About Nothing

The most popular sitcom since Lucille Ball was doing whatever that was that she was doing back in the fifties turned out to be Seinfeld – which ran for nine seasons, finally wrapping in May, 1998, after 180 episodes, and it was odd. It was set in Manhattan and filmed (or taped) on that group of hidden secondary soundstages behind that strip mall down on Ventura Boulevard out here in Studio City, just over the hill out back. That wasn’t Manhattan. That was faked, but then the show was all interior shots so that didn’t matter all that much. The odder thing was that it was a show that was proudly “about nothing” – as Jerry Seinfeld often said, because everyone else was saying that. Think of the series as postmodern, entirely character-driven in the manner of Samuel Beckett through Harold Pinter through Tom Stoppard. Nothing much happens – nothing at all happens, really – but much is revealed, with characters waiting for the Soup Nazi, not Godot, which is much funnier.

NBC took a gamble with this show about nothing at all, but Seinfeld eventually won all sorts of awards and TV Guide named it the greatest television show of all time – so one really can make something of nothing. Jerry Seinfeld became rich and famous. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has her own hit HBO show now, and Jason Alexander is a force to be reckoned with in legitimate theater out here in Los Angeles these days. Everyone won, and they had nothing to say. They were who they were, or the characters they played, and that was enough. That was more than enough. Fame followed.

Can that be transferred to real life? Can one obtain fame and wealth and power by simply being, without doing, and without having anything useful to say about anything? The Republicans are about to test that theory, the Seinfeld model, in the upcoming midterm elections, even of they’d rather not. It’s just that they ran out of things to say, because the plan was to run on the absolute failure of Obamacare, which everyone has always hated and hates even more now. That hasn’t worked out. Obamacare needed five million enrollees to break even, to be self-sustaining, and the target was seven million people signing up by the end of open enrollment in mid-April to be safe, and more than eight million signed up. Obamacare wasn’t going to collapse, and as Governor Rick Scott found out when he held town hall meetings in Florida, where folks could tell their Obamacare horror stories, with the press present, they told him they loved Obamacare – which left him high and dry. It was like a Seinfeld episode actually. Ted Cruz tried the same thing on Facebook and the same thing happened. That’s happened again and again so that’s a dead end, and talk of Obamacare killing jobs is faring no better. No one can find any evidence of that. That’s waiting for Godot, and the whole idea that young and healthy folks would not sign up for Obamacare, causing premiums to soar, because only the old and sick would be in the pool, didn’t pan out either. Enough of them signed up to make the whole thing work. All sorts of people actually do want health insurance, now that the government has made it affordable for them, even that young invincible crowd. People aren’t stupid.

Something had to be done, so the House Republicans released a survey suggesting that only sixty-seven percent of Obamacare enrollees had paid their premiums – it would all collapse. Everyone pointed out that the premiums weren’t due until May, or later, so that figure was bogus. Even the insurance companies said so. They expected most people would pay on time, later – but it was a great story. People glance at headlines. They don’t note the details, so the Republicans ran with this and scheduled hearings, where insurance executives would say that yes, only sixty-seven percent of those folks have paid up. That would be the smoking gun. Obamacare has failed.

The hearings were a disaster – the insurance companies trotted out their careful projections. Most everyone would pay up by the time their premium was due, which wasn’t now, and they didn’t see future premiums soaring because of all the deadbeats, as they hadn’t found any of those. Republicans on the panel were “visibly exasperated” of course, and very angry, and Jonathan Bernstein offers the obvious:

It made no sense to hold the hearing unless Republicans were (foolishly) confident that the testimony would support their talking point, instead of undermining it. The only plausible explanation is that closed feedback loop. Either members of the committee managed not to be aware of the criticisms of their survey, or they mistakenly wrote off the criticism as partisan backbiting.

Kevin Drum adds this:

Obviously Republicans were caught off guard at yesterday’s hearing, and that could only happen if they really and truly believed their own flawed survey. And that, in turn, could only happen if they get pretty much all their information from Fox News and don’t bother with anything else. After all, the flaw in their survey was obvious. You didn’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that it would never stand up to scrutiny.

Welcome to the alternate universe of movement conservatism. Sometimes it bites you in the ass.

Every episode of every sitcom ever made covers that in twenty-two minutes – the bozo, male or female, is so sure of something or other, and is finally deliciously humiliated when it’s obvious that isn’t so, in the final scene. The audience explodes in laughter, or the laugh-track simulates that, as it should. Roll the final credits and go to the commercial break before the next show, where the same thing will happen. In this case Fox News plays a part in the comedy, as a secondary character, and as with Seinfeld, this was about nothing. That’s where the comedy is, or isn’t. Real life extends beyond twenty-two minutes. Don’t talk about Obamacare.

