Friday, August 7, 2009

The Confederacy Is Alive And Well

"Conservative" is defined as: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.

In a world and a nation that is changing faster than ever before, more ardent resistance from conservatives should not be so shocking to the rest of us.

However, the Republicans are, in addition to maintaining a pastiche of conservatism, predominantly a southern, white party (more on this later) in a country that is now at 68% white and falling. With a fast-rising Hispanic population leading the charge, America will be less than 50% white by sometime this century.

America has seen cultural upheaval throughout its history - something that most thinking Americans celebrate. Even from colonial times, Pennsylvania was Quaker, Massachusetts was Puritan, New York was Dutch, and so on. And during the immigration surge around the time of the Industrial Revolution, America took on a wave of Catholics from Ireland and Italy, as well as Jews from Eastern Europe. They changed American culture, which has always been a work in progress and we have always endured that progress haltingly and turbulently.

In a town hall meeting in Arkansas on health care, a woman was in tears as she wailed about wanting her America back.

Her America is not the actual America. It's merely her own image of America. And these people see their image of America slipping away. This image is mostly white, and either rural or a 1950's "Leave It To Beaver" suburban bliss that for most never existed anyway. While it's true that the transition from the Industrial to the Information Age along with the population explosion and global environmental and geopolitical threats posed by the burning of fossil fuels have made the world a much more complicated place today - and wishing it away as many conservatives are trying to do only exacerbates our problems - this image of a culturally stable and homogeneous America never existed at all.

The problem is, the woman from Arkansas' image of America is what drives the Republican Party. Their blanket opposition on all issues is just a cloak of principle, obscuring the waging of a culture war that a plurality of Americans find to be somewhere on the spectrum between "uncomfortable" and "abhorrent".

When we look at the political discourse in America, we assume that both sides seek a peaceful and prosperous nation, a more perfect union, but simply disagree on how to get there. It's time to re-examine this assumption.

The reality is that the Republicans' end is not peace and prosperity. What they want is the warped image of a country that they are never getting back because it never existed in the first place, and that if "peaceful" and "prosperous" do not also come with "predominantly white", "theocratic" and "individualistic (at the expense of community)"... well, then peace and prosperity be damned.

I'll say it again, because people need to understand this:  the Republican base, the capital-C Conservatives, would prefer to live in a less prosperous, less peaceful conservative America than in a liberal Pax Americana, and it is in this "ideology, then country" approach that the true difference in the two parties lives.

(With regards to "individualistic (at the expense of community)", this hearkens back to a more rural America where people were much more spread out, had to fend for themselves, and rarely needed to concern themselves with communal needs or the effects of their own actions on others. To the great distress of conservatives, that world disappeared a century ago with the age of mechanized transportation, although they stubbornly cling to policies that reflect the wishful thinking that it still exists.)

When Rush Limbaugh said he hoped Barack Obama would fail, he wasn't saying that he hoped Obama would come up short so we could get Republicans back in power and do this right and get where we all want to go. The second part of his rant received significantly less play because it carried less shock value, but it was significantly more telling. Rush said: this isn't the America I want.

Rush, who echoes the sentiments of the Republican base and remains their single biggest opinion-maker, was saying that even if Obama were to fix health care, get us extricated from the Middle East, and achieve energy independence, it would still be bad because a black President leading a multicultural society and a bipartisan, cooperative government that can be a force for getting important things done here and around the world runs against everything he wants from his country. Rush, and the preponderance of conservatives who he represents, cling to that fictional vision and a Jeffersonian ideal of a gentleman farmer that rode into Washington to serve for a few years and went home - an ideal that never for a moment existed here and could not possibly have existed after the Industrial Revolution.  I think Fox News recently found a way to blame the Industrial Revolution on Obama.

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina echoed similar sentiments to Limbaugh when he said that if the GOP could beat Obama on health care, it would be his "Waterloo", that it would "crush him". Let's be clear on this: Republicans are not interested in solving the health care crisis. There is no plainer way to state it. They're pretending there's not even a problem, which is why their campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering against the imperfect (or even inadequate) Democratic plan has been notably short on ideas of their own. They simply need to beat the White House so they can reclaim power and tilt at windmills in their pursuit of a fictional vision of America.

This is why the party that once proudly called itself the "Party of Ideas" has now been reduced to the "Party of No": because they actually believe in nothing save that false ideal. They construct a set of beliefs in 180-degree opposition to what the Democrats want to do, whatever that may be, because they are under the delusion that they can bring back the lady from Arkansas' America if they win.

The Republicans are against health care reform not because it runs counter to their ideology - since when is the health of Americans counter to conservatism? Rather, they oppose health care reform for one reason only: because the Democrats are for it. Had Hillary Clinton not been the face of health care reform in the '90s, it's a good bet that it's an issue that would have seen the light of day during the subsequent years of Republican rule.

They're against "Cash For Clunkers" not because they don't believe it's important to get more fuel-efficient cars on the road or that the money going right into the economy would be stimulative, but simply because it's an Obama plan that worked better than expected, and as DeMint told us: Obama has to be defeated.

Sarah Palin has railed on the cap-and-trade component of the energy bill, joining the conservative chorus calling it a "cap-and-tax". Never mind that it has worked in other countries and that she, herself, was on record (repeatedly) as being in favor of it while campaigning for John McCain and his energy plan. Now that Obama owns it, it must be opposed.

Note that Democrats do not stand in blanket opposition to all things Republican as the Republicans do to all things Democrat. Just to pull out one recent and germane example: Democrats in the senate voted for John Roberts' confirmation with 23 yeas and 22 nays. Republicans, on a similarly qualified Sonia Sotomayor, voted 31 to 9 against, despite her judicial record being the epitome of centrist and to the right of the justice she replaced, David Souter. Sotomayor had the double-whammy of being nominated by a Democrat and not being white - both representing the change conservatives so fear.  Obama gently nudged the Court to the right, and the Republicans' knees collectively jerked in opposition!

Where the GOP has taken us is to a place beyond partisanship that can only be characterized as tribalism.

It used to be that one's party affiliation flowed from a position on issues. You chose the party that best represented the policies you wanted to see pursued. Now, at least on the right side of the aisle - which is predominantly driven by people on the south side of the Mason-Dixon line - the flow has been reversed. Your position on issues is given to you by party leaders and a virulently aggressive conservative media apparatus who share the same visceral fears that you do of a world and a nation that are changing too fast for comfort. Remember our definition of "conservative"...

And this is really where the culture war resides. It's not in the wedge issues of abortion or gay marriage. That's just one front of the battle, one that gets the most exposure because of the passions that are evoked when people are engaged on their politics and - on the conservative side - their faith. But it's not where the war originates. It's much more primal than that.

When Sarah Palin, on the stump, waxed poetic about small town America as "the real America" or, since the election, has continued to take frequent pot shots at New York and Los Angeles - which are more progressive and culturally diverse than Sarah's "real America" - what you're seeing is a rare moment of naked honesty from someone holding the conch shell in this political "Lord of Flies" scene that has emerged.

