How These Things Happen

There’s an old saying about never missing the water ’til the well runs dry, and more than a few blues songs and country and western songs of regret, where the fine woman’s gone, the woman the man stupidly took for granted. Henry Higgins also misses Eliza Doolittle, realizing too late that he’d grown accustomed to her face, and there are lots of songs of defiance – you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone and that sort of thing. They’re all about the same experience. Things were fine, and then, suddenly, they weren’t.

How the hell did that happen? That’s the question. Perhaps no one pays attention to what’s really important, until it’s too late. This is usually followed by self-pity, in the country and western songs, or stoic sadness, in the blues, or anger, or just puzzlement, or general whining about the unfairness of life, in the pretentiously tragic teen-pop stuff. It’s a common theme, and maybe the only theme in most music, including opera of course. People never learn, until it’s too late. So what else is new?

People learn if they’re paying attention. It’s just that we’re now in the first day of the new government shutdown, the first in seventeen years, and it’s much like the last one. Newt Gingrich, the Republican House Speaker back in 1995, forced two government shutdowns, having his House refuse to fund government operations unless Bill Clinton agreed to massive cuts in Social Security and to a few other things. That was a disaster for the Republicans. They didn’t get what they wanted and ended up looking like jerks. The public turned on them. The public missed their government when it was gone, and they asked how the hell that happened.

The answer was obvious, but the public didn’t sit around and sing the blues – Clinton won reelection in a landslide. Bob Dole didn’t stand a chance, even though he had opposed the Gingrich shutdown-strategy from the first. Dole was still one of “them” in everyone’s eyes. Gingrich still maintains this was a fine strategy at the time – even if his own party stripped him of his speakership, they didn’t lose all that many seats in the ensuring elections, and he maintains that Clinton could never have managed the first four consecutive balanced budgets since the twenties had he not put Clinton’s feet to the fire, or thrown his self-righteous temper tantrums, depending on one’s point of view.

That’s hypothetical of course. People say all sorts of silly things about cause and effect when it suits their purpose. Everyone else knows that Gingrich’s Republican Revolution is when Republicans first got their reputation for being spoiled brats. They’ve been trying to work their way out from under that ever since, with some success, finally. The second George Bush got it. He said he was all about Compassionate Conservatism – he was a reasonable and humane man, really, even if it turned out that he wasn’t competent at much of anything – but it’s easy to throw that all away. One must pay attention. Don’t do, again, what ruined everything once before.

The Republicans did it again, and this Reuters item outlines the situation now:

President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans came no closer to ending a standoff on Tuesday that has forced the first government shutdown in 17 years and thrown hundreds of thousands of federal employees out of work.

As police cordoned off landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial and government agencies stopped cancer treatments and trade negotiations, Republicans in the House of Representatives moved to restore funding to national parks, veterans care and the District of Columbia.

An effort to pass the three bills fell short on Tuesday evening, but Republicans plan to try again on Wednesday. They are likely to be defeated by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The standoff has raised new concerns about Congress’s ability to perform its most basic duties. An even bigger battle looms as Congress must raise the debt limit in coming weeks or risk a U.S. default that could roil global markets.

“This is a mess. A royal screw-up,” said Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter of New York.

Yes, the House Republicans came up with a plan to offer three special bills, to fund veterans benefits, to reopen the parks, to fund day-to-day operations in Washington DC (everything the city does is funded by Congress) – but the House itself couldn’t even find the votes to pass those, so this really is a screw-up and the verdict is in:

In a rejection of congressional Republicans’ strategy, Americans overwhelmingly oppose undermining President Barack Obama’s health-care law by shutting down the federal government or resisting an increase in the nation’s debt limit, according to a poll released today.

By 72 percent to 22 percent, Americans oppose Congress “shutting down major activities of the federal government” as a way to stop the Affordable Care Act from going into effect, the national survey from Quinnipiac University found.

It’s 1995 all over again, but the speaker is now John Boehner, not Newt Gingrich.

Boehner should have known better, but he didn’t, and CNN’s Jake Tapper explains why:

Boehner originally did not want to tie a contentious effort to defund Obamacare to spending legislation needed to avert a shutdown. He expressed that sentiment as far back as March.

“Our goal here is to cut spending. It’s not to shut down the government,” Boehner said. “I believe that trying to put Obamacare on this vehicle risks shutting down the government. That’s not what our goal is.”

