That Curious Existential Despair and Dread

One of the most depressing scenes in Groundhog Day – the best comedy exploring existential despair and dread that Hollywood ever produced, or maybe the only comedy exploring existential despair and dread Hollywood ever produced – is the Jeopardy game. The old people who live empty lives sit around watching Alex Trebek asking harder and harder questions about a real world they’ve never really seen and barely know, as old people everywhere do every evening (the show’s target demographic is the retirement home crowd) – and our hero, Phil Connors, sitting with them in his final hopelessness, answers every question correctly – bored and desolated. They’re amazed, but he’s heard it all before, because he’s been living the same day over and over and over again – it’s always the same questions with the same answers, over and over again. As he says elsewhere in the film, maybe omniscience is no more than hanging around long enough, or hanging around far too long. It’s a burden, not a gift.

Still Jeopardy has its moments. A few years ago one difficult question was to name the only other country in the world whose capital is named after an American president. What? That’s a real poser. What is Liberia? That was the correct response. Yep, that country in West Africa was set up in the early nineteenth century as a place to dump freed slaves – no one knew what else to do with them before we had our Civil War to free them all and make them citizens here. James Monroe thought this was a fine idea and encouraged the work of the American Colonization Society – and thus we sent a good number of freed slaves back to Africa, not to their home countries, but close enough. That’s why the capital of Liberia is Monrovia – a bit of a thank you to our fifth president. But is it an odd place. The official language is English and they’ve had far too many presidents named John Doe. It’s an African nation and not one at all, and their True Whig Party – an imitation of the American Whig Party – was the dominant force in the politics over there for more than a century. Who knew?

Phil Connors would know such things. Hang around long enough and you know such things, but then everyone has forgotten our Whig Party – presidents William Henry Harrison (1841) and John Tyler (1841–1845) and Zachary Taylor (1849–1850) and Millard Fillmore (1850–1853) were Whigs. Abraham Lincoln was a Whig before switching to the new Republican Party, formed when the Whigs fell apart. John Tyler, who became president after Harrison’s sudden death, was actually expelled from the party. They were a fractious lot, formed in reaction to the populist stuff Andrew Jackson was selling America, where the riff-raff was supposed to have as much political power as the important people – which explains how they morphed into the modern Republican Party. They also argued for the supremacy of Congress over the presidency, and favored a program of industrial modernization long before anyone was saying that corporations were people too, and they were big on economic protectionism – lots of tariffs and such. They were also wheelers and dealers like Henry Clay – the Great Compromiser – but that was all about swapping favors under the table, and, at times, threats. There’s nothing new under the sun. In 2006 the Florida Whig Party was formed and went nowhere and dissolved in 2012, and in 2008 a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans formed the Modern Whig Party – the same stuff from the early nineteenth century, but with states’ rights stuff added, because states are really sovereign nations and should make their own rules about most everything except national defense. Hey, if a state wants only men to vote, not women, that’s their business. Everyone should make their own rules. Call them Libertarian Whigs.

As in the movie, it’s always the same questions with the same answers, over and over again, and with the New York Times’ David Brooks, here we go again, with new advice for Obama:

The legislating phase of his presidency is now pretty much over. Over the next few years he will be free to think beyond legislation, beyond fund-raising, beyond the necessities of the day-to-day partisanship. He will have the platform and power of the presidency, but, especially after the midterms, fewer short-term political obligations.

This means he will have the opportunity to build what he himself could have used over the past few years: An Opportunity Coalition. He’ll have the chance to organize bipartisan groups of mayors, business leaders, legislators, activists and donors into permanent alliances and institutions that will formulate, lobby for, fund and promote opportunity and social mobility agendas for decades to come. …

He might start, for example, by scrambling the current political categories. We now have one liberal tradition that believes in using government to enhance equality. We have another conservative tradition that believes in limiting government to enhance freedom. These two traditions have fought to a standstill and prevented Obama from passing much domestic legislation of late.

