No Second First Impressions

Al (Alan Stuart) Franken wasn’t always the thoughtful and persistently progressive Democratic senator from Minnesota. He won that seat in 2008, sort of – endless recounts delayed his assuming the seat until the following July. Republicans just couldn’t imagine a satirist who wrote for Saturday Night Live, and who performed on Saturday Night Live, as a senator, as a member of what is often called “the greatest deliberative body in the world” in spite of all evidence to the contrary. They pulled out all the stops to deny Franken the seat. Sure, Ronald Reagan had been a second-rate actor who had once starred in Bedtime for Bonzo – but that was different. Reagan worked his way up, from doing all he could to help the House Un-American Activities Committee rid Hollywood of any actor or actress or director or stagehand who was now or had ever been a communist, or who once knew one. He’d turn in anyone, and when the movie roles dried up, he started making political speeches – long ago, when there were still Republicans out here. That propelled him to the governor’s office, where he spent two terms undoing everything Pat Brown had done – free tuition to public colleges and universities, lots of new freeway and libraries, and solidly funded social services – when California really was the Golden State. Reagan put a stop to that – big government is always the problem, never the solution – and he hated that Berkeley Free Speech movement and hippies in general.

Pat Brown’s son, Jerry Brown, is governor once again, after Arnold Schwarzenegger, another second-rate actor, trying to undo at least some of the damage, but the point is that Ronald Reagan paid his dues. He came up through the ranks. Al Franken came out of nowhere – even if he is a Harvard man with a degree in government who graduated cum laude. It was that Saturday Night Live thing. Republicans hated that show long before Donald Trump got around to hating it.

They specifically hated Franken’s character on Saturday Night Live – Stuart Smalley and his recurring mock self-help show “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley” – because Franken was making fun of a Republican way of thinking. Yeah, think positive thoughts. That’s all you’ll ever need – not government programs or actions, or careful thinking and knowledge of the issues, or anything else. That will fix everything.

It never did. That was the running joke – “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

Nope, it doesn’t work that way. Someone should tell Donald Trump – but some inane self-help advice is useful. Anything that lasts long enough to become a tired old cliché probably has some truth to it. You never do get a second chance to make a good first impression. The space-time continuum doesn’t work that way. Prepare for the damned job interview. Wear clean underwear on your first day at work – you might get hit by a bus. In short, don’t do anything stupid on your first day. Don’t be an asshole on your first day. Save that for later.

The Republicans didn’t save that for later:

The Republican-controlled Congress opened the turbulent Trump era in Washington on Tuesday, as the new Senate moved instantly to begin the repeal of President Obama’s signature health care law while the House descended into chaos in an ill-fated attempt to gut an independent congressional ethics office.

On a day usually reserved for pomp, constitutionally mandated procedure and small children parading around in fancy dresses, Congress instead pitched itself into partisan battles.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan easily won re-election, but not before the embarrassment of having his members defy him by voting to eliminate the ethics office, only to then abandon that effort after a flood of criticism from constituents and Twitter messages from President-elect Donald J. Trump that criticized House Republican priorities.

It was a bad day for these folks:

It was a rocky start to a period in which Republicans had promised an end to Washington gridlock if they controlled both Congress and the White House. There was intraparty conflict and a sense that Mr. Trump, who ran against the Republican establishment, would continue to be openly critical of his own party at times.

You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression, and they blew it, but this was expected:

As Democrats in both chambers seethed, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, unveiled the legislative language that could decimate the Affordable Care Act before the crocuses start to bloom in the spring, even if any replacement of the law could take years.

Budget language released on Tuesday gives House and Senate committees only until Jan. 27 to produce legislation that would eliminate major parts of the health care law. Under arcane budget procedures, that legislation would be protected from a Democratic filibuster and could pass the Senate with a simple majority. And debate will begin on Wednesday, before senators have even moved into their new offices.

The dueling over the health law’s fate will pull in both the departing and incoming White House administrations as well. On Wednesday, Mr. Obama will visit with congressional Democrats to plot how to resist the planned repeal, and Mike Pence, the vice president-elect, will meet with Republicans to gird them for the fight ahead.

Okay, the Senate will get rid of Obamacare immediately, with nothing to replace it, as expected, hoping no one will notice that there’s nothing to replace it, as will the House:

On Tuesday, the House also adopted rules clearing the way for legislation to roll back the health care law.

The budget blueprint introduced on Tuesday in the Senate is not sent to the president and does not become law, but still clears the way for subsequent legislation that Republicans say will repeal major provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans bypassed the Budget Committee so they could immediately bring the measure to the floor. Such resolutions are normally developed after weeks of work in the Budget Committee.

