The Big Shrug

The big divide in this country may not between the Republicans and the Democrats, or between those who disagree on basic issues like what women have the right to decide for themselves, or whether there are far too many guns around, or whether gays and certain minorities and the poor should have a say in things, or whether tax dollars should be used to help citizens in trouble or those people should just take some damned personal responsibility and stop whining, and stop bothering the rest of us. People also disagree on what the government, or any government, is supposed to do in the first place. It should either do more, to make things better for everyone, or do less, to make things better for everyone. Or maybe government only works at the state level, but that might be dangerous and hurt a lot of people. Some states might decide to execute gays and decide women can’t vote while others might brazenly teach science and evolution and such things in their public schools, creating a generation of atheist child molesters. So far we have a strong national government, to make things fairly uniform, with some basic national rules, with weak states who can’t nullify those rules, but many don’t like that – nullification talk is in the air, usually talk about arresting anyone caught trying to implement Obamacare in their state.

There are also those who want Jesus to run things, because they know just how He would run things, down to the minor details of the tax code, and there are a subset of those folks who think America should do what Israel wants America to do, in all matters, because those folks over there know best, because they are the Chosen People after all – and that’s where the End Times will begin soon. Others don’t see it that way. They’d like to keep religion out of government, for the good of both. Leave that God-said-so-so-we-have-to-do-this nonsense to the ISIS crowd. Here the people decide policy, so far. That’s why we have elections. The people, not God, send folks off to Washington, to do the right thing. No one can agree on the right thing, but that’s the general idea.

There are some serious divisions in our nation, but the real divide is between those who think elections matter, between those who vote, to move the nation in their preferred direction, and those who shrug – because they have decided that voting doesn’t matter at all. The folks in Washington always seem to vote for things that those who financed their political careers want, after all, no matter what the “voters” want.

That’s been made clear. If money is free speech, as the Supreme Court has ruled, money talks. A few dozen multimillionaires, and a handful of grumpy billionaires, each with their own agenda on this and that, and big corporations, which the Supreme Court has ruled are “persons” now, with free speech rights, will flood the airwaves for months before each election, telling everyone how it is, as they see it, crowding out all other voices, voices that don’t have the resources for that for that sort of thing. Everyone sees exactly what’s happening, and not being fabulously wealthy may have other ideas about what the government should or should not do, but everyone is eventually pummeled into submission. These, then, are the issues – keep taxes on the wealthy low, because they are the job creators, or something else equally questionable, perhaps something about oil leases on public lands.

That’s it? None of that stuff may have anything to do with what concerns you, but any fool can see that what concerns you hardly matters, and you certainly don’t have the cash to be heard anyway. There are deep divisions on many issues in this county, but they’re not going to be addressed. They will be used for other purposes, used simply to get out the vote and then dropped. The powerful, those who have other things on their minds, are continually reconfiguring the government to get what they need. Why vote? There’s no need to go out of your way to help those people. They’ll be fine on their own. There’s another election? A shrug seems appropriate.

A shrug is even more appropriate when a midterm election comes around. The president will stay in place. Americans who bother to vote will be voting for those who will make that president’s next two years as miserable as possible, even if he can veto anything they pass in Congress, or make those next two years rather easy. Midterm elections are not about changing policy. They’re elections about putting pressure, usually ineffective pressure, on those in charge of implementing existing policy, or easing pressure on those in charge at the moment. They are also about positioning for the next election – setting up the right people to run for president in two years. They get a two year job interview and audition, but these are secondary matters. Midterm elections are actually about nothing that really matters. A shrug may be appropriate. Midterm elections are about nothing at all, really.

This year that seems even more so, as Slate’s John Dickerson explains here:

Republicans are going to pick up seats in both houses of Congress. They may even take control of the Senate. Those victories will provide an unequivocal mandate for support of one proposition: widespread dislike of President Obama. That’s it. More than $4 billion will be spent on the 2014 campaign, and when it’s over, that will be the message on the little slip of paper that emerges from that huge machine of activity.

That’s all there is:

This year’s contest is a no-mandate election, in which the winning side will succeed with no great animating idea other than the fear (or avoidance) of the Obama nightmare. Republican debates, speeches, and advertisements have been so thoroughly concerned with the president and how much the Democrat on the ballot agrees with him, there is no other message that competes. That’s a smart political strategy, but it’s not a governing strategy. Republicans may take control of Congress, but it will have been by clobbering a president they’ll then have to work with at a time when a majority of Americans say they want leaders in Washington to compromise.

But a majority of Americans are not a majority of the voters who will likely give the winning party their tide-turning victory.

