Sifting Through the Rubble

The midterm elections are over, except for a few races here and there where a very few trailing votes will have to settle things, but the Republicans retook the Senate and increased their majority in the House, to a level not seen since 1928 or so, and they now control more state governments than ever before, so the Democrats are hurting. They’re sifting through the rubble, seeing if anything can be saved, wondering what went wrong. As many have noted, they thought they had the right strategy. Each Republican running for anything said everyone hates Obama, and they hated him too, and if the voters elected them, they’d undo everything Obama has done, and undo Obama too. Each Democrat running for office decided not to defend Obama, because they wanted the angry vote too, so they adopted what was essentially a me-too strategy. The guy was a jerk. Did they vote for Obama in 2008 or four years later? They wouldn’t say. They wouldn’t talk about Obamacare. The question of whether everyone should have some sort of health insurance, or even basic health care, never came up. The question was too awkward. There was no point in getting into shouting matches with angry old white folks about who in this country deserves what, because that could turn racial real fast – dangerous territory – and it was the same with gay rights, and immigration reform, and equal pay for women. What’s the point of even arguing with those who say women don’t want equal pay, because women know better, that demanding equal pay just isn’t ladylike? No one wants to step into that swamp. And who wants to get into a discussion of income inequality? The fabulously wealthy are “job creators” – everyone knows that – so we should be extra nice to them. They’re the good people and the rest of us are inadequate human beings. That’s a deeply ingrained cultural belief. Political campaigns are no place to discuss the long evolution of dysfunctional cultural assumptions, and you’re not going to change anyone’s mind – you just want their vote. Agree with them.

That’s sort of what each Democrat did. The idea was to offend the most people the least, and most of them lost. Now Obama stands alone. His party walked away from him. He faces a hostile Congress for the next two years, alone. Things will be tough for him. Very few Democrats will take back what they said when they were running – they’d look foolish and unprincipled. They’re stuck with their losing me-too stance on everything. They made their choice.

That led to an interesting morning after:

After a stinging rebuke at the polls, President Obama vowed Wednesday to respond to the frustrations of the American electorate by using his final two years to forge compromises with newly empowered congressional Republicans and break the political gridlock that has defined Washington over the past several years.

“I hear you,” Obama said at a White House news conference, a day after voters gave the GOP unilateral control over the legislative branch and dealt a blow to Obama’s agenda after six years in office.

“Obviously, Republicans had a good night, and they deserve credit for running good campaigns,” the president said. But he emphasized that there was a message for both parties in the results – and the two more years of divided government they will produce: “The American people expect the people they elect to work as hard as they do. They expect us to focus on their ambitions and not ours. They want us to get the job done. All of us in both parties have a responsibility to address that sentiment.”

But there was a caveat:

The president noted that two-thirds of those eligible did not vote Tuesday, suggesting the lack of a broad GOP mandate, and he reminded reporters that the policies he has championed, including an increase in the minimum wage, were endorsed by voters in a number of states.

Even so, something can get done:

Obama pledged to work with his rivals on areas including taxes, infrastructure and trade, and the hopeful notes he sounded were matched by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose reelection puts him in line to become majority leader early next year. The president called McConnell on Wednesday to congratulate him on his victory and discuss areas of common ground, and Obama will meet with the bipartisan congressional leadership at the White House on Friday.

“We’ll see whether we can work with the president. I hope so,” McConnell said at a news conference in Kentucky. “We’re going to pass legislation. Some of it he may not like, but this gridlock and dysfunction can be ended.”

Or not much will get done:

Even as both sides suggested openness to new cooperation, there are several immediate stumbling blocks, including potential White House action on immigration, the ongoing standoff over the stalled Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline and Obama’s appointment of a new attorney general. All have the potential to quickly reignite the toxic political environment even before McConnell takes the Senate gavel.

Republicans vehemently oppose Obama’s pledge, first issued in the summer and reiterated Wednesday, that he intends to use his executive authority to stem deportations of some undocumented immigrants before the end of the year.

Yeah, Obama went there, again:

Obama has argued that he has been forced into taking executive action because Congress failed to act on the problem by approving a comprehensive legislative overhaul of border-control laws. But McConnell on Wednesday compared the idea to “waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

“I hope he won’t do that,” McConnell said. “That would poison the well.”

Consider it poisoned:

Obama is facing a revolt among Hispanic supporters who have escalated their calls for the White House to provide relief for the nation’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. Obama’s decision in September to delay his administrative relief until after the election – at the request of Senate Democrats fearful of the electoral ramification in conservative states – intensified anger among immigration advocates.

