Arriving at the Impossible

Tweety Bird is at it again. That would be Chris Matthews – the cable news guy of boundless and unfocused enthusiasm, or outrage, at any given moment. The man knows politics – he was a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and worked for six years as chief of staff to Tip O’Neill, when O’Neill was Speaker of the House and locked in endless battles with Ronald Reagan. Matthews helped O’Neill win some of those, but now he’s just one more opinion journalist, hosting a daily cable news show where he interviews what newsmakers his bookers can find, asking them leading questions then talking over their answers, cutting them off in the middle of their first sentence – because he has firm and better-informed opinions, which seem to change all the time. He knows politics, but not restraint, and considered reflection is just not in his nature – he gets so enthusiastic that he often interrupts himself, with a second or third banal thought that just occurred to him. That’s okay. His guests adjust. Most of them have learned to sit back serenely and let Matthews’ words wash over them in a pleasant kind of way, and MSNBC is fine with him too. He adds a jolt of energy to their parade of wonks. He’s their caffeine supplement.

Matthews doesn’t seem to have fully accepted that role, which probably explains his new book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked – his seventh in what seems to be a series devoted to the good old days, when politics actually worked, when he was there. This one is about those two Irishmen, Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, who had completely opposite ideas about what was good for the country, and had a few epic battles over that, but were fast friends and always worked out some sort of compromise, where no one lost face, settling on what seemed to be the imperfect best solution for the good of the country. Matthews is proud of his own Irish heritage, so this new book might have been about how American politics would be much better if all our politicians had a bit of the Irish in them – his previous book was a paean to Jack Kennedy – but that’s not the case here. This new book is just about fighting for what you believe, as hard as you can, but with respect and even admiration and affection for your opponent.

That’s a banal enough concept – no one ever considered Chris Matthews a deep thinker – but this new book is getting a lot of play. Everyone is interviewing Matthews, because that banal concept is intriguing these days. Things would be better if Ted Cruz were Tip – the current Speaker of the House, John Boehner, hardly counts anymore – and Barack Obama were the Gipper. They could have it out over Obamacare and deficit spending and all the rest, and then knock back a few Irish whiskeys and swap stories about the kids or whatever – but of course they’re not Irish. Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother, admittedly with a bit of Irish in her, and a Cuban father, and Obama was born in Hawaii and his father was Kenyan – so it would be a Mojito and a Mai Tai – but it wouldn’t even be that. Obama may have a bit of the Irish in him – he did once attempt to settle a thorny problem over a beer – but Ted Cruz doesn’t work that way. For him it’s winning through maximum self-righteous nastiness. It’s a Tea Party thing.

Forget respect and even admiration and affection for your opponent. Chris Matthews may weep in despair, but those days are gone forever. Yes, the Republicans caved – the government shutdown ended and we didn’t go into default, and everyone knows the whole thing was stupid, even forty-seven percent of Republicans – but even with that they’re defiant, or at least Ted Cruz is. He says that he’ll somehow get all the Republicans to unite behind him the next time these items come up again, in January and February, and shut down the government again, or force default, bringing on worldwide economic chaos, and this time it will work – Obama will be forced to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Hell, Obama can be forced to do anything Ted Cruz wants, which has the Tea Party crowd cheering, and Democrats gloating, because there’s this from CNN – “Just over half the public says that it’s bad for the country that the GOP controls the House of Representatives, according to a new national poll conducted after the end of the partial government shutdown” – showing a growing trend. These guys can’t be trusted with anything, they shouldn’t even be in charge of a lemonade stand – so Democrats love all the polling that shows Republican approval levels at the lowest anyone has ever seen for any party. There are countless sneering articles on how they’re all fools and tools. That’s far from how Reagan dealt with Tip O’Neill, even if Obama doesn’t pile on all that much. There’s scorn in the air.

