December somehow arrived again, opening with ice and snow from El Paso to Detroit, with heavy rain around the edges, and dispirited Christmas shoppers. It hasn’t been a good year, and soon it will be time for the inevitable lists of the year’s winners and losers – which celebrities melted down, like Alec Baldwin this year, and which of these useless folk can do no wrong in spite of themselves, like Miley Cyrus perhaps. See Time’s Top Ten of Everything from 2013 lists – all thirty or forty of them – for more of this sort of thing. The folks at Time, however, just started early. There will be thousands of such lists by the end of the month, covering everything from sports to architecture to needlepoint – something for everyone.
It’s time once again to look back, but in terms of how things went this year, for the nation, that’s a dismal business. Washington stopped working. It was a record – the current Congress will end the year as the least productive Congress in our history – although John Boehner maintains that Congress shouldn’t be judged on how many laws they’ve passed, but on how many laws they’ve repealed. That’s an interesting argument, based on the assumption that the whole concept of government itself is stupid and government really should do next to nothing, on general principle – but that’s an odd argument. Congress has repealed nothing, so they failed quite miserably at making sure next to nothing gets done.
The nation keeps stumbling on anyway, somehow. Congress hasn’t passed a budget since 2009, but they manage, each time any spending authorization expires, to pass another continuing resolution to keep current spending as is, with this last time the Republicans demanding that sequestration thing – a brutal across-the-board ten percent cut in everything. It was that or the government would shut down, and now that this continuing resolution is about to expire, and now that it’s clear that the across-the-board ten percent cut in everything is crippling the economy, they’re trying to figure out what to do next. A bipartisan supercommittee is working on an actual budget – something no one has seen in a long time – and they might get there.
There are hints of that, but the Tea Party guys in the House want nothing to do with any budget deal – the sequestration cuts must stay, and pensions for all federal employees must be voided, a new demand. There’s another matter too – the first week in December ended with a good jobs report, and the stock market soared, so these guys say that long-term unemployment benefits must be eliminated right now – because obviously there are jobs galore out there now, for everyone. Others point out that long-term unemployment is still at an all-time high and not decreasing one bit – so cutting off 1.3 million people at the end of the month might lead to a bit of a humanitarian disaster. The word on Fox News is, of course, that those benefits are just a crutch holding back economic growth, and the word on Fox News is the word in the Republican Party. The impasses grow. Nothing will be done.
It was not a good year for Congress. Their approval rating has never been so low – nine-percent approval did set a record – but it’s mostly the House, or more specifically, the rump caucus of Tea Party hardliners in the Republican-controlled House, intimidating the other Republicans. The Democratically-controlled Senate passed a budget long ago, with a lot of Republican votes, and that rump caucus wouldn’t let their party take it up in the House. That same Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform long ago, with a lot of Republican votes, and the Tea Party rump caucus wouldn’t let their party take it up in the House either. The same thing happened when it was time for another continuing resolution to keep the government running, and time to bump up the debt limit so the government could pay its bills now due, for all that Congress had voted that must be done over the years. Everyone agreed both had to be done, save for the House Tea Party hardliners and Senator Cruz in the Senate, who insisted that the price for doing both must be defunding Obamacare, or its repeal. That was never going to happen – they never had the votes for any such thing and Obama has his veto pen – but we had a sixteen-day government shutdown anyway. That cost us twenty-four billion dollars, which is just about the cost of continuing those long-term unemployment benefits, oddly enough – and the debt limit was raised too, because a US default on the trillions of dollars in treasury bonds floating around out there would utterly destroy the world’s financial systems.
Who won? It wasn’t the Republican Party. They couldn’t control their mavericks. Millions of government employees were in a world of hurt for weeks, and all sorts of government contractors just didn’t get paid, and some went under – for nothing. Ted Cruz became a pariah in his own party, even if he was proud that he was. Republicans were the big losers in 2013, for about a week, until the Obamacare website turned out to be a disaster. Then Obama was the big loser this year, as Salon’s Joan Walsh explained at the time:
It is one thing for former George W. Bush flack and Sarah Palin staffer Nicolle Wallace to make a silly and self-serving link between the troubled rollout of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and her boss’s handling of, wait for it, Hurricane Katrina. It’s another for the New York Times to pick up the cudgel and seriously make a comparison between the Affordable Care Act’s acknowledged problems and the deadly 2005 tragedy.