Consider the poll commissioned by the liberal blog, The Daily Kos, but conducted by Research 2000 - a reputable nonpartisan research firm. It found that while 7% of Democrats and 17% of independents either believe Obama was not born in the United States or aren't sure, a whopping 58% of Republicans are either "Birthers" or not sure. But the geographic distribution is even more striking, with 69% of "Birthers" residing in the south against 12% in the midwest, 12% in the west and 6% in the northeast. Republicans - especially southerners - are simply more willing or even anxious to believe in Obama's illegitimacy. It's irrational, it's xenophobic, and in the cotton south, yes, it's racist, but it validates their fear of him.

Are southerners inherently likely to feel differently about health care or environmental policy or foreign policy than northerners? Or have they willfully allowed themselves to be programmed with the party line of those who stand against the change that they fear in America?

The Republicans, once upon a time, were conservative in policy as well as rhetoric. Today, only the rhetoric remains. They have at no point in the last three decades walked the walk on small government and fiscal discipline. Consider: why is Bill Clinton not every Republican's favorite Democrat? He balanced the budget, got people off of welfare, and was pro-business during a time of a booming economy, and presided over 8 years of relative peace. Yet they loathe him like no Democrat in history, despite the fact that he actually represented what they claim to want far more than even their patron saint, Ronald Reagan.

Republican small government rhetoric stems from a daisy chain of historical episodes.

The GOP is a southern party today as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Lyndon Johnson predicted at the time that the law would turn the south for the Republicans, and he was right.  Republicans began to target Southern former Democrats who felt their own party was being too accommodating towards African-Americans. The GOP began tailoring their positions to Bible Belt interests - God, guns and oil - and the Southern Strategy established the red state/blue state map that we have come to know, a map that looks disturbingly like the Confederacy and the Union. The Republican stranglehold on the south only began to break in 2008 - 43 years later - when the urbanization of Virginia and North Carolina (combined with the rank incompetence of the Republican ticket) allowed Barack Obama to win there.

While most Republicans aren't necessarily racist in any overt way, their party, because of its southern base, is driven by a fear of racial and cultural change and a threat to that image of America carried by the distraught woman in Arkansas, Rush Limbaugh, and millions more. It's why LBJ correctly predicted the political fallout of the Civil Rights Act.  It's how Ronald Reagan stoked the angst of the culture war, as well, launching his bid for President with a speech on states' rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi - where three young civil rights workers (one African-American and two Jews) were famously murdered in 1964. In fact, Reagan's record on racial issues was notably poor, set back the civil rights movement, further cemented the African-American vote for the Democrats while satisfying the cotton south's latent racist leanings, and hardened the red state/blue state battle lines.

The former Confederate states, even a century and a half after the Civil War, continue to carry a hardwired antipathy for the federal government, best exemplified by the fact that the Confederate flag continues to fly in front of the state house in DeMint's South Carolina.  And Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke openly of secession earlier this year.

At every point in our history, conservatives have bitterly fought cultural evolution in America, and each time they have lost. Today they are fighting the same battles that they fought in the '50s and '60s, but most of society has moved beyond those arguments and has no wish to re-litigate them, so a blanket partisan opposition is simply the facade for fear of a black President and a darker skinned, urbanizing America.

Yet most people who vote Republican don't even know it's happening. They haven't noticed that the sudden concern for the federal budget was not evident during the previous eight years when the Republicans ran things, any more than a little old lady crying about Socialism has noticed that she only has health care herself because of Medicare and is only living above the poverty line because of Social Security.

Republican belief in small government originates not in the virtue of the limits of federal power (for which an intellectually honest argument can certainly be made), but rather, from a place of tribalism that is resurgent today. This retrenchment is especially dangerous on arguably our two most critical issues: health care and energy. Both are issues that will require more governmental regulation and, at times, direct intervention.

We're the one developed nation that left health care to the free market, and we're the one developed nation with a health care crisis. Notice that the Republicans are staunchly opposed to any health care reform bill, just as they were during the Clinton years. They know that more government involvement is necessary to take care of over 45 million uninsured Americans and rein in skyrocketing costs for the rest of us. This is why they offer no ideas of their own on how to fix it. There simply aren't any that don't include the government somehow getting involved. They only want to defeat Obama, because if he solves the problem it will forestall the Republicans' return to power.  45 million uninsured people who suddenly now have health care will be loyal Democratic voters in the same way people who lived through the Depression were loyal to the Democrats because they viewed FDR as their savior.  The Republicans would rather leave them uninsured and believing Obama failed them.  That's a much shorter path back to power.

On energy and climate change, the government is going to need to use tax policy and price signals to spur the development of the markets we need to emerge and wean us off the products and behaviors that are killing us from within. As Thomas Friedman explains brilliantly in his book, "Hot, Flat and Crowded", Republicans deny the problem primarily because they hate the solution. It's the only reason why conservatives in America would be the developed world's sole remaining holdouts on the realities of energy and climate change in the 21st century.

For conservatives, this is not about solving America's urgent problems. It's the Confederacy's tribal fight for survival in a world that is changing too fast beneath them.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fusion, Not Fission: The Coming Health Care Conflagration in Washington

There is little argument over whether we need to fix health care.  Americans spend more money on health care than we do on anything but rent or mortgage... and in some cases more.   Over 45 million people - 1 in 7 Americans - do not have any coverage at all.  The large number of uninsured causes a feedback loop in the system, because they land in our emergency rooms and thus drive up the costs for everyone else.  Regulatory and administrative inefficiencies infect the system, and actuarial tables driving a completely for-profit system are almost as predatory as the loan-sharking interest rates coming from the credit card companies.

These costs represent a 20-pound ankle weight on the economy.  It drags the economy down in the form of the 45 year-old entrepreneur who has to buy private insurance and goes bankrupt because a pre-existing condition flares up - only after paying $1000 per month before it did. It drags the economy down in the form of the retired auto worker whose policy is an order of magnitude more expensive than the UAW or the automakers ever dreamed it would be when the labor deal was struck in the '60s, building a $1000 "legacy cost" into every American car and saddling the Big 3 with a tremendous competitive handicap.  The employer-based system is suffocating small businesses than cannot afford to give the benefits we have become accustomed to. 

My friend, Brett, once asked semi-rhetorically:  if our system is better, why do no other countries in the developed world use our system?  The answer, of course, is that once a socialized medical system develops, it is very hard to change to a private system even if you wanted to; the health insurance industry is one with extremely high barriers to entry.  But Brett's point is well taken.  While I am by no means advocating a move to socialized medicine, it is fair to point out that most of western Europe and Canada as well as Japan and South Korea have lower infant mortality and longer life spans than we do.  While there are clearly other variables at work, too, and it would be inaccurate to fully attribute these numbers to the health care system - we have higher rates of poverty compared to these countries, which is related to the issue, and our lifestyle is more sedentary due to our reliance on the automobile, which is not - the fact still remains that people living under socialized medicine are living longer.

The truth is, if you are among the wealthier people in America and you have a "Cadillac" insurance policy, you will get the best health care in the world.  We have massive redundancy in medical technology and availability of specialists (and as a result, we each pay for a higher percentage of each X-ray machine or opthamologist than they do in countries with socialized medicine.)  50-70% of the country gets health care that is comparable to what you get in other developed countries.  But our averages are dragged down by the sizable (and growing) segment of society that gets no health care at all.  

