Tea Partiers: be careful what you wish for

The Thinker by Rodin

Much has been written about Speaker of the House John Boehner’s recent resignation announcement. The news wasn’t particularly surprising to me. The only element of surprise to me was how long he held on.

Today being speaker means trying to govern when a sizeable and very vocal part of your own party actively wants anarchy instead. He’s been between a rock and a hard place since the Tea Party stormed Congress after the 2010 election. When members of the Tea Party threatened to introduce a motion to “vacate the chair” (remove him from his position as speaker) if Boehner failed to fight on a spending bill to keep the government running, Boehner decided to call it quits.

The Tea Party was essentially demanding that both the Senate and the President agree to certain cuts in government spending that neither would agree to in order for the government to stay open, i.e. extortion. Either they are convinced that this hardball approach would yield results hitherto unattained or they believed that shutting down the government is a necessary sacrifice to attain these ends. Compromise was simply not an option to these Tea Partiers, although our constitutional system by design moves parties toward compromise. No one branch of government is given all the power. To refuse to compromise is essentially anti-constitutional, and is arguably treasonous.

But the Tea Party, which supposedly is overrun with people who greatly respect the U.S. constitution, is demanding that the Senate and the president agree to all of its demands and won’t entertain the idea of meeting in the middle somewhere. All of its demands must be met or it will shut down the government indefinitely until they agree to them. Boehner’s resignation provided breathing space for a continuing resolution to keep the government open October 1. However, this merely postpones Armageddon because in November the government will run out of extraordinary means to avoid going over the debt ceiling. And the Tea Party in the House would prefer to let the U.S. government default on its debt for the first time ever rather than compromise on any of its demands.

One problem with being angry is that it becomes impossible to think clearly. And that’s what will happen if House Republicans allow the government to default on its debts. When this happens someone is going to get a haircut. Most likely it will be these Tea Partiers. The Treasury Department (or more likely the President) will have to decide which creditors get paid and which won’t.

The most vindictive way for the president to wreak revenge (and since he’ll be leaving office, there is no downside) would be to halt all federal payments to congressional districts represented by members of the Tea Party. This is playing hardball, something I suspect President Obama is too civilized to actually do. But it would ensure the end of the Tea Party almost for sure. All it will take is for one grandma in these districts to not get their social security check at the start of the month. Tea Partiers would be out of congress entirely after the 2016 election. It could possibly be the end of the Republican Party as well. It makes a certain amount of sense that those who represent people that want anarchy should be the first to experience its downsides.

In any event if the debt ceiling is not raised, some creditors would have to wait until revenue is collected to get paid. Maybe payments would be a first in, first out queue. More likely the president would prioritize payments favoring social security and Medicare and defer payments to troops, defense contractors and holders of U. S. treasury bills. In short, the power would move toward the Executive, weakening the hands of the Tea Party.

They don’t understand this, of course, and that’s because they are angry and not thinking clearly. Aside from higher interest rates that our creditors will demand in the future to fund our government, those most damaged are likely to be those who are pushing for anarchy. If it happens it will be an expensive lesson in governance, but perhaps a necessary price for the country to pay to elect men and women who will actually govern. And governing requires compromise.

If that’s what it takes to make the Tea Party see the light, bring it on I guess.

Future errata on the news

The Thinker by Rodin

No special topic for today’s post, just some quick thoughts about the news of the day and what I believe the story behind the story will be. With luck my precognition will be proven by subsequent events, and these will be errata indeed:

