Learning From Lame Ducks
So, class, what have we learned from the past week or two of the lame duck Congress and our just plain-old lame president?
A few things, actually. Not ? since lameness trumps all else ? that they’ll necessarily matter, though.
One thing ? which is actually only new to someone who has spent the last several decades not paying attention to American politics (Barack, are you listening?) ? is that there is effectively no bottom to the depths to which Republicans will sink in order to serve their plutocratic masters and strip the country bare. I mean none. Zero. Nada. Zip. They are capable of absolutely anything.
Again, this is only news if you somehow managed to sleep through McCarthyism. Or even through your high school history lecture on McCarthyism. It’s only news if you’d been on an extended Disneyland holiday for the two years of Watergate. Or maybe you were you were off fishing in Antarctica when the first failed Bush was using racist Willie Horton ads to win the presidency. It’s only novel if you were comatose later when Karl Rove and the Wee Bush, along with their merry band of Vietnam war avoiders, savaged in succession John McCain, Max Cleland and John Kerry for their supposed national security failings, in order to score political points. It’s only news if you somehow slept through the travesty of Bush vs. Gore, when the regressive majority on the Supreme Court did a total 180 on all their previously held, deeply-deeply-felt, values in order to shove the little brat across the finish line and into the Oval Office.
For the rest of us, however, this is not a giant shock. True to form, there were the Republicans these last weeks insisting on the one thing they absolutely had to have in any deal, which of course was massive tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. That was their sine qua non, and that’s just what they got when Mr. Happy in the White House went into the alley once again carrying only flowers, while the other guys brought knives. And aircraft carriers. After he repeats this performance two years from now and makes these boondoggles for the wealthy permanent, the cost to the American treasury will total something like $830 billion over the next ten years. All borrowed, of course. And almost all to be repaid by non-elites when it comes back in the form of loans due, plus interest. When even Ayn Rand disciple Alan Greenspan urges the government not to do this, you know it must be incredibly damaging.
But why not let Wall Street itself speak. These great patriots who demand that the government pile more wealth on top of existing enormous stacks will in fact completely abandon their much-beloved host country as soon as the financials suggest that is the way to go. It may not be long. This plan is so bad that Moody’s is now ? for the first time in, what, centuries? Ever? ? calling into question the credit-worthiness of the United States government. Their assessment of the deal is that “the negative effects on government finance are likely to outweigh the positive effects of higher economic growth. Unless there are offsetting measures, the package will be credit negative for the U.S. and increase the likelihood of a negative outlook on the U.S. government’s Aaa rating during the next two years.”
Golly, you know, I’m not entirely hep on that whole investment-casino-racket-game, but that sounds an awful lot to me like the noise made by dead canaries in coal mines. Doesn’t it?
And yet these same Republicans held unemployment benefits hostage to this give-away to the wealthy. Benefits for people who are suffering because of the Great Recession that Republicans themselves created. And some of them even make the most astonishingly crass comments about the poor slobs out there with no jobs, no prospects, and no hope, thanks to the GOP. Said Orrin Hatch, “We should not be giving cash to people who basically are just gonna blow it on drugs”. I’m not gonna say what I really think should be done to someone that heartless, because doing so would probably just buy me a visit from the Secret Service. Are there really people like this? In the highest bodies of government? In the world’s sole superpower?
It’s absolutely amazing. But not even that could top what these same folks did when they refused to pass legislation to pay for medical care for those first-responders who went into the burning maw of the 9/11 World Trade Center pile. They argued that the government couldn’t afford the expense a handful of billions of dollars to take care of these firemen and police officers and emergency crews, even though the expense was actually compensated for in the bill by raised fees. You really have to shake your head in wonder at these guys. First, because it is amazing to contemplate what could have happened to such people in their youth that could have turned them into these complete sociopaths, utterly unfeeling of other people’s grief, and utterly amoral. And secondly, you have to shake your head in amazement that any politician could be so seemingly out of touch with the values of the country that they would dare come out against funding medical care for 9/11 first-responders. But, finally, you have to shake your head in awe that these same people just won resounding victories in the last national election. Which makes you wonder just who is out of touch with national values and who is not? The voting public seems to agree that the wealthy need more and bigger tax cuts, and that they need them even if that means we can’t afford to pay for treating the severe respiratory illnesses of those who answered the call on 9/11 and plunged into a rescue effort. No, in addition to having to live through the horrors of those days and relive them for the rest of their lives, then getting extremely ill and having their quality of life ruined and its quantity cut short because of their sacrifice, they should also have to pay for their own medical treatment. You know, so that billionaires can become multibillionaires.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Of sorts. After the amount in question was chopped down, twice, the Republicans finally relented and agreed to the bill. But, by all accounts, what really did the trick was Jon Stewart expressing the same moral outrage about their position on this question that inhabits the paragraph above. Which suggests that, yes, in fact, these sick sociopaths can be shamed. Or, at least ? since I doubt they actually have any shame at all ? that they can be moved to change their votes out of fear of losing their jobs (call it ‘play shame’). And this is the second lesson of the lame duck Congress.