My friend, Eric, a moderate conservative, said, quite simply, that for a country as productive and prosperous as ours is to have so many people without basic health care is completely unacceptable.  The problem is, to many Republicans this is acceptable.  Forgetting for a moment the moral tenability (or lack thereof) of a position that actually accepts leaving people behind, there's a pragmatic issue at work here: this high a percentage of uninsured makes taking care of them in emergency rooms far more expensive for the rest of us than simply providing them with basic health care would be.

The free market, which exists for profit, will not care for anyone who cannot afford to pay unless it were simply mandated that they must provide free insurance to a percentage of those who cannot afford it.  That will never work, so all that's left is the government - which means you and me, as a community - to step in and make sure that our fellow citizens have basic health care.

This, of course, is odious to true conservatives who believe in small government and want the government to stay out of our day-to-day lives as much as possible (unless you're a gay person who wants to get married, in which case conservatives want government to be just small enough to fit into your bedroom.)  It's even more odious to Republicans who, despite their rhetoric, have governed in anything but a conservative manner and now simply fight anything proposed by a Democrat for the simple reason that it came from the other side.

It is at this point where the true ideological tension between the liberal and conservative viewpoints comes to loggerheads.  And the ultimate answers, as I will explore, will require a departure from ideological entrenchment and a recognition that some problems require both a liberal and conservative component to reach a solution.

Health insurance providers - and the Republicans who have been elected with the money their lobbyists raise - are rightfully concerned about the government getting into the health insurance business.  A competitor that is not in the business for profit can always undercut the prices of companies whose businesses require black ink on the bottom line.  And regulations like forcing an insurance company, which lives off actuarial tables, to then ignore pre-existing conditions represent an artificial drag on a provider's bottom line.  

Make no mistake:  the government getting involved with providing health care for those who can't afford to buy into the private, for-profit system and also ratcheting up regulations on the industry at large does represent the government tinkering with the free market system in this sector.  It is also a fair argument that centrally controlled government bureaucracies are rarely ideally efficient and don't necessarily yield the best product or provide it at the lowest price. 

The counter-argument to this position is that welfare has not made people not want to work.  People still prefer an honest day's work for an honest day's pay... and the government doesn't pay well.  Just as televising sporting events has not diminished people's desire to attend games, there will always be a balance between taking a lesser product you can get for free or a better product that is worth paying for.  The innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the free market and the American worker that the GOP so aggrandizes will need to find a way to install new efficiencies in the system that will allow private insurers to simply offer more for the money in the same way computer manufacturers selling a fully commoditized product continue to offer more powerful machines for less money as competition has squeezed every ounce of margin out of the sector.

And this gets us to the crux of the argument:  we need to find an equilibrium between a lucrative medical field incentivizing many of our best and brightest to be doctors and design wonder drugs and high  powered medical equipment, yet still take care of of the people who won't be able to afford it when they do.  Never is the precept that any developed society is a public-private partnership more evident than right here. GOP rhetoric aside, the free market is not a secular religion.  It's simply a mechanism - one organizing mechanism of society, one of several including government and community and charity.   It's not a panaceaWe need both the private sector and the government to get it done.

Does this mean that the medical field will be less lucrative than it has been?  Perhaps.  

A close friend is an OB/GYN.  He works four days a week, 46 weeks a year, and while he takes his turn on call which sometimes robs him of most of a night's sleep and constrains some of his weekends, he also never works past 5 on any of his four days in the office.    And while he's not in the top 1% of wage-earners that just gets hammered by the new income tax system, he's one of the few percent who didn't get a tax break.  He worked hard through medical school and residency and does his job well.  This isn't a question of whether he "deserves" his lifestyle.  If we're going to venture into that territory, we'd ask why a utility infielder makes more than a first grade teacher.  Rather, it's a question of whether someone as intelligent and driven and talented as he is would still go into medicine if it paid 20% less, or required him to work 5 days a week and be open for business into the evening like many other professions.  

It's a question of how much less lucrative medicine can be and still make it worth it for private capital to fund truly palacial state-of-the-art hospitals.  Where is that equilibrium point?  We aren't sitting on it now, but we need to find it.

We also need to find some other common-sense fixes that remove the friction from the system.  Just a few examples:

-Why does there need to be a Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Ohio, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of New York, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida, etc...?  The same 
administration is repeated over and over again for no good reason.  John McCain, in a rare moment of lucidity, had removing the regulatory restrictions here positioned prominently in his health care plan in order to open up competition nationwide, and I think he was right.

-Tort reform.  We need to drive down the cost of malpractice insurance so that doctors not only can recoup that margin and pass it on the patient, but also so doctors don't practice "cover your arse" medicine that involves ordering often-unnecessary tests that cost real money.  Tort reform does not necessarily mean capping malpractice awards, either - an issue I admit I am torn on.  It might be enough to make bringing a malpractice suit all the way to court more difficult by finding a way to screen out the nuisance suits or those without the proper merit.  Negligence does not need to exist for a mistake to be made, and we can't have the whole system twisted into knots if a doctor cannot practice without ever making an error or misjudgment.  However, a patient whose life has been changed dramatically for the worse does need to have some recourse if that change was brought about unnecessarily.

-Pharmaceutical patents.  A big part of why drugs are so expensive is because the companies need to spend almost as much on marketing as research and development.  If you have just spent $100 million developing a wonder drug, you can't let the second company to develop a similar drug eat away at your market share before you have made back your sunk cost.  So you give out case after case of free samples and branded chum and send doctors on junkets and advertise ad nauseum on TV.  If pharmaceutical companies could be assured of keeping that patent until they have at least nearly made back their nut, marketing costs could be dramatically deflated.

-Electronic medical records.  We need to streamline the bureaucracy and cut out a lot of waste.  The challenge here is a technological one, establishing standards in the way there are wireless internet or cellular phone standards, allowing all systems to talk to each other.  This is an enormous mountain to climb.  But Bobby Jindal's dad said Americans can do anything.  So how about we get this one done and get on with making a better hybrid car?

Both sides in Washington are gearing up for battle and will soon be locked and loaded and ready to fight over what is perhaps our most thorny and complex problem.  The left is going to want the government to aggressively step in and work on the system and fill in the gaps.  As with all things since our new President was inaugurated, the right will object and then adopt a deficit-hawkish stance and hold Obama to a standard to which they never held Bush (or themselves).  

The mess will not get untangled unless leaders on both sides emerge from behind their ramparts and recognize both the liberal and conservative approaches will need to be applied in concert on this one.  Neither method when applied alone will fix the problem, and it's not a compromise, but rather, a synergy between the two that is necessary.  Fusion over fission will be needed to provide the power here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Little Anecdote

I was at my friend, Matt's, annual St. Patrick's Day blowout in Chicago and found myself talking politics with what I call a "Michigan-Ohio State Partisan".

To an Ohio State fan, a Michigan football player may be a pre-med student with straight A's who volunteers at an orphanage in the offseason, has vowed to give 70% of his NFL salary to charity, then go to medical school where he will cure cancer ... and that Buckeye fan will want to see him stricken blind, even if it means thousands of people will someday needlessly die of cancer, so long as that player can't beat Ohio State on Saturday. This is how a "Michigan-Ohio State Partisan" approaches politics: you are never right about anything unless I have forced you to agree with me, and the world can be consumed in a massive conflagration as long as I'm in charge when it does.