  • On the invitation by Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress: This isn’t about the supposed threat that Iraq’s nuclear weapon program poses to Israel’s existence. Congress doesn’t need additional convincing on that. This is about Republicans, and House Republicans in particular, having a snit with President Obama because basically they loathe him and can’t figure out any other way to kick him in the balls. They don’t respect him or his administration, even before he came to office. In short, this is institutional passive aggressive behavior. It is also very unwise as it sets a new and dangerous precedence that our country will speak on foreign policy with multiple voices. (Executing foreign policy is constitutionally the responsibility of the Executive branch.) This is also about Speaker Boehner trying to gain some leverage with his mostly out of control Tea Party wing. It helps shows that he is manly and serious in ways that they can appreciate. If I were a Democrat in Congress, I’d boycott attending. However, I don’t expect a critical mass of Democrats will do this, as they proved in the 2014 election that they are quite spineless.
  • On the allegation in David Alexrod’s new book that President Obama hid his support for gay marriage in the 2008 campaign: no duh! It was clear to us Democrats that he was for gay marriage, but he felt it was too dangerous to say so publicly at the time as it would have adversely affected his campaign. What was evolving was not his opinions, but the American people’s opinions. He was waiting for us to catch up. So, yes, he was being disingenuous, but no more than most politicians. In fact, most of the Republicans who claim to be upset about gay marriage really don’t care too much about it either; they just don’t want to upset their base, or really what the think is their base, i.e. the noisy (i.e. politically active) ones.
  • On funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which runs out at the end of February: in the end Republicans will cave, probably sooner rather than later. Even if the House bill gets out of the Senate, which won’t happen, the President will veto it. The egg won’t be on Obama’s face as it plays out, because Americans overwhelmingly support his interim steps for immigration reform. So this is a losing issue for Republicans. Republicans will probably go for a series of 30 day funding mechanisms, until enough of them realize it just makes them look stupid, and then they’ll capitulate.
  • On the Obama Administration’s hope that a reinvigorated Iraqi army — with plenty of American advisors safely out of firing range to act as coaches –will retake Mosul from ISIS: it ain’t going to happen. The Iraqi army is a joke because there is no country called Iraq and because more desertions happen monthly than recruits coming in. What there is is a marginally governable country that should be called Shi’ite Iraq. To the extent that they will retake land it will be in traditionally Shi’ite dominated areas of that former country. What’s really happening is what I predicted in 2006: Iraq is being fractured into a number of religiously orthodox and ethnically pure countries: Shi’ite Iraq, Kurdistan and the Islamic State. It won’t be external forces that kill the Islamic State. It will be resistance from within when residents get sick of the overwhelming terror and (worse) the paucity of first world services like satellite TV. Neighboring countries will try to nudge this to happen sooner rather than later by making living in the IS more undesirable. The IS will either have to adopt into something marginally politically acceptable in the Middle East or it will eventually die a natural death. A state that does not operate like a state, i.e. with some uniformity and ability to provide basic services, is not a real state. I doubt it will be around five years from now regardless of what is done or not done.
  • On the reemergence of diseases like measles because certain parents can’t or won’t get their children immunized: never underestimate the power of shame and conformity. Americans are all for freedom until someone else’s freedom hurts their kids. If just one kid dies in America because someone kid’s parent refused to get their kid immunized, the remaining states will quickly fall in line and require all children to be inoculated against preventable diseases. The only question is where the set point is these days, as most Americans have no living memory of mass diseases like the measles. Smart Republican politicians are already walking back their talking points because disease knows no political boundaries. The parents of a Republican kid who comes down with the measles will be just as pissed-off Democratic parents in this situation, once they get over their own shame. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, particularly when we are certain that immunizations are safe and effective.
  • On the inevitability of Hillary Clinton as our next president: I am not convinced. The more I study her, the more things I find to dislike about her. The more Americans focus on her and the more they study her, the more that have second thoughts as well. If Republicans were smart, they would nominate a mainstream woman to run against her, perhaps Carly Fiorina to help negate the frustration by women that we never had a female president. Fortunately for Democrats, Republicans usually go stupid when picking a nominee. Still, a convincing mainstream Republican like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or Indiana Governor Mike Pence could win in 2016. That’s what the sensible establishment Republicans are figuring, which is why they are throwing money into PACs for Jeb and trying to make him the likely nominee. If Clinton stumbles, right now the Democrats best bet is former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, because he is known for crossing the aisles and for taking unpopular positions, assuming Webb does not try a third party route. That’s credibility, and it’s what Americans are desperately looking for. I don’t expect though that Democrats will be in the mood to go with a mainstream candidate.

No sense of proportion

The Thinker by Rodin

After six weeks or so of stalling, it appears that the federal government will “shut down” at midnight on Friday. It’s déjà vu for some of us who make our living as public servants. Given that the fiscal clock runs out in twenty four hours, it’s unlikely that some acceptable continuing resolution or fiscal year 2011 appropriation bill will somehow emerge, pass both houses of Congress and get signed into law so quickly. Which leaves us pondering really the imponderable: how long will it last this time?

Some think that it will be over by Monday morning, as this has happened in the past. The theory goes something like this: Republicans need to shutdown the government to satisfy the Tea Party, but once the government is actually shutdown, the base is miraculously satisfied enough that the House, Senate and the White House can agree on a bill that will win enough grudging support to bring government back to life by Monday morning. Except for possibly canceling the Cherry Blossom parade, the impact would not be felt in any meaningful way until Monday anyhow. Those of us with longer memories remember the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, and see House Republicans this time in an even ornerier mood than then, so for us it’s best to husband cash and to try not to panic.

One thing I am confident about: Republicans will come to rue their “my way or the highway” high stakes brinkmanship. It does make the Tea Party and conservative base happy, because Republicans are a party of that believes in sadism for anyone not like them. But the fact remains the House is not the entirety of Congress and the President is a Democrat. No one side gets everything. It has never been this way in the past. A shutdown of any length is not going to change this fact. Moreover, poll after poll shows the public having a bad case of buyers’ remorse from the 2010 election. The longer a shutdown goes on, the steeper the political price that Republicans will pay. Those less motivated by ideology can see that the political winds have already shifted.