“You lost the Senate anyway,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said at a news conference in Chicago on Wednesday. “The politics are over. The Senate has been lost. You’re still president of the United States of America, and it’s time for you to act boldly.”

There’s pressure on the other side too. See Sahil Kapur at Talking Points Memo with Meet The Real Next Senate Majority Leader – Ted Cruz:

If you thought House Speaker John Boehner has had a miserable time trying to govern, wait until you see what incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is about to deal with.

The Kentucky Republican achieved his lifelong dream on Tuesday night in a massive victory for his party, and is positioned to move into Sen. Harry Reid’s ornate suite in the Capitol when the next Congress convenes on Jan. 3.

But it is likely to be a short honeymoon.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the influential tea party firebrand, is poised to make life very difficult for the old-school Kentuckian by harnessing the power of the GOP base’s rightward drift to wage fierce battles with President Barack Obama.

Ted Cruz, like Luis Gutierrez, is not shy:

Cruz telegraphed his strategy in a post-election interview Tuesday night on Fox News, calling on Republicans to do whatever it takes to repeal Obamacare and prevent Obama’s upcoming executive actions on immigration.

“The two biggest issues nationwide were, number one, stopping the train wreck that is Obamacare; number two, stopping the president from illegally granting amnesty,” Cruz said.

He also appeared on CNN and declined to voice support for McConnell as majority leader, calling that “a decision for the conference to answer next week.”

This won’t go well:

The Class of 2014 features many younger conservatives who owe their rise to the GOP’s right flank, including Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Arkansas’s Tom Cotton and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse. Along with the other conservatives who won Senate seats in 2010 and 2012, they’ll be a robust bloc, with considerable influence.

“Cruz is gonna be using his national base to put relentless pressure on McConnell,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.

“I’ve never seen a guy so despised by a vast majority of his caucus – they hate Cruz. They see Cruz as completely out for himself. But let’s face it if he’s out there inciting the base, and talk radio guys and blog people … that’s going to be difficult for them,” Ornstein said.

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball sees it this way:

The new Republican senators are quite conservative, perhaps more so than any previous class, but they are capable of sounding reasonable and staying focused on issues voters care about. The question yet to be answered is one of tactics: When these new players come to Washington, will they seek pragmatic accommodation? Or will they team up with the likes of Cruz, putting new faces on the same old gridlock?

Who knows? John Aravosis simply sees this as good for Hillary Clinton:

Cruz, as you’ll recall, was the architect of the very-unpopular Republican shutdown of the federal government. Cruz was able to whip the House Tea Party contingent into a furor, and effectively overrule House Speaker John Boehner. Cruz did all that in the minority. Imagine the damage he can do in the majority.

And that helps Hillary, and hurts the GOP overall. Hillary now has someone to run against: The GOP Congress. Up until now, Hillary Clinton had to figure out how to distance herself from a somewhat unpopular president, while having spent the last many years working for him. Now, instead, she can focus her attention, and divert ours, towards all the bad things the Republicans are going to cook up over the next two years.

It seems Ted Cruz really is a problem for Republicans now, and then there’s this:

After soaking up all the glory of the 2014 GOP wave, the editors of the conservative National Review issued a stern warning to Republicans: getting too much done could come back to haunt you.

National Review said the idea that Republicans now need to prove their ability to govern is bad politics. The editors mocked Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, for urging the GOP to work on issues like immigration reform, trade, and corporate tax reform.

“With all due respect to the senator and like-minded Republicans, this course of action makes no sense as a political strategy,” National Review wrote.

They argued that people don’t actually care about issues like trade. But mostly National Review said that trying to govern would just make the GOP vulnerable. Democrats will filibuster, Obama will veto, and the party will continue to divide between the Tea Party and the establishment.

From the National Review item:

That means being a responsible party, to be sure, just as the conventional wisdom has it. But part of that responsibility involves explaining what Republicans stand for – what, that is, they would do if they had the White House. And outlining a governing agenda for the future is a different matter from trying to govern in 2015… Not much progress is possible until we have a better president. Getting one ought to be conservatism’s main political goal over the next two years.

Forget trying to “govern” for the next two years:

The desire to prove Republicans can govern also makes them hostage to their opponents in the Democratic Party and the media. It empowers Senator Harry Reid, whose dethroning was in large measure the point of the election. If Republicans proclaim that they have to govern now that they run Congress, they maximize the incentive for the Democrats to filibuster everything they can – and for President Obama to veto the remainder. Then the Democrats will explain that the Republicans are too extreme to get anything done.

