Eventual Equilibrium

At the moment there’s a storm rolling into Southern California – heavy rain in the forecast, and high winds and possible small tornadoes – a rare event. But the word is that this massive storm will arrive at midnight and be gone by dawn. The normal sunshine will be back soon enough, and the most severe drought in California history will continue. Twenty or thirty of these storms might end this drought, but that’s not going to happen. This is desert out here. All that is green everywhere here is green because of water that Los Angeles stole from the Owens Valley and Mono Lake and the Colorado River. That was a temporary fix. Drought is the natural state of things here. All the water-wars with the folks up north and elsewhere disturbed the natural equilibrium. That never works out well. Equilibrium will be restored, and it’s the same with the current storm. All the unbalanced atmospheric forces will reach a calm equilibrium in the morning, and the sun will shine again. Things will be as they should be, and always were.

It’s the same with politics. There was a destabilizing disruption in the order of things, in how Americans thought of themselves, with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on the Bush-Cheney Torture Program the CIA was running, which those in government call a program where we used Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, not torture. Using that word – torture – has legal implications. There was Ronald Reagan’s signing statement on our ratification of the UN Convention on Tortureback in 1988 we said we would lead the world in never doing that sort of thing, ever. There are the Geneva Conventions too – no torture, ever – and when we signed onto those we made torture a crime under our law. Treaties are funny that way.

We don’t torture people, but of course we have tortured people – there’s no other way to read the Senate Intelligence Committee Report – and that disturbed our equilibrium. That created an ongoing storm where some call torture something else, or say what we did, whatever one calls it, wasn’t all that nasty, or if it was, it was necessary, or patriotic, or they say that America isn’t like other nations and the rules for others don’t really apply to us, because we’re special, and awesome. The report, however, shows that what we were doing was pretty awful, and whatever you call it, it didn’t work, and it also inflamed those who already think America is awful, making them much more likely to blow up one or more of our cities, or at least a mall or two, and certainly making it easier for the bad guys to recruit those willing to blow up whatever we’ve got. Yes, we should not have done what we did, and it’s time to admit that, and renounce all of it, and then be the good guys again. That’s the only way to win this war on terrorism – offer an alternative to being as nasty as possible, for political ends.

These two ways of looking at things cannot be resolved easily, if at all, and thus we have a political storm. The atmospheric forces here, political forces in this case, are not in equilibrium, and many wonder if they ever can be. There’s something that cannot be resolved in all this, and Noah Millman thinks it might be this:

Willingness to torture became, first within elite government and opinion-making circles, then in the culture generally, and finally as a partisan GOP talking point, a litmus test of seriousness with respect to the fight against terrorism. That – proving one’s seriousness in the fight – was its primary purpose from the beginning, in my view. It was only secondarily about extracting intelligence.

That means that all of this was about something else entirely, and Daniel Larison extends that idea:

That makes a great deal of sense, and it is related to the broader problem in foreign policy and national security debates of frequently treating the most hardline and indefensible positions as the most “serious” ones. That is, one isn’t perceived as taking a threat “seriously” unless one is prepared to support any and all measures to counter it. We see this in the debate over Iran and the nuclear issue, where support for prevention and “keeping all options on the table” is mandatory for anyone that doesn’t want to be labeled as “weak.” We saw it during the Iraq war debate, where indulging the most paranoid fantasies about future Iraqi attacks on the U.S. was considered the “serious” and “responsible” position and doubting them was viewed as naiveté. According to this warped definition of being “serious,” it is necessary to countenance vicious behavior to prove the extent of one’s dedication to a particular policy goal.

There are, however, other ways to define seriousness:

Because of the bias in our debates in favor of hardline policies, preventive war and torture not only become acceptable “options” worth considering, but they have often been treated as possessing the quality – seriousness – that they most lack. The belief that a government is entitled to invade a foreign country and destroy its government on the off chance that the latter might one day pose a threat is an outstanding example of something that is morally unserious. That is, it reveals the absence or the rejection of careful moral reasoning. Likewise, believing that a government should ever be allowed to torture people is the opposite of what comes from serious moral reflection.

