Managing the Unmanageable

The transition from teaching bored and distracted late adolescents to managing proudly eccentric and inappropriately inventive programmers and systems analysts, with no social skills whatsoever, was fairly easy, even if it took a few years. It was pretty much the same thing – trick them into thinking they want to do things they really don’t want to do.

That’s putting it rather crudely – so, if you like, you can call it inspirational leadership, with a deep understanding of human motivation. Fine, but it was trickery. The kids really didn’t give a hoot about Hamlet – they didn’t even want to be in a room where such things were mentioned – and they certainly didn’t want to write an essay on anything at all, much less eight hundred words on that grumpy prince, who talked funny. They had other things on their minds, if you recall those years yourself.

The trick was to get them to see that this troubled prince was trying to work out pretty much what they were trying to work out, and running into the same sort of difficulties. That was a stretch. None of them had an uncle who murdered their father and then married their mother – but all of them knew all about alienation from what everyone kept telling them was normal life. That’s the essence of adolescence, and they finally got it.

As for those programmers and systems analysts, who loved how clever they were, the trick was to offer them an even more difficult problem than the one they had decided to solve on their own, which no one wanted solved in the first place. Yeah, it was like herding cats, but all you had to do is reframe the mundane but complicated work that had to be done as impossible – it probably couldn’t be done, ever, even by the best minds. It was hopeless. That was a lie, but they’d almost always dive right in. They’d work nights and weekends. They’d get it done, elegantly. They’d do the impossible. That’s who they were, or thought they were.

Yes, high school English teachers and senior systems managers have no shame. Shame isn’t useful when your job is to manage the unmanageable, and that seems to be true in politics too.

Democrats know this. After the mess that was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, with the riots in the streets over the Vietnam War and everything else, the Democrats really couldn’t manage their peace-and-love idealistic hard-left base. That led to George McGovern in 1972 and a total wipe-out. The recovery would have to wait until Bill Clinton came along, with his strategy of triangulation – mix the usual do-the-most-good-for-everyone standard party stuff with ending welfare as we know it and saying that the era of big government is over. That fooled everyone. Republicans couldn’t hammer Bill Clinton on much of anything, because he said the right things, and he even did some of it. They had to settle for a sex scandal. Almost all Democrats gave him the benefit of the doubt – after all, he was on their side, mostly. This was hardly inspirational leadership, with a deep understanding of human motivation – it was trickery, but it worked, and those eight years actually went pretty well. Maybe that was because Bill Clinton had a bit of a silver tongue, and he had no shame.

Now it’s the Republicans’ turn. George Bush’s eight years were a disaster – they stopped talking about him a few hours after he left office and haven’t talked about him since – then the hyper-aggressive pro-war-all-the-time and often confused John McCain lost badly to Obama, in no small part because Sarah Palin turned out to be an embarrassment. Mitt Romney, the stiff rich guy with his foot in his mouth, fared no better, and the clown-show that was the string of twenty primary debates didn’t help much either. Rick Santorum was prissy and Michele Bachmann strange and Rick Perry couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. Oops. Newt Gingrich was all over the place and the less said about Herman Cain the better.

There were others. No one remembers them now, not that it matters. The party was a mess – they’d seemed to have gone out of their way to insult Latinos and blacks and women and gays and the youth vote – and in the midterms between the McCain and Romney campaigns and new Republican base emerged – the Tea Party. They are as unmanageable as the hard-left was for the Democrats in the seventies. They now demand no compromise on anything.

They’re a headache. Nothing will ever get done now – the Democrats do control the White House and the Senate after all – and thus Republicans will be blamed as nothing ever gets done, no matter what poll after poll shows everyone wants.

That’s happening now. They cleverly blocked even meager gun control legislation that ninety-eight percent of Americans thought was reasonable, given the twenty dead school kids, and now with the majority of Americans in favor of immigration reform, and the entire business community all for it too, it seems clear the plan the Senate came up with will die in the House. Screw the Hispanic vote, and screw those business folks. There will be no path to citizenship. We don’t want that kind here.

It’s not clear that the Republican Party can be saved now, unless someone comes up with some inspired trickery, and of course someone did:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) warned Tuesday that if Congress fails to act on immigration reform, President Barack Obama could act unilaterally to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants by executive order.

Appearing on Tallahassee talk radio program “The Morning Show with Preston Scott,” Rubio, who helped to broker a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate, warned that his colleagues in the House must address the issue or face losing ground on key reforms like border security.

“I have been saying for more than a year that I believe that this president will be tempted,” Rubio said. “If nothing happens in Congress, he will be tempted to issue an executive order, like he did for the DREAM Act kids a year ago, where he basically legalizes 11 million people by the sign of a pen.”