The same thing is happening with the Republican plan to run on the economy, which is doing worse than ever, thanks to Obama – but it isn’t doing worse than ever. The markets are at record highs and employment is up, rising slowly, but steadily rising, as it has done since the middle of the first year of Obama’s first term. There’s nothing there, and any it-could-be-better argument concedes progress, so Republicans have shied away from that sort of talk, because the last thing they want to do is concede progress of any sort. Not-good-enough includes the word Good, after all. Democrats, on the other hand, have been warned by all their consultants to avoid talking about the economy, which is still pretty lousy for most folks. Don’t EVER mention the word Recovery. That reminds folks of how bad things were and still may be for each of them. Both sides know it’s best to remain silent. That whole issue is a wash.

What will the midterm elections be about, if none of this? In the manner of Seinfeld, they may be about nothing at all, if the Republicans have any say about it. The current plan is to talk about the 2011 Fast and Furious Scandal – which was thoroughly investigated and came to nothing – and to talk about the IRS Scandal – which was also thoroughly investigated and came to nothing – and, of course, Benghazi. Yes, there was the Federal Bureau of Investigation probe and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigation, and five House Committees looked into it, as did the State Department Accountability Review Board and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs – mistakes were made, at many levels, but it was a tragic screw up.

Is there anything left to say? Perhaps there is, as the MSNBC First Read team explains:

We understand why Republicans are again seizing on Benghazi in their effort to establish a select committee in the House to investigate the 2012 terrorist attack there. It fires up the base, puts the Obama administration on the defensive, and allows Republicans to knock likely 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton. (In many ways, the House leadership has no choice since some of their members have spent months claiming it’s one the great scandals of American history; it would be odd if they didn’t attempt to elevate it “special” select committee status.) But our NBC/WSJ poll from last week suggested that this is a riskier move for the GOP than it may realize. According to the poll, 47% of Americans want the United States to be LESS ACTIVE in world affairs, versus just 19% who want it to be more active. This is a country that wants it politicians to focus on the problems at home, not the problems abroad – or that happened two years ago. And after multiple congressional hearings on the subject, an independent review, and a months-long debate over the administration’s “talking points,” the question becomes: How much more does the public – outside the GOP base – want to hear about Benghazi? Does a larger summer focus on Benghazi make the GOP seem out of touch in this election year?

Does the GOP want this to be an episode of Seinfeld? They’re getting there:

Conservatives have charged that the press has unfairly dismissed the legitimate questions about the 2012 Benghazi attack. What did the Obama administration know and when did it know it? Why wasn’t there better security? And why haven’t the attackers been brought to justice? But the problem these conservatives face is that every time they invoke Hillary Clinton’s name – especially in the context of 2016 – the more it looks like a political ploy rather than a substantive quest for information. Indeed, on “Meet the Press” yesterday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) made more references to Hillary Clinton (three) than President Obama or the Obama White House (one) when the subject turned to Benghazi.

There’s also a risk here that the GOP repeating its 2013 “Summer of Investigation” – Benghazi, calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor in the IRS investigation – gives off the impression that it doesn’t have a real legislative agenda on jobs, health care, or immigration.

They’d rather talk about nothing, or one of the great scandals of American history, and Fox News plays a part here too:

Fox News’ Dana Perino demonstrated her network’s habit of using any story to invoke Benghazi by daring meteorologists who are scheduled to meet with President Obama to ask him about the attack.

On the final segment of The Five, Perino discussed an upcoming event in which national and local TV meteorologists will speak with Obama about climate change issues after the release of the 2014 National Climate Assessment. Perino used the opportunity to reference the Benghazi attacks, saying: “Tomorrow, President Obama is going to do interviews with meteorologists all across the country about a new climate change report. … I hope they ask him about Benghazi. Like the weatherman from Montana should ask him about Benghazi, that would be great. I dare you.”

And there’s Putin and the Ukraine crisis:

On May 2, a Fox host said “we’ll go back” to a news conference with Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel only if a reporter asked a question about Benghazi. That day, the network got the formation of the special Benghazi committee it had spent months agitating for. After a Fox correspondent bragged about the role the network played in spurring Republicans to form the committee, the network spent the day pushing Benghazi…

Well, Fox News got their committee:

A select committee is being launched to investigate the consulate attack on Benghazi after a bitterly divided vote Thursday in Congress, according to news reports.

The House voted, 232-186, to establish the panel that Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says will answer lingering questions almost 20 months after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya in which four people were killed, the AP reports.

What will they talk about? The New York Times Editorial Board says they’ll talk about the wrong things:

The hottest competition in Washington this week is among House Republicans vying for a seat on the Benghazi kangaroo court, also known as the Select House Committee to Inflate a Tragedy into a Scandal. Half the House has asked to “serve” on the committee, which is understandable since it’s the perfect opportunity to avoid any real work while waving frantically to right-wing voters stomping their feet in the grandstand.

