It’s quite possible to screw up winning it all. The Treaty of Versailles proved that. The First World War was over. Britain and France, with our considerable help, had won it all, and Germany had lost it all. All that was left was negotiating the terms of surrender, but the winners had already worked out the terms of surrender among themselves. There was no negotiating. Exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – that minor incident in Sarajevo that started the whole thing – Germany was told they were going to accept full responsibility “for causing all the loss and damage” from the war. There’d be no whining or bargaining. That was that, laid out in Article 231 – the War Guilt clause. Germany would disarm, completely, and make humiliating territorial concessions, and pay reparations to certain countries. They lost. They had no say now – shut up and sign on the dotted line – and they did.
They weren’t happy about that. They hadn’t been the only ones at fault, and after their inevitable economic collapse, and then political collapse, a leader arose who reminded all Germans of the humiliation of that treaty, who vowed Germany would never be humiliated again – and then rearmed Germany in violation of that treaty and started grabbing back territory that should have been Germany’s, really – the Sudetenland in 1938 for example. There was also the matter of German-speaking Prussia, by then part of Poland. The Second World War started on September 1, 1939, with Germany’s awesome new and innovative blitzkrieg that made all of Poland part of Germany in a day or two – and then they got really serious, heading west. It could be argued there’d have been no Hitler but for that Treaty of Versailles. That treaty gave Hitler his lever to move the world, and thus the winners of the first war caused the second one. Winners should never humiliate the losers, as tempting as that might be, because it’s so damned satisfying. The reason is obvious. Smug people eventually get punched in the face.
We learned that lesson. The second time around we rebuilt Germany – the Marshall Plan applied to them too, or especially to them – and then we bought their little VW Beetles, and every hippie in the sixties had that VW van, and every American male going through his inevitable mid-life crisis still wants a Porsche. The beer’s not bad either. Japan got to keep their emperor and MacArthur ran our occupation humanely. A wave of their transistor radios followed in the late fifties, then a Honda this and a Toyota that, and now it’s those expert baseball players – pitchers mostly – and sushi for everyone. There’s really no point in humiliating losers. It just pisses them off, for generations. It’s better to show some respect, even if you can’t quite manage to feel that, even if you don’t care for sushi.
We unlearned all that after the attacks of September 11, 2001 – our anger and our self-pitying sense of victimhood still makes it impossible to even think any Muslim has any justification for being upset with what we’ve done geopolitically. George Bush said they hate us for our freedoms, and everyone decided George must be right about that, even if he was wrong about everything else almost all the time – there couldn’t be any other reason. That meant that the only option, to keep us safe, was to humiliate these folks, to rub their noses in the obvious awesomeness of our military power. Dick Cheney led the charge there but he was not an outlier – there was Thomas Freidman’s famous suck on this comment on why we had to go to war with Iraq, even if they had nothing to do with any of it, or maybe because they had nothing to do with any of it. Freidman simple put it terms of sexual humiliation, but the concept stuck. The American right is still outraged by Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech – all about mutual interests and mutual respect, the normal stuff of geopolitics for a change. Obama called that “a new beginning” but that didn’t go over well. Obama didn’t want to humiliate the bad guys! This was outrageous! This was un-American!
Mitt Romney made much of this, saying again and again that he’d never apologize for America. His team popped out a book that they said he wrote (maybe he did) – No Apology: Believe in America – but of course Obama hadn’t apologized for anything. Obama had demanded mutual respect, after all – he explicitly demanded that the Muslim world recognize our view of things too – not that it mattered. America seemed to think it was June 28, 1918, in Versailles, because that had worked out so well. Winning is never enough. Humiliating your opponent seals the deal, and Romney’s team knew that polled well. It was his forty-seven percent comments that sunk him, not that. Having the charisma of a sheet of drywall didn’t help much either – but at least he was big on humiliating others. He did say he liked to fire people. Doesn’t everyone?