Maybe we’ve been talking about the wrong thing all along. Perhaps we can reach some sort of equilibrium, the calm after the storm, if we stop talking about torture, which may or may not be torture if you call it something else, and talk about who is serious and who is just bullshitting us, striking noble and heroic poses, because it feels so damned good. There are problems to solve out there – lots of bad guys we have to deal with. I’m serious, you’re not? Anyone who says that has to sit down and shut up. There’s work to do.

There’s always work to do. The government has to keep running. Even the Republicans know that now. They shut it down last year to force Obama to end Obamacare – because they were the serious folks, fighting creeping socialism, defending free-market capitalism when no one else would – and they didn’t end Obamacare. They looked like fools, because we do need the government to keep running. Even they knew that. They caved. Their attempt at showing that they were “the serious ones” – where Ted Cruz seemed to be claiming he alone was the only one in Washington who was serious about saving America from the commies – showed the opposite. Serious people don’t shut down the government.

This time they only came close:

The House narrowly passed a $1.1 trillion spending package on Thursday that would fund most government operations for the fiscal year after a rancorous debate that reflected the new power held by Republicans and the disarray among Democrats in the aftermath of the midterm elections.

The accord was reached just hours before the midnight deadline, in a 219-206 vote, amid the last-minute brinkmanship and bickering that has come to mark one of Congress’s most polarized – and least productive – eras. The legislation now heads to the Senate, which is expected to pass it in the coming days.

The storm passed. Equilibrium was restored, but it was a new equilibrium:

The split in the Democratic Party dramatically burst into view when Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader and one of President Obama’s most loyal supporters, broke with the administration over a provision in the bill that would roll back regulation of the Dodd-Frank Act, which Ms. Pelosi said was a giveaway to big banks whose practices helped fuel the Great Recession. She spoke on the House floor in the early afternoon, expressing her strong opposition to the bill.

Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. were pressed to make a furious round of phone calls to try to persuade wavering Democrats, while House Speaker John A. Boehner worked to get more Republican votes.

The public support of the sweeping spending bill by the White House – which came just as Ms. Pelosi was making her speech on the House floor opposing it – was a rare public break with the minority leader and infuriated many of her loyalists.

The Democrats may have reached a new sort of equilibrium. Nancy Pelosi abandoned President Obama and sided with the populist Elizabeth Warren, because the party is changing:

In a more than three-hour, closed-door meeting of House Democrats on Thursday night, many of the party’s more liberal members tried to rally support against the bill. The moment, they said, was one of conscience, and a chance for Democrats to demonstrate their allegiance with the middle class.

“We’ve got to stand up for principle at some point, or they’re going to kick us even more next year when they have a bigger majority,” said Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon. “They know we will stand our ground on principle in the future and not roll us so easily again.”

In an emergency gathering, Democrats also expressed anger at Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, at what they saw as the president’s undercutting of Ms. Pelosi and other progressives by coming out in support of the deal so early in the day. But Ms. Pelosi ultimately gave her members the freedom to vote how they wanted. “I’m giving you the leverage to do what you have to do,” she said. “We have enough votes to show them never to do this again.”

In other words, this thing is going to pass, but go out there and vote for the middle class, not Wall Street. You won’t win this one, but people will see our party won’t stand for the Republicans sneaking in things like this, a hidden rider that commits the government to bailing out the high-risk derivative trades and credit default swaps that go bad, making sure no bank ever loses money on those things. Bail them out when their normal banking operations go sour, but not when they bet on trades in imaginary assets some guy thought up. Maybe the public won’t get it, but maybe they will. Stand for something.

Obama was not happy with that, and Hillary Clinton, the woman all of Wall Street wants to be the next president, because they know she’ll let them do anything they want, should be a bit worried.

She should worry. No one knows where she stands on anything – she’s careful. They only know that everyone thinks she should be president, and she thinks she should be president too. That’s nice, but there’s a new equilibrium here.