"Michigan-Ohio State Partisans" support their teams unconditionally, interacting with politics in the same way a sports fan relates to his team: unthinking, Kool-Aid drinking, programmed right down to the party line. What is bad for your side is by definition good for mine, and vice-versa. It transcends issues into the realm of schadenfreude.

The metaphor is especially elegant considering that Michigan (Go Blue) is generally considered by their foes to be highly elitist - both about their team's success and their academic standing - and idealistic to nth degree. Conversely, Ohio State (the scarlet and grey) is considered to be more fanatical, less likely to play by any recognized rules of war, and less interested in education.

A "Michigan-Ohio State Partisan" is comparatively unconcerned with actual issues. Consider: why would the same people agree on tax policy, Iraq, and abortion rights? Where is the commonality in those issues? Jon Stewart, in America: A Guide To Democracy Inaction, was sadly on point when he said parties have traditionally done a great job of providing Americans with opinions. The masses get a healthy dose of programming, which leads to fanaticism.

The woman I was talking to had all the Fox News anti-Obama talking points down:

-She said McCain "deserved" to be President because of what he went through at the Hanoi Hilton. I asked how that separated him from thousands of other POW's. I also asked if she voted for George W. Bush, she said yes, and I pointed out that by her own criteria, a man who bypassed Vietnam in the National Guard thanks to his family connections - and no one could even prove he showed up for that duty - by her definition was unqualified for the job, yet she voted for him anyway.

-She then started in on Tim Geithner's tax issues. "How can someone be in charge of our economy who can't even do his own taxes correctly?" I pointed out that a number of prominent Republicans still voted for his confirmation. When she asked what it says about Obama that he couldn't appropriately vet Geithner, I pointed out that McCain made grand pronouncements about sweeping the lobbyists and special interests out of Washington and that there would be no lobbyists in his campaign, yet the architect of his economic policy was Phil Gramm (lobbyist) and his chief foreign policy adviser was Randy Scheunemann (lobbyist). The latter was especially troubling given Scheunemann's lobbying for the Republic of Georgia, and McCain's subsequent hawkishness when Russia overreacted to Georgian provocation. This was a case where there was actually a straight line between lobbying money and the candidate's policy. Her response was that we're not talking about McCain, we're talking about Obama. Convenient, except not exactly true if you're making the case for why McCain should be President.

-She then began with, "What has Obama ever accomplished?"  To which, I replied, "Well, he managed to get into college without daddy's help, so that's a leg up right there."   

-Finally, she launched into a soliloquy on how Obama is too radical, but in the course of the diatribe talked about how great she thought Sarah Palin was. Now, only the most programmed of blind partisans actually believe Palin was acceptable. But for someone who loves Palin to be concerned with anyone else's radicalism is high comedy. Apparently it's not being radical that is the issue - it's being radically liberal. Being radically conservative is just being radically right.

This was, however, an example of of the Limbaugh/DeLay philosophy that has been well enunciated by the Republicans: the left is the enemy. Conservatives continue to fight the very idea of liberalism, to fight for their secular religion in a way liberals simply do not. This is why Rush does not have a liberal counterpart: Democrats simply aren't wired that way.

Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman from Florida, recently talked of his experience with the Bush administration's view that: if you support us 95% of the time, you're our enemy 5% of the time and that is unacceptable. In ideology and in the culture of their organization, there is a hard wired intolerance, and it didn't even come from W - its roots can be traced back to Nixon. This explains why there is no liberal Rush Limbaugh dominating the discourse, driving opinion, and (as Michael Steele and Phil Gingrey learned the hard way) enforcing unwavering solidarity.

This foreshadows a coming problem, however.

The Information Age has enabled the proliferation of endless varieties of media, so we can customize which media we consume in the same way that we customize our culinary experience through bewildering variety at the supermarket. Three decades ago we had only news magazines, newspapers, and broadcast television. It wasn't a media supermarket; it was a media mini-mart.

While newspapers, editorially, may have leaned one way or the other - the Chicago Tribune leaned right while the New York Times leaned left - newspapers, like network news divisions and news magazines, were fundamentally news gathering organizations. They were bound by an established code of ethics to be honest brokers. We all consumed largely the same information, so there was less argument over the fundamental facts of issues.

Today, if you're a conservative, you can tune into Fox News, which even the intellectual wing of the conservative party understands is little more than propaganda, and convince yourself that you're getting the straight story. Tucker Carlson, as we saw at CPAC, was booed for pointing out this distinction between Fox News and, well... actual news... when he suggested that their party should be a little more concerned with facts. And this customization of experience is especially acute online, where a liberal can read Huffington Post and Daily Kos and get only the convenient truths.

We are hitting a dangerous point in the evolution of Information Age media because, for those who are interested in the straight story, the honest brokers face extinction. Printed newspapers are no longer a sustainable business model, so there will likely be a period of reorganization where some people simply won't have access to daily papers for a time. And network news now occupies a smaller, less prominent space in the landscape with so many more specialized options available today. We don't have the news of the day being explained to us by the honest-broker troika of Rather, Jennings and Brokaw anymore. We're just as likely to tune in to Olbermann or Hannity.

Where once we could only choose to be exposed to the stories or not be exposed to them, we can now customize our experience and choose which information we consume. We can hand-pick the lens through which we want to view our political milieu, and more or less seek out that which validates our predilections. That which, in an unbiased, nonpartisan way would challenge our world view is rapidly dwindling like snow in a spring thaw. You have to invest some time in seeking out counterbalances for your leanings.

This is a very dangerous time as media re-defines itself, and right now it leaves people susceptible to the type of blind, fanatical partisanship that afflicts a passionate sports rivalry.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

CPAC & The "Country First" Fallacy

"The enemy is the left."

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, CPAC, 2/27/09


We seem to have passed a point in the political discourse, or at least the Republicans have.

A Democrat may think the Republicans are stupefyingly, calamitously, tragically wrong and devote every ounce of his being to ensuring the defeat of their agenda. A Republican may think the Democratic agenda is irresponsible and generally catastrophic, and devote his life to stopping it. But neither side questioned whether the other side’s main agenda was making America better.

This is new territory.

DeLay has taken the handoff from Rush Limbaugh, who espoused a sentiment – treasonous in intent if not by law – that he hopes President Obama fails. DeLay, when asked if he agrees with that sentiment, replied, “Exactly right. I don’t want this for our nation.”

Nor does Sean Hannity, who briefly had a poll on his website asking which kind of revolution his followers prefer, and the choices included “violent overthrow” and “military coup”. Of course, publicly advocating the violent overthrow of the government is treasonous in both spirit and manifestation.

The Republicans have now officially stopped fighting for their country. They have no longer left this up to our interpretation. They have just come out and said it.

The GOP has, in recent years, fought for their ideology, and we always assumed that they believed that the prosperity of America would be the natural result of the application of that ideology. “Republican values, conservative values, are right for America,” said new RNC chair Michael Steele.

While it was clear that too few of them have understood the limits of ideology, you still couldn’t bring yourself to question whether they were at least trying to get to the same place as everyone else, even if their adherence to an orthodox practicing of their one true way was a tiny bit scary.