Wait for it, because it’s coming:

But there is a third ancient tradition that weaves through American history, geared directly at enhancing opportunity and social mobility. This is the Whig tradition, which begins with people like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln. This tradition believes in using the power of government to give marginalized Americans the tools to compete in a capitalist economy.

The Whigs fought against the divisive populist Jacksonians. They argued that it is better to help people move between classes than to pit classes against each other. They also transcended our current political divisions.

The Whigs were interventionist in economics while they were traditionalist and family-oriented in their moral and social attitudes. They believed America should step boldly into the industrial age, even as they championed cultural order. The Whigs championed large infrastructure projects and significant public investments, even as they believed in sacred property rights. They believed in expanding immigration along with assimilation and cohesion.

Yep, Obama could be the Great Compromiser:

President Obama could travel the country modernizing the Whig impulse, questioning current divisions and eroding the rigid battle lines. More concretely, he could create a group of Simpson-Bowles-type commissions — with legislators, mayors, governors and others brought together to offer concrete proposals on mobility issues from the beginning to the end of the life span:

Is there a way to improve family patterns so disadvantaged young children grow up in more ordered environments? Is there a way to improve Head Start and intelligently expand early childhood education? Is there a way to structure neighborhoods so that teenagers are more likely to thrive? Is there a way to get young men wage subsidies so they are worth marrying? Is there a way to train or provide jobs for unemployed middle-aged workers?

And so on and so forth about a Simpson-Bowles effort, but Jonathan Chait questions the premise here:

Just because it failed to result in the legislative compromise it was tasked to create – and arguably even failed to produce an actual, concrete proposal – it did succeed in creating an aspirational model for centrist pundits to tout. Brooks alone has cited Bowles and Simpson in nearly two dozen columns.

If you define the goal of Bowles and Simpson as creating policies outside the political process that can be held up by centrists as emblematic of the failure of both parties in equal measure, then the Bowles-Simpson commission succeeded brilliantly. Why not extend the power of the Bowles-Simpson brand beyond mere deficit scolding to other policy areas? What about a Bowles-Simpson commission for everyday life decisions? The husband says we should spend $5000 to repair our car, the wife says we can’t afford it. Then they hire a Bowles-Simpson commission to tell them they should reject that debate and instead ride around on an invisible unicorn.

And Ed Kilgore piles on:

If David Brooks were to found his own political party, its symbol could well be an invisible unicorn flying above the grubby battles of the elephant and the donkey. But Brooks has his own party model in mind, and yes, it’s the Whigs, those high-minded but dirty-deal-prone bourgeois busybodies of the antebellum period. …

But I would make one observation: the Whigs expired primarily because in all their deal-making and internal improving they could not come to grips with the central moral and political challenge of their time, slavery. When avoiding or compromising on the issue no longer was possible, and the Whigs’ utility to slave-owning southerners came to an end, they vanished with remarkable speed.

Yep, Henry Clay’s Missouri Compromise of 1820 and his Compromise of 1850 put off the Civil War for a time, but we still had our Civil War, and the Whigs disappeared – and Phil Connors is sitting in the room with the old folks, watching Jeopardy with a bottle of scotch in his hand, trapped in a small town living the same day over and over again, and nothing ever changes.

That may not be true, as Jonathan Cohn explains here:

By now, you may have heard about a new Republican health care plan – and how great it is. The proposal, which its authors call the “Patient CARE Act,” would hollow out the Obamacare infrastructure and replace it with a system more to conservative liking. There would be less government spending, lower taxes, fewer regulations – and yet, the sponsors promise, it would achieve roughly equal results when it comes to expanding insurance coverage.

Conservatives are thrilled – not just because the proposal is a serious attempt to address the problem of unaffordable health care, but also because, in theory, it demonstrates the superiority of conservative approaches to health care. “One of the great liberal conceits of the age is that to extend insurance coverage to the uninsured and make sure the sick do not fall through the cracks requires the centralized political management of the health sector,” says a triumphalist editorial in National Review. “The great service that Senators Coburn, Hatch, and Burr have performed is to explode that myth.”

