Abandoning Theater for Government

John McCain was never going to be president. The hard right in his party distrusted him, and probably found his choice of Sarah Palin to be his running mate rather pathetic. He was sucking up to them – they’d rather have someone like her as president, generally outraged at everything but not quite able to say why, and angry with anyone who asked her why she was outraged, because it was obvious, or something was obvious. If you had to ask you were obviously too stupid for words, or not a Real American.

McCain, however, liked to explain things, as best he could. Many in his party saw that as just stupid, tactically and morally, and the establishment of the party was uneasy too. McCain had once been quite enthusiast about immigration reform, saying those brown people should be treated with common decency and should be allowed to stay here, one way or another. The establishment of the party needed to keep reminding him that those good and decent brown people, if allowed to stay, would all end up voting Democratic for many generations into the future – cooperating in passing immigration reform would be political suicide – so maybe he ought to pipe down. He did, but then was his name on that McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act, that pesky nonsense kept the right people from just tossing in tens of millions of dollars here and there, as often as necessary, to keep things solidly Republican. McCain had done the unthinkable. He had screwed the billionaires who had slowly and carefully built the party to do what it was supposed to do, as they saw it, and he might do it again, somehow. The man was unpredictable. He did, after all, call himself a maverick, and then, later, a rogue, like Sara Palin – but the Republican Party didn’t need a rogue elephant. Someone like Sarah Palin could be manipulated and used – she wouldn’t know the difference- but McCain was a prickly and proud old man who looked to be a real problem. Obviously, McCain had lost his own party early on.

As for the Democrats, once Barack Obama had wrapped up the nomination, which was curiously inevitable in hindsight, and once Hillary Clinton was out there working her ass off for him, McCain became an afterthought. And once the press decided to cover John McCain as an angry and often befuddled old man, for whom war was the answer to everything – and he kept giving them material to advance that narrative almost every day – the Democrats could breathe a little easier. Tina Fey then took care of Sarah Palin for them. It was all over but for the shouting, even if there was a lot of that.

That’s one way to look at what happened, but then every story, even a political story, needs a turning point. There are countless factors that can doom a candidate, and countless pundits more than willing to analyze those factors, but that’s the boring stuff. It’s simply not satisfying. We like stories – good stories – with that one mistake or misstep that changes everything, like in a Hollywood movie. For Mitt Romney it was that forty-seven percent comment, sneering at half of America when he didn’t think anyone other than that room full of big-donor dinner guests would hear him. There had been gaffes and boneheaded awkward moments throughout his campaign – Romney was a wooden and dreary candidate on a good day – but this did him in. That’s how we’ve come to understand Mitt Romney.

Nothing like that happened with McCain, but it could be argued that something did, something that revealed the real man who had spent endless days wrapped under multiple layers of all that focus-group-tested crap designed for proper political positioning just so. That event, that turning point, might be McCain, at the end of September 2008, suddenly suspending his campaign and demanding that the first presidential debate, scheduled to take place in less than two days, be cancelled for now – he and Obama could get to that later. That was the weekend when Congress had to vote on authorizing handing over seven hundred billion dollars to the Treasury, no questions asked, to keep the whole financial system from collapsing, bringing on something far worse than the Great Depression. In Washington, Republicans were balking. They didn’t want to hand a blank check to Hank Paulson, and we didn’t have that kind of money. We’d have to sell that amount in treasury notes, probably to the Chinese, running up the tab again, driving us further in the hole. That was absurd, except John McCain was going to save the day. Screw the stupid presidential debate, and cancel that tedious business of getting out there and being required to talk with the people every single day, and being expected to listen to them. McCain was going to Washington to talk sense into his fellow Republicans. He’d tell them that total economic collapse was not preferable to increasing our outstanding national debt a bit more. To those who said the markets will take care of things, weeding out the weak, as should happen, and that Alan Greenspan had been right and the banks and the whole financial services industry are naturally self-regulating, because those Wall Street guys are smart and would never let things collapse, hurting only themselves, McCain would tell them that by the time we found out if that was true, or not, we’d all be living in cardboard boxes behind abandoned Starbucks stores. He’d set them straight and save the economy, and Obama could tag along, to see how it’s done, to see what real leadership looks like.