Under the plan, four congressional committees – two in the House and two in the Senate – have until Jan. 27 to develop legislation that will be the vehicle for repealing the health care law.

Ah, but there are minor details:

The document does not specify which provisions of the law may be eliminated and which ones may be preserved. Nor does it specify or even suggest how Republicans would replace the Affordable Care Act, which the Obama administration says has provided coverage to some 20 million people who were previously uninsured.

Republicans have said they may delay the effective date of a repeal bill, to avoid disrupting coverage for people who have it and to provide time for Republicans to develop alternatives to the 2010 health law.

The problem is those twenty million people who will lose their new health insurance, so the repeal will be symbolic for now, or rhetorical, or something, but people do notice:

The American Medical Association urged Congress on Tuesday to explain how it would replace the Affordable Care Act. “Before any action is taken through reconciliation or other means that would potentially alter coverage, policy makers should lay out for the American people, in reasonable detail, what will replace current policies,” the chief executive of the association, Dr. James L. Madara, said in a letter to congressional leaders.

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who engineered the House passage of the health law in 2010, promised this week that Democrats would be just as aggressive in fighting its repeal.

Republicans have said they may delay legislation to replace the health law for several years. Ms. Pelosi said that such a delay would be “an act of cowardice on the part of Republicans,” and that “they don’t even have the votes to do it” because they have not agreed on a replacement plan.

This is not the way to make a good first impression on those who want Obamacare gone now, nor on those who want to keep it going. The general rule is clear. Don’t be an asshole on your first day. They broke that rule, and Pelosi was goading them to be honest about this. If big government is always the problem, never the solution, then let those twenty million people die. What about personal responsibility? If none of them make enough money to pay the going price for health insurance, that’s their problem, not society’s problem. Get off your fat ass and get a better job. This is not a nanny state. Others aren’t here to cover for you inadequacies. They’re tired of that. That’s why the Republicans are back in power – and that would be the honest answer that Pelosi suggests they should have the courage to shout out, proudly.

They won’t do that, and then there’s that other matter:

While the Senate action showed Republicans on course to keep campaign promises, the House got off to a messy start, brought on by Republicans who had moved largely in secret on Monday to gut a congressional ethics office against Mr. Ryan’s wishes.

That provoked an outcry from both Democrats and voters who flooded House offices with angry calls. “Every left-wing organization is calling my office,” said Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas. “And we’ve told them: ‘Thank you very much. We appreciate your feedback.'”

After a hastily called meeting on Tuesday morning among Republicans, the matter was dropped before it could go to the full House floor for a vote.

As the Senate moved to larger legislative matters, the House kerfuffle seemed to cast a shadow over Mr. Ryan, but he tried to brush it off. “There’s no sense of foreboding in the House today,” Mr. Ryan said after his re-election, “only the sense of potential.”

Bullshit. Dana Milbank tells this tale in narrative form:

It was the simplest of tasks for the new Congress: The House was to approve a new rules package for the 2017-2018 term – normally a routine matter. But a group of House GOP lawmakers, ambushing their leaders, persuaded the Republican caucus to tack on a plan that would gut ethics enforcement.

Thus did Republicans, after the “drain the swamp” campaign of 2016, propose in their first act of 2017 to overflow the swamp with a new pipeline of sleaze. The headlines were murderous, and Donald Trump tweeted criticism of his fellow Republicans on Tuesday morning: “Do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog their number one act and priority?”

By midday, Republicans called an emergency caucus meeting to undo the proposed changes, but not before House leaders were emasculated. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), though he opposed the rules change, had just issued a statement defending it. And House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), in a painful welcome-back Q&A with reporters Tuesday morning, explained how he had been thwarted by his own backbenchers.

That was a disaster:

Fox News’s Chad Pergram asked McCarthy about Trump’s tweet.

“Those are the same arguments I made last night in conference,” replied the majority leader, who admitted he hadn’t heard from Trump before seeing his tweet. “I was one of the first to the mics.”

Did the critical coverage suggest his party made a mistake?

“I made this argument last night,” McCarthy repeated.

“Why were you not able to stop it?” asked Erica Werner of the Associated Press. “Doesn’t that suggest that you’re very weak leaders of the conference?”

McCarthy, at the end of a long conference table, looked stunned. “Man! Welcome back!” he replied.

He likened managing the House GOP to his domestic life in California. “At my house, I got my wife and my two kids, and I usually don’t win what we watch on TV,” he reasoned.

The difference is that here in Washington, McCarthy and Ryan have 239 children.

