The Trouble With Tea

May 25, 2011

Mark Twain famously said that he didn’t belong to any organized political party.  He was a Democrat.

I thought about that trope when I read this morning about the surprising upset of Republican Jane Corwin by her Democratic challenger Kathy Hochul, in a very conservative  Congressional district in upstate New York.   Only this time, it’s not Twain’s party that doesn’t have its act together.   And this race was illustrative of the dastardly challenges the Republicans face in winning back the House and the Presidency in 2012.

Hochul–who trailed by a wide margin a few weeks ago–managed to make the race a referendum on Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare.    But as surprisingly effective as that strategy seemed to be,  there’s little doubt that the Democratic upset wouldn’t have happened without a guy named  Jack Davis, a Tea Party candidate who got 9 percent of the vote.

Think of what this means for the Presidential race in 2012.  First, the Republican base–surprise!–doesn’t mind the welfare state so much when it starts to affect their pocketbooks, which could greatly constrain the rhetoric the eventual nominee.  But the more intriguing notion is that the race is likely to have a Tea Party representative.  It just seems very unlikely that somebody–Michelle Bachmann?  Ron Paul?–won’t jump into the race, if only to burnish their credentials as a future Fox News personality.

Does anybody think Mitt Romney or Time Pawlenty can beat President Obama by 9 points in Ohio?


“He’s Not One of Us”

September 5, 2009

In her Saturday WSJ piece, Peggy Noonan utters the five words that the GOP will use implicitly and explicitly, over and over, freighted with racial cargo and not, between now and 2012:  “He’s not one of us.”  Certainly, she has a point, up to a point.  She also has what will probably be the week’s best turn of phrase.  Speaking of Obama’s young staff:

Now nothing can stop them.  Let’s do big things, let’s be consequential.  Consequentialism has been the blight of America’s political life for a decade.  Because of it, America’s nerves have been rubbed raw.

Burka on Rasmussen on Rick and Kay

July 18, 2009

What a difference a couple of months can make in politics!  Paul Burka comments on dire new poll numbers for the Senator’s camp:

Rasmussen: Perry 46, Hutchison 36posted by paulburka at 11:48 AM This represents a net six point gain for Perry over the May poll (Perry +4, Hutchison -2). The spread itself is bad enough for the Hutchison camp, but even worse is that Perry has passed her in favorability ratings. This would have been seen as inconceivable at the time Hutchison announced her exploratory committee last December.

Perry 76% favorable, 23% unfavorable
Hutchison 72% favorable, 25% unfavorable

Job Performance
Perry 74% approve, 25% disapprove
Hutchison (no results given)

Gender support
Men: Perry +17 points
Women: virtual tie

Events are trending strongly in Perry’s favor:

Tea parties: 82% of likely primary voters view favorably
Economic stimulus: 7% say that it has helped, 61% say it has hurt
Health care plan: 12% support, 83% oppose

What is the case for a Hutchison victory at this point? There’s only one argument that I can think of, and that is she can expand the primary turnout. That seems a lot less likely today than it did when she first got into the race. It’s hard to beat an incumbent with 76% favorability and 74% job approval. I have been very critical of the Hutchison non-campaign, but the fact is that the reason for these numbers isn’t what Hutchison hasn’t done. It’s what Perry has done.

What Am I Missing?

March 20, 2009

If employees of AIG violated civil statutes, the should pay money damages.   If they committed crimes, they should go to jail.   Congress should have nothing to do with any of it, at least not in their legislative capacity.  They had their shot, which would have been to pin a ransom note to any bonus payment that preceded a nickel of TARP money changing  hands.   They didn’t do that, and do-overs are for children under five. 

As Chris Dodd straightened his tie for the cameras with increasingly obvious haplessness, Treasury raised knotty questions.    “Geithner here.  I know I don’t have any..uh…staff or anything, but I think what you guys are proposing may be illegal.  I have a catalytic converter supplier on Line 2, so I’ll have to get back to you.”