Yeah, well, grab that bottle of scotch. Read the rest of what Cohn has to say or go directly to Kevin Drum’s summary:

Even on fleeting inspection, it’s obviously a feeble plan. It would cover very few people; most of the people it does cover couldn’t come close to affording it; and its policies would offer benefits so meager as to be almost useless.

The small amount of good it does is funded by reducing the tax deduction for employer health care. This is a joke. It would meet with massive resistance from virtually every Republican constituency. In particular, Grover Norquist would score it as a tax hike (which it is) and that means it would be DOA in the Republican caucus.

Even without the tax hike, this bill is going nowhere. I’ll give props to Tom Coburn and his friends for at least taking a semi-serious shot at health care reform, but no one seriously thinks it would have any chance of garnering even majority Republican support, let alone passing Congress.

And as Dylan Scott reports, the sponsors of this bill have already watered down the tax hike. It barely took them a day. The new wording is a little vague, but it most likely eliminates the new funding entirely. And without funding, the bill is even more of a joke than it was to begin with.


The authors of the Patient CARE Act and many of their allies are acting as if conservatives have some magic elixir for health care problems – a way to provide the same kind of security that the Affordable Care Act will, but with a lot less interference in the market and a lot less taxpayer money. It’s all the goodies of liberal health care reform, they imply, but without the unpleasant parts. They’re wrong.

The category is Healthcare. The question is the magic healthcare plan that covers everyone and costs nothing, and makes the insurers rich and happy. What is Monrovia, Liberia? That’s as good a response as any.

Okay contestants – the new category is Immigration Reform. The question is the magic Republican plan to fix everything. The correct response is this:

Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio released his long-awaited immigration overhaul principles Thursday afternoon, for the first time laying out a broad GOP-backed pathway to legalized status for undocumented immigrants.

Boehner and other top Republicans have been talking about it for months, but the document lays out a draft for how Republicans want to take on the contentious issue, which is splitting their party at their annual retreat here. The party will discuss and potentially amend the document, and it is possible that it will not be accepted at all.

Ah, it’s a trick question! It’s not a plan! What is it is is a list of ideas that, given the party, will go nowhere, and the Atlantic’s Molly Ball looks at the core issue here:

There’s a lot of important nuance here surrounding the controversial citizenship question. Undocumented immigrants, their families, and their advocates have two basic and related priorities. First, can they stay in the country without fear of deportation? The language here suggests Republicans want most of them to be able to do that, though the “triggers” part gives people pause. (Border enforcement is already at record levels, and the Senate bill would devote still more resources to it.) Second, can they eventually become U.S. citizens? The language here suggests Republicans would let them do that too, by getting in the same “line” as all the foreign residents who have applied to enter the U.S. legally. That’s the difference between “no pathway” and “no special pathway”: The former would, in advocates’ view, create a permanent second class of resident non-citizens, while the latter would merely mean a very long wait.

Salon’s Brian Beutler also sees problems here:

Nebulous wording and wiggle room is where a lot of politics happen, and it’s totally possible that this all comes down to framing a picayune technical dispute over how and when the 11 million end up becoming citizens as the difference between amnesty and not amnesty.

But it’s also possible that Republicans will make legalization precluding citizenship, or making citizenship effectively unattainable, their final offer. And I’m not sure Democrats and advocates have adequately grappled with the bind that would place them in. Obviously it would be a major negotiating failure for reformers to entertain an idea like this publicly. And it would be a genuinely unjust outcome in the sense that the 11 million would be treated secondarily to the rest of their fellow taxpayers under the law. And it would be a sub-optimal political outcome for the Democrats’ demographic politics.

For all these reasons, reformers have typically refused to go there.

On the other hand, at the conservative Washington Examiner, Byron York argues here that the enforcement triggers are “the key to the whole thing” working:

It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of immigration reform in Congress depends on whether Republican leaders mean what they say in that single sentence.

