Thursday, October 10, 2013

NPR Misses the Point of the Shutdown, Entirely

Mara Liasson is not a dumb reporter, but her piece today on NPR looking at the various political miscalculations that "led" to the government shutdown, called "How Political Miscalculations Led To The Shutdown Standoff", is a classic overthink about what has happened. As such, it's pretty dumb.

It's really not that hard to understand what led to the shutdown: a far-right faction of the political spectrum within the US citizenry has taken control of one of the two major parties, and by flirting with default, it is now playing politics in a very different way to what we've been accustomed for a very long time in this country. It's not because--as Liasson seems to believe--Boehner misread Obama's resolve, or the Democrats "assumed the Speaker had a plan for what he and his members needed to make a deal".

While these may be scenes in the play, they ain't what's driving the plot. The reason why we have a government shutdown is because the Tea Party caucus came up with this plan, and nobody in the Republican Party had the foresight, the desire, the willpower, or even the ability to derail their train of madness that has already adversely affected hundreds of thousands and just might possibly bring the whole economy crashing down on our heads. Any news story that purports to analyze the situation in Washington that does not start with this observation is misleading the public. Nothing Boehner or Obama or Harry Reid or Eric Cantor did over the past several months was going to change this outcome. It might have played out slightly differently, and it might have been portrayed differently, but what conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has dubbed "the suicide caucus" wanted this fight since Obama was elected, and they've finally gotten it, and nothing--nothing--was going to prevent them from having this fight.

As for the part where Liasson suggests that Democrats assumed Boehner had a way out, she quotes nobody and provides no evidence that Dems would believe such a thing. She might be right, but I've been watching this thing from afar for months and I didn't think Boehner had a plan. Indeed, I assumed he had no plan precisely because he misread the President's resolve (and I wasn't convinced that the Speaker was wrong, either: if the Prez is going to cave in the 9th hour anyway, why have Plan B?) Moreover, Boehner has repeatedly moved his own goalposts throughout the past year in further acquiescence to his right flank; why on earth would anyone think he knew how to square the circle of the budget shutdown given how far he's been pushed?

At any rate, the fight is now upon us. It is a real political fight, with very high stakes, which is to say the stakes do not involve the careers or popularity of a small number of politicians from either party whose fortunes rise and fall with well- or poorly-played maneuvers, but rather affects all manner of hidden infrastructural details of our lives. What made the Tea Party what it is, is certainly a complicated topic worthy of all sorts of analysis, and we could fill up dozens of op-ed columns well into the future describing the demographic trends, social issues, splintering of the media and all manner of factors that has led to their rise in influence. And yes, we could even evaluate the misunderstandings from those on the left, right and center that allowed the Tea Party to achieve what it has thus far, if "achievement" is the apt description.

But why we have this fight right now is no real mystery. To treat it, as Liasson has done here, as a complex game of insider baseball, with important players trying and failing to read the situation, is to profoundly misrepresent what has happened in Washington. The reason why we have a shutdown is because we have the Tea Party--full stop. They do not share the same assumptions as most Americans about how to achieve their political aims in a representative democracy; they are playing by a new, very different, and I would argue, scary set of rules. Their kind has always been part of the American story, but with the sole exception of the Civil War, they have never been so organized nor wielded such political clout. They wanted this moment, and now we are here. Boehner could not have stopped it. Obama could not have stopped it. Harry Reid could not have stopped it. What happens next is anyone's guess.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Being Mad As Hell At the Government Shutdown

I was just at a conference this week where I bumped into a former mentor of sorts. Always pleased to see him, I came over to chat about how things were going back at the mother ship, who was up to what, and so on. As part of the small talk, the government shutdown got mentioned. He just shook his head. "Those people are all crazy down there," he said, and just as I was about to ask which people he meant, he clarified it. "Democrat, Republican...I'd just vote 'no' for all of them if I could."

This is not a stupid man, although this is a decidedly stupid sentiment, and it almost certainly comes from automatically assuming that if there's a "problem in Washington", then the problem is shared equally, since there are radicals on both sides, and the extremes of the party hold the mainstream hostage, preventing the can't-we-just-fix-the-problem Good Guys & Gals from doing their job. Thus, as the shutdown drags on--and we careen toward what nearly everyone acknowledges is a much more consequential fight over the debt ceiling--people are having their "Mad As Hell" moments, both publicly and privately.

