Swapping One Crisis for Another

Syria is over, at least as a crisis to lead the news, day after day. Maybe our secretary of state, John Kerry, committed a major gaffe in London, when he sarcastically said the whole crisis would be over if Syria simply declared its chemical weapons, then put them under the control of some third party, which would then take them somewhere and destroy them, and then sign on to the international treaty banning such things – which he said they’d never do, so we really would have to bomb the crap out them, to teach them a lesson. Or maybe it wasn’t a gaffe. Syria’s international big brother – the guy who protects the helpless kid in the family – said they’d suggest that to Syria, and Syria probably would agree, all of which may have been worked out beforehand. Kerry had been meeting with his Russian counterpart for weeks, probably about just this thing. Putin and Obama might have sealed the deal in their brief one-on-one at the G-20 summit a few days before Kerry’s remarks.

It doesn’t matter. Syria has agreed to it all and submitted the paperwork to become a signatory to the treaty in question, joining the rest of the world on this matter – the rest of the world save for Israel and Egypt and a few others. We got what we said we wanted – putting a stop to that Assad jerk using chemical weapons on men, women and children over there. We got even more. If and when those chemical weapons are actually destroyed, there’ll be nothing that can fall into the hands of al-Qaeda and such folks. And the American people can relax too – we won’t be easing into one more war in the Middle East, where we quickly toss out one bad guy and have to stick around for eight or ten years as we find someone to run the place, with our folks being shot dead and blown up day after day, because no one wants us there. We won’t replay Iraq. Obama addressed the nation and said he might ask for an authorization to use military force against Syria later, but not now – it was time to see if this other thing might work.

It might work, although it won’t be easy. There will be a lot of angry words back and forth about conditions and schedules, and a whole lot of posturing, and this does nothing to end Syria’s civil war, but now it’s Russia’s problem, not ours. They said they really weren’t bad guys – they also wanted Syria to stop this nonsense – but now they have to prove they’re on the side of the angels in this matter. We don’t have to prove anything – and if it doesn’t work we can always lob those cruise missiles into Assad’s facilities. That was part of Obama’s address to the nation too – but for now, this crisis is over.

All this was cleverly and deftly done, although Kevin Drum isn’t so sure about that:

Can we please get over the silliness I’m hearing from a few quarters that President Obama had gamed out the whole Syria affair before it even happened? It’s embarrassing. John Kerry made an obviously unscripted comment – which the press twisted into a “gaffe” because, hey, that’s what they do – and Russia seized on it for reasons of its own – perhaps to gum up the works. Perhaps to get itself out of a jam it was tired of. Who knows? But Obama pretty plainly didn’t plan it and didn’t welcome it.

There’s really no reason to go down this path anyway. If you want to give Obama credit, give him credit for something he deserves: being willing to recognize an opportunity when he sees it. I can guarantee you that George W. Bush wouldn’t have done the same. But Obama was flexible enough to see that he had made mistakes; that congressional approval of air strikes was unlikely; and that the Russian proposal gave him a chance to regroup and try another tack. That’s not normal presidential behavior, and it’s perfectly praiseworthy all on its own.

That’s how it should be:

In the meantime, it’s rock-solid-certain that Assad isn’t going to launch another gas attack anytime soon, which means that, by hook or by crook, Obama has achieved his goal for now. No, it’s not the way he planned it, but the best war plans seldom survive contact with reality, and the mark of a good commander is recognizing that and figuring out to react. It may not be pretty to watch it unfold in public in real time, but it’s nonetheless the mark of a confident and effective commander-in-chief. It’s about time we had one.

Many would disagree with that, arguing that all this made Obama look foolish and weak, and now Russia can strut around looking all important, not us, damn it – but the fact is the crisis is over. We can turn to other things. We now return you to your regular programming.

The problem is the regular programming. We just swap one crisis for another, and this one is one we’ve seen before. Unless Congress acts, the government will shut down on October 1 – they haven’t passed a budget in years and have kept the government running by means of one continuing resolution after another. Those authorize carrying on at current spending levels on everything, until they can work something out, which they never do. The current continuing resolution is about to expire, and a large faction of the Republican House will not pass any continuing resolution, much less an actual budget, unless Obamacare is defunded – there will be no more of that, or there’ll be no government in the morning. House Speaker John Boehner doesn’t want a shutdown – the last time they did that, in the nineties under Newt Gingrich, the whole nation turned on them. He doesn’t want that to happen again, but a large enough number in his caucus says they don’t care – they want to get rid of Obamacare.