If they do, and the GOP insists on actual border security measures being in place – not just passed, not just contemplated, but actually in place – before illegal immigrants are even allowed to register for legal status, then there will likely be significant Republican support for such a bill. (It might well be a deal-killer for most Democrats, but that is another story.) If, on the other hand, GOP lawmakers wiggle around the clear meaning of the principles’ last sentence to allow legalization to begin before security measures have been implemented, then the party will be back to the same divisions and animosities that have plagued Republicans since the terrible fights over immigration reform in 2006 and 2007.

At Reason, Ed Krayewski would rather see “a smaller, more focused bill that deals with the human cost of poor immigration policy” from these guys:

Concerns about illegal immigrants seeking to abuse the welfare system are largely unfounded, but could be alleviated by offering expedited legal status for illegal immigrants willing to forgo access to the welfare system. Every illegal immigrant I know (quite a few) has said something along those lines; they want to be legal in this country and couldn’t care less about getting welfare. They want to work, and ought to be allowed to. To that end, immigration reform should make it easier for employers to hire the employees they want without having to worry about running afoul of immigration law. If this kind of narrower immigration reform couldn’t garner the support it needs to pass, reform supporters ought to consider a concession that could dampen opposition: making it easier to deport illegal immigrants convicted of violent crimes, and perhaps even banning such immigrants from ever returning to the US. Again, most illegal immigrants would be okay with this: they are law-abiding people just as upset by illegal immigrants who drink and drive and hit and run as legal immigrants and US citizens are.

The libertarian Cato Institute has its own take on this:

One point these principles don’t mention is that a working legal immigration system is essential to resolving unauthorized immigration. The solution to America’s problem with unauthorized immigration does not lie with more restrictions, less lawful immigration, and more restrictions on the freedom of Americans. The solution lies with deregulating our immigration system, allowing more immigrants to come lawful on green cards and guest worker visas, and minimizing the government’s role in picking immigrant winners and losers. The market can do that far more effectively than a government agency, regardless of all the shiny new fences, border drones, and invasive government databases they command.

The solution always lies with deregulating something or other. They’re libertarians over there, after all. There’s nothing new under the sun, and it’s always Groundhog Day.

In a follow-up post, Brian Beutler gets real about the politics here:

If Republican leaders were serious about doing immigration reform anyhow, the sensible thing to do would be to ditch the vindictive crap and just pass something like the Senate bill. But the elephant in the room here is that even pragmatic Republicans are nervous about the prospect of creating millions of new voters, the majority of which would probably be Democrats. And that augurs poorly for Republicans passing anything this year at all.

At the American Prospect, Paul Waldman sees that too:

Now it’s true that in the wake of the government shutdown and the various debt ceiling crises, House conservatives have slightly less power to force the rest of the GOP to bend to their will – but only slightly. One thing hasn’t changed: the average House Republican still comes from a safe district where the only real threat to his job is a primary challenge from the right. He knows that his primary voters are people who watch Fox News and listen to conservative talk radio, where they hear things like Laura Ingraham telling them that jingoistic Mexicans are trying to take over America, which is why “your language [that’d be English] is gone,” while Rush Limbaugh rails at the Republican immigration principles as the wolf of “amnesty” in sheep’s clothing. Today’s Drudge Report featured a graphic of John Boehner in a sombrero, and it wasn’t a compliment. As one Southern Republican member of Congress told Buzzfeed, “If you go to town halls people say things like, ‘these people have different cultural customs than we do.’ And that’s code for race.”

Nothing new will happen. Yep, and for five hundred dollars, the correct response is what are the Whigs… or something.

Think of Phil Connors, watching Jeopardy with the old folks, with a bottle of scotch in his hand, muttering the right answers. The old folks are amazed, but he’s heard it all before, because he’s been living the same day over and over and over again – it’s always the same questions with the same answers, over and over again. Our politics have become like that – existential despair and dread, but without the comic touches, or true love to break the endlessness of it all. That only happens in the movies.

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.
This entry was posted in Healthcare Reform, Immigration Reform, Republican Alternative to Obamacare, Republicans and the Hispanic Vote, Republicans Regroup and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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