But they did, and Walsh documents how that meme spread far and wide, even if it was nonsense:
Katrina isn’t shorthand for “bungled administration policy.” It’s an actual tragedy in which at least 1,800 people lost their lives. Thousands of others were left stranded without food or water in their flooded neighborhoods, on freeway viaducts, in hospitals and nursing homes, and in the televised hell-hole of the Superdome. A million people were displaced, some of them permanently. Whole neighborhoods remain unrestored eight years later. There was at least $123 million in destruction, twice as much as in Hurricane Sandy.
In the ACA holocaust, by comparison, an undetermined number of people may lose health insurance policies they like. Many more, perhaps millions, have been frustrated by a kludgy website. On the other hand, at least 100,000 have signed up for insurance through the exchanges and another 500,000 or so have been newly covered by Medicaid expansion.
Oh – and there have been zero deaths as a result of the ACA woes – unless you count the death of credibility among journalists and pundits who would make such a lame and cruel comparison.
But it’s not just that. Obama is the big loser in 2013 for other reasons. There was Syria. Obama drew that red line, perhaps foolishly, about Assad using chemical weapons, and Assad crossed it, using chemical weapons on his own people, and the proof was irrefutable. Did Obama then arm the local rebels to overthrow the guy, even if they did seem to be al-Qaeda-affiliated jerks? No, he didn’t. Did Obama bomb Syria back to the Stone Age to rid the place of Assad? No he didn’t. Did Obama send in two or three hundred thousand of our troops to take over the place and help the Syrians form a new government, with no Assad? No he didn’t. He got the Russians to set Assad straight and to force him to destroy his chemical weapons, letting Vladimir Putin take the lead and seem like the hero here. And then Obama said the point, all along, had been to get rid of those chemical weapons, not Assad, because whoever replaced him might be worse. John McCain and the few remaining neoconservatives – the guys that brought us the Iraq War – were appalled. The whole point was to get rid of Assad, and certainly not to make that Putin guy look good.
Obama blew it – but then the chemical weapons are gone now, or will be soon. So who won? That depends on who you ask, and it’s the same with Iran. He did nothing to stop them from developing nuclear weapons, or even better, remove that government – he agreed that we’d lift a few sanctions, just a few, if they would pause their nuclear program. This is just a first step – some sort of a more comprehensive agreement is supposed to come in six months, but this stops and even reverses progress at all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and it halts the installation of any new centrifuges used to enrich uranium, and it caps the amount and type of enriched uranium Iran is allowed to produce, and includes full inspections and monitoring. Iran also agreed to halt work on a heavy-water reactor that could be used to provide Iran with a source of plutonium – the really bad stuff – and they agreed to daily inspections of everything. But this agreement stopped nothing, and removed no one from power, so Obama was the big loser here. All he got was a pause, to see if something could be worked out. It was a failure. Just ask the Israelis, or ask anyone on Fox News, or John McCain, or Bill Kristol or Jon Bolton.
All this makes Obama the year’s big loser, but Andrew Sullivan thinks it’s worth digesting how all these alleged disasters have settled down:
Obama’s alleged surrender to Putin on Syria … has led to something no one really believed possible: a potential shut-down of Syria’s WMD potential. What Bush failed to do in Iraq (because Saddam’s WMDs were a fantasy), Obama has almost succeeded in doing in Syria – with Putin’s help. The Iran negotiations – far from being a surrender – have set the stage for a real rapprochement.
Sullivan cites Les Gelb with this:
The Obama team has won the first round on the six-month agreement with Iran by a knockout. The phony, misleading, and dishonest arguments against the pact just didn’t hold up to the reality of the text. As night follows day, the mob of opponents didn’t consider surrender, not for a second. Instead, they trained their media howitzers on the future, the next and more permanent agreement, you know, the one that has yet to be negotiated.
They didn’t understand what was happening, and even the prissy and sour George Will had to concede that:
Some advocates of war [with Iran] seem gripped by Thirties Envy, a longing for the clarity of the 1930s, when appeasement failed to slake the dictators’ thirst for territorial expansion. But the incantation “Appeasement!” is not an argument. And the word “appeasement” does not usefully describe a sober decision that war is an imprudent and even ultimately ineffective response to the failure of diplomatic and economic pressures to alter a regime’s choices about policies within its borders.
Sullivan adds this:
There is a chance that the Middle East, far from exploding in another spasm, is actually safer today than in recent times. Netanyahu’s worst instincts have been rather coolly checked. The reactionary forces in Iran are on the defensive. Kerry has in no way given up on a two-state solution on his watch. And today, we got a glimpse of a much stronger economy than most were expecting, and the disastrous website … has been patched up as promised (with, of course, some ways to go).
Who is the loser now? Alec McGillis offers this:
The bungled healthcare.gov Web site emerged vastly improved following an intensive fix-it push, allowing some 25,000 to sign up per day, as many as signed up in all of October.
