Impossible Expectations

Billy Joel had a big hit in 1974 with Piano Man – a bit of a narrative about a cocktail-lounge piano player fielding requests for the old standards from desperate defeated dreamers, feeding them what musical hope he can, which is futile. There is no hope, but Billy Joel was in Los Angeles back then. The song was recorded here, and the actual cocktail lounge was down on Wilshire Boulevard, and all the characters were real, or close enough. Joel played the Hollywood Bowl this year and told that story again – he’s really not a New York kind of guy after all – but those of us who have played a few cocktail lounges know what it’s like to noodle away as lonely folks, just passing time, get plastered and stare at the wall with far-away eyes. That’s when you segue into that old Jerome Kern tune Long Age and Far Away – because the Ira Gershwin lyrics always get them – “Long ago and far away, I dreamed a dream one day…” – and they always leave a big tip in the giant brandy snifter on the piano. Then they head out into the night. Dreams die, but what the heck – Jerome Kern’s chord changes are amazing. The lyrics are the problem, where the impossible finally works out and dreams do come true. It’s an infinitely sad song. Everyone knows better.

Everyone always knew that. Charles Dickens wrote a book about it – Great Expectations – where the young kid, Pip, dreams being of a gentleman, of being something in this world, not just the stepson of a village blacksmith, and dreams of winning the heart of the rich and beautiful Estella. By chance, Pip actually becomes a gentleman. His dream comes true, and then it all turns to dust, and he finally comes to understand that Estella doesn’t actually have a heart – she had been trained to feel nothing at all, for anyone. Pip ends up sadder but wiser, as they say. Edward Bulwer-Lytton convinced Dickens to tag on a happy ending, but what Dickens came up with wasn’t much, and long ago and far away, in the late seventies, at the prep school back east, the kids in tenth-grade English actually loved that novel from the middle of the nineteenth century. Teaching that novel was like playing piano in a dark bar for salesmen waiting for the next plane home to the wife and kids a thousand miles away. Dream what you will. Infinite sadness will follow.

This applies to politics too. The Republicans just 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 – but the dream is that, now, something will get done, at least in Congress. Obama will have to work with these guys, and in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, these guys will be itching to prove that they can govern – so people will vote for them. It’s the ideal situation, really. It’s a dream come true, or as close as we’ll get. The Denver Post Editorial Board thinks so:

If the midterm elections told us anything, it was that the American people are disgusted by a Congress that can’t get anything of importance done.

Now it’s time for both parties, but particularly Republicans who hold majorities in both chambers, to show they can govern.

Since the GOP rout, Republican leaders and President Obama have talked a good bit about bipartisan cooperation. That’s to their credit.

And if the president and Congress could actually find common ground on one major issue, such as tax reform, it would go a long way toward taming public cynicism about government’s inability to solve problems.

Most of us are mature enough to understand that some disagreements are so fundamental that compromise is all but impossible.

But the public has a right to expect progress where there is consensus on the broad outlines of what ought to be done.

They say that immigration is one of these issues:

Sure, there are outliers in each party who will object to any compromise and do so loudly, but there should be a way to craft an immigration reform measure – or measures – that could pass both chambers and be embraced by the president.

The bipartisan Senate immigration bill introduced in 2013 is a good place to begin. It has a strong border security component, a path to citizenship (albeit a long one) and would create new farmworker and temporary worker visas. It garnered significant Republican support in the Senate, which was then dominated by Democrats.

That was long ago and far away, and there’s this:

Similarly, there should be room for compromise measures to improve the Affordable Care Act, since a law as complex as the ACA obviously could benefit from targeted fixes. But the GOP leadership shouldn’t waste its time taking swings at repeal. That’s not going to happen.

And what will stop them from taking those swings? But there is the dream:

The campaigns are over and the test now becomes one of governance. Americans will have little tolerance for continued failure.

That assumes Americans give a damn, or are even paying attention, but old hands at this can dream too:

Two former top U.S. Senate leaders predicted there will be room for compromise on significant policy issues between President Barack Obama and the new Republican-led Congress, even on immigration policy.

“There are some areas where clearly I believe that the president working with the Congress can make some progress,” former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican, said on the Charlie Rose program airing tonight on PBS.