The Treasury also faces a potential default as soon as October 18 – that’s when there’s not enough money coming in to cover even the interest payments on our bills now due, for what congress authorized be spent, and was spent. Unless the debt limit is raised we default on our Treasury bonds and plunge the global economy into total chaos and collapse, because US Treasuries are the one safe place where pretty much the entire world parks its money. Domestically, retirees won’t get their Social Security checks, so they won’t be able to pay the rent and buy food, and there will be no Medicare and Medicaid payments to doctors and hospitals, and air-traffic controllers will have to work for free, if they care to. Again, a large faction of the Republican House will not agree to raise the debt limit unless Obamacare is defunded, on the general theory that all those foreign governments will understand there’s something more important than them losing all their money, those trillions they parked in our Treasuries, and those retirees will be fine with being unable to pay the rent and eat. Making sure thirty or forty million people don’t have the chance to buy low-cost subsidized health insurance from private-sector parties is more important than any of that.

That’s an odd assumption, and thus John Boehner doesn’t want a government default either. He knows where the blame will fall there too, but again, a large enough number in his caucus says they don’t care – they want to get rid of Obamacare. John Boehner is not a happy camper. Things were easier when the issue was Syria and he could stand behind an attack on Syria and still say Obama was screwing up everything, seeming to make it up as he went along, which might be close to the truth. It’s just that things worked out there, and the nation reverted to its default crisis, where he can’t control his own team.

At the National Review, Jonathan Strong covers that:

House leadership has decided to delay the vote on a bill funding the government to next week amid a small rebellion from conservatives who want to use the measure for a do-or-die fight on repealing Obamacare.

They couldn’t pass their own bill, as Greg Sargent explains:

Multiple reports this morning tell us House GOP leaders are struggling to round up support among House Republicans for their new strategy for the fall. They are proposing a vote on a measure that would temporarily fund the government at current sequester levels, with another measure attached to it that would defund Obamacare. The Democratically-controlled Senate would pass the first but not the second; conservatives would get to vote to defund Obamacare; the House GOP would dodge blame for a shutdown.

Everyone wins, but not really:

Conservatives are rejecting the approach because, well, it wouldn’t defund Obamacare. And let’s face it – this strategy is rooted in fear. House GOP leaders don’t want to tie Obamacare defunding to a government funding bill because it will pass the House and force a shutdown confrontation that they will lose. But conservatives won’t be happy until they have that confrontation.

This is trouble, as David Drucker reports on an odd closed-door meeting:

Supporters of the leadership’s strategy argued in the meeting that conservative activist groups are pushing House Republicans to threaten a government shutdown unless Obamacare is defunded just to boost the groups’ own fundraising. Conservative pragmatists are increasingly frustrated with the groups, saying the organizations make too many demands – and won’t be satisfied regardless of the results.

This frustration extends to Republican senators like Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, high-profile proponents of the defund-or-shutdown strategy who have been very public in pushing the House GOP to adopt this approach. House lawmakers are tired of Senate GOP colleagues “wagging us around,” as one House Republican put it.

Each side thinks the other side is a bunch jerks. It’s deadlock, deadlock that guarantees a shutdown, but Sargent notes that it doesn’t stop there:

Right now, it’s unclear whether House Republicans can even pass their latest funding gimmick out of the House, because House Dems won’t support it and House conservatives won’t either because it won’t ultimately defund Obama’s tyrannical law. So House leaders are promising to fight the good fight in the next battle – they will supposedly demand a delay in Obamacare in exchange for a debt limit hike – in hopes of winning support in the first round.

But here’s the rub: At some point, something will have to pass with a lot of Dems.

It’s pretty simple:

If Republicans can’t pass their funding gimmick on their own, they’ll need to pass a clean continuing resolution with a lot of Dems – or allow a shutdown. But even if Republicans do manage to pass their gimmick alone, it will only be because they promised conservatives that they will make enormous demands in the next fight. As one Dem aide put it to me, they will have to promise to demand a “grab-bag of conservative fantasies” – an Obamacare delay; more spending cuts, whatever – in exchange for raising the debt limit. Needless to say, that will further alienate Dems, who have vowed not to negotiate on the debt ceiling. And conservatives – having swallowed a defeat in the first round and had their expectations for the next one pumped up – will be in even less of a mood to compromise.

That will leave only two choices: Pass a debt limit hike with mostly Democrats, stiff-arming the Tea Party, or allow economic havoc to break out. Boehner isn’t going to do the latter. So his only choice will be the former.