The odd thing was that this was all about Obamacare, which is actually in some trouble. The implementation isn’t going well, so they could have said, with some justification, that Obamacare is just not working very well, which might mean that it won’t work at all, instead of shutting down the government for sixteen days and spooking the markets with that default nonsense. Their argument, that the Affordable Care Act must be stopped before it turns America into a nation where the Takers get everything because the Makers are being forced to give it to them, implicitly assumes that the damned thing will work all too well, ruining everything that is good and right in America. The more powerful argument would have been to point to the quite shaky rollout and suggest that this proves that the whole idea was crappy – and this is the proof. They could have let the Affordable Care Act speak for itself. They’d have saved us a whole lot of trouble, but that’s not what happened. The sanctimonious self-pity and the angry shouting, and the waving of Confederate flags and tea bags, and the sincerity of the deeply-held beliefs of various odd people, dominated the news cycles, day after day, and Obamacare itself remained in the shadows. The administration lucked out, or the Republicans blew it, big time, but that’s all over now. Now they’re making that argument, and gloating. There’s deep scorn in the air here too, the mirror of the Democrats’ scorn. Everything reversed the day after the government shutdown, as if it never happened.

Everything reversed, but nothing got better. Tip and the Gipper are long gone. We have finally arrived at a point where fighting for what you believe in, as hard as you can, but with respect and even admiration and affection for your opponent, is impossible. It can’t be done, and some of this has to do with a new dynamic:

Ted Cruz may be the most reviled man in the U.S. Senate at the moment, not least among his Republican colleagues. He was the face and voice of the government shutdown strategy that brought the nation to the brink of default on its debt and left his party with its lowest poll ratings ever, while doing nothing to halt the implementation of the new health-care law.

But back in Texas, there is a different reality.

During the past week, Cruz has been greeted as a conquering hero, with a round of triumphal public appearances and welcome-home rallies such as the one that [he] attended Monday night in Houston, which was hastily arranged by the King Street Patriots tea party group.

He’d never run for public office before, but now he has transformed the Texas Republican Party:

Just about every GOP candidate with aspirations to statewide office in 2014 seems to be styling himself or herself after Cruz. In tight formation, they are moving hard to the right and looking for the next big populist rallying cry – secession, rolling back the state’s liberal immigration laws, impeaching President Obama, amending the Constitution to end the direct election of U.S. senators.

His aura even extends to local races. “Some people call me the Ted Cruz of the city council,” boasted Helena Brown, who won her seat in Houston in 2011 and has proposed solving the city’s fiscal problems by defaulting on its pension obligations.

Secede from the United States, Impeach Obama, screw all those old folks who were foolish enough to pay into a pension – it’s all there and Cruz calls what he has inspired “a tremendously healthy development” – but your mileage may vary, as they say. Tip O’Neill wouldn’t get it, but he was an Irish sort of fellow. Cruz summed up the opposite point of view well enough – “After two months in Washington, it’s great to be back in America.”

As for Obamacare’s evils, there was this odd data-point:

The wife of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) confirmed in an interview with The New York Times what the tea party star’s opponents have insinuated gleefully for weeks: The most vocal opponent of Obamacare enjoys a high-priced health plan through investment bank Goldman Sachs.

“Ted is on my health care plan,” Heidi Nelson Cruz, who has worked in the firm’s management division for eight years, told the paper in a story published Wednesday.

Maybe that’s the model everyone should follow? Maybe so, but even in that world there’s trouble for Ted Cruz:

On Monday Tom Donohue told Ted Cruz to shut up – kind of. He was goaded into it. A reporter at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast asked Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, if the Texas Republican senator should “sit down and shut up.”

“That’s one of the things we could work with him on,” said Donohue. He said he respects the Tea Party’s dedication to small government, but couldn’t get behind efforts to shut down the government or threaten a U.S. debt default.