Kevin Drum is puzzled by this:

I wonder if the National Review’s editors have enough of a sense of humor left to be embarrassed by this. After all, this is precisely what Republicans have been doing to Democrats for six years: obstructing everything imaginable and then snickering as Dems helplessly try to explain to voters that Washington gridlock isn’t their fault, it’s the fault of that mean Mitch McConnell. Clearly NR understands how well this worked and wants to protect Republicans from having their own playbook used against them.

Beyond that, NR is afraid that trying to govern will just upset one faction or another in the GOP’s delicately balanced coalition, and that makes no sense. Who needs a bunch of crazy tea partiers stirring up trouble again? There’s no reasoning with those folks! Better to just lie low.

Drum knows that won’t happen:

As cynical political strategy, it’s hard to argue with the logic here. Republicans probably are better off doing nothing for the next two years except mocking President Obama and throwing out occasional symbolic bits of red meat to keep the rubes at bay. Usually, though, this is the kind of thing you talk about quietly behind closed doors. It’s a little surprising that we’ve gotten to the point where apparently this level of cynicism is so routine that no one thinks twice about spelling it out in public in explicit detail. Welcome to modern politics.

That’s why Jonathan Chait says that the Democrats have two choices now, and those are gridlock or annihilation:

A cardinal fact of American politics that has emerged during the Obama years is that demographic forces are slowly and inexorably driving the electorate leftward. But the Republican Party has its own corresponding advantages. Its voters turn out for elections reliably, not just in spasms of quadrennial excitement. They are dispersed efficiently in rural and exurban House districts, and reside disproportionately in small states that have more per capita voting power in the Senate. All these things give the Republican coalition, even as it remains unable to muster a presidential majority, unassailable control of Congress.

So we are where we are:

The midterm elections did not alter this bifurcated structure. Instead, they exposed a grim reality for liberals. The Democratic presidential majority is a fragile asset, and its value as a driver of positive change is presently exhausted. In the near term of American politics, the enervating stalemate of the last four years is the best possible outcome. The next party to have a chance to impose its vision upon the federal government will very likely be the Republicans.

The old folks won, and will win:

In the giddy wake of Obama’s 2008 election, Democrats almost immediately plotted ways to keep their army of newer, younger voters mobilized as a continuous standing force, exerting constant pressure on Congress to deliver the change they had demanded. There would be meet-ups, there would be emails, and there would be even more emails.

None of it worked. The Obama movement melted away almost immediately, withdrawing from politics even before the new president had taken office. The face of grassroots political activism during Obama’s first two years was the furious, disbelieving backlash that had emerged in the waning days of 2008. Democrats plotted tactics to bring their voters back out for the 2010 elections, but these proved a dismal failure – the midterm electorate proved to be much older and whiter than the one that had elected the president.

The Democrats have spent the last two years or more trying to avert the 2010 disaster. They built the “Bannock Street Project,” a $60 million project involving some 4,000 paid staffers. It took its name from the location of the field headquarters for Michael Bennett’s Senate campaign, the party’s sole midterm-mobilization bright spot.

That, too, failed. Democrats again won voters under 30. (They also won voters between the ages of 30 and 44.) Those voters simply did not materialize.

NBC News’ exit polls showed that:

The electorate in midterm elections is much older than in presidential years, with those aged 60 and older generally outnumbering those under 30 by more than 2-to-1 margins. For example, in the 2012 presidential election, 25% of voters were age 60 and older while 19% were under 30 years old. That 6 point difference between the oldest and youngest voters’ share of the electorate is similar to the 5 to 9 point gap registered in the prior three presidential elections.

In today’s midterms, 37% of voters are over the age of 60 but only 12% of are under 30 years old. This 25 point difference is larger than the 16 to 20 point age gap seen in the last three midterms.

This was an old-folks election, and now they’re Republicans:

There was a time when this midterm age gap would have little effect on an election’s outcome, but that suddenly changed ten years ago when young voters became decidedly more Democratic than their older counterparts.

Throughout the 1990s, the youngest and oldest voters tended to vote the same way. For example, in the 1994 election which resulted in a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, 48% of voters under 30 voted for the Democratic candidate for Congress and an identical 48% of voter age 60 and older did the same. This trend continued through the 2002, when 49% of young voters and 48% of older voters cast Democratic House ballots.