People want change, with something getting done for a change, which involves all sides compromising, but that’s not what this election is about:

According to a recent Pew survey, 61 percent of Republican voters consider their congressional ballot as a vote against the president, up from 56 percent in 2010 when anti-Obamacare fervor caused Democrats to lose 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate. Republicans are likely to make the bulk of their gains in the seven states Mitt Romney won in 2012, six of which he won by double digits. In Arkansas – a state Obama lost by 24 points – Republican Senate candidate Tom Cotton said Obama’s name 74 times in his 90-minute debate against Sen. Mark Pryor…

In states like Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina – which do not tilt heavily toward the right – Republican victories will nevertheless be spurred by dislike of Obama because that’s what candidates are running on in those states. GOP candidates have mentioned they prefer less regulation, lower taxes, and a reformed version of Obamacare, but simply mentioning a preference isn’t the same as running on a set of ideas. Political communication requires repetition. When you really want to drive home a message, you drill it right into the brainpan. Ads by Karl Rove’s Crossroads PAC are an example of the form. In North Carolina, Crossroads is running an ad where a child is asked to spell the name of the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Kay Hagan. “Hagan… O-B-A-M-A” says the girl. “Close enough,” say the three judges. A similar version of the ad is running in other states. Two other closing-stretch Crossroads ads in North Carolina are also focused entirely on Obama. …

It’s like this in all the close races. …

The only policy prescription that comes remotely close to matching the anti-Obama mantra is the promise to secure the border, which is still pretty vague.

This really is an election about nothing, but that’s nothing new:

The 2014 midterms aren’t the first time that a lack of a governing agenda served as part of the Republican playbook for getting elected. In 2010, the GOP won the House with a program that rested on the vaguest mush pulled together as a unified program. Democrats had no unifying message when they ran against Bush in 2006 either, other than his unpopularity.

This time, however, there will be trouble:

When you run on no platform and win, it means the mandate is up for grabs. That means there will be some exciting debates among Republicans and conservatives in 2015. If the GOP takes control of the Senate because of red-state victories in states Romney won by double digits, that’s not a recipe for compromise. In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, 38 percent of Republicans said new members should compromise; only 32 percent of Tea Party voters agreed. (Fifty-one percent of Independents and 68 percent of Democrats wanted compromise.) Do you dance with the conservative electorate that brought you or the more moderate electorate that you’re going to face in 2016? Because, in the next election cycle, Republican senators are up for reelection in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all states that President Obama won. The jockeying for the 2016 GOP nomination will supercharge this debate.

The stakes are high. Republicans will be trying to fashion a unified agenda without the ratifying clarity that can come from an election, while a public with little patience looks on.

The public shrugs, and even Republican-leaning voters shrug:

Voters trust Republicans on a host of issues from national security to the economy, but they also have a low opinion of the party. In the Pew poll, 38 percent say they have a favorable view of the Republican Party, while 54 percent express an unfavorable view of the GOP. The public remains divided in its outlook of the Democratic Party: 47 percent have a favorable opinion and 46 percent have an unfavorable view. “If we don’t capture the House stronger, and the Senate, and prove we could govern, there won’t be a Republican president in 2016,” says House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a recent in-depth story in Politico on his efforts to bring the party together after the election. That’s a start, but what shape “proving you can govern” takes is tricky.

That is a problem, but these guys are not alone:

Of the two parties, Republicans may be more self-aware of how this election masks unresolved internal issues. Democrats can blame their losses on an unpopular president and voters in states where Republicans dominate. But progressives and union strategists suggest the problem is that Democrats didn’t run on an economic message that could touch middle-class voters. By narrowcasting to women with a focus on abortion rights and contraception, Democrats downplayed a more populist economic message that might have attracted voters with family income hovering around $50,000.

This isn’t the kind of conversation that will likely break out in the open, however, because if Republicans win, Democrats will be unified. What will their issues be? Republicans are bad.

There’s no reason to get involved in that particular pissing-contest, although Ramesh Ponnuru at Bloomberg View considers what would happen if the Democrats hold onto the Senate:

Many conservatives would argue that the party establishment had led them to ruin. The establishment largely got its way in the 2012 presidential primaries, and then got its way again in running an agenda-less general-election campaign. This time, Exhibit A for these conservatives would be the North Carolina Senate race, where the establishment candidate – Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House – has persistently run a little behind his Democratic opponent. (Actually, that might be Exhibit B if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell manages to lose in Kentucky.)

Conversely, a lot of Republican officeholders might conclude that the Democratic attacks on them as uninterested in compromise and hostile to women had succeeded, and that they should accordingly move leftward.