Jonathan Bernstein puts it this way:

Sooner or later GOP leaders are going to have to move on without those groups; the final continuing resolution will have to be acceptable to Barack Obama and Senate Democrats, and that means it won’t defund Obamacare. What, then, is the value for mainstream conservatives of angering Tea Partyers with a vote for a temporary measure they hate now, when they’ll only have to take more tough votes on longer term funding of the government later? It’s hard to see any reason for mainstream conservatives in the House to push anything through at this point that alienates the Tea Party.

Basically, Republican rank-and-file members are being asked to vote for something which won’t please conservatives, won’t solve the longer term funding battles, and, I’ve argued, won’t even help their bargaining position against the Senate in those coming long term funding battles. Given all that, I suspect there’s a good chance that John Boehner will just let the Senate go first, and deal with whatever they produce once they’ve acted.

Granted, this is a terrible way to run the government. But until mainstream conservatives start actually caring about real policy choices and stop being mostly motivated by fear of their Tea Party shadows, it may be the best we can hope for.

There is a wall here after all:

While House Republican leaders thought they had worked out a way to appease conservatives on Obamacare – a show vote to defund Obamacare but steer clear of a shutdown threat – they were forced to delay that gambit Wednesday amid a mutiny on their right flank.

“There are a lot of discussions going on about how to deal with the CR and the issue of Obamacare, and so we’re continuing to work with our members,” Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told reporters Thursday. He said the existing plan is “not quite” defeated, but added: “There are a million options that are being discussed by a lot of people.”

Moments later, Senate Democratic leaders flatly dismissed a delay of Obamacare and warned that attempting to do so would lead to a government shutdown.

“I told Boehner very directly that all these things they’re trying to do on Obamacare is a waste of their time,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told reporters. “Let’s stop playing these really juvenile political games.”

“Those in touch with reality should understand that passing a clean CR is the right thing to do,” he said. “Their direction is a direction to shut down the government. … If Republican leaders keep giving into tea party demands they must be rooting for a shutdown.”

The White House also reiterated Thursday that President Barack Obama would reject efforts to undermine Obamacare. “We will not accept anything that delays or defunds Obamacare,” spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Then there’s this:

As the shutdown deadline looms, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) warned Thursday that the week-long recess at the end of September may be canceled.

“The anarchists are winning,” lamented Reid. He added: “I like John Boehner. I really do. But I do feel sorry for him.”

That was cold, but effective, and Ezra Klein suggests this:

Behind all this is a simple fact: The GOP has lost on Obamacare. They didn’t have the votes to stop it from passing in 2010. They didn’t have the votes to repeal it in 2011. They didn’t have the votes to win the presidency and the Senate by campaigning against it in 2012. And they really have no way to stop it in 2013.

Now it’s going into effect, and once it goes into effect and begins delivering health insurance to tens of millions of people, it’s pretty much here to stay.

But conservatives don’t want to believe they’ve lost on Obamacare, and the rest of the Republican Party is scared to admit they’ve lost on Obamacare. So as their situation becomes more desperate their tactics become more desperate, too. That’s what you get when your position is a mixture of delusion and fear.

Klein is actually hoping for a government shutdown:

If the GOP needs to lose a giant showdown in order to empower more realistic voices and move forward, it’s better that showdown happens over a government shutdown then a debt-ceiling breach. A government shutdown is highly visible and dramatic, but it won’t actually destroy the economy. So an “optimistic” case might be that there’s a shutdown for the first few days of October, the GOP gets creamed in public opinion, the hostage-taking strategies of the party’s right flank are discredited, and Washington is at a much better equilibrium by the time the debt ceiling needs to be raised.

And yes, I realize that naming that tornado of lunacy the “optimistic” outcome is enough to make anyone pessimistic about the state of American politics. Good. You should be pessimistic about the state of American politics.

You should also know it could go all wrong anyway:

The danger is that Boehner and Cantor might be shortsighted enough to convince their members to fund the government by making dangerous promises about how they’ll fight the debt ceiling. That might already be happening. The National Review’s Jonathan Strong reports that, “Leadership, meanwhile, is urging rank-and-file members to direct their energies to the upcoming debt ceiling fight, which Whip Kevin McCarthy told me yesterday is the ‘perfect’ venue for an Obamacare battle.”