That’s interesting, and Kevin Drum argues that Rubio’s comment is even more interesting for what it says about how Rubio views his tea party base:

Basically, he’s given up on reasoning with them. Instead, he figures the only way to win them over is to appeal to their paranoid belief in Obama the tyrant, the man who’s unilaterally ruining America by running roughshod over Congress with his dictatorial executive order powers. Reason might not work, but perhaps they hate and fear Obama even more than 11 million undocumented immigrants.

That’ll work too. Rubio is thinking like a systems manager with a large staff of prima donnas. Trick them into thinking they want to do things they really don’t want to do. That’s one way to manage the unmanageable, but MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin thinks this could backfire:

Many Republicans say they’re concerned about the security components of a bill because they fear Obama or a future Democratic president will find some legal rationale to delay or derail their implementation. Democratic and Republican supporters of the bill insist that they can find ways to prevent that from happening, either by specifying a clear set of security measures or by tying legalization to ironclad border metrics. But Rubio’s claim could feed perceptions on the right that Obama can’t be trusted to enforce the law and thus will ignore even the toughest border deal.

In short, hate and fear are dangerous tools for motivation. They cannot be contained to just one thing. They can freeze people.

There must be another way to manage these folks, which the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein covers here:

Robert Costa’s behind-the-scenes look at how John Boehner and Eric Cantor pulled House Republicans back from a costly and self-destructive government shutdown presents itself as a narrative of something in Washington finally going right. But it’s really a detailed look at how insane the internal dynamics of House Republicans have become.

The Costa item really is detailed inside-baseball stuff for political junkies, so Klein’s summary will do:

Costa identifies two strategies Boehner and Cantor employed: One was patient, delicate diplomacy with the GOP’s right flank. The other was reckless, ridiculous promises they’ll never be able to deliver on. Both come with huge costs.

Time is a precious – and scarce – resource. That’s particularly true for someone in Boehner or Cantor’s position. There’s a reason all these people actually pay someone to serve as “scheduler.” And in recent months, Boehner and Cantor’s schedulers had to schedule a lot of time for their bosses to talk their colleagues back from the abyss.

“Due to the fragility of the bonds holding the House GOP together,” Costa writes, Boehner and Cantor “labored behind the scenes, pouring cold water in careful measure on their colleagues’ boiling brinksmanship.”

So that’s cost number one: Time.

But time wasn’t enough. Like a kid who won’t go to sleep until he’s convinced the monsters under his bed can’t get him because there’s a friendly dragon living in his closet, House Republicans demanded a series of ridiculous – and, in some cases, dangerous – promises from Boehner and Cantor.

Talking Point Memo explains those promises:

Even as their hardliners refuse to let up, senior Republicans have all but conceded that they won’t end up defunding Obamacare in a continuing resolution to keep the federal government open after the money runs out on Sept. 30. And even if they do shut down the government, top Republicans observe, it won’t actually stop Obamacare. The strategy makes little sense.

But House Republican leaders are taking so much fire from conservative advocates that they’re weighing a more dangerous gambit: taking the United States’ ability to pay its bills hostage to advance the party’s goal of disrupting and dismantling the Affordable Care Act. The country’s borrowing authority is set to expire later this fall and senior Republicans made a series of promises to their members since January that appear likely to culminate in a showdown.

GOP leaders don’t see a way to persuade their members to lift the debt ceiling without attaching it to fiscal reforms. So a strategy they’re considering, first reported in the conservative news outlets National Review and Washington Examiner, is to pass a two-month continuing resolution to keep government funded at existing levels until, roughly, the debt limit is reached. Then they would offer a sequester replacement in exchange for delaying or defunding Obamacare in order to avoid economic disaster.

Klein says it comes down to this:

Since Boehner can’t just tell House Republicans that their party needs to let go of the whole stop-Obamacare thing until they win a few more elections, what will he tell them?

Apparently, he’s going to tell them to try using the debt ceiling:

“Sources tell me the House GOP will probably avoid using a shutdown as leverage and instead use the debt limit and sequester fights as areas for potential legislative trades. Negotiations over increasing the debt limit have frequently been used to wring concessions out of the administration, so there may be movement in that direction: Delay Obamacare in exchange for an increased debt limit.”

There’s only one problem:

Trading a government shutdown for a debt-ceiling breach is like trading the flu for septic shock. And Boehner knows it. Republicans will effectively be going to the White House and saying, “Delay the health-care law or we will single-handedly cause an unprecedented and unnecessary global financial crisis that everyone will clearly and correctly blame on us, destroying our party for years to come.”