That’s possible, perhaps, and the New York Times’ Nate Cohn says these guys could be in for a surprise:

In 2010, the polls underestimated the Democrats in every competitive Senate race by an average of 3.1 percentage points, based on data from The Huffington Post’s Pollster model. In 2012, pre-election polls underestimated President Obama in nine of the 10 battleground states by an average of 2 percentage points.

A couple of elections in which polls tilt slightly Republican aren’t enough to prove anything. The polls have erred before, only to prove fine over the longer term. But the reasons to think that today’s polls underestimate Democrats are not based on just the last few years of results. They are also based on a fairly diverse set of methodological arguments, supported by extensive research, suggesting that many of today’s polls struggle to reach Democratic-leaning groups.

Cool, but don’t get too excited:

The biggest reason to be skeptical that the Democrats will fare better than the polls predict is the context: The Republicans probably have a large enough advantage to withstand another round of modest polling errors. Even if there is another three- or four-point error in Colorado, for instance, the result would be a dead heat in a race that on its own is not at all sufficient for Democrats to hold the Senate. And the Republicans could just as easily counter the effect of any polling error by winning undecided voters, who tend to disapprove of Mr. Obama’s performance – along with their incumbent Democratic senator, Mark Udall.

Even with the problems that polls have, the Republicans’ advantage is clear enough to make them favorites to win the Senate.

Fine – that’s settled, as if it matters. Andrew Sullivan thinks it doesn’t matter:

Here’s what we know empirically. The public is underwhelmed by these elections and engagement is low; the average Senate seat-gain for a midterm in a second presidential term is six seats for the opposing party (which is a highly likely scenario right now); the president is unpopular and many Republican candidates have made this election about him, while most Democrats (as is their wont) are running fast away; the GOP itself remains, however, also deeply unpopular; wrong-direction numbers are at a high. No great policy debate has defined these races, and when such issues have risen – such as illegal immigration or the ACA – they tend to be virulent reactions to existing law or proposed changes, rather than a constructive, positive agenda. I see no triumph for conservative or liberal ideas here, no positive coalition forming, and no set of policies that will be vindicated by this election.

That’s not an inspiration to go out and vote, but Sullivan sees why we are where are:

So these midterms mean nothing? That can’t be right either. They seem to me to be reflecting at the very least a sour and dyspeptic mood in the country at large, a well of deepening discontent and concern, and a national funk that remains very potent as a narrative, even if it has become, in my view, close to circular and more than a little hysterical. So what is the reason for this mood – and why has Obama taken the biggest dive because of it?

Here’s my stab at an answer. Even though the economic signals in the US are stronger than anywhere else in the developed world, even as unemployment has fallen, and as energy independence has come closer than anyone recently expected, the underlying structure of the economy remains punishing for the middle class. This, in some ways, can be just as dispiriting as lower levels of growth – because it appears that even when we have a recovery, it will not make things any better for most people. This shoe falling in the public psyche – a sense that we are in a deep structural impasse for the middle class, rather than a temporary recessionary hit – means a profound disillusionment with the future. And the fact that neither party seems to have a workable answer to this problem intensifies the sense of drift.

That’s depressing. And then look at events overseas:

The last great triumph of the US – the end of the Cold War, the liberation of Central Europe, the emergence of a democratic Russia – is now revealed as something more complicated. If Americans thought that the days were long gone that they had to worry about Russian military power, they’ve been disabused of that fact this past year. Then the other recent success: getting out of Iraq and defeating al Qaeda. For many of us, this was one of Obama’s greatest achievements: to cauterize the catastrophe of the Iraq War, to decimate al Qaeda’s forces in Af-Pak, and to enable us to move forward toward a more normal world. The emergence of ISIS has dimmed that hope as well. It does two things at once: it calls into question whether our departure from Iraq can be sustained, and it presents the threat of Jihadist terror as once again real and imminent. So ISIS is a reminder of the worst of 9/11 and the worst of Iraq. Any sense that we have moved beyond those traumas has been unsettled, at the very least.

So the core narrative of the Obama presidency – rescuing us from a second Great Depression and extricating us from a doomed strategy in response to Jihadism – has been eclipsed by events. And that’s why Obama has lost the thread. He has lost the clear story-line that defined his presidency. And he has, as yet, been unable to construct another, consumed, as he has been, by the pragmatism of the moment.

