes, but they’re only doing that for a reason, which has something to do with all of us:

As Susan Fiske, a Princeton professor who has studied people’s attitudes toward the poor for more than a decade, told me on Friday:

“The stereotypes of poor people in the United States are among the most negative prejudices that we have. And people basically view particularly homeless people as having no redeeming qualities – there’s not the competence for anything, not having good intentions and not being trustworthy.”

Fiske’s research shows that people respond not only to the poor and homeless with revulsion, but they also react negatively to people they perceive as undocumented immigrants – essentially anyone without an address.

If some people’s impulse is to turn up a nose rather than extend a hand, no wonder we send so many lawmakers empty of empathy to Congress.

We elect folks who we think get it right, so this was inevitable. Fiske calls Washington today “a town without pity” so perhaps we should rename the Statue of Liberty La Belle Dame sans Merci or something. Inflecting pain is good. It toughens people up. It makes them better people.

That’s why we need to shut down the government, and it seems we will:

ObamaCare is at the center of a rapidly escalating fight that threatens to shut the government down this fall.

Senate Republicans, including two members of the leadership, are coalescing around a proposal to block any government funding resolution that includes money for the implementation of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

President Obama and congressional Democrats will have nothing to do with such nonsense, and Republicans tried this in Obama’s first term, only to back off and tick off the Tea Party crowd, but things change:

This time, GOP lawmakers are emboldened by problems plaguing the administration’s ObamaCare implementation. But that zeal could put Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a tough spot. Both leaders have downplayed previous talk of shuttering the government.

In the House, 64 Republicans have signed onto a letter pressing Boehner not to bring any legislation funding ObamaCare to the floor.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the leader of the Senate effort, predicts the vast majority of the Senate Republican Conference will back his plan, giving him enough votes to sustain a filibuster of a stopgap spending measure.

Of course Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, the rising stars, want this, so others do too:

Several influential members of the Republican conference are backing the controversial tactic, including Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) and Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the second- and third-ranking members of the GOP leadership, respectively.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who is widely considered a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, has also signed on.

Earlier this month, he spoke out in favor of holding hostage the government operation funds to freeze the rollout of the controversial healthcare law at a breakfast sponsored by Concerned Veterans for America. Those remarks were viewed as an attempt to appease the GOP base after he helped shepherd a controversial immigration bill through the Senate.

John McCain and Mitt Romney and even Karl Rove think they’re crazy, and so does Eric Cantor now. Inflicting pain to make a point – it wouldn’t even work – might not sit well with the American people, and there’s what Newt Gingrich did in 1995:

Republicans took most of the public blame over the last shutdown, creating momentum for former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection.

A senior GOP aide noted that 127 Republicans signed a similar letter to Boehner last year urging him not to advance legislation funding healthcare reform.

But conservatives argue the implementation of the law will be an economic disaster and aggressive tactics are needed to avert it.

They’re conflicted, and Obama is exploiting that:

President Barack Obama predicted there won’t be a government shutdown over Obamacare, while taking shots at those Republicans pushing the idea of defunding the health care law. “I’m assuming they will not take that path,” Obama said in his press conference. “I have confidence that common sense in the end will prevail.”

“The idea that we’re going to shut down the government unless we can prevent thirty million people from getting health care is a bad idea,” he added.

A shutdown, he said, would hurt the economy when the recovery is “getting some traction.”

Actually it was a little more dramatic than that. When seniors living on the edge don’t get their Social Security check and can’t pay the rent or buy food, they might be a bit put off with the Republicans. Obama mentioned that possibility, but there’s always an answer to such things:

President Barack Obama wants the GOP to shut down the federal government in its quest of defund Obamacare, Rep. Marsha Blackburn told Newsmax on Friday.

“He’s the one who wants a government shutdown,” the Tennessee Republican said. “He’s probably looking at it and saying: ‘Shut it down. Give me the checkbook – and I get to control all discretionary spending, the Obamacare spending, the mandatory spending.’

“He’s just sitting there saying: ‘Have at it. Give it a shutdown,'” Blackburn added.

“That’s not what we want. We want for him to be working with us instead of running around the country giving campaign speeches.”

If you glance at the right-wing sites and watch Fox News you’ll see this might be the new message, the best way to frame it all, even if it isn’t quite a unified message yet. Obama wants to shut down the government – they don’t. They never wanted to – but Obama is so dumb and arrogant he’ll implement a law that everyone knows should have never been passed, and a law that the Supreme Court really didn’t declare constitutional – they didn’t really mean it. All Obama has to do is NOT implement that “law” – which isn’t really a law, or shouldn’t be, and so on and so forth. Everyone knows what this means. This means that Obama is a tyrant – a madman – he wants to shut down the government. After all, back in the mid-nineties, Newt Gingrich didn’t shut down the government. Bill Clinton did. That was HIS choice. He refused to make massive cuts to Social Security. What a jerk!