“You’ve got Mitch McConnell saying a lot of the right things,” Tom Daschle, a Democrat and also a former Senate majority leader, said on the same program. He was referring to Senator McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is poised to become majority leader.

Things can work out:

Daschle said that, while President Barack Obama must honor his pledge to issue executive orders easing immigration laws, the focus should be on agreeing on legislation with Congress.

“It can be an installment,” he said, “to a series of things that could be done.”

Good times are possible, and likely enough, or could be possible:

Both leaders weighed in on how the president and Republican leaders must make changes to break the gridlock that’s paralyzed Congress the past few years.

Daschle said Obama must have “more of a conciliatory mood.” Obama will meet with congressional leaders at the White House tomorrow in their first face-to-face discussion since Republicans swept Senate races in Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina to take control of the chamber next year.

“It’s maybe hard for some to become more inclusive, to become more engaged, to become more personal,” Daschle said. “But I think in this case it’s essential to good governance.”

Lott said McConnell also needs to change. “He needs to be more accessible and more aggressive,” he said. “You need to initiate the calls” with Obama “and get over the insults,” Lott said of McConnell.

They also recommended starting joint caucus meetings between Republican and Democratic lawmakers and weekly meetings between the president and leaders from both parties.

“If you start to get to know each other and develop relationships – and I know in some cases quietly and privately members do talk across the aisle – but you got to do it as a caucus and you have to do it with some regularity,” Daschle said.

There are, however, other players to consider:

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh reminded Republicans that they were not elected to do their job so much as to prevent other people from getting anything done.

“It is to stop Barack Obama. It is to stop the Democrats,” Limbaugh said on his show Wednesday about Republicans’ agenda. “There is no other reason why Republicans were elected yesterday. Republicans were not elected to govern.”

“How can you govern with a president that is demonstrably lawless when he thinks he has to be?” Limbaugh continued. “The Republican Party was not elected to fix a broken system or to make it work. The Republican Party was not elected to compromise. The Republican Party was not elected to sit down and work together with the Democrats.”

Laura Ingraham said that attempts to craft bipartisan legislation and ignore the most conservative members of Congress would hurt the party in 2016. She lambasted Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) for calling for bipartisanship.

“That seems to me like this is preemptive disarmament,” she said on her show on Thursday. “The establishment always believes that just because they have their leadership in place that they can win presidential elections and do so after they’ve really humiliated and denigrated or dismissed the strong conservative base that still is needed to win elections. I just think they better be very careful not to alienate the very people who showed up to vote in this election.”

Kevin Drum sees the conflict here:

Compromise is the order of the day. Republicans need to show that they can govern. Obama needs to show he can be flexible. …

I don’t see why anyone thinks this. Mitch McConnell has spent six years obstructing everything in sight, and there’s no special reason to think that’s going to change. John Boehner has spent the past four years in a wholly futile attempt to make his tea party crazies see reason, and there’s no reason to think he’s suddenly figured out how to do it. President Obama has spent the past two years convinced that executive action is his only hope of getting anything done, and there’s not much reason to think he’s changed his mind about that. As for the public, they don’t want compromise. They want the other side to give in. Nothing has changed there.

In other words, control of the Senate may have changed hands, but the underlying fundamentals of Washington politics have barely budged.

His view of what actually happens is this:

Tax reform: Forget it. All the usual fault lines are still around. In fact, with the Republican caucus now more conservative and the Democratic caucus more liberal, the usual fault lines are even bigger than ever. This is a nonstarter.

Immigration reform: Forget it. See above.

Keystone XL: This depends on whether Obama actually cares about it. I’ve never been sure about that. But my guess is that he doesn’t care very much, so some kind of budget deal that includes authority to build the pipeline seems fairly likely.

Trade agreements: This actually seems doable. It’s mostly been Democrats who are opposed.

Obamacare repeal: Forget it.

And this:

Repeal of Obama’s environmental regulations. Forget it.

Executive/judicial appointments: This is going to slow to a crawl. It’s a good thing Democrats killed the filibuster when they did.

Iran nuclear treaty: This is actually a tough one to predict, partly because I’m not clear on (a) just how far Obama can go without congressional approval, and (b) whether Iran is serious about a deal in the first place. At a guess, though, Congress might very well decide to throw a spanner in the works that kills any chance of a treaty. A bunch of new Republican senators, combined with the existing strength of the Israel lobby, could be enough to make a real difference here.