And so this truth–however inconveniently– defied  its vanishing pont:  a confiscatory tax which is purely an ass-covering and “signal sending”  legislative gesture is almost certainly illegal.   And shameful.  And positively spineless.  Why not just burn a symbolic derivatives trader at the stake?  While the pain (and the stench) would be more concentrated, the spectacle would be mercifully shorter and  roughly as productive.

It is tempting to identify as the “bigger issue” that our government has already focused far too much psychic energy on a level of lucre that is inconsequential in the grand scheme, and that the AIG bonuses are simply a vestige of financial deregulation run amok during the Bush regime.    It is also tempting to utter the following heresies:  that the bonus recipients at  AIG were, quaintly, ” doing their jobs;” that they likely didn’t get out of bed in the morning hell-bent on destroying anything; and that at least a number of them were not hiding the Mark of the Beast beneath  their $200 haircuts.  

It’s tempting, because it’s all true.  But this would miss the point.  Because the bigger issue is actually, well , bigger:  if we live in a nation  where Congress can take money from people because Congresspeople are  embarrassed, none of us should feel very safe.   Because whether or not there is, there should be a lot of Congressional embarrassment to go around.

It is of course too obvious to point out that all Congressional salaries are “public money.”   What say that anyone who voted in the majority on the 90% tax bill has his or her pay docked for that day?  

Don’t bitch, Congresspeople.  You’re getting off easy.  And you might think twice before spending your paychecks.  I have my eye on you.

How Radio Wrecks the Right

February 28, 2009

One of the more interesting reads of the week was John Derbyshire’s cover article in The American Conservative.   In it, he bemoans the devlopment of “happy meal conservatism” (a phrase I love and which I predict will stick):

Gone are the intellectual tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right.  But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans.  McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year.

But of course, not even Happy Meals are free.  He also argues that Rush Limbaugh’s 14-million listener, 20+ year reign at the top of the radio dial has impeded the development what he calls “middlebrow conservatism.”   “I know,” Limbaugh told the Times, “that I have become the intellectual engine of the Republican.”   Well, I’ll be darned.  A self-proclaimed intellectual engine.  That may just be a first.

David Foster Wallace on Political Writing by Non-Political Writers

February 9, 2009

This came to me courtesy of my friends Greg Warmink and Paul Franz.  The whole, 6-year-0ld interview with the tragically late writer of, among other things, Infinite Jest, is more than worth a read.  But I found this bit particularly sharp and if anything, more relevant than it was at the time:

The reason why doing political writing is so hard right now is probably also the reason why more young (am I included in the range of this predicate anymore?) fiction writers ought to be doing it. As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95 percent of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties. Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil. Conservative thinkers are balder about this kind of attitude: Limbaugh, Hannity, that horrific O’Reilly person. Coulter, Kristol, etc. But the Left’s been infected, too. Have you read this new Al Franken book? Parts of it are funny, but it’s totally venomous (like, what possible response can rightist pundits have to Franken’s broadsides but further rage and return-venom?). Or see also e.g. Lapham’s latest Harper’s columns, or most of the stuff in the Nation, or even Rolling Stone. It’s all become like Zinn and Chomsky but without the immense bodies of hard data these older guys use to back up their screeds. There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument (or “dialogue”); political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. Watching O’Reilly v. Franken is watching bloodsport. How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country’s macroeconomic policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy’s outlines should be, or how to minimize the chances of North Korea nuking the DMZ and pulling us into a ghastly foreign war, or how to balance domestic security concerns with civil liberties? Questions like these are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you’re in conflict with is an asshole—but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community.

My own belief, perhaps starry-eyed, is that since fictionists or literary-type writers are supposed to have some special interest in empathy, in trying to imagine what it’s like to be the other guy, they might have some useful part to play in a political conversation that’s having the problems ours is. Failing that, maybe at least we can help elevate some professional political journalists who are (1) polite, and (2) willing to entertain the possibility that intelligent, well-meaning people can disagree, and (3) able to countenance the fact that some problems are simply beyond the ability of a single ideology to represent accurately.