That may be human nature, but sometimes human nature is the real problem, and now the Democrats are facing their Versailles moment. The Republicans just gave up. Thursday, October 10, 2013, House Speaker John Boehner opened the day saying he and his unruly House caucus were giving up on one front – they would no longer refuse to raise the debt limit unless Obamacare was defunded and dismantled, or unless Obama agree to massive budget cuts to all social programs, or if Obama refused to talk to them about their demands, on which they would not ever compromise, or something else. In the end it wasn’t clear what they wanted, other than a little respect, but it was also clear that refusing to raise the debt limit would bring on the collapse of the world’s financial system. They didn’t want to be on the hook for that. Boehner said he planned to offer President Obama a clean six-week debt-ceiling extension – in exchange for a willingness to negotiate over the budget.
There was no mention of Obamacare, but there was also no mention of ending the government shutdown. That would continue, but as discussed previously – and perhaps tediously – a meeting at the White House about this ended with the idea that the Republicans would now end the government shutdown too. They were getting hammered in the polls. Virtually the whole country blamed them for the pain the shutdown was causing – even their own constituents were exasperated with them – and even approval for Obamacare was rising rapidly, in spite of the disastrous technical problems with its rollout, with all the system crashes.
They’d lost. The only thing left was a discussion of the terms of surrender.
The dynamics were the problem. Obama hadn’t changed his mind. He was willing to talk about everything, to consider all sorts of ideas, later – not with hostage-takers now. He won’t deal with people who threaten pain and misery for the entire nation unless they get their way, even if they say they’ll table one of their two big threats for six weeks. That’s no way to run a government. That’s banana-republic crap, and he says, quite logically, that if he agrees on anything now they’ll just come back with some new dire threat later, probably in six weeks, because they’ll have seen that threats work better than elections and legislation and all that stuff in the Constitution. He would have none of it, and the talks stalled.
Boehner was flabbergasted. Those who watched a bit of this on television saw that. After the meeting Boehner walked past reporters, head down, dead silent, refusing to answer any questions or make any comment. Others spoke for him. Ending the government shutdown was now on the table too. It was a Versailles moment. Boehner played the part of Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau. He lost. He was getting nothing.
History is useful. That won’t do. Obama and the Democratic Senate should know that. Winners should never humiliate the losers, as tempting as that might be, because smug people eventually really do get punched in the face. The Tea Party, angry and humiliated, will do everything to rearm the Republican Party, or to start a party of their own, and a generation of very angry Americans, even if they’re a small segment of the population, will be no fun at all. They can do real damage. Think of Poland.
That’s why, twenty-four hours later, nothing had been decided:
Political divisions over the nation’s finances appeared to narrow on Friday as President Obama and Congressional Republicans showed greater flexibility in their negotiations. But officials headed into the weekend without a deal to end the shutdown and avert what could be a devastating default after the government reaches the current borrowing limit on Thursday.
While the outlines of an agreement that would involve a temporary fix followed by longer-term budget talks came into view, the president and lawmakers faced the challenge of framing such a deal in a way that all sides could accept politically.
“We’re obviously in a better place than we were a few days ago in terms of the constructive approach that we’ve seen of late,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said late in the day after the president met with the entire Senate Republican conference and consulted by telephone with Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican speaker of the House. “But there’s not an agreement.”
Both houses of Congress were scheduled to meet over the weekend. But White House officials and senior lawmakers cautioned against expecting a quick deal, although much of the incendiary speech that has characterized the fiscal fight had given way to words like “constructive” and “progress.”
This is now a sort of dance, with everyone trying to figure out how no one ends up humiliated:
Republicans in the Senate emerged from a 90-minute meeting with Mr. Obama at the White House with a collective sense of tempered hope. A coalition of Republicans, many of them centrists from independent-leaning states who have been openly critical of the aggressive posture of their House colleagues, was trying to find room to maneuver in a very tight space.
Democrats, led by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, have repeatedly said they will not negotiate over reopening the government or raising the debt ceiling. But privately, a growing number of them said they have come to the realization that to insist on giving nothing to Republicans at all is a bargaining position they may be unable to maintain.
What they give and how a compromise could be structured so it allows the president and Democratic leaders to say credibly that they have not reversed their hardline position is unclear. White House officials said the president would be willing to sign a short-term increase in the debt ceiling and then negotiate on larger budget issues, but not if the two were explicitly linked.