But notice who did the shaming here, and who did not. It sure wasn’t the mainstream media. And, incredibly, it wasn’t the opposition party to the Republicans.
I hope to live long enough to understand American politics in our time. I really ought to, since people pay me money to teach it to college undergrads. But I confess it remains mysterious in certain profound ways. I certainly get that on economic issues there’s hardly any difference any more between Reptilians and Demoncrats. Indeed, on such issues it is nearly a complete misnomer to even speak of them as separate parties. They are merely two cooperative wings of the same plutocracy. Sorta like the Army and the Marines. Sure, those two services of the same Defense Department have lots of disputes and rivalries over mission and funding. But when they United States military invades your country, you’re not gonna be noticing any real difference between which part of the hammer is bonking you over the head. Similarly, when the oligarchs seek to strip the very paint off the USS US, ever since Bill Clinton brought us the New Democrat model they can call upon either party or both to get the job done.
So I get that part. What I don’t get, however, is why self-interested politicians don’t pursue their self-interest, especially when it is handed to them on a silver platter. I don’t believe that Democrats give a shit about the American public, but don’t they care desperately about their own political careers? Wouldn’t they really, really rather win elections than get humiliated in them? And isn’t it logical to assume that they would use every weapon available to achieve that end, especially those that actually come with no skanky baggage attached? What I’ve been puzzling about for decades is why Democrats don’t do the same thing Jon Stewart did?
Clearly, there are some things that Republicans do that are harder than others to criticize. Jingoistic displays of ‘toughness’ against some foreign bogeyman du jour is always going to play well with the hoi polloi, who like their politics bumper-sticker sized, and reducible down to one-act (if not one-sentence) morality plays, in which they inevitably are on the side of Good. And god. Same with taxes. It’s pretty easy to sell people on the idea of getting more money, especially when you pretend that such so-called tax cuts are cost-free.
But there’s also so much else that Republicans say and do that is just absolutely outrageous, and could be just hammered against them if Democrats had the slightest inclination to do so. Remember when George W. Bush said the Iraq war was over before it had really even begun? How utterly lame was that? Remember when that Vietnam era coward told the folks killing American GIs in Iraq by the thousands to “Bring it on!”? Remember when he did a ‘hilarious’ video send-up of himself searching all over his office for those missing WMDs, the whole pretext for the invasion of Iraq and the eight year war which has followed? Remember when he said he didn’t really care that much about catching Osama bin Laden, or when he just shrugged his shoulders in response to indications that the North Koreans were about to explode a nuclear warhead? Remember when Donald Rumsfeld amply demonstrated his indifference to the soldiers under his command after they asked for simple protective armament, and he responded that “You go to war with the army you have, not that one you want”?
I could go on and on here, but the point is obvious. These clowns continually leave themselves wide open for withering attack, just as they did by opposing unemployment extensions for ‘lazy’ laid-off workers, or by opposing the pittance cost to provide health care for 9/11 first-responders, all based on the claim that we can’t afford the spending, even though we absolutely must give massive tax cuts to billionaires.
But the Democrats don’t ever attack, even for their own survival, and least of all does the hapless excuse for a chief executive now in the White House. Like I said, lame I get. Bought-off I get. But this?
Oh well. Nobody in Washington is going to change their stripes tomorrow because I told them to. But if we’re looking for lessons from these last weeks, here’s another ? and it’s a powerful one. One of the country’s preeminent comedians showed half the political class what they couldn’t figure out for themselves ? namely, how to accept gift-wrapped opportunities from the other half for the latter’s annihilation.
These are not exactly surprising revelations, and they’re not even necessarily newsworthy. But there has been one development lately that is semi-novel and potentially very consequential. Or, at least, it would be, if the Democrats had even the slightest bit of gumption.
What I’m referring to is the splitting of the Republican Party on several of the key votes cast over recent days. On Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, on the New START treaty with the Russians, on the tax bill and on the 9/11 first-responders health care bill, the heretofore highly monolithic Republican Party showed fissures that are really unusual compared to most all of their historical behavior over the last thirty years. It’s not that the GOP never splits, it’s just that it’s so rare. And to have it happen this many times in this short a period presents some intriguing possibilities.
