Political Commentary

A Time For Choosing

I stayed the night last night in an unfamiliar city in southern California, and needed to get some breakfast before embarking on an eight-hour drive home. As I knew nothing about the town, I didn’t know where I could find a good breakfast place, but there was a Denny’s right next to my hotel. It’s not the most spectacular food, but it is predictable and cheap, and when it comes to road food in an unfamiliar location, predictable-and-cheap is often preferable to the alternatives.

As I ordered—a shaved ham-and-egg sandwich with Swiss and American cheeses on sourdough and hashbrowns—the server asked if I’d like anything else, maybe a short stack of pancakes.

For a second, I was sorely tempted, and then it hit me that the question—which could be paraphrased as “Would you like 600 calories’ worth of pancakes, butter and syrup to go with the 1,100 calories of ham, egg, cheese, potatoes, bread and grease?”—was really a metaphor for the last 70 years of American politics: “You don’t have to choose one tasty meal or the other, hungry patron of mediocre breakfast food! You can have both!”

This is the same idea we Americans have been sold from the political menu since the end of World War II, and by and large, we have happily consumed it. “Guns OR butter? Who says you have to choose? You can have guns AND butter—and you can put that butter on that extra side of pancakes!”

In the heady postwar era, it really did seem like we Americans could have all we wanted and never have to concern ourselves with the consequences. While most of Europe and large swathes of Asia and Africa were devastated, America was the only major industrial power that was largely unscathed. America became the material colossus of the world, the leading supplier of goods. Factories worked in three shifts around the clock, and well-paid jobs were there to be had by anybody who grabbed a high school diploma one day and walked into the local factory the next.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and it is easy to look back and realize that it couldn’t last—that sooner or later the rest of the world would rebuild itself and compete with us, and that we would no longer be the only major seller of industrial and consumer goods, with inevitable consequences for the postwar U.S. economic boom. The economic crisis of the 1970s, with skyrocketing inflation and a growing dependence on cheap imports, made it plain to people such as President Jimmy Carter that the nation’s voracious consumerism needed to go on a diet. The late 1970s was an era of downsizing and increased efficiency—smaller, fuel-efficient cars, turning down the thermostat, installing solar panels. The gravy train was also over, certainly, in the political realm; we either had to raise taxes or cut services, or some combination thereof.

However, Ronald Reagan—who ironically rose to political prominence by delivering a speech, on behalf of the doomed 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign, titled “A Time For Choosing”—came along in 1980 and essentially told us all that no, we did not have to make any hard choices. We could continue to have all the essential government services, and we could also institute massive tax cuts (largely benefiting the wealthiest Americans). He gave us a third option by which we could avoid both raising taxes and cutting services, and we eagerly took it: Put it all on the credit card. We’ll pay it off later. Reagan told us we could have both the tasty sandwich-and-hashbrowns meal, AND the pancakes, and we listened because it was what we wanted to hear.

The truth is that we do face hard choices as a society, and the longer we put those choices off, the higher the bill is going to be. In the same way that a person who makes no responsible choices at the table will eventually suffer health consequences, the longer we go on failing to choose as a society, the more it will hurt us in the end.

So our choice is this: do we continue to allow a small number of extremely wealthy people to continue to hoard vast sums of money, more than many of them could spend in dozens of lifetimes, while everybody else lives either in poverty or the realistic possibility of poverty? And let’s be honest, that’s exactly the situation we face. How many Americans today live a life of quiet desperation, knowing that if they lose a job or suffer a major illness, they go from financially comfortable to bankrupt, or even homeless, in a few short steps?

Do we continue to pay our bills as a country on a giant credit card, knowing that at some point, future generations will have to pay the bill? Hell, they’re already paying the bill. As colleges have raised tuition to meet growing costs, students have had to take on massive amounts of debt that were largely unheard of prior to the 1990s. They are then entering a job market in which there are very few jobs for them, in part because older workers, whose ability to draw secure pensions has been severely eroded, lack the financial security to retire. Those same older workers, faced with working into their 70s, are also faced with partially or fully supporting their adult children—as upwards of a third of all Americans between 18 and 31 now live with their parents. And their adult offspring, more and more, are faced with delaying their careers, thereby delaying their ability to save money, pay off their loans, buy homes, have children if they wish, and eventually retire. We are just now starting to see the consequences of our failure to choose.