It’s not a very persuasive ransom note to send. And Boehner knows it. It’s just something he’s saying to talk his party down from this tree. But come October, when they climb up into that higher, more dangerous, tree, he’s going to have to think of some new crazy promise to entice them down. Then, three months later, that promise will come back to bite him – and the rest of us. And eventually, someone’s going to make a mistake, and Boehner won’t manage to pull his people back from the brink at the last minute.

This is not a safe way to govern the country.

It is a bit scary, and the Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore offers this perspective:

After a while, you get used to reading these insider accounts of Republican leaders talking to representatives of their own party’s “base” as though they are small children with learning disabilities, who must be calmed and coaxed into rational behavior and then rewarded with condescending praise and a sugary snack. I honestly can’t think of any parallel on the Left in recent memory; Democratic leaders are more likely to lecture “base activists” on responsibility and the awful alternative of Republican rule when they resist the party line. Lord knows there are plenty of things the federal government spends money on that are offensive to liberal activists. But even in the rare occasion when they’ve demanded a hard line on, say, funding the Iraq War, the debate has been over the possibility of discomfiting the Pentagon or interrupting “funding for the troops,” not the apocalypse of a government shutdown or debt default. And intramural disputes have largely been conducted in the open, without the strange and duplicitous tactics we are seeing today as Republican leaders claim to share the same atavistic goals as their activists but are simply pursuing a smarter, more “adult” strategy.

Whatever Costa is hearing, moreover, it’s not clear that the “adults” are winning the internal war even if they manage to win the immediate battle.

Kilgore points to voices out there like RedState’s Erick Erickson with this:

The whole of the GOP save a handful is so intent on winning reelection they’re perfectly happy to lose the country. They will not do what is right because they might be put in awkward positions. When groups like the Heritage Foundation pressure them, they send out Jennifer Rubin to bad mouth the Heritage Foundation on the Washington Post’s website.

On Sean Hannity’s radio program yesterday, Senator Mike Lee and Karl Rove debated defunding Obamacare. Lee just devastated Rove and made the point, which had to be conceded, that the GOP always caves. Leadership, Jenn Rubin, and Karl Rove say the President will never blink. They presuppose that they themselves will blink.


As Ted Cruz said at the RedState Gathering, it is very simple. Just don’t blink.

It is time conservatives throw out their own bums. It is time to stand with the challengers. It is time to replace the wimps, frauds, and charlatans with men and women who will stand up and do the right thing. It’s time for a change. Until conservatives collect scalps from their own side, nothing will change. Obamacare will be funded. The GOP will keep claiming they oppose it. And conservatives will keep being lied to.

A whole lot of House Republicans will listen to Erick Erickson before they ever listen to John Boehner, which is a problem, which leaves Kilgore a bit depressed:

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for any concession to sanity in the GOP ranks, and am happy to hear that Boehner and Cantor may well be able to negotiate the next few months without bringing Washington to a standstill or wrecking the economy. But they will pay a price for any success in “tamping down” activist hysteria, whether it’s quiet concessions on the next policy battle in Congress, or primary challenges, or a revolt against Boehner’s speakership, or a broadly accepted “stab in the back” myth that makes today’s sensible accommodations of reality a legendary “abandonment of principle” that will keep the rightward pressure on the GOP ratcheted up for years to come.

So now it will be using endless debt limit and sequester fights as areas for potential legislative trades – it will be all-apocalypse, all the time, to chip away at Obamacare and anything else they detest, which Kilgore finds appalling:

Now one might think the prospect of a debt limit crisis and a one-year Obamacare delay wouldn’t be all that enticing as compared to a government shutdown aimed at “de-funding” Obamacare altogether. But keep in mind (a) a lot of House Republicans actually like the idea of a debt default, and/or think it’s terrifying enough to produce bigger concessions than a mere government shutdown, and (b) a “delay” in Obamacare implementation is enough to get Republicans past the mid-terms, when they think their performance will suffice to claim a mandate to croak Obamacare once and for all.

So if giving up on a shutdown seems like denying House conservatives the ice cream cone they want, the promise of a debt limit Gotterdammerung is the double-scoop of ice cream next week. No wonder it may work, for now.

This is not the way to manage the unmanageable. Bright shiny objects won’t do. You don’t promise them ice cream. You do need to trick them into thinking they want to do things they really don’t want to do, but those things have to be the right thing to do, the thing that must be done. Every high school English teacher knows this. Every system manager knows this. Every politician needs to know this. And it’s just a thought, but perhaps a prerequisite for public office should be that the person who wants to manage public affairs must have spent, at some time in his or her life, a full semester teaching high school English – teaching Hamlet to truculent teenagers, successfully. That’s the best way to learn how to manage the unmanageable. After that, everything else is a piece of cake.

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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