Didn’t they lose that battle in 2010, and 2011, and 2012, and in the Supreme Court too? This calls for some serious advice, or therapy, but Salon’s Brian Beutler offers advice:

House Speaker John Boehner needs to admit to himself what almost everyone else in the country came to terms with months ago.

Serially picking fights with the Senate and White House over the budget is really dumb. It’s bad for the country and the economy for obvious reasons. It’s no longer a fruitful way for Republicans – who only control the House of Representatives – to achieve significant policy objectives. It remains an effective way to undermine the public’s faith in Congress and the government, which Republicans like, but it reduces their own party’s favorables more than the Democrats’. And at this point they’re doing much more internal harm to themselves than anyone else.

Indeed, routine budget fights have unified Democrats and are hastening the GOP crackup.

Boehner might want to try something new, like he might try to lead for a change:

Let’s quickly take stock: First, there’s no concession Republican hard-liners want that Senate Democrats and President Obama are willing to give them in exchange for fulfilling the mundane tasks of funding the government and avoiding a catastrophic default on the national debt. Second, Boehner doesn’t want to shut down the government or default on the national debt. Third, points one and two mean Republican hard-liners are going to be upset with the outcomes of budget fights no matter how frequently they happen. Fourth, the more of them there are, the more paroxysms the right will suffer, and the more fractured the GOP conference will become. …

Which brings us to an obvious solution: John Boehner should work with Democrats to fund the government and extend the debt limit for a very long time. In exchange, Democrats should agree to give him nothing. He’ll walk away with a clear schedule and some much-needed peace of mind. If everyone wants to be melodramatic, Democrats could promise to get Boehner’s back if rank-and-file Republicans attempt a mid-session coup.

It sure beats what’s happening now:

So a better plan would be for Boehner to agree to temporarily or permanently turn off sequestration, and maybe even work on a full-year omnibus appropriations bill. He could do this for free if he wanted to. But if he decided replacing sequestration with higher deficits would get him defenestrated, he could pick from a menu of options.

He could strike a deal the White House badly wants to raise taxes and cut entitlement spending, and use the deficit savings to turn off sequestration.

He could strike a smaller deal with the White House that raises fewer taxes and cuts less popular spending (like farm subsidies) and use the deficit savings to pay down part of sequestration.

Or if he’s done working with the White House on the budget, and wants to kill two birds with one stone, he could agree to pass the Senate immigration bill and turn off sequestration at the same time. It turns out the immigration bill’s 20-year deficit impact is about the same as the 10-year (and thus 20-year) deficit impact of sequestration. For good measure, he could throw in the deficit-reducing Senate farm bill, which at least offers conservatives some punitive cuts to nutrition assistance for poor people.

That last option looks best to me, and would have the added benefit of clearing Congress’ entire plate for more than a year. That means more time for golfing, smoking and planning for the future, less time for stressful, economically destructive budget fights.

There are lots of alternatives to the current madness here, and one must consider reality:

No doubt Obama would gladly turn off sequestration for a year, but he’s never, ever, ever going to agree to delay, defund or repeal his healthcare law. Ever. And let’s not ignore the fact that with this proposal, Republicans have swung from demanding huge spending cuts in exchange for increasing the debt limit, to proposing two deficit increases (delaying both the healthcare law and sequestration) in exchange for increasing the debt limit.

On top of revealing how hollow the right’s deficit hysteria is, this is all extremely stupid. When it fails, we’ll be a month deeper into the year, and Boehner will have to settle for a fig leaf followed by a replay in early 2014. It’s much stupider than my plan for him to wipe the budget slate clean, pocket immigration reform and spend the next year evaluating career options.

That might be good advice, but actually, instead of mocking Obama’s seemingly scattered and somewhat improvised approach to the Syria crisis, Boehner might adopt Obama’s leadership principles. Drum summed it up nicely – the best plans seldom survive contact with reality, and the mark of a good commander is recognizing that and figuring out how to react. Be flexible. Change your mind when appropriate. If someone offers a way out that makes sense, take it. It may not be pretty to watch all that unfold, and you may be called a fool or a coward, but the point is to get the job done and not worry who gets the credit, even you, as that sort of stuff will sort itself out later. We may have swapped one crisis for another, but maybe we learned something along the way.


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 Swapping One Crisis for Another

  1. Rick says:

    I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Barack Obama, John Kerry, the Russian Federation, the Syrian government and the United Nations, for allowing us all to now return our attention from all that discomfiting death and destruction overseas, back to where it belongs — Washington DC, and the pleasingly comic visage of Republicans slipping on banana peels.


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