They won’t pass a serious jobs bill, or raise the minimum wage, or reform immigration, but House Republicans think they can earn their pay for the rest of the year by exposing nonexistent malfeasance on the part of the Obama administration. On Thursday, they voted to create a committee to spend “such sums as may be necessary” to conduct an investigation of the 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The day before, they voted to hold in contempt Lois Lerner, the former Internal Revenue Service official whom they would love to blame for the administration’s crackdown on conservative groups, if only they could prove there was a crackdown, which they can’t, because there wasn’t.

Both actions stem from the same impulse: a need to rouse the most fervent anti-Obama wing of the party and keep it angry enough to deliver its donations and votes to Republicans in the November elections. For a while it seemed as if the Affordable Care Act would perform that role, but Republicans ran into a problem when the country began to realize that it was not destroying American civilization but in fact helping millions of people.

Party leaders needed something more reliable, so they went back and revived two dormant scandals from last year, the embers of which were faithfully tended by Republican adjuncts on Fox News and talk radio. Their hope is to show that the administration is corrupt and untrustworthy, and if Hillary Rodham Clinton also gets roughed up in the process, so much the better.

That’s the general idea:

Four Americans, including the United States ambassador, died in Benghazi, and their deaths have been crassly used by Republicans as a political cudgel, wildly swung in the dark. They have failed to provide proof for any number of conspiracy theories about the administration’s failures, including the particularly ludicrous charge from Representative Darrell Issa that Mrs. Clinton, then the secretary of state, told the Pentagon to “stand down” and not help defend the American compound.

In fact, investigations by two congressional committees (including one run by Republicans) found that there was never any kind of “stand-down order” or request. But Mr. Issa and others keep repeating it because, for their purposes, the facts don’t matter.

This is, then, about nothing, except for energizing the base and raising a lot of money and making sure Hillary Clinton can’t run in 2016, or run for anything ever again. Jerry Seinfeld made week after week of intense talk, by clueless and overly sincere and quite odd characters, talk about nothing at all, into grand comedy. This is the mirror image of that, and the opposite of comedy.

It may not matter, because in two years, Andrew Sullivan thinks it will come down to this:

Have we truly absorbed the sheer national embarrassment that out of a country of more than 300 million people, the two likeliest presidential nominees for the two major parties will be the wife of a former president and the brother and son of two former presidents? It’s impossible to think of any developed Western democracy that could even begin to match this pathetic, incestuous indictment of a democratic system.

It is likely to be Jeb versus Hillary, not Elizabeth Warren versus Ted Nugent, because we’re stuck:

Now of course the US has long been dynastic in its politics. From the Adamses to the Roosevelts and the Tafts to the Kennedys, America’s robust capitalist economy has thrown up wealthy, connected families who have brought entire family trees into office. And it’s not all bad. Some have been motivated by more than power – some even dedicated to noblesse oblige. And the last two elections – in which a previously obscure son of a single mother managed to prevent a dynastic coronation in his own party and then defeated another family political dynasty, the Romneys – show that we’re not Rome yet.

But surely, our new emperors are looking more Roman by the day. The names themselves – like Caesar or Tudor – become brands. The brands create large, sprawling networks of hangers-on, former elected officials, fundraisers, media stars, and all the corporate synergy something like the Clinton Foundation can muster up. Politics becomes at times about daddy issues, or fidelity questions, or succession crises – like the monarchies of old. And outsiders have fewer chances of breaking through the celebrity-pol chatter – because the sheer cost of politics has become so astonishing in an era where there are close to no limits on campaign finance.

And forget Rand Paul:

He only has his job because of his father as well. When even the mavericks are dynasts, you begin to see the scope of the problem. And what’s striking about American dynasticism is its relative indifference to criticism. In fact, dynasty is often embraced as an advantage. I can’t believe that George W. Bush would have been elected without his family name, for example, and the early fundraising prowess it bestowed on him. It gave him a leg-up in Texas and then the dynasty reassured those who were worried about his, let us say jejune qualities, that there was a responsible family business to back up the new entrepreneur. And so Cheney was the back-stop. And we know where that ended up. The idea that the dauphin would retain one of the last king’s advisers is so… old Europe. By which I mean circa 1500-1900.

This can’t be good:

One thing I don’t think we’ve really thought through is how this picture of late-American oligarchy and dynasticism affects America’s stature in the world. America’s preaching about equality of opportunity and democratic virtues cannot but be etiolated by the sense that it’s all a scam, that America is one big oligarchy perpetuating its incestuous elites in a manner far more similar to a declining monarchy than a rising, robust democracy. That weakens the soft power America can wield, and undermines the ideals America has previously stood for. All Americans are equal, but a tiny few, by virtue of birth, are far, far more equal than others.

Everyone else knows that when we’re talking about democracy and opportunity and all that stuff, that we’re really talking about nothing at all. That’s what we do. It’s no wonder that Seinfeld was so popular for so long. It seems we’re living in some sort of perpetual postmodern sitcom. Enjoy the show. Sorry about the dead people.

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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