Paul Ryan and Patty Murray inched toward a modest budget agreement. This morning came a remarkably solid jobs report, showing 203,000 new positions created in November, the unemployment rate falling to 7 percent for the first time in five years, and the labor force participation rate ticking back upward. Meanwhile, the administration’s push for a historic nuclear settlement with Iran continued apace.
All of these developments are tenuous. The website’s back-end troubles could still pose big problems (though word is they are rapidly improving, too) and the delay in getting the site up working leaves little time to meet enrollment goals. Job growth could easily stutter out again. The Iran deal could founder amid resistance from Congress or our allies. Still, it seems safe to say that the Obama presidency is not, in fact, over and done with.
The filibuster has been tamed, and the courts freed from total obstruction. The GOP remains utterly devoid of any constructive alternative to Obamacare, whose winners have been far less vocal – so far… The president is on the offensive – on economic inequality and healthcare. It’s far too soon to project anything certain. But what we sure can say is that a huge amount is still to play for.
As far as Obama’s presidency goes, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. He hasn’t lost. He’s not the big loser of the year, and odd things can happen at the end of the year. Nelson Mandela dies, finally, and now the Republicans are in a pickle:
Republican politicians have tried to pay homage on Facebook to the late Nelson Mandela since his death on Thursday, but many of their conservative supporters want to hear none of it.
Peruse through comment sections of the GOP’s Facebook tributes to Mandela, and there’s a good chance you’ll find plenty of vitriol for the former South African president and for the politicians who praised him.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) wrote that Mandela “will live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe.” One commenter took a different view of the anti-apartheid leader’s legacy, urging “all you Mandela lovers head on over to South Africa and see what’s going on now that ‘Mandela’s people’ have control of the nation.”
There’s this too:
As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) sees it, Mandela “showed South Africans and the entire world what the power of forgiveness truly means and can accomplish.” It’s unclear if some of Rubio’s disappointed supporters will be similarly forgiving of the senator.
One woman found it “sad” that Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, showed such reverence given that the GOP senator’s family “fled the very things that mandela (sic) stood for.” After seeing the tribute, another woman said Rubio had lost her vote.
And then there are the two House leaders:
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) wrote that the “world has lost an exceptional leader who made the world a better place.” But some commenters cried foul at the “revisionist history” of Mandela. Another expressed relief that “Mass Murderer Mandela is finally dead.”
A commenter on the Facebook page of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who commemorated Mandela’s “perseverance in fighting the apartheid system,” likewise said that the death made him “glad.” Another wondered if Boehner was implying support for “communism and the killing of white people.”
A bit of history – the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 was enacted by Congress, imposing sanctions against South Africa, and it listed five preconditions for lifting those sanctions, provisions that would essentially end apartheid entirely, and Ronald Reagan vetoed it, and Congress overrode his veto. Dick Cheney, then a Republican congressman from Wyoming, stood with Reagan, and year after year he has said he doesn’t regret that one bit – Mandela was a terrorist – although now he’s silent, and as Juan Cole notes, one must consider the times:
We should remember that for much of the West in the Cold War, South Africa’s thriving capitalist economy was what was important. Its resources were important. Its government, solely staffed by Afrikaners and solely for Afrikaners, was seen as a counter-weight to Soviet and Communist influence in Africa. Washington in the 1980s obsessed about Cuba’s relationship to Angola…
That the Afrikaners treated black Africans like dirt and discriminated against them viciously, denying them the franchise or any hint of equality, was considered in Western capitals at most an unfortunate idiosyncrasy that could not be allowed to interfere with the West’s dependence on Pretoria in fighting the international left.
No one misses those days now, as there really is no “international left” anymore, except in the imagination of the American right, but Paul Waldman says it’s time to fess-up:
It’s perfectly appropriate to point out that what we now view as consensus figures weren’t always thus, and everyone in public life has to be accountable for where they stood before the consensus emerged. Most conservatives were wrong about Nelson Mandela and apartheid, just as they were wrong on essentially every question touching on race in our own history. It would be great to hear one of the people who were around then say, “I was wrong,” and explore what they’ve learned from that. But that may be too much to ask. After all, it’s one thing to offer a few anodyne sentences in tribute to a leader on the occasion of his death; it’s another to draw people’s attention to who stood where back when it mattered.
Yeah, that would make you a loser, and everyone knows just who the loser is here, or maybe they don’t. That’s why there are all those end-of-year lists, and Democrats and Republicans draw up quite different lists. This list, such as it is, declares Obama the big winner this year. The rest is just noise.