But ultimately, there were enough House Republicans demanding the two issues be linked that Boehner changed his mind.

Tapper thinks this is what changed his mind:

“He has seen people rise and fall,” a source close to him said.

In fact, he was one of them.

When Boehner was House Republican Conference chairman, he was part of a small group of House Republican leaders who met in 1997 to discuss ousting their fellow Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich.

The coup failed and Boehner claimed he was only gathering information, not conspiring. But by the next year, his fellow Republicans had ousted him from leadership.

Upon hearing the bad news, he told an aide, “We are going to smile, we are going to work hard, and earn our way back.”

And he did just that – from exile through various top positions on committees to the leadership of House Republicans and then his election as speaker.

The point now is to avoid being tossed out on his ear:

“When he was sworn in as speaker, he had 15 rebels vote against him on the House floor. He has this group of 30 to 40 hardcore conservatives who are more than willing to dump John Boehner any chance they can,” said John Feehery, a consultant and former aide to Republican leaders.

“From Boehner’s perspective, he’s learned from what happened with Newt Gingrich. That’s why he’s more disciplined, listening more to his caucus, less likely to freelance than Newt was. Going through this process for him is more of a step-by-step process,” Feehery said.

This is all about being careful. If enough troublemakers want a shutdown, however ill-advised, let them have it. At least he’ll keep his job. He was paying attention, even if in a narrow and personal way.

How do these things happen? That’s one way they happen, although Salon’s Joan Walsh has a different view, arguing that what happened in 1995 and what is happening now are part of a much larger political strategy:

On the day the Affordable Care Act takes effect, the U.S. government is shut down, and it may be permanently broken. You’ll read lots of explanations for the dysfunction, but the simple truth is this: It’s the culmination of 50 years of evolving yet consistent Republican strategy to depict government as the enemy, an oppressor that works primarily as the protector of and provider for African-Americans, to the detriment of everyone else. The fact that everything came apart under our first African-American president wasn’t an accident, it was probably inevitable.

It was always about race:

People talk about the role of race in Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” – how Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips helped him lure the old Dixiecrats into the Republican Party permanently. Far less well known was the GOP’s “Northern Strategy,” which targeted so-called white ethnics – many of them from the Catholic “Sidewalks of New York” like my working-class family, in the words of Kevin Phillips. Without a Northern Strategy designed to inflame white-ethnic fears of racial and economic change, Phillips’ imaginary but still influential notion of a “permanent Republican majority” would have been unimaginable.

“The principal force which broke up the Democratic (New Deal) coalition is the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it,” Phillips wrote. “Democratic ‘Great Society’ programs aligned that party with many Negro demands, but the party was unable to defuse the racial tension sundering the nation.” Phillips was not trying to defuse that tension, far from it – he was trying to lure those white ethnics to the GOP (although he later broke with the party he helped create.) But his Northern Strategy truly came to fruition in 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan. Where Nixon swept the South, Reagan was able to take much of the North and West, too.

Everyone knows what came next:

Reagan had trafficked in ugly racial stereotyping over the years, about “young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps and Cadillac-driving welfare queens. But the Reagan who got elected president was better at using deracialized language to channel racial fears and resentment. He and his strategists had succeeded in making government synonymous with “welfare,” and “welfare” synonymous with lazy people, most of them African-American.

When Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg studied the voters of Macomb County, a hotbed of so-called Reagan Democrats – the county gave two-thirds of its votes to John F. Kennedy in 1960, and the same proportion to Ronald Reagan in 1980 – he found that they no longer saw Democrats as working-class champions. “Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives,” and they saw government “as a black domain where whites cannot expect reasonable treatment,” Greenberg wrote.

So for a lot of Democrat-turned-Republican voters, “government” was all about black people, Reagan knew. You didn’t have to be racist to thrill to Reagan’s declaration that “government is not the solution; government is the problem.”

None of that ever went away, and that can also explain where we are today:

Republicans who know better, who probably aren’t “racist” in the old-fashioned sense of believing in black inferiority and opposing the equality and integration of the races, nonetheless pander to those who are, for electoral gain. And when the election of our first black president riled up the racists and launched the Tea Party – supposed deficit hawks who tolerated skyrocketing government spending under George W. Bush – too many Republicans went along.