Perhaps Tom Donohue had read Chris Matthews’ new book, or maybe it’s just his Irish last name, but he gets it. Working with others respectfully works far better than sneering and threats, if you don’t want to blow everything up. He may have to take this young lad aside and have a talk with him. Maybe he’ll mention Tip O’Neill and hum a few bars of Danny Boy. He might even mention the Gipper. Of course Cruz will only look puzzled. Those guys are ancient history. Those guys are dead.

Chris Matthews, the master of the obvious, points out that one can learn a lot from dead guys, as is obvious, but there are other dead guys, like the ancestors of John G. Taft:

Five generations of Tafts have served our nation as unwaveringly stalwart Republicans, from Alphonso Taft, who served as attorney general in the late 19th century, through William Howard Taft, who not only was the only person to be both president of the United States and chief justice of the United States but also served as the chief civil administrator of the Philippines and secretary of war, to my cousin, Robert Taft, a two-term governor of Ohio.

As I write, a photograph of my grandfather, Senator Robert Alphonso Taft, looks across at me from the wall of my office. He led the Republican Party in the United States Senate in the 1940s and early 1950s, ran for the Republican nomination for president three times and was known as “Mr. Republican.” If he were alive today, I can assure you he wouldn’t even recognize the modern Republican Party, which has repeatedly brought the United States of America to the edge of a fiscal cliff – seemingly with every intention of pushing us off the edge.

This fellow is no fan of Ted Cruz:

This recent display of bomb-throwing obstructionism by Republicans in Congress evokes another painful, historically embarrassing chapter in the Republican Party – that of Senator Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, whose anti-Communist crusade was allowed by Republican elders to expand unchecked, unnecessarily and unfairly tarnishing the reputations of thousands of people with “Red Scare” accusations of Communist affiliation. Finally Senator McCarthy was brought up short during the questioning of the United States Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch, who at one point demanded the senator’s attention, and then said: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” He later added: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Watching the Republican Party use the full faith and credit of the United States to try to roll back Obamacare, watching its members threaten not to raise the debt limit – which Warren Buffett rightly called a “political weapon of mass destruction” – to repeal a tax on medical devices, I so wanted to ask a similar question: “Have you no sense of responsibility? At long last, have you left no sense of responsibility?”

Cruz has learned nothing:

The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party. The Republican brand is (or should be) about responsible behavior. The Republican Party is (or should be) at long last, about decency.

It seems that’s impossible now, and Andrew Sullivan thinks he knows the reason why, and it has to do with far more than Ted Cruz:

The fusion of politics and religion – most prominently the fusion of the evangelical movement and the Republican Party – has been one of the most damaging developments in recent American history. It has made Republicanism not the creed of realists, pragmatists and compromise but of fundamentalists – on social and foreign policy, and even fiscal matters. And once maintaining inerrant doctrine becomes more important than, you know, governing a complicated, divided society, you end up with the extremism we saw in the debt ceiling crisis. When doctrine matters more than actually doing anything practical you end up with Cruz…

The only thing that cheers Sullivan is that the Republicans have now lost the Pope:

The Catholic hierarchy has been knocked sideways by the emergence of Pope Francis and his eschewal of their fixation on homosexuality, contraception and abortion. That fixation – essentially a Christianist and de facto Republican alliance among Protestants and Catholic leaders – has now been rendered a far lower priority than, say, preaching the Gospel or serving the poor and the sick.

Sullivan points out that Pope Francis has actually endorsed secularism:

I say that politics is the most important of the civil activities and has its own field of action, which is not that of religion. Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres.

That’s a call for the separation of church and state, from the Church itself. Republican heads must be exploding. Two or three years ago, Bill O’Reilly reminded all Americans that it says right there in the Bible that “the Lord helps those who help themselves” – so Jesus really thought stuff like unemployment insurance and welfare and food stamps and all the rest were immoral, because charity creates a “moral hazard” or something.