That didn’t work out. Andrew Ross Sorkin has the best account of what happened – McCain made things far worse. He somehow managed to turn a whole lot of sure Republican votes, to save the banking system and thus the economy, the wrong way again. The first rescue effort didn’t pass and the markets dropped like a rock, and credit froze even tighter on everything. Bush was appalled and Paulson was livid – but once McCain left town things settled down. The thing passed early the next week, as it was that or the end of the world as we know it, and there was a presidential debate right on schedule anyway. McCain blew it. His “leadership” made things worse and he also managed to look as if he was afraid to face Obama in a setting where he’d be pressed to explain himself – and he had explicitly said he couldn’t deal with two major problems at the same time. He didn’t have the bandwidth.

Read the news reports at the time of McCain saying that this was time for both parties to come together to solve this problem, and presumably do nothing else but that, and then this:

Senator Barack Obama appeared at a hastily called news conference in Clearwater, Fla., and said he agreed “there are times for politics and there are times to rise above politics and do what’s right.” But he said he saw no need to cancel the debate, scheduled for Friday night at the University of Mississippi. “This is exactly the time when people need to hear from the candidates,” Mr. Obama said.

He added: “Part of the president’s job is to deal with more than one thing at once. In my mind it’s more important than ever.”

That was it. McCain had been whining about having too many things he had to attend to, disguising that as bipartisan patriotism, and then had been grandstanding, badly, and thus had proved he wasn’t up to the job of president, if he even understood it – and it also looked as if he’d really rather not sit down face to face with Obama and chat. He was hiding. Voters not already locked in, on way or the other, slowly broke for Obama. They got it.

That’s the nature of the job, and Obama, in the middle of the Crimean crisis, and all the stuff about Obamacare and the CIA spying on Congress, and all the rest, does what all presidents do – two things at one, or three or four. McCain and the Republicans may whine about it, saying it’s sneaky to do other stuff while everyone should be focused on Putin, which is really about Benghazi, or whatever the headline is, and nothing else at all, but life isn’t like that, and Obama just reminded them of that:

Seeking to influence workers’ incomes where possible, President Barack Obama signed a presidential memorandum Thursday directing the Labor Department to devise new overtime rules that would make more workers eligible for time-and-a-half pay for their extra hours of work.

The memorandum was one of the most far-reaching executive actions taken by the president this year. The rules would be aimed at salaried workers who make more than $455 a week and those who are ineligible for overtime because they are designated as management even though their supervisory duties are minimal.

“Unfortunately, today millions of American aren’t getting the extra pay they deserve,” Obama said during a White House ceremony attended by workers and employers.

People should get paid for their work, as much as businesses will scream bloody murder, but they should – and no, this is not an attempt to bury the Benghazi story or whatever else you guys make up. And this doesn’t specify what the rules or new salary thresholds should be. The Labor Department will work on that, and a proposed rule is not expected until the fall, if then. This is just starting a process for making things fair, and it could help a lot of people, or it will overburden companies, especially small businesses, and cost jobs. We’ll see, but what we have now isn’t cool:

At issue in the overtime initiative are regulations that create exceptions to legal requirements that employers pay time-and-a-half for time worked beyond a 40-hour work week. Currently, salaried workers making more than $455, or $23,660 a year, aren’t eligible for overtime if some of their work is considered supervisory even though many spend most of their day doing manual, clerical or technical work with few management duties.

“If you’re making $23,000 typically you’re not high in management,” Obama said.

Some labor economists say broadening the universe of workers who can get overtime would increase take-home pay for workers, thus benefiting the larger economy. The new regulations could also encourage employers to reduce overtime work and hire more employees to work the extra hours without having to pay time-and-a-half.

Megan McArdle adds this perspective:

What this means for workers is hard to say… But it’s another moment in what you might call “The Politics of Crap Retail Jobs.”