In short, not much happens. Maybe nothing happens. The new Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has said that repealing Obamacare outright is not going to happen, or even be possible, but he also said that his Republicans will try to take it apart piece by piece:

With Mr. Obama sure to block any repeal bill passed in the Senate and Republican-controlled House, Mr. McConnell indicated that Senate Republicans will turn their attention to peeling back “pieces of it that are deeply, deeply unpopular with the American people.” He cited the law’s tax on medical devices, its requirement that big employers provide insurance to all workers clocking 30 hours a week or more or pay a fee, and its mandate that most Americans carry insurance or pay a fee.

Kevin Drum is skeptical:

Let me get this straight. McConnell thinks a 2.3 percent tax on manufacturers and importers of medical devices is deeply, deeply unpopular? He thinks a requirement that employers provide insurance for anyone who works more than 30 hours a week is deeply, deeply unpopular? He thinks the individual mandate is deeply, deeply unpopular?

Okay, I’ll give him the last one. The individual mandate is moderately unpopular. Of course, it’s also crucial to the functioning of the law, and McConnell knows perfectly well that Obama won’t allow it to be repealed. So that leaves the device tax and the 30-hour rule. The former is mostly opposed by medical device lobbyists, while the latter is mostly opposed by medium-sized businesses who want the ability to cancel health coverage for workers merely by reducing their workweek to 39 hours. My wild guess is that neither of these things is deeply, deeply unpopular with the American people.

But they are unpopular with interest groups that Republicans care about. So they’re on the chopping block.

That is how these things work, but Matthew Yglesias sees more here. He sees American politics is descending into a meaningless, demographically-driven seesaw:

Obviously the ultimate outcome in the 2016 election depends on inherently unforeseeable events, but the fundamentals of the race should look very different – and much less favorable to Republicans. But then it’s all going to flip again two years later.

The Senators up for re-election in 2016 will be the ones who took office in 2010 and 2004, both strong years for the GOP. That means Republicans will be playing defense. Illinois is very likely to go to the Democrats. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are both states with substantial blue tints. The seats in Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Florida are all very winnable for Democrats, and Missouri, North Carolina, and Arizona are on the board as reach possibilities. Republicans, by contrast, really only have a single pickup opportunity in Colorado…

Even if everything goes great for the GOP campaign-wise, it’s hard to imagine them picking up seats, while Democrats are likely to get two or three and could plausibly snag many more than that.

And there’s this:

More people vote in presidential elections than in midterms. And the non-participation is not evenly distributed. Younger people and non-whites are especially unlikely to vote in non-presidential years, and 2014 was no exception to this rule. Since younger people and non-whites tend to vote for Democrats, this means that closely divided states such as Ohio, Florida, Iowa, and New Hampshire have an electorate that leans Republican in midterms and Democratic in presidential years.

This is great news for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 (I hear Hillary might run), as well as for various candidates for lower office.

And there’s the economy:

This one is less certain, but one dog that didn’t really bite in the 2014 election is the basic reality that by most measures the long-ailing economy is getting better. Democrats didn’t get much of a lift from that yet, in part because the economy is still pretty bad. The unemployment rate is lower and GDP is higher, but so far most of the gains from the recovery have accrued to people who own stock rather than people who work for a living. But there’s lots of evidence that this is about to change, and the unemployment rate has finally dropped low enough that employers are facing pressure to start paying more.

Things could easily take a turn for the worse over the next two years, but there are reasons to think the recovery will continue. Slowing growth in China and increasing oil production at home mean that gas prices won’t pinch consumers the way they have in the past. And the Federal Reserve shows no sign of being too eager to raise interest rates. By 2016, it’s likely that the “improving economy” story will actually be real for middle-class Americans.

This is a seesaw thing, and driven by demographics too:

Demographics aren’t strictly destiny. Democrats won big in 2006 despite the midterm electorate and a not-so-friendly map. Events matter. Nobody knows what will happen between now and then. But the 2016 fundamentals will tilt the playing field heavily in the Democrats’ direction, while 2018 will do the reverse.

And in a sense, the “endless seesaw” model of American politics makes perfect sense. The presidential and non-presidential electorates look too different for either political party to optimize for both of them. Democrats have built a coalition that’s optimized for presidential years, while the GOP has one that’s optimized for off-years. And so we’re set for a lot of big swings back and forth every two years.