Today, the entire government has been taken hostage by leaders elected by this crazed minority, who see in the face of Barack Obama everything they’ve been taught to fear for 50 years. Start with miscegenation: He’s not just black – he’s the product of a black father and a white mother. (That helps explain an unconscious motive for birtherism: They can’t get their minds off the circumstances of his conception and birth.) With his Ivy League degrees, they are sure he must be the elitist beneficiary of affirmative action. Steeped in Chicago politics, he’s the representative of corrupt urban machines controlled by Democrats – machines that ironically originated with the Irish and once kept African-Americans down, but which are now synonymous with corrupt black power. In Michele Bachmann’s words, Obama is a product of Chicago’s scary “gangster government,” or did she say “gangsta”?

Leading Republicans, who know better, have demeaned the president with a long list of racially-coded slurs. Obama is “the food stamp president,” Newt Gingrich told us. … Even his so-called GOP “friend” Sen. Tom Coburn insists Obama is spreading “dependency” on government because “it worked so well for him as an African-American male.”

Where Mitt Romney’s father, George, stood up to the rising tide of racism in his party and marched in fair housing protests in the 1960s, Mitt himself embraced the birther-in-chief Donald Trump during the 2012 campaign. And when things got tough in the fall campaign, he and Paul Ryan doubled down on racial appeals by accusing Obama of weakening welfare reform – he hadn’t – and of giving white seniors’ hard-earned Medicare dollars to Obamacare recipients. And we all know who they are.

That’s why we are where are at the moment:

Now we have John Boehner, elected House speaker thanks to the Tea Party wave of 2010, shutting down the government over Obamacare. Boehner has the power to open the government by bringing a clean continuing resolution to the floor and allowing it to pass with the help of Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. Should we expect such courage? In one of his first major media appearances after becoming speaker, he refused to rebuke the birthers in his caucus. “It’s not up to me to tell them what to think,” he told NBC’s Brian Williams.

Now he’s kowtowing to the roughly 30 House Republicans from bright red districts that also happen to be almost exclusively white, in a country that is more than one-third non-white. They want to shut down the government to torpedo Obamacare, the signature program of our first black president. Obviously, though he’s the leader, Boehner believes it’s not up to him to tell the GOP suicide caucus what to think. Although the speaker told reporters after Obama’s reelection that Obamacare was the law of the land, and that a government shutdown would be bad for the country, he changed his tune when confronted with an insurrection, and the de facto House speaker who happens to be a senator, Ted Cruz. (Cruz’s father, by the way, just joined the ranks of those who seem to believe Obama is a Muslim, telling a Colorado woman who made that claim: “John McCain couldn’t say that because it wasn’t politically correct. It is time we stop being politically correct!”

In the end, it’s all about Obama.

That also means that it’s all about Obamacare, and to go over the situation once more, Republicans didn’t have the votes to stop the Affordable Care Act 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, explicitly. The law was passed fair and square, long ago, by both houses of Congress, and survived a Supreme Court challenge too – and the Roberts court is the most conservative we’ve had since the Harding administration. The rules of the system were followed, scrupulously, and there are explicit rules for repealing a law. You find the votes to pass something else in its place. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes.

This would mean that a minority of a minority doesn’t get to stop what the majority enacted, even if they can shut down the government, crippling the economy, and soon force the United States unto default, collapsing the world’s economy for a generation or two – both matters entirely unrelated to Obamacare. The angry minority doesn’t get to stop what the majority enacted – unless you want to change our system of government, to change it into a new system where laws duly enacted and upheld in the courts can just go away, if you have a credible and deadly threat about something else entirely.

But maybe Walsh is right and that’s the whole point. Maybe this isn’t about Obamacare at all. Maybe it’s about the few remaining Real Americans – to use Sarah Palin’s favorite formulation – ending the current government of the so-called “people” – the stupid multicultural majority, with all those black folks who want your stuff, all those folks who vote the wrong way and for the wrong things and for the wrong people. There’s a reason the Tea Party crowd keeps talking about a new revolution and taking their country back. They’re serious, and this was a long time coming. It’s here now.

Paul Krugman has a different take on this:

There’s a definite class-war aspect to this fight, pitting the interests of the 0.1 percent against those of lower-income families. But at this point the 0.1 percent, by and large, are pleading with the GOP to knock it off. So while class war may have been where this started, the monster has long since escaped from its cage; even Karl Rove, more or less the designated defender of upper-class privileges, is whining that the party won’t listen to him. …

It’s very important, I think, to realize that while right now the GOP seems to have been taken hostage by its radical wing, the general strategy of responding to a lost election by trying to gain through blackmail what the party couldn’t gain at the polls was a consensus decision, arrived at way back in January. If the leadership is now dismayed by where it finds itself – leading a party of “lemmings with suicide vests” – it has only itself to blame.