All this makes running against Obama, even if Obama is not running for anything, easy and logical:

You can argue, and I would, that Obama is not really responsible for the events behind this narrative-collapse. The forces that have suppressed the median wage in this country for decades now are beyond his or any president’s power to change – and his economic record is about as impressive as it gets under the brutal circumstances he inherited. Putin, for that matter, was emerging as a neo-fascist dictator in the Bush years, and the roots of his rage lie, in many ways, in events in the 1990s. As for Iraq, another bout of sectarian warfare was utterly predictable, given the inevitable failure to construct a multi-sectarian government in the wake of our decapitation of the Iraqi state in 2003. The Sunni insurgency that we fought for ten years has just bided its time and is now back again in our absence. Did anyone but fantasists like McCain ever really doubt this would happen?

But most Americans are not going to parse these trends and events and come to some nuanced view. They see the economy as still punishing, Jihadist terror just as frightening, and they are increasingly unable to avoid the fact that we lost – repeat, lost – the Iraq War. They’re also aware that the US, after Iraq, simply has historically low leverage and power in the world at large, as the near-uselessness of our massive military in shaping the world as we would like has been exposed in the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan. Now throw in a big bucket of Ebola, and what on earth is there to be cheerful about? And who else do you hold responsible if not the president?

That does explain these midterm elections:

All of this has been exacerbated by the natural inclination of the opposition party to pile on and use this to promote their favorite themes, if not their actual policies. They want to create a Carter-like narrative that can bring down the Democrats and turn the Obama presidency into an asterisk. But the difference between now and the late 1970s is that Obama is not a Carter and the GOP have no Reagan, or, more importantly, no persuasive critique of Obama that is supplemented by a viable alternative policy agenda that isn’t just a warmed-over version of the 1980s.

Sullivan also thinks the midterms are about nothing:

The future as yet seems to contain no new or rallying figure to chart a different course. Ever-greater gridlock seems the likeliest result of the mid-terms; polarization continues to deepen geographically and on-line; the Democrats have only an exhausted, conventional dynasty to offer in 2016; and the Republicans either have dangerous demagogues, like Christie or Cruz, or lightweights, like Walker or Rubio or Paul, or, even another fricking Bush.

So I see this election as more of a primal moan than anything else. Its core meaning is both hard to pin down and yet all around us. Maybe venting will make the atmosphere a little less gloomy. That’s one function of elections, after all. But after that, the harder but more vital task of deciding how to address that gloom with policy and direction is up for grabs.

A primal moan is an appropriate reaction to all of this of course, if you believe this sort of midterm election matters at all, but even the politicians running for all these offices know this is an election about positioning, not really changing anything. A shrug is more appropriate – the big shrug.

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 The Big Shrug

  1. Rick says:

    Yes, these midterms are about nothing, but it didn’t have to be that way.

    The main blame for this goes to the Republicans, and second place goes to the Democrats, for letting the Republicans get away with it. (Okay, so maybe Obama himself should share the blame, too, for not making strong enough arguments, particularly economic ones, that his fellow Democrats can proudly stand behind.)

    Much of this, of course, springs from the public’s opinions of “do-nothing government”. What’s really annoying is that both parties have to share the blame for government doing nothing, even though “doing nothing” is precisely what the Republicans want — and even while in the minority, seem to be in a position to ensure happens!

    But what specifically the Republicans are getting away with is making it all about Obama, the villain, the guy no Democratic candidate wants to be seen with. Obama isn’t a bad guy, and the Democrats shouldn’t have ever allowed him to be portrayed as the bad guy over the years leading up the election. They should have made sure, first of all, that he’d be the hero this election cycle, and that, second of all, they would be riding his coat-tails.

    Andrew Sullivan is right: Despite what Republicans have been saying, Obama actually has done a good job as president. He took over a tanking economy and reversed its direction, and he took over control of a foreign policy hostile to the rest of the world, and reversed that, too. What’s to be ashamed of? We should be bragging on him.

    Here in Georgia, our U.S. Senate race has Michelle Nunn (a somewhat conservative Democrat — yeah, she’s somewhat conservative, but she’s also a Democrat, something we need more of in Washington, so I’m voting for her anyway — who once headed up Bush Sr’s “Points of Light Foundation”) running against David Perdue (sort of a Mitt Romney lookalike, at least I think so, who was once CEO of discount store Dollar General, along with several other manufacturers that he apparently bought and closed down, when he wasn’t paying women less and laying people off and “creating jobs” overseas — all of which Nunn’s ads chronicle, of course).

    First, click here to see Perdue’s most recent commercial. It’s the one called “Trust”, and as I write this, is at the top of the page. If anything illustrates the midterm elections being about nothing, this commercial does. It is not only about nothing in particular, it’s not even really about his opponent.