Sooner or later, we Americans are going to have to understand that we have to choose the sandwich or the pancakes, and maybe eat only half of what we ultimately do choose. We have to unlearn the lie, which we have eagerly accepted, that we can have everything we want and that we never have to choose—that we can continue to spend trillions of dollars on a bloated military budget, and idiotic wars of choice like the war in Iraq, and that we can simultaneously continue to give tax breaks to bloated billionaires and corporations. Meanwhile our cities fill with the homeless and hungry; our bridges and roads crumble; we are losing an entire generation of Americans whose careers and paths to financial security appear hopelessly blocked; and our educational system continues to collapse, in part because of continued political meddling, and in part because teachers are so poorly paid and underappreciated that the most promising college students choose fields such as finance. We need to decide whether it is more important to fund the things that will benefit our society as a whole, or if we are going to continue to buy more of what we don’t need and can’t afford.

Even if you disagree, as I do, with the solutions Reagan advised us to choose in 1964, he was right about one thing: that we do, in fact, face a time of choosing. But he was wrong, when he told us in 1980, that he was just kidding.

Divergent: Where the Politics of the Evangelical Christian Persecution Complex Meets the Big Screen

My wife and I saw Divergent today, and while I thought it was an extremely entertaining, high-quality movie, I found one thing in particular to be deeply troubling when we discussed the movie at an early dinner afterward:

Why is it that the “Erudite” faction—the intellectuals—were the evil people who were trying to take over the society and violently wipe out the “rightful” rulers, the “Abnegation” faction?

My wife was also interested in this question, so she looked up the author of the book, and discovered that the writer, Veronica Roth, was reported to be a “moralistic, devout Christian.”

Admittedly, this aroused my suspicion, and I began to look at the movie the way that I know many evangelical Christians look at society, from my own personal experiences and the experiences of friends. When I began really thinking about the movie, I started noticing several notable parallels:

1) The main character, Triss, is deeply uncomfortable about sex and firmly denies the sexual advances of her love interest, Four. The high level of her discomfort about sex becomes clear when we learn that is one of her greatest fears. Evangelical Christianity, of course, has a near obsession with premarital chastity, and Triss, the movie’s heroine, behaves exactly the way the evangelical religious culture would expect her to behave.

2) The plot is set in a post-apocalyptic world, and as anyone who has observed the “end times” element of evangelical Christianity knows, a post-apocalyptic society is a major focus of evangelical Christian thought.

3) Even though we learn that Four’s father abused him as a child, when Four’s father asks his son to save his life, Four does it—exactly what would be expected in a culture in which “honor(ing) thy mother and father” is paramount, regardless of parental transgressions.

4) The Abnegation faction consists of “simple, modest folk” who dress plainly, eat simple foods and behave, at all times, in an unfailingly virtuous way. This mirrors some of the practices—and the conceits—of many evangelical sects that discourage dressing or behaving “immodestly” and decry being “worldly.” They also harbor and shelter outcasts who have run afoul of the intelligentsia; the parallel here is that evangelicals like to view themselves as outcasts from the “immoral” society around them. It seems obvious that the “Abnegation” faction is a stand-in for evangelical Christians.

5) “Erudite,” the intellectual faction, is presented as scheming, evil, and jealous of the prerogatives of the ruling faction, which the “Abnegation” faction has somehow managed to become. How these simple, unassuming, virtuous people became the rulers of the post-apocalyptic Chicagoland is hard to imagine—unless one takes the view, as evangelical Christians in America do, that “God’s peopleare the rightful rulers of ourChristian nation.” It is also worth noting that, in Judeo-Christian texts, Satan is portrayed as scheming, evil and jealous of God, and that he uses his intellect to turn the godly toward sin—so it hardly seems a stretch to see a parallel in the movie between intellectuals and Satan himself. This linkage of intelligence and evil should be deeply troubling for those of us who value evidence and intellectual inquiry over blind faith and unquestioning obedience.

6) The Erudites, consumed by their elitist arrogance, decide that they, not the righteous Abnegation faction, should rule. They use their intellect to control and corrupt the “Dauntless” faction—the military—in order to round up and execute the Abnegation faction. This is crucially important, because it lines up, chapter-and-verse, with the tenets of the persecution complex that is rampant in American evangelical Christianity. It is taken as an article of faith among evangelical Christians that they inevitably will be persecuted for their faith. In the evangelical community, mistrust of intellectual “elitists”—who, in the evangelical view, cleverly twist and spin the truth, idolize science and other “worldly” things, deny the Bible, and generally seek to corrupt our “Christian nation”—runs very deep.