Witness, for instance, this CNN diatribe against the madness by Tom Foreman. In it, he blames everything on, well, everyone associated with the mess: "Democrats, Republicans, and the Insane Leap Into the Abyss" is its title, and it starts by stomping its feet in frustration over how the shutdown has just ruined the wedding plans of one happy couple who wanted to tie the knot at the Grand Canyon National Park, but now cannot due to its closure. (That there may be some people affected much more profoundly is indicative of the shallowness of the piece.) And who is at fault? "To be sure, there is enough blame out there to choke a horse," Foreman writes. "Polls show the Republicans taking the worst of it, but Democrats and President Obama are also being hammered for their part in the debacle."

In short, Foreman has absolutely no idea who is at fault because he is utterly ignorant of the details that led to the shutdown, and assumed that since there's an impasse, it must be everyone's fault--although those darned polls seem to think that the Republicans might just have a slightly bigger problem. A journalist who needs to resort to polling to help him figure out who deserves blame has major cognitive limitations.

Mercifully, elsewhere on the CNN website is a reasonably decent evaluation of the situation by Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria's followed the bouncing ball over the past two years, and he understands that the Democrats--especially through President Obama's previous ineptitude in handling the last budget fight--have basically already given every major policy demand to the Republicans despite having a Democrat in the White House and control of the Senate. "What cannot be allowed to stand is the notion that if a group of legislators cannot convince a majority in both houses and the president to agree with them, they will shut down the government or threaten to default until they can get their way," says Zakaria. "That is extortion, not democracy." Which is an accurate assessment of the situation. Just because it lays blame squarely at the feet of one group does not make it partisan. It makes it accurate.

Here's a detail that Tom Foreman may not have bothered to learn: the "clean CR" that the Republicans will not put up for a vote is the budget to keep the government running at "sequester levels", basically what Paul Ryan proposed when he ran with Mitt Romney. They lost, by the way, although an analysis of actual policies would lead disinterested observers to conclude otherwise. Every Democrat opposes these levels, so to ask the Republican House to simply agree to that is already having capitulated to an astonishing degree. Despite the Republican Party controlling only half of the legislative branch, and none of the executive branch, the fiscal policy of the federal government is somehow not only thoroughly Republican, it is, in effect, a dream budget for Tea Party politicians.

But even that wasn't enough for them to declare victory. What more is there to compromise, with the Dems with their backs to the wall, having blundered into the sequester, which appears as if it will be federal budget policy for the foreseeable future? There's only one thing that's left: the Affordable Care Act. For Obama, or the Senate Dems, to give this away would basically be to declare themselves to be Republicans. There would be no two-party governance in this country; it's already tilted heavily in favor of the Tea Party. The Tea Partiers don't believe this, of course. I can forgive them for this lack of appreciation for their own success because they are, as a movement, insane. I am far less patient with my friends and neighbors who don't follow politics enough to understand the dynamic of Washington since the Tea Party has been ascendant.

That is what worries me about the Foreman "everyone's at fault" piece. I think he's representative of a huge chunk of Americans who are, understandably, mad as hell, but who also are, somewhat less understandably, inchoate in their grasp of even the most basic details of how our government has been working, or rather, hasn't.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Government Shutdown and False Equivalence

There is an awful lot being said and written about the shutdown of the US Federal Government. I won't link to any of the news bits; I assume that if you're reading this, you've been reading at least something about the shutdown. I'm also not going to comment on the politics of the situation, which for me will require incredible self-control. We'll have to check back at the end of this entry and see if I made it successfully.

What I will comment on is the ongoing trope that this is a problem due to radicalization of both political parties. See, for instance, this common "they're all bums" title in an article running up to the shutdown: "Shutdown Crisis Shows Washington Breakdown", which dutifully lays blame at both parties for the troubles throughout the article, as if somehow President Obama is as wild-eyed in his zeal as Ted Cruz.

There has been some scholarly work devoted to this issue of ideological segregation, and the mantra seen in wonky articles on the matter is that both parties have become more pure and extreme. The link above throws in the caveat that the polarization of political parties is asymmetric--that is, it is more extreme on the right than on the left (see political commentary here)--but still sees the trend occurring in both parties.