This too was all about mutual interests and mutual respect, the normal stuff of geopolitics, but if everyone is sensible, the stuff of all politics, which isn’t easy:
Among some Democrats, especially Mr. Reid, there was a growing concern that the White House would be willing to bargain away too much – a sense, as one senior Democratic aide put it, that history was repeating itself. Many liberals were angry after the White House cut budget and tax deals in the past that they felt gave in too much to conservative demands, most recently over the “fiscal cliff” talks late last year that resulted in higher taxes on the wealthy but not as high as some would have liked.
White House officials said their allies need not worry. Confident that he had the upper hand politically, Mr. Obama met or talked by phone with governors and business leaders to enlist them to lobby Congress to avoid a default. Aides said he was holding firm against any deal that included specific concessions sought by Republicans, particularly involving his signature healthcare program.
In essence, the Republicans had taken two hostages but had decided to release one, reserving the right to retake that hostage again in six weeks. They might release the first hostage, or not, depending on what they were offered, and presumably this would prove that the House Republicans were quite reasonable people, willing to compromise, even if Obama wasn’t. Obama wasn’t buying it, but some Republicans were upset too:
To the dismay of conservatives, discussions about including revisions to Mr. Obama’s health care program have been dropped from most serious negotiations. An e-mail plea from the group Tea Party Express summed up their frustration on Friday. “Are you like us and wondering where the fight against Obamacare went?” it asked.
But there is reality:
Senate Republicans have insisted on dropping efforts to dismantle the law. At a lunch meeting in the Capitol earlier this week, [Republican Senator John] McCain asked the roomful of Republican senators if any still thought that reversing parts of the program was an achievable goal now, according to a person briefed on the meeting. No one raised a hand, not even Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the public face of the conservative push in Congress to repeal the law.
Their efforts to humiliate Obama failed. To be fair, many of them did have objections to the Affordable Care Act on principle – making sure thirty or forty million more Americans will not have any chance at all to buy low-cost subsidized health insurance from private-sector parties was important, because that involved everyone being required to have healthcare insurance, and that was an assault on freedom and egregious government intrusion in our personal lives – but much of this was about humiliating Obama. That wasn’t going to work out. The only question was how much humiliation they were going to have to endure now.
Ted Cruz refuses to be humiliated. See Ted Cruz Confronts President Obama at White House – Obama had scheduled a meeting with all the Senate Republicans and Cruz got in his face. You will dismantle the parts of the Affordable Care Act that I don’t like, or all of it, or there will be no deal on the shutdown or debt limit, ever! Apparently his Republican colleagues rolled their eyes. Ted’s like that.
One Republican in the House wasn’t that kind:
Appearing on MSNBC on Friday, Congressman Peter King continued his epic verbal assault on Ted Cruz…
Speaking with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, King called the ongoing government shutdown “the strategy of Ted Cruz” and wondered aloud “why more Republicans around the country didn’t join me in denouncing Ted Cruz” before the shutdown began. …
“Ted Cruz, what he did here, was lead the party into a dead end with no strategy, somehow convincing a number of House Republicans that if we just sent this to through Senate as far as defunding and closing down the government, he would manage to get Harry Reid and President Obama to back down,” said King. “He never had a plan. It was fraudulent from the start. And we have to cut this guy off now.”
Yeah, well, Ted had other things on his mind, but Jonathan Bernstein no longer considers Ted Cruz a viable presidential candidate:
It’s one thing to have a reputation as a loudmouth; it’s quite another to have a reputation as a loser. That’s what the shutdown fight has done to Cruz. Among true believers he’ll be the one who was a leader in a fight that surely would have won if the squishes hadn’t sold them out. But for most party actors, including many sympathetic to Tea Partyism, he’s going to be the guy who ran up the wrong hill.
Daniel Larison agrees:
What may hurt Cruz’s prospects as a presidential candidate most is the fact that he will not or cannot acknowledge that he was wrong in promoting his failed strategy. As if to prove how oblivious to political reality he is, he was at it again today in his speech this morning.