Those of us of a certain age probably remember our own crap retail jobs with a certain amount of fondness – more fondness than we probably viewed them with at the time. We were young, our backs and feet didn’t hurt after a long shift, and the worst that happened when our shifts ran long is that we had less time to spend on the phone with our friends.

Those jobs were not particularly convenient or pleasant, and they sure didn’t pay well. But they were the best we could do, and they gave us spending money while someone else paid the mortgage.

Well, things are different now:

These days, it seems that a lot more people are finding that these jobs in fast food or retail are “the best we can do”; it’s no longer housewives and teenagers looking for some extra income. Meanwhile, in many ways the work has gotten worse. Employers, themselves facing brutal competition, are using software packages to help them schedule workers in ways that maximize their profitability while maximizing inconvenience to employees. Hours are kept low to ensure that workers don’t qualify for overtime, much less benefits – and because the software requires employees to make available many more hours than they actually get, they often can’t even string together two part-time jobs to make a full-time income.

Meanwhile, the folks scheduling them are often people who would like to get a better job with more opportunity but can’t find one. They too feel trapped in jobs that don’t pay much but require too many hours for them to pick up a second shift somewhere else.

These workers may not be numerous enough to succeed in unionizing Wal-Mart. But they are numerous enough to make up a powerful political force. It’s no wonder the Obama administration is focusing on issues such as the minimum wage and overtime that appeal to them. What will be surprising is if this doesn’t show up in the 2016 campaign.

Ah, it’s fair, and it is good politics too, but the Cato Institute’s Walter Olson sounds his warnings:

As with the expansion by decree of minimum wage law, it will be interpreted in some quarters as an undiluted boon to the employees it covers – their employers will either raise their pay or limit the hours they are expected to work, or both, and how could they be anything but happy about that?

But there is no free lunch:

At Forbes, Daniel Fisher explains some of the mechanisms by which that will happen. It will probably become harder to retain exempt status, for example, for “management-plus” jobs, such as one where a shift manager is expected to fill in occasionally at the register during a cashier’s break. That will hit smaller establishments especially hard, while yanking away transitional positions by which ambitious hourly hires can cross over to management.

Ed Morrissey sees that too:

Right now, the exemption allows businesses to claim overtime exemption for people earning $455 a week or more (annual salary of $23,660) just by asserting that any part of their duties is “executive” in nature. That’s a ridiculously low level, but businesses have structured their work forces on the basis of this regulation. No matter what level the White House chooses, it’s going to impact staffing decisions; the question is how bad it will get, and how many jobs end up going from full- to part-time in defense of potential un- forecasted costs in smaller businesses especially.

Jared Bernstein suggests, however, slow down there, guys:

You hear the knee-jerk “job killer” response from the business lobby. But in this case, the logic doesn’t follow. If a currently ineligible salaried worker becomes eligible for overtime pay by dint of this change, her employer can easily avoid paying her the overtime premium by hiring a new worker at the “straight time” wage. And this happens to scratch another labor market itch we have right now: weak job creation. That’s why Dan Hamermesh, a highly respected labor economist who’s studied this issue for decades, said about the president’s proposal in an article in The Washington Post: “I would argue it’s a job-creation program.”

It could be either, but the point here is that it came completely out of the blue – which just isn’t fair at all. What about Putin, or Benghazi, or the IRS scandal, or Obamacare, or too many lazy bums on food stamps eating lobster? One thinks of John McCain’s political attention deficit disorder, or considers Andrew Sullivan’s take on what’s going on here:

One party has taken a ruthlessly pragmatic approach to governing, while the other has taken a ruthlessly rhetorical approach to opposition.

It is as if the Republicans had decided that their opposition to the president would become a kind of performance art version of all their previous tricks. Obamacare is a function of a tyrant! The president is a mom-jeans-wearing weakling compared with Putin! He’s coming to take away your guns! He’s robbing white seniors to pay for poor blacks! And almost none of their critiques has carried the kind of decisive bite that could actually arrest Obama’s relentless chugging forward. In a war of attrition, one side is all histrionics, and the other all action. It reminds me a bit of the 2008 primary race. One side was crusading for the first woman president; the other was quietly counting delegates.