But with Republicans once again renewing their attacks on President Obama – or basically anyone to the left of Arlen Specter – as a “socialist”, we’re seeing a new level of intolerance from a party with a culture that former Nixon aide John Dean termed “authoritarian”. 

Tucker Carlson, a "small-c" conservative thought leader and self-identified Libertarian, was booed off the stage at CPAC for having the temerity to actually suggest that the Republican Party get back to concerning itself with (gasp) facts when they make their case.

This has become only about gaining power, not about the country. John McCain’s “Country First” slogan turned out to be less jingoism than it was outright misdirection. Carlson's plea for actual integrity was shouted down because conservatives from Bill O’Reilly to Dick Cheney have repeatedly shown the willingness to outright lie to grab that power. They’re not even trying to hide it, and there is no room at CPAC for someone like Carlson who is interested in making an intellectually honest argument for his beliefs. If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’, the old sports adage goes.

And CPAC can no longer be written off as the lunatic, extremist fringe of the GOP. Michael Steele and Tim Pawlenty have never been known as ideologues, yet they have toed the line and stood at attention at this conference. As we saw in their unanimous House rejection of the recovery package, the Republicans are responding to their resounding electoral defeat by, as one pundit put it, “re-trenching”: recommitting, in pure, orthodox form, to their ideology.

In the context of the authoritarianism described by Dean in “Conservatives Without Conscience”, it should not be surprising that Sentors Specter, Snowe and Collins were the only Congressional Republicans to cross the aisle on the recovery package. They are perhaps the only Republicans in either house who are either immune from right-wing group-think (or outright coercion) or at least as subject in their home states to the forces of moderation.

But the state of things is clear: the orthodox conservatism expressed with such furor at CPAC now represents the mainstream of Republican thought. Limbaugh, scheduled to speak at CPAC, has firmly established himself as the preeminent opinion-maker in the Republican Party. 

Consider what happened to Congressman Phil Gingrey (R- Georgia), who said, “It’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks.”

Gingrey the very next day found himself on Limbaugh’s show, begging for forgiveness, and issued the following statement:

Because of the high volume of phone calls and correspondence received by my office since the Politico article ran, I wanted to take a moment to speak directly to grassroots conservatives. Let me assure you, I am one of you.

I never told Rush to back off. I regret and apologize for the fact that my comments have offended and upset my fellow conservatives—that was not my intent. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative giants are the voices of the conservative movement’s conscience.

Rush Limbaugh, who flunked out of college, was kicked off of Monday Night Football for racist comments, and said he hopes that the President of the United States fails in fixing our economy, charts the path of the Republican Party.


What makes this so frightening is that it shows us that Republicans, if they had to choose between living in a decaying America run by Republicans or in a Pax Americana brought about by Democrats, would actually choose the former.

Now, I know conservatives, good people of conscience, who did not vote for Barack Obama, but would gladly never see another Republican President if Obama could leave office after 8 years having stabilized the economy, set us on a path towards energy independence, got a grip on health care, and extricated us from the Middle East quagmire.

But those same people need to ask themselves why they continue to vote for people do not feel as they do on that count. Because the preponderance of Republicans involved in politics would prefer we remain in crisis if it speeds up the return of the GOP to power.  Anyone who supports this approach with their votes or their money needs to reintroduce their own consciences into their internal discourse.

Here is the real chilling question:

Where in the world do we find examples of people who seek and exercise power through a strict, orthodox adherence to an ideology, believe there is only one true way, are intolerant of any other ideas, and are willing to take that power by force (as Hannity’s website suggested) - even to the detriment of their country?

Is it not the Taliban and Saudi Arabia – those who attacked us on 9/11?

And make no mistake, this is exactly that kind of extremism.  While Muslim extremists pick and choose what they want to take from Mohammed to feed their anger or their short-term aims, Conservative extremists here cherry pick from Ronald Reagan without regard for the fact that this is not 1980 anymore.

When we consider who it was that claimed to be bringing “freedom” to Iraq even while they were curbing it here in the form of the Patriot Act… is it not fair to ask if the terrorists have, indeed, won when it comes to the right in this country? Republican Senator Jeff Sessions even went so far as call on Republicans to mount an "insurgency" in the model of the Taliban in order fight the Democrats.

The Republicans have registered their flight plan, and they are en route to a place where they will, like the abused child that grows up to become an abuser himself, have become that which they hate, having mortgaged all other ethics to buy into the one ethic that still matters: the acquisition of power.

This has now gone way past the liberal and conservative tug of war. It’s no longer about which side is better able to make the state of our union stronger. The GOP has taken us to a point where we now have to acknowledge that majority of the minority, as it were - the “party of no” that all but unanimously opposed all attempts to rescue the economy - may not even be interested in the health of the nation if that health is not what will allow them to rule.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Point By Point on Bobby Jindal's GOP Response

Good evening. I'm Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana.

Something just doesn't feel right here. That Louisiana elected an Indian teenager as Governor is bizarre enough, but that drawl just doesn't sound any more "right" than it does coming from Tony Gwynn.

Tonight, we witnessed a great moment in the history of our republic. In the very chamber where Congress once voted to abolish slavery, our first African American president stepped forward to address the state of our union. With his speech tonight, the president completed a redemptive journey that took our nation from Independence Hall to Gettysburg to the lunch counter and now, finally, the Oval Office.

Regardless of party, all Americans are moved by the president's personal story -- the son of an American mother and a Kenyan father, who grew up to become leader of the free world. Like the president's father, my parents came to this country from a distant land. When they arrived in Baton Rouge, my mother was already 4½ months pregnant. I was what folks in the insurance industry now call a "preexisting condition."

I won't trash him for his intent here, but the race angle for Obama was played, pleasantly, by the media and the whole country in an understated way, and Jindal belaboring it here is just plain awkward. And his delivery on the already-lame "preexisting condition" joke fell about as flat as a day old open can of Diet Coke.

To find work, my dad picked up the Yellow Pages and started calling local businesses. Even after landing a job, he could still not afford to pay for my delivery -- so he worked out an installment plan with the doctor. Fortunately for me, he never missed a payment.

If being Governor of Louisiana means he won't be embarking on a coast-to-coast comedy tour... WIN.

As I grew up, my mom and dad taught me the values that attracted them to this country -- and they instilled in me an immigrant's wonder at the greatness of America. As a child, I remember going to the grocery store with my dad. Growing up in India, he had seen extreme poverty. And as we walked through the aisles, looking at the endless variety on the shelves, he would tell me: "Bobby, Americans can do anything."

I still believe that to this day. Americans can do anything. When we pull together, there is no challenge we cannot overcome.

As all the Republican votes for the recovery plan showed.

As the president made clear this evening, we are now in a time of challenge. Many of you listening tonight have lost jobs. Others have seen your college and retirement savings dwindle. Many of you are worried about losing your healthcare and your homes. And you are looking to your elected leaders in Washington for solutions.

Republicans are ready to work with the new president to provide those solutions. Here in my state of Louisiana, we don't care what party you belong to if you have good ideas to make life better for our people. We need more of that attitude from both Democrats and Republicans in our nation's capital.

All of us want our economy to recover and our nation to prosper. So where we agree, Republicans must be the president's strongest partners. And where we disagree, Republicans have a responsibility to be candid and offer better ideas for a path forward.