Josh Barro covered that amazing Ted Cruz speech at the Values Voters Summit – Cruz saying that the whole country agrees with him, and Obama is on the run, and Obamacare will be gone soon, all of it, and Obama will be the one who is humiliated, and so on and so forth. There were a few hecklers before the speech, but he brought down the house. In June, 1918, no German stood on the conference table at Versailles and shouted out that the Germans were still fighting, and, winning decisively, and the French and British and their American buddies would soon be hanging their heads in shame and slinking off, what was left of them, but it takes all kinds. Cruz is an unusual fellow.
Obama and the Senate Democrats may be treading carefully here – don’t give away what really matters but don’t humiliate the other guys – but it’s hard to deal with someone like Ted Cruz, who doesn’t get the concept of finding some mutual interests, and assuming mutual respect. Both sides have to understand those concepts, and Slate’s John Dickerson argues the oddest thing, that Paul Ryan can save the Republican Party from Ted Cruz’s rolling disaster:
The Gallup poll that tracks the approval rating of Republicans in Congress looks like the bend of a hockey stick. At 28 percent approval, it is the lowest since the organization started measuring and down 10 points from last month. The Wall Street Journal poll has an identical finding: The GOP has never been less popular. By a margin of 22 points, the public blames Republicans over President Obama for the government shutdown, a bigger gap than the last major shutdown in the mid-1990s. Seventy percent say that Republicans are putting their “political agenda” ahead of the good of the country.
Whether this is a permanent condition or a temporary one depends on getting Sen. Ted Cruz off the stage and Rep. Paul Ryan on – substituting a bristly champion of an unpopular strategy that divides the party with a congenial representative of the GOP’s traditional views on taxing and spending. That’s why House Republican leaders are trying to craft a deal with the White House to reopen government and start budget negotiations where House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan will be the key player.
That would be Ryan, not Cruz:
Forty-four percent of the country doesn’t know who Cruz is, so it’s too soon to talk about the Cruz Curse. But he causes upset and infighting within his own party. Ryan doesn’t. Indeed, there are also lots of inside-game reasons Ryan is a good choice to take the lead. He is trusted by both conservatives and establishment types. Though Ryan’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal signaled the final step in the GOP’s movement away from the crusade to defund Obamacare, Ryan nevertheless has credibility on the issue. Ryan voted against the Simpson-Bowles commission because it did nothing about Obamacare. He’ll need all the credibility he can muster since there’s likely to be a lot of grassroots disappointment with whatever deal is struck with President Obama.
When Cruz faced criticism during the shutdown fight, many lawmakers who disliked Obamacare were uncomfortable defending his strategy – because they thought it was nuts. (Some saw him sinking and just wanted to throw him an anvil.) If Ryan gets in hot water in debates with the White House, Republicans will rush to his defense. They know the language of the fight: taxes bad, spending cuts good. Ryan operates within predictable guidelines, and he’s worked tirelessly to implement conservative ideas while showing he puts party first. (He did run with Mitt Romney after all.) He’s the kind of team player Cruz is not.
Ryan may not succeed, getting real concessions, but at least he spends most of his time on this planet. That helps, even if it might not be enough:
The biggest impediment to success is that both sides are still just as far apart as ever on taxes and spending. To remind you of the essential fix: The White House is reluctant to embrace benefit cuts to entitlements unless Republicans contribute to shrinking the deficit by allowing some tax hikes. Republicans don’t want to agree to raise taxes unless the president embraces big spending cuts on entitlements. It’s instructive to look back at this summer’s so-called Diners Club – a series of informal meetings between Republican senators and the president’s senior aides – where even under the best circumstances the two sides could not cross these familiar bridges.
Things may be hopeless, but take what you can get:
For the party to recoup and rejoin, it needs a healer. That’s a process Paul Ryan can guide. But given how far apart Republicans and Democrats still are, there’s little reason to hope for much more.
That will have to do. After the First World War the victors decided humiliation was just the ticket. After the Second World War they opted for healing. There’s much to be said for healing. There’s also much to be said for remembering a bit of history. Versailles is a fine place – very pretty – but bad things happened there.