Some of this is inherent, of course, in one side being the government and the other the opposition. But the absence (until very recently) of any Republican legislative proposal that might attract serious, bipartisan support on the budget or climate change or immigration, and the absence in particular (until very recently) of even a modestly practical and palatable alternative to Obamacare, reveals the core disparity. Fifty votes to repeal Obamacare is not smart politics; it’s entertainment. One side is theater – and often rather compelling theater, if you like your news blonde, buxom and propagandized. The other side is boring, relentless implementation.

There are a lot of sexy blondes on Fox News, but that aside, Sullivan here is reinforcing what Obama told McCain back in 2008 – there’s lots of stuff for a president to do, at pretty much the same time, and some of it is boring – and getting all dramatic doesn’t cut it. McCain’s gambit, suspending his campaign and demanding that debate be cancelled, was pure theater, not problem-solving. Sullivan sees the allure of that, and, now, its silliness:

At any one time, you can be forgiven for thinking that the theatrics have worked. The botched roll-out of healthcare.gov, to take an obvious example, created a spectacular weapon for the GOP to hurl back at the president. But since then, in undemonstrative fashion, the Obama peeps have rather impressively fixed the site’s problems and signed up millions more to the program. As the numbers tick up, the forces of inertia – always paramount in healthcare reform – will kick in in defense of Obamacare, and not against it. Again, the pattern is great Republican political theater, followed by steady and relentless Democratic advance.

That advance will be hard to stop:

Until the theater really does create a new majority around Republican policies and a Republican candidate, Obama has the edge. Which is to say: he has had that edge now for nearly six years. Even if he loses the entire Congress this fall, he has a veto. And then, all he has to do is find a successor able to entrench his legacy… And that, perhaps, is how best to see Clinton. She may not have the stomach for eight years in the White House, and the barrage of bullshit she will have to endure. But if you see her as being to Barack Obama what George H. W. Bush was to Reagan, four years could easily be enough. At which point, the GOP may finally have to abandon theater for government, and performance art for coalition-building.

You’d think they’d have learned from McCain’s grand theatrical gesture one September long ago, which didn’t work out well. Heroic drama turned to farce. People got it. Leave that hero stuff to Hollywood. In fact, last night, down the street here at the El Capitan Theater here in Hollywood, the new Captain America movie premiered – red carpet and all. Eat your heart out John McCain! And now it’s Darryl Issa and Ted Cruz and all the rest who want to be Captain America. Fine, just let someone else do the boring administrative stuff of running the country.

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 Abandoning Theater for Government

  1. Rick says:

    Sure enough, I remember vividly when McCain “suspended” his campaigning to go to DC, calling my friend Dan, laughing and saying, “That’s it! It’s all over! McCain just lost the election!”

    McCain was going to put himself in control of everything. How could Obama refuse? He was going to show this naive black guy what leadership was all about, but Obama, everyone could see, then had the lever to shut him down. You want to stop campaigning? That’s fine, but I’m not quitting. In fact, I think he may have even put it this way: “A president needs to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time” — although maybe that memory is just in my imagination.

    These people still underestimate Obama. They can’t seem to settle on a narrative — that is, whether to call Obama “naive”, or a “crafty Chicago pol”, never seeming to understand that he can’t be both. They constantly complain that Obama is doing other things instead of concentrating on “job creation”, but they themselves never come up with any specific policy that remotely can be construed as one that will create jobs. They do everything they can to make sure that our democracy doesn’t work, and then whine that Obama, with “his phone” and “his pen”, is trying to get around the democratic process.

    So maybe they will win the elections this year, but in the meantime, Obama will set in motion these new overtime rules that will either put more money into the economy by allowing workers to earn the overtime they’ve deserved all along, or will do it by getting more workers hired at straight-time pay.

    And if for some reason, the Republicans in congress overturn all that, hopefully the workers who lose out — especially those who would otherwise have voted Republican, but also any other voters who realizes Republicans don’t have a clue on how to create jobs — will remember in 2016.


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