Implicit in this brief, shrill answer, though, is obviously the idea that at least some political writing should be Platonically disinterested, should rise above the fray, etc.; and in my own present case this is impossible (and so I am a hypocrite, an ideological opponent could say). In doing the McCain piece you mentioned, I saw some stuff (more accurately: I believe that I saw some stuff) about our current president, his inner circle, and the primary campaign they ran that prompted certain reactions inside me that make it impossible to rise above the fray. I am, at present, partisan. Worse than that: I feel such deep, visceral antipathy that I can’t seem to think or speak or write in any kind of fair or nuanced way about the current administration. Writing-wise, I think this kind of interior state is dangerous. It is when one feels most strongly, most personally, that it’s most tempting to speak up (“speak out” is the current verb phrase of choice, rhetorically freighted as it is). But it’s also when it’s the least productive, or at any rate it seems that way to me—there are plenty of writers and journalists “speaking out” and writing pieces about oligarchy and neofascism and mendacity and appalling short-sightedness in definitions of “national security” and “national interest,” etc., and very few of these writers seem to me to be generating helpful or powerful pieces, or really even being persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already share the writer’s views.

President Obama and a Collective Fiscal Conscience

January 22, 2009

I had little concern that the Wall Street Journal editorial page would go early into the tank for President Obama.  Whether it would lend its voice to loyal opposition of long-term fiscal irresponsibility–or merely to screechy petulance born of recently turned political tables–remained another matter.  Today, Holman Jenkins planted his first post-inaugural editorial flag in a hopefully helpful spot, although he led off rather curiously:

Barack Obama thus far has treated politics as a business of mobilization, not persuasion.  That will now have to change. 

I say “curiously” because I think Jenkins may have it backward.  Not only is it difficult to imagine a movement sufficiently tectonic to produce a victory the size of President Obama’s without an enormously persuasive prime mover.  But also, while the impressive “mobilization” of which Jenkins speaks largely ended on election day, Obama has since moved from 62% to 82% favorability ratings in the polls.  He may have mobilized his way to victory, but he has earned a mandate-sized store of political capital by persuading the public of his competence during the transition. 

Now, it’s back to mobilization for the President—and he should make it snappy if he is to make most effective use of that capital.  Members of Congress know in their heart of hearts the difference between fiscal roads high and low.  On the former, they make difficult choices which do not entirely alleviate the short-term pain of all their constituents.  Of course, Mr. Obama’s own party tends to be less than rock-ribbed in this regard.  But as Jenkins points out: 

And yet, Mr. Obama’s goals are perfectly amenable to a genuinely reforming approach….End the tax preference for employer-provided health care.  Make it up to workers with an income or payroll tax cut.   This one step would move the economy towards consuming health care efficiently and designing insurance policies that actually insure rather than channel the privileged class’s health spending through a tax loophole….Nothing else would do more to improve the country’s fiscal prospects, or do more to lend practicality to Mr. Obama’s goal of universal coverage….

 There’s a lesson here.  Real reform is often deceptively simple, leading naturally to changes in behavior that are more far-reaching than any detailed government prescription could hope to achieve…. 

Mr. Obama has been handed an opportunity.  He will put the welfare state on a path to solvency or he won’t….His stimulus spending plans will blow up in his face unless the bond markets (which will be called upon to finance them) are convinced the dollar will remain sound and the spending under control. 

There’s obviously a lot in there for anyone to mull.  But Jenkins’s point remains both simple and age-old:  the low road of “avoid the pain, damn the consequences” is easy.  The high road is hard, because it requires of a President both the conscience to explain economic tradeoffs honestly to the public, and the leadership to lean on legislators to do what they already know is right.  Obama seems to have made some shrewd choices as his internal fiscal conscience keepers:  Orszag proved his just-the-facts cred at CBO.  Former Hamilton Project Director Furman learned at the feet of Bob Rubin who—despite his recent fall to earth—was the last public servant to act successfully as a President’s fiscal conscience.  Summers has no problem speaking his mind, whether anyone asks or not.  And even if Team Obama completely whiffs on its fiscal choices, Volcker’s status as an eco-tough legend seems secure.

But even with those fellas hanging about, a loyal opposition in the economic policy press is welcome and necessary.  Hopefully, Holman Jenkins will continue to be a leader in fulfilling that role.