Still, this time, the larger storm passed:

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said the administration agreed with congressional Democrats who were angry about several provisions that affect financial regulations and others that would allow larger political contributions to parties during federal campaigns. But he called the funding bill “a compromise” and said passage of the legislation would be good for the economy and would bolster some of the president’s priorities, including consumer protection, early childhood education and the fight against climate change.

Everyone compromised:

Some House Republicans thought that Mr. Boehner did not go far enough in fighting Mr. Obama over his executive action last month to defer the deportation of as many as five million unauthorized immigrants. The spending deal funds the Department of Homeland Security – the agency primarily assigned to carry out the president’s immigration policy – only through February, at which point Republicans will control both chambers of Congress and have the leverage to try to curtail Mr. Obama’s action.

But some conservatives wanted to immediately defund the Homeland Security agency, despite the risk of a partial government shutdown.

They didn’t get what they wanted, but neither did the Democrats, and Kevin Drum is fine with that:

This is one of those things that demonstrate the chasm between political activists and analysts on the one side, and working politicians on the other. If you take a look at the bill, it does indeed have a bunch of objectionable features. People like me, with nothing really at stake, can bitch and moan about them endlessly. But you know what? For all the interminable whining we do about the death of bipartisanship in Washington, this is what bipartisanship looks like. It always has. It’s messy, it’s ugly, and it’s petty. Little favors get inserted into bills to win votes. Other favors get inserted as payback for the initial favors. Special interests get stroked. Party whips get a workout.

That’s politics. The fact that it’s happening right now is, in a weird sense, actually good news. It means that, for a few days at least, politics is working normally again.

The storm is over, equilibrium is restored, and we’re back to normal:

Even at its best, politics is lubricated by venality, ego, and mutual backscratching. And you know what? By the normal standards of this kind of stuff, the obnoxious riders in the current spending bill are pretty mild – really. The only one that rises above the level of a political misdemeanor is the provision that allows banks to get back into the custom swaps business, and even that’s hardly the end of the world. Swaps may have provided a tailwind to the 2008 financial collapse, but they were far from its core cause.

So should working politicians avert their gaze from the muck and vote to keep the government functioning? Of course they should. Government shutdowns are immensely costly in their own right, after all. This kind of crass calculus sucks, but that’s human nature for you. All things considered, I’d say we all got off fairly easy this time around.

Only Ted Cruz is unhappy, as Dana Milbank explains:

Grenade-launching Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas took a familiar position of obstruction last week: He called on conservatives to fight any bill that funds President Obama’s immigration actions – even if this provokes a standoff that leads to a government shutdown.

“Just about every Republican candidate in the country campaigned saying, ‘If you elect us, we will stop President Obama’s amnesty,'” he said at a rally at the Capitol with tea party activists last week. “What I’m here urging my fellow Republicans to do is very, very simple: Do what you said you would do.”

Cruz, who also met with House conservatives to stoke opposition, opposed the “meaningless show vote” lawmakers were considering as an alternative to a confrontation. He declared “a full-fledged constitutional crisis.”

But something extraordinary happened in response to Cruz’s hyperventilation: absolutely nothing.

Disrupting the equilibrium just doesn’t play well now:

When Cruz launched a similar effort last year to fight the funding of Obamacare, he got broad support among House conservatives, forcing leadership to dig in, earning the moniker “Speaker Cruz” and setting up the shutdown. But Cruz appears to have jumped the shark. His backers in the House have thinned, and leadership is paying them little mind. Even if Cruz raises procedural objections to the spending bill in the Senate, the most he can do is slow passage by a day or two because he lacks sufficient support from fellow Republicans.

Senate Republicans have also been cool to Cruz’s demands that they block confirmation of most nominations in order to force Obama to retract his immigration changes. Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has been noncommittal, and John Barrasso (Wyo.), head of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, told the Wall Street Journal’s Janet Hook that he would “make sure the government is open and functioning.”