Translation: we don't agree on anything, but in the unlikely event that we ever SHOULD agree on something... you know, in the event you completely change your mind and come to our side... we're there.

Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us. Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina, we have our doubts.

Let me tell you a story.

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office, I'd never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone:

"Well, I'm the sheriff and if you don't like it you can come and arrest me!" I asked him: "Sheriff, what's got you so mad?" He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters.

The boats were all lined up ready to go -- when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn't go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, "Sheriff, that's ridiculous." And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: "Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!" Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and start rescuing people.

There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and enterprising spirit of our citizens.

This is some bizarre logic here: Bush is bad, therefore government is bad. That's like saying, a doctor somewhere once made a huge mistake, so that is why you should avoid doctors. Using George W. Bush - the guy Bobby Jindal surely voted for (twice) - as evidence to justify the Reagan "government is the problem" mantra is disingenuous to the Nth degree. 

And for an elected official to be telling me how bad government is reminds me of a P.J. O'Rourke quote from "Parliament of Whores": Republicans are the party that tells you that government can't work. Then they get elected and prove it. 

No wonder Bush was so appealing to the right: he was the perfect man to help them make the case that government sucks and shouldn't even try. 

By presenting the united front against any governmental intervention in the economy beyond tax cuts, the Republicans have fully positioned themselves so that the only way they can validate their ideology - that government is bad and should not try to solve problems- is if the government fails. They are now aligned so that their own interests run 180 degrees contrary to national interests. So how much can we expect, as Jindal said, that the Republicans will be willing to "pull together"? Their only route back to power is to try and make sure any Democratic idea fails. Rush Limbaugh just came out and said what most Republicans think: they hope Obama fails so it validates their position, they can return to power, and get back to running the country in the "one true way" (which didn't work so well the last 8 years).

We are grateful for the support we have received from across the nation for the ongoing recovery efforts. This spirit got Louisiana through the hurricanes -- and this spirit will get our nation through the storms we face today.

To solve our current problems, Washington must lead. But the way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians. The way to lead is by empowering you -- the American people. Because we believe that Americans can do anything.

He has now said "Americans Can Do Anything" a few times and continues to deliver it in a tone that a grade school teacher would use to address students. It's a platitude. And its a rejection of the idea that we elect officials to go to Washington and actually DO something for common good.

That is why Republicans put forward plans to create jobs by lowering income tax rates for working families, cutting taxes for small businesses, strengthening incentives for businesses to invest in new equipment and hire new workers, and stabilizing home values by creating a new tax credit for home-buyers.

Once again: tax cuts are the ONLY Republican idea on the economy. It's the centerpiece of their Reagonomic supply-side ideology- an ideology that the country just rejected en masse on November 4th.  That the GOP lost seems to have escaped Jindal and the rest of his party.

These plans would cost less and create more jobs.

That's his opinion... one that was not exactly supported by the Bush tax cuts, which cost 50% more than this recovery package and did nothing to slow our slide into recession.

But Democratic leaders in Congress rejected this approach. Instead of trusting us to make wise decisions with our own money, they passed the largest government spending bill in history -- with a price tag of more than $1 trillion with interest.

This notion that people know best what to do with their own money is the mother of all platitudes. If that's the case, then we should just have NO taxes and count on the people - who know best - to make sure to pay for roads and schools and garbage trucks and a national defense. There are some things we need to pool our resources to get done, and we can have a reasonable argument about what that includes. But to continue to spout nonsense like this is Exhibit A in the GOP's inability to distinguish where ideology ends and reality begins.

While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a "magnetic levitation" line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called "volcano monitoring." Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.

Oy veh. "Las Vegas to Disneyland"? Jindal has obviously never driven I-15 between Vegas and LA on a Sunday afternoon. If he doesn't think that a high speed rail link between our second largest metropolitan area and our largest tourist destination would be one of the country's most-traveled train routes with significant economic and environmental benefits... well, there's just no helping him.

And it would be poetic justice (and in no small way entertaining) if he should someday find himself running at top speed from the lava spewed by an erupting volcano his own party prevented us from monitoring.

Democratic leaders say their legislation will grow the economy. What it will do is grow the government, increase our taxes down the line and saddle future generations with debt.

Who among us would ask our children for a loan so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need? That is precisely what the Democrats in Congress just did. It's irresponsible. And it's no way to strengthen our economy, create jobs or build a prosperous future for our children.

Republicans weren't too concerned with saddling future generations with debt when it came to the Bush tax cuts or the Iraq war. And this only passes debt down if the economy does not recover. Of course, Conservatives are convinced that the one and only route to economic recovery is through tax cuts, so the thought hasn't even crossed their minds that this could actually work.

In Louisiana, we took a different approach. Since I became governor, we cut more than 250 earmarks from our state budget. And to create jobs for our citizens, we cut taxes six times -- including the largest income tax cut in the history of our state.

We passed those tax cuts with bipartisan majorities. Republicans and Democrats put aside their differences and worked together to make sure our people could keep more of what they earn. If it can be done in Baton Rouge, surely it can be done in Washington, D.C. long as it's only DEMOCRATS adjusting their views. Did Jindal happen to notice that tax cuts were a big portion of the recovery plan?  Did he even read it?  (More on this upcoming...)

To strengthen our economy, we need urgent action to keep energy prices down. All of us remember what it felt like to pay $4 at the pump -- and unless we act now, those prices will return. To stop that from happening, we need to increase conservation, increase energy efficiency, increase the use of alternative and renewable fuels, increase our use of nuclear power and increase drilling for oil and gas here at home.

We believe that Americans can do anything -- and if we unleash the innovative spirit of our citizens, we can achieve energy independence.

The Republicans fought like hell to put the government in the hands of two oil men, Bush and Cheney. And in eight years we made NO move towards energy independence. Bush did not even acknowledge global warming was real until midway through his second term, and there was no funding whatsoever for research on alternative energies that might threaten the oil hegemony that helps keep the Republicans in power. We didn't go near CAFE standards, and we fought a war for more oil. It's nice to see that maybe Jindal gets what's needed now. But perhaps he didn't read the details of the recovery plan, which includes money for alternative energy research.

To strengthen our economy, we also need to address the crisis in healthcare. Republicans believe in a simple principle: No American should have to worry about losing their health coverage -- period.

We stand for universal access to affordable healthcare coverage. We oppose universal government-run healthcare. Healthcare decisions should be made by doctors and patients -- not by government bureaucrats. We believe Americans can do anything -- and if we put aside partisan politics and work together, we can make our system of private medicine affordable and accessible for every one of our citizens.

Which is why under eight years of Republican rule in Washington, we saw health care reform front and center, with myriad plans to make sure that all Americans had affordable health care. Oh, wait... that's an alternate universe. In the real one, health care costs spiraled out of control without being addressed in Washington at any point. In fact, the Republicans went to war with Hillary Clinton to ensure that we did NOT get health care reform. Just cut your losses and stop now, Bobby.

To strengthen our economy, we also need to make sure every child in America gets the best possible education. After Katrina, we reinvented the New Orleans school system -- opening dozens of new charter schools and creating a new scholarship program that is giving parents the chance to send their children to private or parochial schools of their choice. We believe that, with the proper education, the children of America can do anything. And it should not take a devastating storm to bring this kind of innovation to education in our country.