If Democrats have trouble governing because they devolve into too many factions, Republicans have trouble governing because they are too united and have no sense of proportion. Taking no prisoners may make them feel good for a while, but it wins them no new political support. As evident in Wisconsin and elsewhere, mainstream America is aghast by the current Republican overreach. They elected Republicans on the hope that they would help grow the economy and jobs. Jobs seem to be the last thing on their agenda. Instead they are hopelessly entangled in causes that the public does not care about. Defunding Planned Parenthood and bringing the government to a halt is more important than creating jobs?

What this shutdown will show, if it lasts for more than a week, is exactly what Republicans fear most: the value of government. It is one thing to furlough a relatively highly paid civil servant like me. It’s another thing to put America’s soldiers on half pay, most of who are already living from paycheck to paycheck. These people comprise a significant portion of their base; they are the last people they should be pissing off. But that’s just the start of it. Tell Mr. & Mrs. Taxpayer that their income tax refund, which they really need, will join a growing backlog of claims. Senior citizens vote disproportionately for Republicans, but if they need to file for Social Security, or try to claim a disability benefit, they will be out of luck. Then there are all our national parks that will be shuttered. It’s going to be like the Iran Hostage crisis. The media will cover it 24/7. “It’s Day 11 of the government shutdown and Mr. and Mrs. Jones from Camden, New Jersey are here at the gates of Yellowstone Park, furious that they cannot visit the park they had long planned to see.” Camera crews will be queued in front of the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument and Yellowstone Park as the 80,000 visitors a day trying to use our national parks cannot. It’s going to be terrible PR.

Who will they hold to blame? A party that already went more than half way to accommodate Republican demands? Or a party that won’t budge one inch from a hard-line position on both deep spending cuts in discretionary spending and who insist on tilting at windmills by cutting programs like Head Start, programs Americans overwhelmingly approve of? It’s not hard to see who will get the blame, and from the headwinds in Wisconsin and elsewhere the public will echo the same theme: Republicans have no sense of proportion and are being completely unreasonable. The only question will be how much damage Republicans will choose to inflict on their brand before they move toward actual compromise. If the Tea Party has its way, their miscalculations will quickly put Democrats back in charge of Congress and the White House in 2012 as well as render their whole movement as obsolete as Glenn Beck’s soon to be canceled TV show.

Meanwhile, the longer the shutdown lasts, the more it hurts independent businesses, the states and the private sector, those Republicans claim to care about. The federal contractors they champion who live off the federal dole will start to lay off workers and find their profits sinking. The hotels, restaurants and other service providers who cater to those who enjoy our national parks will find themselves in increasingly greater financial distress. The states, which depend on federal revenue sharing to shore up their Medicaid expenses, will have to pay for these services out of pocket when they are already financially stretched. Tourists planning that trip to France will not be happy when they find that all but emergency passports are nonessential services but their pre-purchased airline tickets are nonrefundable. A sustained shutdown is a great way to slow down our economic recovery just when it is gaining traction. In addition to about 800,000 federal employees with no incomes, many more will also feel the pain. The unemployment rate is likely to jump if it goes on for several weeks. Economic pain will spread more every week it endures as all those who support these services lose business and employment.

A  shutdown of any sustained length will simply boomerang against Republicans. The longer it goes on the more damage it will do to their brand. Ironically, a shutdown is a trap of their own making, which is wholly preventable. A smarter political party would be making measured moves toward implementing their agenda by finding issues that resonate with Main Street America so they can build their majorities. They would not be jumping into perilous waters, such as proposing massive changes to Medicare and Medicaid which have no chance of becoming law but simply show them as being obstinate.

If we must have a shutdown for Republicans to learn this lesson once again, well, I guess bring it on. John Boehner must be suffering from long term memory loss to allow this to happen to his party, given that he witnessed what happened the last time.

To quote Forrest Gump: Stupid is as stupid does. Blind and reckless ideology will be the Republican Party’s undoing one more time. The good news for Republicans: voters have no sense of collective memory, so they will probably put them back into power again before too long. Then the same pointless cycle can play out until our great republic finally devolves into chaos and dust.

Greater national dysfunction dead ahead

The Thinker by Rodin

In about two months, citizens will go to their polling station and choose their elected officials. God help us, because no matter which way we are likely to vote nationally, we’re going to be screwing ourselves and our nation.

If the election were held today, it looks likely that Republicans would retake the House, but the outcome is much less certain in the Senate. There is some possibility that Democrats will retain both houses of Congress, but even in that event Democrats will be trying to govern with much smaller majorities. Regardless of who wins, Barack Obama will still be our president. This means the only possible outcome is more dysfunction between branches of government, exacerbating the sorts of tactics that Americans are already sick of.