This is systemic, although Ross Douthat thinks this is a conscious choice:

Clintonism and Bushism were both attempts, even if not always successful, to build or maintain coalitions that weren’t locked into boom-bust cycles, and that included a kind of internal diversity that could be sustained across presidential and non-presidential elections. (As on a more limited scale was Howard Dean’s fifty-state strategy in the non-seesaw year of 2006.) There are solid-enough structural reasons why that internal diversity has faded since – the aging-out of New Deal seniors has made older voters more reliably conservative, their Iraq-related disillusionment with Bush and their changing patterns of social life have made younger voters more reliably liberal, the growth of the Hispanic vote has changed incentives for both parties, the presidency of Barack Obama has furthered racial polarization in unfortunately-predictable ways.

But it’s also faded because elites in both parties have been happy to see it fade – because a lot of liberal elites don’t want to make the kind of compromises that would keep their party a little more viable in midterms with, say, some of the white Southerners or Midwesterners who voted for Bill Clinton, and because a lot of conservative elites would rather lose presidential elections while talking about the 47 percent and upper-bracket tax cuts than win them while making the kind of shifts on economic issues that might win more presidential-cycle votes from the downscale or disaffected. (And of course there are still other organizing options, libertarian and socialist and so on, that are even further afield from what party elites prefer.) And those choices while understandable and in some sense structurally-driven themselves, are still choices, which other choices could alter or undo.

There is also that other structural change:

Republicans now control state government outright in at least 24 states, one more than they did before the election. They control at least 66 of 99 state legislative chambers nationwide. And they cut the number of states with total Democratic control from 14 to seven – the lowest number since the Civil War. …

Republicans made historic gains in state legislatures in 2010. They held on in many states in 2012, or made up for losses in one state with gains in another – even though Democrats won the national election. And they won even more in 2014. This isn’t an accident – it’s the result of strategic fundraising from national Republicans, beginning in 2010, aimed at engineering statehouse takeovers. Out-of-state contributions were shuffled to states where they would make a difference, particularly as congressional partisanship and gridlock made policymaking in Washington increasingly unlikely.

In the National Review, John Hood sees a farm system:

The 2014 legislative results will allow many more Republicans to serve as house speakers, senate leaders, and committee chairman, gaining critical experience for possible future careers in federal politics. It gives the GOP more chambers with which to advance economic and social legislation. Even if a bill goes to a Democratic governor for a veto, that’s useful to define issues and expose squishes. In many cases, however, newly Republican legislatures will be able to enact conservative reforms with the cooperation or acquiescence of such governors, who are first and foremost political animals. As for state Democrats, their ability to legislate liberal policies has just taken a nose dive. Only seven state governments are fully blue at this point.

These are, of course, just opportunities for Republicans. They could certainly squander them on pointless crusades, poorly crafted policies, or disastrous infighting.

Count on it. Rush Limbaugh could save the Democratic Party here. He likes to pick fights. That made him rich, and Neil Irwin sees one of those fights coming soon:

One way or another, the debt ceiling will need to be raised sometime in the first part of 2015 to prevent a government default, and deals will need to be made to continue funding the federal government without the high drama of standoffs like that over the debt ceiling in 2011, the “fiscal cliff” of late 2012 and the shutdown in 2013.

It will pit two sides of the GOP against each other. One team of Republican leadership seeks to bolster the party’s brand in the run-up to 2016 elections and is responsive to business interests who prefer stability. The other is the harder-right contingent of the caucus that wants to try to shut down Obamacare at any cost. Presidential politics may come into play as well, as potential candidates, like Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, push for a harder-edged approach than that preferred by the majority leader Mitch McConnell. (“Let me be clear: There will be no shutdowns and no default on the national debt,” Mr. McConnell said Wednesday in his appearance in Louisville).

We’ll see how that works out, but forget any great expectations. Think of the old Executive Room bar down at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, now long gone, in 1972 – Billy Joel is at the piano, taking requests, playing the old standards about big dreams, while those who wander in get pleasantly plastered. Some of them get belligerent, some turn wistful, and the music about big dreams never stops. That’s as good a metaphor for our politics as any.

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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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