And a crucial piece of the story, I think, is the conservative bubble, which among other things means that many on the right have wildly distorted ideas about Obamacare. A fair number of GOP politicians may actually believe that it’s a communist plot, or the moral equivalent of slavery, or something.

That’s nonsense, but Krugman suggests you think about it as if it were an old movie:

My working theory is that wealthy individuals bought themselves a radical right party, believing – correctly – that it would cut their taxes and remove regulations, but failed to realize that eventually the craziness would take on a life of its own, and that the monster they created would turn on its creators as well as the little people.

How do these things happen? Ask Doctor Frankenstein, or Mel Brooks. Don’t ask that fellow over at the American Conservative, Rod Dreher:

When I think of the Republican Party, I don’t think of principled conservative legislators who are men and women of vision [and] strategy. I think of ideologues who are prepared to wreck things to get their way. They have confused prudence – the queen of virtues, and the cardinal virtue of conservative politics – with weakness. I know I’m very much a minority among conservatives in this, but the behavior of Congressional Republicans pushed me out of the party two years ago, even though I almost always vote Republican, or withhold my vote.

I am not a liberal, and do not want to vote for liberals, especially on social policy. But I told a Louisiana conservative friend the other day that the Congressional Republicans are making me consider the previously unthinkable: throwing my vote away by voting for a Democrat in the special election next month to replace my GOP congressman, who just resigned to take another job. The GOP candidates in this local race are hot and heavy to overthrow Obamacare. I think about how poor this district is – 26 percent of the district lives in poverty, making it one of the poorest Congressional districts in America – and how badly we need jobs and economic growth, and I think: What kind of world do these people live in?

They live in a world where no one’s paying attention, including them, and that infuriates Andrew Sullivan:

Even though the law is almost identical to that of their last presidential nominee’s in Massachusetts, the GOP is prepared to destroy both the American government and the global economy to stop it. They see it, it seems to me, as both some kind of profound attack on the Constitution (something even Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts viewed as a step too far) and, in some inchoate way, as a racial hand-out, however preposterous that is. And that is at the core of the recklessness behind this attack on the US – or at least my best attempt to understand something that has long since gone beyond reason. This is the point of no return – a black president doing something for black citizens (even though the vast majority of beneficiaries of Obamacare will be non-black).

I regard this development as one of the more insidious and anti-constitutional acts of racist vandalism against the American republic in my adult lifetime. Those who keep talking as if there are two sides to this, when there are not, are as much a part of the vandalism as Ted Cruz. Obama has played punctiliously by the constitutional rules – two elections, one court case – while the GOP has decided that the rules are for dummies and suckers, and throws over the board game as soon as it looks as if it is going to lose by the rules as they have always applied.

The argument here is that this is different from Newt’s tantrums with that 1995 set of shutdowns:

This time, there can be no compromise because the GOP isn’t offering any. They’re offering the kind of constitutional surrender that would effectively end any routine operation of the American government. If we cave to their madness, we may unravel our system of government, something one might have thought conservatives would have opposed. Except these people are not conservatives. They’re vandals.

This time, the elephant must go down. And if possible, it must be so wounded it does not get up for a long time to come.

Those are strong words, but Sullivan has been paying attention, and if no one misses the water ’til the well runs dry, everyone’s paying attention now – and some people never learn.

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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1 Response to How These Things Happen

  1. Rick says:

    Although I don’t generally like it when someone blames all opposition to Obama in America on racism — since it leads to the logical conclusion that we should never elect a non-white president, since it will inevitably preclude all critical discussion of issues, since even legitimate criticism will be always labeled “racist” — I must admit that Joan Walsh gives a really good argument for it here.

    On the one hand, if her take is right, it’s really depressing and doesn’t bode well for our future. But on the other, the reality is that the demographics of our future means that anti-blackism’s days are probably numbered — which means, I guess, what we’re seeing now may be the last gasp of a small group of marginalized Americans who think they’ve lost control of a country that has gotten too “democratic” for them, in every sense of the word.

    These people want their country back, without seeming to realize that the country doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to all of us.


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