That may be the real problem:

Those worried that President Trump and congressional Republicans are about to enact a sweeping agenda may have an unexpected ally: legislative incompetence. As Carl Hulse points out in the New York Times, nearly two-thirds of House Republicans have never served with a GOP president. McCarthy, elected in 2006, has never experienced unified Republican control. Now Republicans have to switch from reflexive opposition to passing their own laws and being held responsible for the consequences. Turns out they haven’t developed those muscles.

That goes for the repeal of Obamacare too:

For six years, Republicans have talked of replacing it, and dozens of times they voted to repeal it. But now they’re in no hurry. At Tuesday’s session, McCarthy said repeatedly that Republicans hadn’t yet decided what to do about Obamacare. “We’re being sworn in today,” he pleaded.

What are some possible alternatives?

“No decision has been made yet. There’s nothing right out there.”

Would the GOP alternative cover as many as Obamacare?

“There are a lot of areas that you want to look at.”

When will repeal happen?

“I only do week by week.”

How would they avoid upsetting insurance markets?

“Nothing has been decided yet.”

But wait, there’s more:

McCarthy was equally unprepared to talk about another longtime GOP priority: the repeal of regulations. “We’re just being sworn in,” he demurred, again, when asked.

First they had to solve a problem of their own creation: the plan to defang the independent Office of Congressional Ethics and put it underneath the deadlocked House Ethics Committee.

McCarthy offered a halfhearted defense of the proposed changes, even while making clear that he opposed them. He kept misstating the proposal and, when corrected by reporters, said he would need to “sit down after and walk through it” or get “a legal opinion on how the wording goes.” Excuses accumulated: “That’s part of the whip’s job… wasn’t here… I was in the district… I’m late for a meeting.”

“You can’t even explain it clearly and you’re expecting the House to vote on it?” a reporter asked.

McCarthy was philosophical. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” he said.

And then he added this – “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

Okay, he didn’t add that, but that seems to be the new Republican explanation of why this will all work out. They won full control of the government. People like them. That’ll do. It’ll be fine.

Stuart Smalley lives. Al Franken is laughing his ass off.

As for their bold move to rid America of the scourge of Obamacare without hurting a soul – the good first impression they wanted to make – Steve Benen explains the basic problem:

According to one of his top aides, the Trump White House will not take away any American’s current coverage and doesn’t intend to drop protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

About a month ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made similar commitments, telling CBS News, “We will give everyone access to affordable health-care coverage,” and adding that protections for consumers with pre-existing conditions is “a very important feature of any health-care system.”

The Speaker added, in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, that the Republican approach will make sure that “no one is left out in the cold” and “no one is worse off.”

That’s just not going to work:

First, if GOP policymakers are going to create a system that guarantees coverage for pre-existing conditions, they’re going to need to make sure everyone is brought into the system to help manage costs. And if they’re going to bring everyone into the system, they’ll need to offer subsidies to help consumers buy insurance.

If this blueprint sounds familiar, it’s because I just described “Obamacare.”

Second, if Republicans intend to keep their promises about a new reform law that doesn’t take coverage from anyone, gives “everyone” access to affordable insurance, and protects those with pre-existing conditions, all while repealing the Affordable Care Act, we will literally never see the GOP plan because it will never exist.

Indeed, it can’t exist because there is no way to keep all of these promises. If such a policy could exist, GOP officials would’ve come up with it a long time ago.

That leaves this:

As Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein joked a while back, the Republicans’ best bet is probably to take the Affordable Care Act, slap a new GOP-friendly name on it, and “pretend they’ve ‘replaced’ Obamacare with a new, market-based solution.”

But there’s another alternative:

Republicans will move forward with their “repeal and delay” gambit, scrapping the ACA while keeping the status quo in place for years while they work on a GOP alternative. The “delay” will be indefinite, however, because the search for an alternative is destined to fail.

Stuart Smalley lives and Obamacare lives, and Kevin Drum echoes Benen:

That means no change in Medicaid expansion. It means no change in access to health coverage. It means no reduction in federal subsidies. It means making sure that insurers stay in the exchanges. It means no lifetime limits on covered medical care. It means kids can stay on their parents’ plan through age 26.

This is also a good yardstick for Paul Ryan’s eventual replacement for Obamacare. Technically, he didn’t say that the eventual Republican replacement would leave no one worse off, only the transition. But someone should pin him down on that too.

Sure, but he’ll just say “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

They do? The Republicans finally won full control of the government after eight long years, but that’s something you don’t say on your first day of work, and of course more people liked Hillary Clinton. She won the popular vote, overwhelmingly – and she remains silent. She was smart enough. More folks from Saturday Night Live should run for office.

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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