Party discipline has been key to Republican success during these years, especially the last two, when they were in the much repudiated minority, and at a time when every single vote in the Senate was potentially the difference between having the 60 necessary to move forward on legislation that had clear majority support, or seeing it bottled up forever. (There was, of course, always the third alternative, in which Democrats would make Republicans actually do the filibuster over an unpopular cause, thus forcing the GOP to bring a public relations disaster down on their own heads. Or the fourth alternative, in which the Democrats could have used their majority to change the rules of the Senate in order to make it far more democratic in nature. Of course, either of these would have required the Democrats to be interested in genuine public service and to have even a moderate willingness to stand up for themselves, which explains why neither occurred.)
In any case, there are now some preliminary indications that the Republicans are not so disciplined anymore. And, what’s more, while it’s very early to tell, the fissures within the party seem to perhaps be multiple. I see the GOP as having essentially three camps, which can be thought of as being arrayed ideologically, from right to way far right. There is also a chronological ordering these factions as well.
On the left side of the spectrum (though far from being left) are the last gasps of the old center-right, Eastern, Rockefeller Republicans who once in fact dominated the party. They are virtually extinct nowadays, either abandoned by constituents because of their association with the freaks controlling the party, beaten by those freaks in a primary challenge, or reinvented as some sort other creature, as Arlen Specter (who actually fits into all three of these categories) tried to pull off. But there are still a few of them around ? Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe from Maine, sometimes along with Richard Lugar, may be the only remaining such dinosaurs ? and in close votes they can matter.
To their right are the Establishment Republicans, which is simultaneously both the old insurrectionary class and the current defenders against the new insurrectionary class. These are folks who are the radical-bonkers-predatory-Cro-Magnons of 1990s vintage, who became the mainstream by virtue of the country’s politics moving rightward and by their killing off the Neanderthals mentioned above. These are the children of Gingrich and the grandchildren of Reagan ? people (at least in appearance ? they could as easily be reptiles instead) like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.
They’ve had the party to themselves for a while, but now the tea party guerillas (or is it gorillas?) have arisen, in part by trashing the old guard as irresponsible big spenders. It’s not at all clear that the party leadership has control over these professed radicals, and not at all clear what happens if they refuse to play ball on, say, spending, or raising the debt ceiling.
All in all, this makes for some interesting opportunities and possibilities. Or, it could, that is. Again, there’s not much use for potential fissures in the opposition if there’s no one around to actually exploit them. There might be some real possibility here for the use of wedge issues to explode the differences in the GOP, or at least to make them pay at the ballot box for what they have to do to paper over those differences. Republicans have been doing this to their opponents for quite some time, to enormous electoral success ? for example, using gay-bashing to peel off social conservatives from the Democratic Party and getting them to vote against their own economic interest.
But that would require Democrats to do what has come naturally to Republicans for decades, but is more or less anathema for the helpless, hapless Dems.
It’s called playing hardball. It’s called playing to win.
The lame duck Congress brought some surprises and some notable victories. It’s fair to say, for instance, that repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell may the biggest single civil rights leap forward we’ve seen in half a century. That’s no small thing, of course, but it’s well to remember two caveats there. The first is that what we’re talking about is essentially a negative victory ? the undoing of what was a really bad idea to start with, going back to its beginning nearly two decades ago. That may be progress of a sort, but it’s kinda like somebody reaching into your pocket and pulling out a hundred dollar bill, then later handing it back to you. You might feel like you’re that much richer, but you really shouldn’t.
The other missing ingredient here is that the president, who may not have even worked particularly hard behind the scenes for this legislation, surely didn’t get out front on it. That is to say that he ? unlike Lyndon Johnson or Jack Kennedy ? never used the bully pulpit to make the moral case for why this is the right and essential task for the nation at this time. Civil rights legislation and moral haranguing go hand in hand, each reinforcing and further advancing the other. Barack taking a powder on one of the great moral causes of our day doesn’t exactly help make life in America better and safer for gays and lesbians. Indeed, it’s worse than that. By stating that he still opposes gay marriage, he is absolutely part of the problem, not the solution.
My guess is that we’re going to be seeing more of that. The last two years have been disappointing and arguably quite disastrous for the country. That produced a lovely vicious cycle, which gave us Election 2010, the results of which are now likely to produce even more disastrous politics over the coming two years.
This was all ridiculously unnecessary, but that’s how it works with Obama and his party.
If it weren’t for the degree to which the actions and non-actions of Democrats wind up savaging the American people, you could say they were their own worse enemy.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.