Those days are gone, and Chait adds this:

Liberals may still own the future of American politics, but the future is taking a very long time to arrive. So what happens now? In the short term, nothing – the newly minted Republican leaders are mouthing the requisite platitudes about cooperation.

Those requisite platitudes are meaningless:

Mitch McConnell did not become the majority leader by cooperating. His single strategic insight is that voters do not blame Congress for gridlock – they blame the president, and therefore reward the opposition. Eternally optimistic seekers of bipartisanship have clung to the hope that owning all of Congress, not merely half, will force Republicans to “show they can govern.” This hopeful bit of conventional wisdom rests on the premise that voters are even aware that the GOP is the party controlling Congress. In fact, only about 40 percent of the public even knows which party controls which chamber of Congress, which makes the notion that the Republicans would face a backlash for a lack of success fantastical.

Be prepared for the worst:

McConnell’s next play is perfectly clear. His interest lies in creating two more years of ugliness and gridlock. He does not want spectacular, high-profile failures that command public attention – no shutdowns, no impeachment. Instead, he wants tedious, enervating stalemate. McConnell needs to drain away any possibility of hope and excitement from government, so that the disengaged Democratic voters remain disengaged in 2016.

And 2016 is where the Senate rout will have its full effect. Both parties had assumed that Republicans would most likely gain a narrow majority in the upper chamber of 51 or 52 seats. This would have been tenuous enough that Democrats could wrest back control two years later, when the larger, presidential electorate returns, and Republicans have to defend seats in several states that elected Obama. But the Republicans now appear to hold 54 seats – enough to withstand the likely reversal. Their House majority has likewise expanded.

Democrats are sifting through the rubble, seeing if anything can be saved, but Chait says they need to understand two things:

The first is that Democrats stand almost no visible prospect of attaining a government majority. The structural advantages undergirding Republican control of both chambers of Congress are so imposing that only extraordinary circumstances could overwhelm them. Democrats managed, briefly, to gain control of Congress when the catastrophe of the Bush presidency created two successive national wave elections in their favor.

Only that sort of freakish event would suffice. And Democrats might notice that, since winning back Congress requires a backlash against the president, their “positive” scenario requires first surrendering to Republicans’ total control of government. As long as Democrats hold the White House, Republican control of Congress is probably safe – at least for several election cycles to come.

The second conclusion is simpler, and more bracing: Hillary Clinton is the only thing standing between a Republican Party even more radical than George W. Bush’s version and unfettered control of American government.

Democrats, having abandoned Obama and having been abandoned by anyone not nearing retirement, or older, are sifting through the rubble, seeing if anything can be saved. Maybe nothing can be saved – unless the Republicans self-destruct again. There could be another George W. Bush, leading the country to financial ruin and worldwide rejection of absurd grand plans for reordering the world. It happens. Republicans would then be the ones sifting through the rubble.

There’s a recurring pattern here. We’re always standing in the rubble. There may be no way to actually run this 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 Sifting Through the Rubble

  1. Rick says:

    I may have to rethink my prediction that Obama and the Republicans will now have the opportunity to get something done. I once again made the mistake of underestimating the Republican party’s natural propensity for standing in a circle and shooting themselves in the feet.

    Not to mention my forgetting the core of conservative ideology, which is to make sure government does as little as possible, if anything at all. And as hilarious as National Review’s call for “more of the same” is, they have a point when they argue that Republicans have nothing to prove to anyone. If there’s anything to be learned from these Midterms, it might be there is probably no reason at all for the Republicans to demonstrate they can govern.

    After all, look how far they’ve gotten without doing any of that, so what’s the point of diddling with a winning formula?

    It’s also worth remembering that the problems Republicans had in their last two presidential campaigns are still with them. First of all, their bench is always full, but weak. Second of all, as much as they try not to, they always tend to tear each other apart in the primaries, especially the debates — each pretending to be more to the right than the other — which always comes back to haunt the winner. I’m guessing they’ll be tempted to skip the debates this time around, for all the good that will do them. Fortunately for us Democrats, we don’t have this problem, or at least haven’t had it recently.

    So while I still expect Obama to try get something done in his last two years (he’ll especially want to keep that immigration-reform promise he keeps breaking to Latinos), I doubt he’ll find anyone to deal with on the other side of the aisle. It’s pretty hard to compromise with people who don’t have anything they really want or need.

    But the real hilarity comes from watching the Republicans regularly run through these earnest and energetic exercises, as if they’re headed somewhere new, and yet they always end up back in the same place.


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