    Like probably every Republican ad running right now, it makes sure to couple his opponent’s record with that of Obama (Nunn, for all we know, only met the man once, so it’s not like she’s been on his policy team) — showing his face, then ominously having her face emerge from behind his.

    A woman’s soothing voiceover: “The issue is trust. Do you trust president Obama and the Washington politicians” … fade in, photo of Michelle Nunn (who, by the way, is actually NOT a “Washington politician”, but I think their assumption is that voters are too stupid to know that) … “to deal with the problems we face?”

    She then ticks off those problems we face: “Too much debt” … over a stock photo of a dad reading to his child … “not enough jobs” … over a stock photo of an irked mom holding a child, glaring at her obviously frustrated husband … “terrorism and ebola, coming at us from overseas?” … over a photo of two scary-looking masked people in hazmat suits. (Even though Michelle Nunn is about as scary as the Easter Bunny, they made sure they got fear in there somehow.)

    The truth is, I’m not sure how either candidate would deal with “debt” (of which, despite what Republicans want us to think, there is not “too much”), “jobs” (unemployment, at least nationwide, is back to pre-recession levels, by the way — although, yes, Georgia has the highest unemployment rate in the nation; but maybe they should ask the Republicans who run this state about that), not to mention “terrorism and ebola” (but given that it was a Democratic president who took out terrorist Osama bin Laden after the failure of his predecessor to even try, and it’s Republicans all over the country who are leapfrogging what medical science tells us to capitalize on the public’s fear of ebola; note the harassment of that medical worker by the Republican governors of New Jersey and Maine.)

    But let’s go back to the economy for a second. Listen to what John Dickerson says:

    “[P]rogressives and union strategists suggest the problem is that Democrats didn’t run on an economic message that could touch middle-class voters. By narrowcasting to women with a focus on abortion rights and contraception, Democrats downplayed a more populist economic message that might have attracted voters with family income hovering around $50,000.”

    I don’t quite understand why, but too often over the years, I’ve heard even Democrats pronounce themselves to be “fiscal conservatives”. I suspect it’s because, when it comes to saving and spending of one’s personal money, everybody thinks you can’t go wrong by being “conservative”. Still, whether they realize it or not, I don’t think that’s what the term means.

    Being a “fiscal conservative” doesn’t mean you’re not a reckless spender of your hard-earned cash, it means you don’t much like the government spending money — the corollary of which is that you also don’t much like it collecting taxes either. These days, it also means you don’t believe John Maynard Keynes had anything useful to say to us about how to fix our economy — with the word “Keynesian”, amazingly, now being an epithet to be avoided not just by conservatives but even liberals!

    In fact, the lesson we finally learned from all our depressions, and especially that Great one in the 1930s, was that when the people all stop spending, which is something they do in recessions and depressions, we get our government to make up the difference — a lesson Keynes so masterfully taught us.

    The reason is simple: Economies are comprised of spending — spending by consumers and businesses, and yes, even government — so when consumer and business spending falls down, the economy becomes smaller. To make it bigger again, the government needs to increase its spending, usually by public works projects that we probably need anyway, such as roads and bridges and schools and public buildings and parks.

    And as most economists know, any politician who tells you “government can’t create jobs” is talking nonsense. If they really believe that, they need to go back in history to the 1940s, to watch as our government, forced to fight a war in two oceans, hired thousands of soldiers (jobs!), along with their wives and others (jobs!) to build ships and planes and jeeps and ammunition (jobs!) And yes, it had to borrow all that money it spent, sending our debt-to-GDP ratio higher than it’s ever been before or since, but rather than this creating a new recession, the following decades saw an economic boom in America.

    And that is what Democratic candidates should be telling those workers, instead of working so hard to disassociate themselves from all those black-and-white head shots of Obama in those commercials. Democrats have plenty more to say than Republicans about positive solutions to our problems, but seem too afraid to speak up.

    They do this mainly by paying too much attention to politics and not enough to policy. In fact, this is what is meant by that old complaint that we need to hear more about “issues” than about the “horserace”, not just from candidates but also our news media. Why don’t we have TV programs and newspaper articles that discuss Keynesian economics, or why we should or shouldn’t worry about budget deficits? It’s what voters need to know, in order to make these important decisions, rather than only hearing these terms dropped for the first time in the weeks before the elections.

    But in fact, if a candidate fights for the right policies in the first place, the politics should take care of themselves. At least that’s the way things should be, and in fact, I am convinced that they would be, if we have the courage to give them a chance.

    And what the hell do we have to lose by taking the high road? We’re fixing to lose the whole goddam Congress anyway.


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