Polls show that voters don’t like either Democrats or Republicans and pine for this idealistic notion that both parties will somehow put nation above party. As if. Instead, they have to vote from the slate of candidates they got. The dynamics suggest that in about ten percent of the House races (a remarkably high number) voters will vote their local bum out and vote in the bum from the other party.

Sweeping your current bum or bums out of office may give the illusion of changing the dynamics, but it will not. Partisanship will only increase, if that is possible. So if you think you are already frustrated with government now, just wait until you vote your passions and elect a newer even more highly partisan set of into office. I’m afraid Extra Strength Tylenol won’t cure this headache.

Only one part of the Republican agenda is clear: they will spend most of their time until the 2012 elections investigating the Obama Administration at length for alleged malfeasance. It will definitely take some digging because so far, the Obama Administration has been remarkably scandal free. At least Republicans will know what scandal looks like, because they are experts at it. Whether malfeasance actually exists or not is beside the point. One of the few powers Congress can wield in this environment will be the power of investigation so all that is needed is the possibility of malfeasance. So instead of just bottling up appointees and judicial nominations, Republicans will likely bollix up the rest of government as well, ensuring little actual governing is done. This will, of course, give them something to run on in 2012: can’t you see how little Democrats accomplished?

The other power Congress holds is, of course, the power of the purse. With an expected influx of Tea Party activists, expect that a sizeable minority of Republicans simply won’t vote for anything that resembles spending. If you want a preview, simply look to California where its dysfunctional system requires two thirds of both houses to pass a budget. While that is not true in Congress, in the Senate either party can effectively hold the other party hostage unless one side can cobble together sixty votes. The House though may start to envy the Senate. Pity orange-skinned speaker-in-waiting John Boehner. He will have the impossible task of trying to govern House Republicans, a sizable minority of whom won’t allow themselves to be swayed on any issue. After all, they will have gotten into Congress on a platform of no compromises anytime, anywhere.

Yet spending bills must be passed at some point, right? In California, the answer is “no” as long as Republicans stayed united. The ensuing mess led to massive cuts and layoffs, leaving California a largely dysfunctional state and, not coincidentally, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. I suspect that we will see a repeat of the budget showdown of 1995, which furloughed millions of federal workers and left most agencies, except the few that had an appropriation, mothballed. This time though, emboldened with fresh Tea Party members, it is likely that House Republicans simply won’t give in at all. The Senate is likely to be more reasonable, but it’s unlikely an acceptable spending bill will emerge from conference that either the House or the Senate will endorse.

Even if one emerges, can it sustain a presidential veto since in all likelihood such a budget will extend or expand tax cuts for the rich while decimating social spending? The answer is already clear (no), but if dealing with the budget were not enough, there are other recent laws, such as the health care reform law, that Republicans are chomping at the bit to repeal. They ultimately won’t go anywhere either during this presidency, but it will engender a lot of negative energy and hot air.

I expect that unstoppable force is going to meet immovable object. The result will not be pretty and will sour voters even more on government. Congress may look at its current dismal approval ratings as the good old days.

Is there good news in all this? Yes. The good news is that the issues animating voters to the polls this year, our less than stellar economy, is likely to finally recede in voters mind in 2011 and 2012 as our slow recovery is actually felt by the working class, albeit in fits and starts. The economy won’t be quite what it was, but we are likely to see the unemployment rate recede to more politically acceptable levels. Both sides will of course claim credit for it while castigating the other side that the economy isn’t doing better. Voters will get to sort it all out again in 2012.

The surest path to returning a Republican to the Oval Office in 2012 is of course to bet against our recovery, which is why disingenuous Republicans will be doing just that. They will secretly welcome high unemployment and exploding deficits, because it undermines the Obama Administration. In short, there is little upside for Republicans to improve the economy, deficits and the employment picture, particularly if it vindicates the unpopular but necessary long-term strategies Democrats and the Obama Administration have been fostering to achieve long-term growth.

I wish there was an island I could go somewhere until it all blows over in 2012. Meanwhile, I fear for our republic. Governing requires compromise and there will be none of it until 2013 at the earliest. My only question is who will ultimately be held responsible for the ensuing mess? The Republicans of course hope it will be Democrats and the Obama Administration, but if 1995 is any guide having the ability to govern but refusing to do so sours voters’ opinions of you, particularly when social security checks don’t arrive on time. In short, obstinacy is an effective short-term strategy, but a poor long-term strategy for staying in power. Say what you like about the Democrats, but at least they governed, despite near unanimous Republican opposition.

Consequently, any electoral gains Republicans make in this year’s election are likely to recede in 2012.