That caused quite a stir – because there’s no such thing in the Bible, so O’Reilly, another Irish lad, was mercilessly hammered, and now we have a new Pope saying stop this nonsense, Bill – keep God out your gripes about earning tens of millions each year and then having to pay a bit in taxes so other citizens can survive. God ain’t a Republican! That, no doubt, sounds better in Latin or course, but then everything Bill O’Reilly says sounds better in the original Klingon.

In any event, Sullivan was also heartened by this profile of the Southern Baptist Convention’s new public voice, Russell Moore, saying this:

“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” Mr. Moore said in an interview in his Washington office, a short walk from Congress. “Christianity thrives when it is clearest about what distinguishes it from the outside culture.”

Moore, a young fellow, at forty-two, may represent the next generation of evangelical Christians, who are walking away from politics:

A March survey of nearly 1,000 white evangelicals by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan polling organization, found half of those under 35 favored same-sex marriage, compared with just 15% of those over 65. The younger evangelicals were more likely to be independents over Republicans, while the opposite was true of their elders.

“The religious right was born on the theology of numerical expansion: the belief that conservative churches grow while liberal ones die. That conceit is gone now,” says David Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

We may never return to the days of Tip and the Gipper getting tipsy and swapping stories in the evening, then figuring out a reasonable way forward on thorny political issues in the morning, but the talk of what Jesus really thinks about tax policy regarding carry-forward exemptions will one day end, and maybe sooner than anyone thought.

Sullivan sees this even more broadly:

A doctrine or moral position can only be defended as true, not useful. And the Christianist positions on gay people – they can be cured or should be required to be celibate their entire lives, without even masturbation – is so ludicrous as an example of what God would want for a small proportion of his Creation that it has rightly evaporated among the next generation.

Ditto the silly notion that contraception somehow violates the order of nature in ways so grave it must be outlawed. Evangelicals never had to deal with this transparent nonsense, but Catholics still labor under its staggering lack of persuasiveness. The idea that universal healthcare should be opposed because of a tiny detail about contraception coverage is as theologically ass-backwards as the notion that the church might shut down its services for abandoned children or the homeless for fear of employing one spouse of a married gay couple. Perhaps a strong dose of the old medicine could firm up the older generations – but clinging to arguments that no one under forty finds even vaguely plausible, let alone humane, is not a long-term strategy for the health of Christianity.

The exception to this is abortion, where the moral arguments against it remain powerful and coherent, if impractical as a political project. So it’s no surprise that it’s that issue the younger generation has not shifted on. But the political program to criminalize it may not be as appealing to this generation as a prophetic call against abortion’s dehumanization of human life, and violence against the most vulnerable. To oppose contraception as well as abortion strikes many, rightly, as morally contemptible as a practical question.

We may have reached an impossible point in American politics, where nothing can get done, but we could move beyond that point, although Ed Kilgore offers a warning:

We’ve heard all this before, along with the same expressions of hope from liberals and secular folk (the profile features several) that these zealots are finally going back into their shell just like they did after the Scopes Monkey Trial. I’d remind everyone that a change in strategy and tactics for politically-inclined conservative evangelicals doesn’t necessarily reflect a change in goals or commitments, and also that a loudly proclaimed independence from the GOP has been a hallmark of the Tea Party Movement as well.

Jesus said the poor will always be with us. So will the politically-inclined conservative evangelicals, who don’t care much for the poor at all. It’s probably best to fix what can be fixed while they’re temporarily on the run, because they’ll be back.

Tip and the Gipper aren’t coming back however, even if Obama burst onto the national stage in 2004 with his Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston:

There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.

The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

Tip and the Gipper would get that. So would every member of the Taft family over all the years, and even the new Pope would get that. Ted Cruz wouldn’t, and hasn’t, even if Obama has been giving that same damned speech for nine years now. We’ve finally arrived at a different place, the impossible place, and we seem to be trapped here. A spot of Irish whiskey would be appropriate right now. Hell, leave the bottle. It’s going to be a long night.

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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