There is no greater threat to American democracy than Republican ideas on education. They simply do not believe in a quality public education for all. They would rather throw a rope to those with the means to send their children to private school and abandon the rest. It is nothing short of creating a caste system in America: if you're born into money you get an education, if you're not, you don't. And yet they have the gall to accuse the DEMOCRATS of class warfare. Nothing the Democrats propose will make the prosperous less so.

And the GOP continues to labor under the delusion that forces of competition somehow work in the education arena - which does not exist for profit.

To strengthen our economy, we must promote confidence in America by ensuring ours is the most ethical and transparent system in the world. In my home state, there used to be saying: At any given time, half of Louisiana is underwater -- and the other half is under indictment.
No one says that anymore. Last year, we passed some of the strongest ethics laws in the nation -- and today, Louisiana has turned her back on the corruption of the past. We need to bring transparency to Washington, D.C. -- so we can rid our Capitol of corruption and ensure we never see the passage of another trillion-dollar spending bill that Congress has not even read and the American people haven't even seen.

OK, two major issues here...

1) Bobby, just because, as you continue to demonstrate, YOU haven't read the plan, it doesn't mean others haven't. I direct you to a website that was created - at the urging of your own party - to ensure transparency.

2) You didn't just try to link corruption and the recovery plan, did you? 

As we take these steps, we must remember for all our troubles at home, dangerous enemies still seek our destruction. Now is no time to dismantle the defenses that have protected this country for hundreds of years, or make deep cuts in funding for our troops.

Who is trying to dismantle our military? 

America's fighting men and women can do anything. And if we give them the resources they need, they will stay on the offensive, defeat our enemies and protect us from harm.

In all these areas, Republicans want to work with President Obama. We appreciate his message of hope -- but sometimes it seems we look for hope in different places. Democratic leaders in Washington place their hope in the federal government. We place our hope in you -- the American people.

Since when are our elected leaders not part of the American people?

In the end, it comes down to an honest and fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government. We oppose the national Democrats' view that says the way to strengthen our country is to increase dependence on government. We believe the way to strengthen our country is to restrain spending in Washington and empower individuals and small businesses to grow our economy and create jobs.

In case you weren't watching TV on November 4th, it's not just the national Democrats' view that the government should, you know... DO something. It was a large majority of voters. Did you watch Arnold Schwarzenegger on Meet The Press? It's nice to see one Republican governor who understands what the people actually voted for... and against.

In recent years, these distinctions in philosophy became less clear because our party got away from its principles. You elected Republicans to champion limited government, fiscal discipline and personal responsibility. Instead, Republicans went along with earmarks and big government spending in Washington. Republicans lost your trust -- and rightly so.

"Went along with"? You had a Republican in the Oval Office for eight years, a Republican Congress for six of them, and for two years the Democrats had only a slim, non-veto-proof majority... and the President didn't veto any Democratic spending bills. Don't try to play this like the GOP just got pulled along here. Nice try.

Tonight, on behalf of our leaders in Congress and my fellow Republican governors, I say: Our party is determined to regain your trust. We will do so by standing up for the principles that we share -- the principles you elected us to fight for -- the principles that built this into the greatest, most prosperous country on Earth.

Once again, an example of the GOP fighting for the "one true way", which in their ideologue psyches will naturally result in good things happening. But at the end of the day, it's the conservative principles that they are fighting for. The good of the country is only the side effect of that.

A few weeks ago, the president warned that our nation is facing a crisis that he said "we may not be able to reverse." Our troubles are real, to be sure. But don't let anyone tell you that we cannot recover -- or that America's best days are behind her.

That is only what he said if you truncate his comment. Don't even try that with us, Guv.

This is the nation that cast off the scourge of slavery, overcame the Great Depression, prevailed in two World Wars, won the struggle for civil rights, defeated the Soviet menace and responded with determined courage to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The American spirit has triumphed over almost every form of adversity known to man -- and the American spirit will triumph again.

We can have confidence in our future -- because, amid today's challenges, we also count many blessings: We have the most innovative citizens, the most abundant resources, the most resilient economy, the most powerful military and the freest political system in the history of the world. My fellow citizens, never forget: We are Americans. And like my dad said years ago, Americans can do anything.

Thank you for listening. God bless you. And God bless America.

And God bless YOU, Bobby Jindal.

Good grief.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I'd like to say this shocks me...

... but from the right, nothing shocks me anymore.  This from the New York Post...

This cartoon lampoons this week's shooting of a chimp, and makes the point that the stimulus bill is obviously so stupid that a chimp could have written it, or makes the point that the stimulus bill is dangerous- like the late chimp.

But the slur of equating an African-American with a monkey hangs over the entire cartoon, and there can be little doubt that this was meant to draw attention in a way that afforded plausible deniability and leaves the publication on the hook for little more than rank thoughtlessness.

This is, however, a Rupert Murdoch publication we're talking about here, so the odds that this wasn't a calculated and strategic expression of borderline racist contempt for the President who beat them?   Minimal.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Obama's Error and the Republicans' Gambit

The sudden high profile of Eric Cantor is a curious phenomenon.  His fiscal conservatism would make a miser look like a rap star, and he has emerged as a field general for the obstructionist right.  It's exceedingly difficult to stomach the hypocrisy of Cantor, John Boehner, and well... all but three Congressional Republicans as they wax indignant over the debt that will be passed on to our children thanks to the recovery package.  After all, they were not nearly so indignant at the Bush tax cuts, which were 50% larger and were not at the time (or at any time since) thought by any reputable economist likely to produce any stimulative effect whatsoever.  Nor were they indignant at the cost of the Iraq war, which also far exceeds this recovery package.  They're only concerned about the debt we're passing on when it's a result of a Democratic plan as opposed to a Republican.  At the end of the day, there is no principle at work, only politics- the desire to return to power.

Which is why GOP obstructionism in this case is such a curious strategy.  The Republican Party has gone "all in" on the hope/belief that the economy will not perk up any time soon.  They're even running television commercials bragging about how not a single House Republican voted yea.  They have positioned themselves in such a way as the country's interests and the Republican Party's interests are now wholly incompatible.  Should the economy not recover, the GOP can run on "we were right, you were wrong".  But should things start to improve, the Republicans will be cemented as the "party of no".  That - combined with having misplayed two straight really big hands (Iraq) - will surely give the Democrats a Congressional plurality so great that it would leave the Republicans as nothing more than an insignificant fringe party.  Their very brand would be trash for a generation, until they emerge, re-invented, several election cycles down the line.

There are two forces at work that the President clearly underestimated here.

First, he drew up a bill that was way too bipartisan to start with.  He didn't make the Republicans fight for the tax cuts that are a part of the package, depriving them of the ability to take home some semblance of a win, which would have allowed them to get behind the bill.  Remember: politics, not principles.  You don't win back any power by finding points of agreement- you do it by wholesale differentiation.  Obama would have been smarter to have drawn up a recovery plan with all spending, no tax cuts, then let the GOP fight to include tax cuts in the package.  They would have taken home enough of a win to satisfy the ideologues that they made the Democrats come back to the middle.  But instead, Obama started in the middle, so with nothing to fight for, Boehner and Cantor and the extremists on the right (including McCain in the Senate) now claim this was not a bipartisan bill - a unique bit of revisionist history given where the bill started and the extensive consultations with the Republican caucuses.   Unfortunately, since the bill started off in the middle, the only way the GOP could extract a win would be a bill that was fully a Republican creation.