That’s not what people remember, but David Weigel reports that a few years ago, Newt Gingrich had a different view:

At a luncheon at the Heritage Foundation – his second meeting with conservative journalists and bloggers today – Newt Gingrich expanded a bit on his argument, made most recently at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, that a new Republican Congress could roll back the Democrats’ victory on healthcare reform by refusing to fund it. I asked Gingrich how this would work, given the experience of Republicans in the winter of 1995 when a showdown over the budget forced a government shutdown.

“Wait a second,” said Gingrich. “This is the standard, elite, inside-the-Beltway worldview. Tell me in what way we didn’t win. After that, we got to a balanced budget. And what happened to the Republican majority? The answer, of course, is that Republicans held the majority in 1996, while President Bill Clinton was reelected.”

It was, really, a win for them, in a way, sort of, maybe, so Republicans should go for it:

Gingrich, having argued that the 1995 shutdown was good for Republicans, argued that a potential battle over healthcare would be even better. “There’s a new poll out this morning,” said Gingrich, referring to a Rasmussen Reports study. “By 58 to 38, people want to repeal the healthcare bill. It’ll get worse as people learn more and as the failure of the bill becomes more obvious. So if you take that model, all the Republican Congress needs to say in January is, ‘We won’t fund it.’ What the president needs to decide is: He’s going to veto the bill. He needs to force a crisis on an issue that’s a 58 to 38 issue. And it’s going to get worse. It’ll be 2 to 1 or better by the time we get down to the fight – because this bill is terrible.”

That was Gingrich’s thinking just before the last election. Put Obama on the spot, and everyone got 1995 wrong. He still holds this view, but Steve Kornacki thinks Newt’s memory is clouded:

From the instant the shutdown began that November, the public sided overwhelmingly with the president, whose job approval ratings instantly recovered to levels not seen since the early days of his presidency. Long derided as slippery and spineless, Clinton portrayed his veto as an act of principle and responsible leadership, while the Republicans were made to look like immature ideological zealots. Virtually overnight, Clinton took the lead in 1996 trial heats against Dole, which he never surrendered.

But Gingrich can’t admit this now. To concede the truth – that a massive strategic error on his part helped pave the way for Clinton’s reelection and that, more broadly, the tone-deaf nature of his speakership represented one continuous, four-year political gift to Democrats – would threaten his role as one of the right’s leading public voices today. So, instead, he’s concocted an alternate history, one that paints the shutdown as a policy and political triumph for the GOP. …

Nor is the actual history of the ’95 shutdown (technically, the ’95-96 shutdown; the second shutdown period lasted one week into the next year) something that the GOP’s Tea Party base is interested in heeding, either. Some of them apparently prefer a different revised history, one that holds that the shutdown would have been a political winner for the GOP, if only Gingrich hadn’t mucked it up by whining about a supposed Air Force One snub from Clinton (and seeming to suggest that the GOP’s budget demands were payback).

Others simply seem oblivious to what happened, displaying the same ideological fervor that marked the far right GOP freshman class of ’94, which came to Washington itching for a showdown with Clinton.

That was the problem:

Gingrich and his House freshmen couldn’t fathom a scenario under which the public would turn on them if they demanded that Clinton sign their balanced budget plan. After all, voters didn’t like Clinton and hated deficits: Hadn’t that been the combined message of the ’94 and ’92 elections? Others on the right saw an added opportunity in a shutdown: How many people would realize that their lives were no worse without the government and become converts to the conservative cause? (That same spirit is in evidence today. Just consider blogger Erick Erickson’s recent declaration, via Twitter, that “I’m almost giddy thinking about a government shutdown next year. I cannot wait!”)

But the logic of the electorate tends to be more contradictory than coherent. Sure, voters hate the idea of deficits and love the notion of a balanced budget. But they also like Medicare, which Gingrich’s GOP targeted for cuts in its plan, and are made uncomfortable by anything that seems radical – like a government shutdown, even if it doesn’t personally affect their lives.

But it did affect their lives:

After a months-long game of chicken and with emergency funding for government operations set to expire, Clinton vetoed a stopgap budget passed by Republicans on Nov. 13, triggering a shutdown the next day. The entire government wasn’t closed – hundreds of thousands of workers were deemed essential and kept on without pay – but National Parks were shuttered, some visa and passport services were halted, and some pension and public assistance programs were also stopped.

It was all necessary, Clinton told Americans, because Republicans had tried “to force us to accept extreme budget measures that would violate our basic values as a nation and undermine the long-term welfare of the American people.”