Cruz has been conspicuously quiet this week in the run-up to Thursday’s vote. He didn’t mention the matter in a 75-minute foreign-policy speech at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday afternoon. I asked him after the event whether he was concerned that conservatives aren’t listening to him and whether he planned to use parliamentary tactics to slow the spending bill. He merely said that all Republicans should “honor our word” and “stop President Obama’s amnesty.”

This certainly doesn’t mean Cruz has abandoned his efforts to trip up the federal government. But I’ve long argued that Cruz is more of an opportunist than an ideologue, and now he gets to have it both ways: His defiant statements boost his 2016 presidential prospects with conservative activists while he quietly goes along with his colleagues.

That’s pretty clever, but not that clever:

In a Sept. 10 letter, Cruz and a fellow conservative, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), pledged to use procedural tactics to block any “substantial” legislation during this lame-duck session. But, as the Hill’s Alexander Bolton noted, Cruz so far hasn’t shown much interest in blocking pending votes on the $1 trillion spending bill, Pentagon funding legislation or an extension of tax breaks. Even if he does, the protest would likely have little effect but antagonizing his colleagues.

The 2015 spending bill that Cruz opposes is a nasty piece of work for reasons that have nothing to do with immigration. Among other things, it dramatically increases the amount the wealthy can contribute to political parties, and it guts key regulations that limit the power of Wall Street banks.

It’s an ugly compromise for both sides – but it beats a government shutdown. Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican who has allied himself with Cruz on immigration, told Bloomberg News’s Dave Weigel outside a meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday that “House leadership has surrendered to President Obama on the illegal-alien issue.”

So would Brooks risk a shutdown, as Cruz would? “I’m not saying to the point of a shutdown, no,” the legislator replied.

If Cruz has lost Mo Brooks, he has lost his mojo.

Storms end when unbalanced atmospheric forces finally settle back into a kind of ordinary equilibrium, and that just happened here. Cruz claims to be the only serious conservative in Washington, but even his allies know he’s just striking noble and heroic poses, because it feels so damned good, and that might win him the Republican presidential nomination. They’ve dismissed him. Now, if we could only do that with Dick Cheney…

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 Eventual Equilibrium

  1. Rick says:

    This “equilibrium” theme works. And I guess all that fuss with Nancy Pelosi turned out to be those little tornados you talked about — although I totally agreed with her, and am glad she did it.

    In weather, storms happen when radically different fronts, cold and warm, come crashing into each other. I’ve been convinced that recent political storms have been more ferocious than they were, say, forty or fifty years ago because the disparities between the two sides are greater today. Back then, when George Wallace famously said that “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats”, he had a point; while they did have some major differences, the two parties could almost always find something to agree on.

    But I wonder if the right has finally realized that they’ve been losing ground over the years, at the same time that, over here on the left, it has seemed that, as they said in that Beatles song, “things are getting better all the time.” So in recent years, conservatives have apparently decided to halt the hemorrhaging of all they hold dear and take William F. Buckley’s advice: Just stand astride history and yell, “Stop!”

    But with this “Cromnibus” vote, I’m guessing the Republicans may have finally gotten it into their heads that repeating their usual scam — publicly debating whether to shut down the government and then blaming it on Obama — was going to fail just as it always does, maybe because holding their internal debates in earshot of the general public always assures that nobody gets fooled.

    Will this new peace last? With the balance changing in January, I can’t imagine this is any more than calm between the storms. In fact, want to see a real twister? Just wait to see them find out what happens, come March, when they threaten to cut funding for the Department of Homeland Security! I suspect that when they try that, and then blame it on the Democrats, voters will kick them in their funny bits.

    And I know it’s too early to call this one, but aren’t Ted Cruz’s chances of winning the Republican nomination a bit of a stretch? Seems to me he’ll be going into that campaign having made many more enemies than, say, Obama had back in 2008, back when the opposition essentially knew nothing about him except that he was black.

    Although, who can say for sure how Cruz will fare two years from now? Strange things do tend to happen all the time over there in RepublicanLand.


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