The other phenomenon Obama underestimated - and while he probably understands it, he will have a tougher time overcoming it - is that the Democrats and Republicans do not merely differ on points of policy.  The two parties are fundamentally, culturally wired in different ways.    The only loose, guiding principle of the Democrats is a desire for progress, and the willingness to use the apparatus of the government to help spur that progress when needed.  The Republicans, however, have hardened their platform into a full-on secular religion.  One Republican, shortly after the election, even couched his comments on desiring to work with the new President in religious terms, speaking of a desire to help to "show him the way"... as if defeating the scourge of liberalism is missionary work, driving Satan from our hearts and minds.

For the Republicans, there is one true way, and moral clarity is expendable in the name of winning in much the same way the devoutly religious throughout history have been able to justify ill-treatment of their fellow man in the name of a mandate from a higher place.  Whatever level taxes are at now, they should be lower.  Period.  Government should be smaller and intervene less.  Period.  The free market should rule.  Period.  Personal responsibility can be relied upon as a matter of public policy.  Period.    And then there's the quagmire of the culture war.  

There are no guiding principles, meant to be applied strategically and judiciously according to circumstance.   The Conservative/neocon movement is not a starting point for negotiation, and it's not even about doing what's best for the country.  It's a dogma to be fought for.  Mitt Romney said as much when he withdrew from the Republican primary - a rare moment of honest candor from someone more often prone to dissemination of, well, bullshit. 

Democratic rhetoric is about making things better in this country.  And if you, as a conservative, want to have an intellectually honest debate about just how involved the government should be in that process and what may constitute inefficiency and overreaching, we can have that discussion.  But most Republican rhetoric and policy and strategy today is about fighting for their side, for Conservative principles.  If conquering the country for Conservative principles helps the country... well, that's the natural side effect of the triumph of the one true way, in their eyes.  But it's that one true way, not the side effect, that they are fighting for.

If this obstructionist gambit doesn't work, it will be the equivalent of the Hiroshima bomb going off over the GOP.  They will be flattened by it, not to be heard from again for a decade or two.

Monday, February 9, 2009

John McCain Revealed

I told anyone who would listed after election day that we would learn who the real John McCain was in the early weeks and months of the new administration, now that McCain was a true free agent, beholden to no one, free to pursue his own true north star.  Was he the true bi-partisan maverick who simply tried without success to sell out to the far right because that was the only way he could get the nomination?  Or was he in fact an original neocon- as he himself once claimed - who attempted to leverage the victimhood at the hands of the Bush-Rove team in 2000 and a lone act of line-crossing (McCain-Feingold) into an entire "maverick" brand that never truly existed?

The Senator has given us his answer:  it's the latter.

McCain railed on the House recovery package, claiming it was not bipartisan, as it had not a single Republican vote.  (This is, itself, backwards logic, as the Republicans responded with greater obstructionist unanimity than the Democrats pushed forward with rubber-stamp unanimity.)  Then he led the opposition to the plan in the Senate, rallying his party behind the McCain Plan... a package comprised almost entirely of tax cuts.

During the campaign, McCain peddled little more than Conservative ideology:  low taxes at all costs, values issues, and carrying the Ronald Reagan mantle that government does not solve problems- the government is the problem.  (Again, an odd position to be held by someone running for high government office.)   McCain offered few, if any, ideas to solve the numerous grave problems that face the country... an almost poetic bit of alignment, as McCain was the standard-bearer for a party whose own intelligentsia has recognized, with sadness, is completely bankrupt of ideas.  The Republicans once proudly carried the banner of being the party of ideas.  Now they are simply the party of "no".  They reacted to their resounding defeat in November not by accepting it as a wake-up call, but rather, by running back to the obstructionism that led them to shut down the federal government in 1996 when they were led by Newt Gingrich.

Obama ran on "Yes We Can" and the GOP has countered, in one voice, with "No We Can't".   

And McCain is once again demonstrating, just as he did in his bumbling, fumbling, stumbling campaign, that he just doesn't get it.  He doesn't understand that the country voted resoundingly for action, not more of the same, and he doesn't understand that any capitalist democracy is a public-private partnership that at times calls for more government action and at times calls for a more laissez-faire approach.  You cannot simply apply a single ideology at all times.  So when McCain decries Obama for ramming his agenda down the throats of the other party just as Bush did to the Democrats for six years, what he doesn't understand is that so long as the Republicans- as the majority or the minority - offer only distilled ideology and no ideas, there is no place where the two sides can meet.  There are no degrees of "low taxes, leave it to the free market".  

When Obama met with Republican Congressional leaders to discuss the recovery package- an act of conciliation and bipartisanship unheard of in the last eight years- the President couldn't incorporate their ideas because they had none.  All they had was their embattled ideology that the voters have rejected.  Chris Hayes of The Nation opined last week that asking Republicans for ideas on a recovery package is like asking the Quakers for ideas on your next battle plan; they are simply not wired to even think in these terms.  And John McCain is no better wired to do so than the rest of his party.  Not very maverick-like.

My grandfather always said:  when someone shows you who they are... believe them.  When McCain said that he still needed to be educated on the economy, he was being honest, and he was right.  And when he said he believed the fundamentals of the economy were strong, he was again being honest, and he was dead wrong... tragically and catastrophically so (for us) had he been elected.

Re-watch Obama's prime time new conference tonight.  Try to imagine John McCain answering with the depth of understanding of the complexities of issues that Obama demonstrated.    Impossible.  Obama is an intellectual giant and a great leader- something even his most committed enemies will tell you.  McCain is an average intellect, something even his most committed supporters will grant.  And you know what?  These qualities of the two were revealed in the crucible of the campaign.

Also revealed in the crucible of the campaign and demonstrated since the inauguration is that John McCain is simply too committed a partisan and too true a believer - too great an ideologue - to read the landscape and understand where he and his party have gone off the rails.  And as someone who worked pretty hard to make sure McCain didn't win, it gives me no pleasure to see the GOP lost in space.  This isn't Michigan and Ohio State, where any Buckeye misfortune is categorically a boon to the Wolverines. This country needs the Republicans to make meaningful contributions and provide a necessary ideological counterweight... NOT have them lie down in the middle of the road and act as human roadblocks on the Progressive Highway.

When McCain said that he believed that Obama could bring change but has turned out to be every bit the hard-liner that Bush was, he demonstrates a shocking inability to look in the mirror and understand why the Republicans lost.  Obama has reached out his hand.  Republicans have not taken it.  Obama named three Republicans to his cabinet (unprecedented).  He sought their input on the recovery plan, but they had no ideas besides the policies that were tried, failed, and ultimately rejected by the voters.  Obama will come to the middle, but bipartisanship doesn't mean coming all the way to the right.  

McCain cannot see this, because he was never bipartisan, never a moderate, never a maverick.   That was a short term marketing campaign that ultimately did not pass muster.