Our basic values as a nation are, really, what are in dispute, and it was almost as if everyone remembered, fondly, the words of that Jewish woman on the base of that French statue in New York:

Public opinion immediately favored the White House. A Gallup poll released after the first day of the shutdown found that 49 percent of voters blamed Republicans, while only 26 percent faulted Clinton. By a 48 to 38 percent margin, voters said that protecting Medicare and the social safety net was more important than balancing the budget. And by a 49 to 36 percent margin, they said they trusted Democrats over Republicans to decide which programs to cut in order to balance the budget.

And the rest is history:

Quickly, Gingrich and the GOP agreed to a stopgap measure to reopen the government, one without the cuts they sought. When that expired in mid-December, another shutdown ensued, this one lasting until Jan. 6. In that time, nearly 300,000 federal workers were furloughed while 480,000 “essential” employees worked for free. Politically, the outcome was no different: The GOP took the brunt of the blame, while Clinton established presidential stature.

“It’s beginning to look like we can’t run the government,” Marge Roukema, one of the few GOP moderates left in the House, said at the time.

Eventually, a compromise was struck, but Republicans never got their cuts.

They won’t get their cuts this time. They already got their brutal and pitiless sequestration cuts, which are doing real damage:

In the first place, the cuts will shave as much as 1.2% off of gross domestic product – after inflation – through this year and next, according to the Congressional Budget Office. They’ll cost as many as 1.6 million jobs over that time frame, the CBO says. That’s not counting the damage that has occurred since March 1. …

Because of the sequester, the Los Angeles County Housing Authority, which provides housing vouchers for 23,000 individuals and households, stopped issuing new vouchers when any slots came open. That was to absorb a 5% cut in federal funds imposed by Congress’ inaction.

“We’re unfortunately the homeless capital of the world,” Sean Rogan, the agency’s executive director, told me recently.

That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not to L.A.’s credit – or the nation’s credit – that it compares favorably to some Third World countries.

It’s not just Los Angeles:

The other hole being torn in the safety net for vulnerable families is unemployment insurance. The sequester is gouging an average 15% out of the weekly checks for unemployed persons nationwide, according to calculations by the National Employment Law Project. The actual amount varies by how long a state waited to implement the cuts (the longer it held off, the deeper the cut) and how it has applied the reductions. The average cut is $43 a week to the national average benefit of $289. …

To any sensible person, all this would point to a serious social crisis, concentrated among the nation’s most vulnerable populations – and that’s not even counting the cuts documented across the country to Meals on Wheels, literacy education and federally funded scientific research.

Republicans want to keep all these cuts in place, or make them deeper. Inflecting pain is good. It toughens people up. It makes them better people. Maybe they’ll shape up. Maybe they’ll change their ways.

Washington really is a town without pity, representing a nation without pity.

Charles Blow is right. Emma Lazarus wouldn’t recognize this place now. Hell, maybe we should just return the big statue in the harbor too – but bold and principled pitilessness doesn’t always win. Public outrage and empathy do bubble to the surface now and then – less often these days, but it’s always possible. After all, Hurricane Sandy didn’t destroy the Statue of Liberty. It’s unlikely the Republicans can.


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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One Response to Bold and Principled Pitilessness

  1. Rick says:

    The Republicans miscalculated in thinking America would blame Clinton instead of Gingrich for that 1995 government shutdown, of course, and will do so again this time.

    In fact, most Americans, excluding those hardcore conservatives, will start by understanding the shutdown as a result of both parties refusing to give in to the demands of the other, but then will assess the two demands:

    (1) The Republicans demand that Obama go back in time to repeal a major law he worked very hard to get passed because he believed it not only will help people but it will help make America stronger, and

    (2) Obama demands that the Republicans stop trying to force him to repeal a law that they don’t have the power to repeal in the normal way — through legislation.

    Who, in the eyes of the American people, wins that face-of? The Democratic White House, once again!

    Then again, why should the Republicans care what the people think? After all, the American people are such blockheads, they elected a Muslim from Kenya, two times in a row!

    But I think there’s another factor never mentioned in this shutdown issue, one that applied in 1995 as well as it would today. On one side, you have one person, standing up to, on the other side, a gang — and a gang of people with pretty low poll numbers, to boot.

    I don’t think the majority of Americans like to see a whole group gang up on any one person, and really don’t like seeing anyone ganging up on their president. Whether they voted for him or not, their president is like their king in the sense that the president stands for America, and any attack on the chief executive is an attack on the nation that elected him, and Americans don’t like that.

    But also, this popular idea, that refusing to help people in need is good for the country rather than bad for it — and especially, acting on that idea, for example, by celebrating the sequester — points to a dangerous balance in our system between too much democracy (letting the people micromanage the country, instead of leaving it to experts who know what they’re doing) and too little (which opens up the possibility of trusting the management of our affairs to potentially corrupt politicians, virtually unaccountable to the public.)

    I just wish somebody could come up with a better way of doing all this.


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