This seems like utter nonsense to me--or at least is highly misleading--and I think it's based on how one measures "purity". If you have some members of Congress vote with their party 100 percent of the time and zero percent on bills floated by the opposing party, then those party members are 100 percent ideologically pure. If you have different members who vote, say, 75 percent with their caucus and 25 percent against, those people are less pure. The graph shown in the link compares "purity" from 1879 to 2011:

This gives the impression that the political issues between the parties have been more-or-less stable over that time. In reality, a graph of the Republican party from 1879 to 2011 would have shown itself to be a far left party, especially from 1850 through 1880, then a gradual move to the center for the next 80-90 years, then a lurch to the right starting in late 1960s and early 70s, and a much farther jump to the right from Gingrich's speakership on. Yet this isn't what you see on the graphic at all: Republicans occupy the top half of the figure, Dems the bottom.

What is missed, over and over again in these discussions about "party polarization" is that if the parties are becoming more divergent, it is only a phenomenon that can be described relative to each other and not at all about the underlying politics. Meaning: the left wing of the Democratic party may have less in common with virtually any member of the Republican party now than when I was growing up in the 1970s, but the left wing of the Democratic party (at least their representatives in Congress) has moved to the right politically over that time.

The proof can be found in the moronic howling over the very healthcare law that is the source of the shutdown. Despite the Tea Party claims that the ACA is socialism, it bears repeating that the key provision that makes the Affordable Care Act work, the "individual mandate", was essentially invented in the offices of The Heritage Foundation, the right-leaning think tank. (It also is worth noting that "Obamacare" is structurally the same as "Romneycare", and that the former Presidential candidate who campaigned on the repeal of Obamacare seemed pretty pleased with himself when his health care bill passed as Governor of Massachusetts. The fact that this needs to be noted is indicative of the ignorance of so many people who play key roles in forming policies for the Federal government.) Thus, by any sane definition, the ACA is a rightward bill that should have passed with tremendous Republican support, and would have a generation ago if Clinton had lost the Presidency to Bob Dole in 1996. The Republican party would then have claimed this as a legislative victory, and who knows what would have changed in domestic politics as a consequence.

A Tea Party-equivalent left wing approach to health care reform would have been truly nationalizing health care like Britain, where doctors are government employees and hospitals government buildings. Currently we have something similar in the US  in the form of the Veteran's Administration health care system, which is truly a federal government  operation from beginning to end. It's also reasonably popular. Despite this, there were only a few Dems open to this idea, and it was never realistically discussed.

A moderate left-wing solution to the healthcare problem was to push for "Single Payer", in which the government takes over the functions that the private insurance industry handles. This could be thought of as "Medicare For All", and to this day I don't understand why the Dems didn't embrace this sales pitch given Medicare's popularity. But Single Payer, even though there was a Tea Party-sized chunk of the Dem caucus that supported it, was deemed out of the question by party leaders, and never took center stage in policy discussions.

The centrist position was one in favor of the "Public Option", which would not force everyone into the Medicare pool but allow them to opt-in. It had a huge amount of support among rank and file Democrats; indeed, this was approved in the initial bill passed by the House, but was dead on arrival in the Senate for procedural reasons (it's unclear if it would have passed the Senate, but probably would have if it came to a vote). Even that approach, however, which was somewhere between mainstream and concessionary Democratic philosophy, couldn't survive the legislative process. So we got instead a law that would have warmed the cockles of Newt Gingrich's heart in the mid 1990s, yet you still hear reporters and talking heads let go unchallenged statements about the "problems of the radicals on both sides".

The two parties aren't getting more radical. Both parties have moved to the right. Repeat: both parties have moved to the right over the past two generations. Just because one of them has done so at an alarmingly accelerated rate doesn't mean the other has moved in the other direction. It's an optical illusion, and yet our media largely contributes to the underlying problems driving this crisis by their constant and tedious exercise in false equivalence. I would argue, to borrow a recent use of the phrase by Senator Rand Paul, that it's time to point out that the emperor has no clothes, although Paul might not approve of my meaning.