I have some personal experience that informs my knowledge of the evangelical persecution complex. When I was about 10 years old, two friends of mine from school recruited me to join an evangelical imitation of the Boy Scouts. In between hikes and campfires, we were constantly being told by our adult leaders that we, as Christians, might one day be tortured, even killed, for professing our faith. (Finally, one night we were taken into the sanctuary where the Wednesday night services were taking place, and we were told to raise our hands, close our eyes, and softly, rhythmically chant “Jesus, Jesus.” Even as a 12-year-old, I found this experience decidedly weird, and I never went back.)

In short, I think the parallels between the movie and some of the stranger obsessions of American evangelicals are frightfully clear. I can’t help but wonder whether the flurry of books and movies such as this one, as well as Noah, Son of God, the impending Exodus, the Twilight series, and some of the obviously Christian morality parables being filmed by artists such as Tyler Perry, isn’t indicative of a serious push by the evangelical community to reverse their declining hold on American culture and politics via the aggressive use of the arts.

But most of all, I’m deeply troubled by the equating of intelligent people with the forces of evil, and I think we have to be wary of letting this train of thought get down the tracks unchecked. There has long been a tendency toward mistrust of intellectuals in American society—as noted by Frenchman Alexis deTocqueville in his seminal 19th-century work Democracy in America—and in the decades that have followed Charles Darwin’s publication of his Theory of Evolution, this anti-intellectualism has been taken up in a full-throated way by fundamentalist Christians as well. I think it is extremely dangerous when popular culture begins to reinforce this longtime loathing and mistrust of intellectuals.

I can almost smell the book barbecue now.

Cutting Through The Crap On Ukraine

I know it’s folly to even engage in discussion with Republicans on this topic, but seriously, can some Republican please tell me what exactly we can do about the Russian takeover of Crimea? I keep hearing these Republican politicians yammering about Obama being weak—because they’ve been playing the “Democrats are weak” card for 70 years and they still haven’t figured out anything any more original than that—but seriously, if we had elected Mitt Romney president in 2012, what, exactly, could he have done that would have prevented or reversed what has happened over there? Here’s a hint: the honest answer is “not a damn thing,” short of starting a war, and if you really think that going to war with Russia is an intelligent thing to do, I suggest consulting a couple of fellows named Bonaparte and Hitler and asking how that worked out for them. It’s also worth noting that when Napoleon and the Nazis, respectively, froze their asses off in Russia 130 years apart, the Russians did not yet have a stockpile of nuclear weapons—or you can bet your bottom dollar that Paris and Berlin would have glowed in the dark for decades.

Of course, Obama is blamed for “being weak on Syria” and, thereby, emboldening Russia to invade a country it has no business invading, but I would suggest that our idiotic invasion of Iraq might have set more of an example—and may well have also robbed us of any moral authority or credibility we have to criticize the Russians for their actions. In fact, I could point out that Russia has a much stronger case for its actions in Crimea than we had for our actions in Iraq. The Russians at least can claim, with real justification, that Crimea is historically and ethnically Russian and may well prefer to be part of Russia. We claimed that Iraq was linked to 9-11 and was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, and when those factually challenged claims proved inconvenient, we changed our story to removing a dictator and striking a blow for democracy. I don’t suspect the Russians would have very much respect for any lectures we might want to give them about the appropriateness of armed incursions into other nations.

Now, I know that the Republicans would tell us about that glorious day when Saint Ronnie stood before the Berlin Wall and exclaimed “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And then he circled the gates, blew his horn three times, and the wall fell. Of course, that’s not exactly the way it happened. What actually happened is that 40-plus years of U.S. containment policy, started by Harry Truman and continued by eight more presidents after him, isolated the Russians and wrecked their economy, and they had to pull back from Eastern Europe and Central Asia to save themselves from collapse. But the Gipper was on the mound when the winning run scored, so naturally, the Republicans give him all the credit, and they like to contrast his “strength” with Obama’s “weakness.” It’s a very simple and satisfying trope, but it’s also complete horse hockey, as Colonel Potter was fond of saying in M*A*S*H.

The bottom line is this: the next time a Republican yammers about Obama being “weak,” ask your Republican friend what another president might do differently. You’ll get an answer, of course, and it will be either 1) vague or 2) unrealistic. Because vague and unrealistic are what they do. But the facts on the ground are pretty simple here: if we want the Russians out of Ukraine, there won’t be a quick or satisfying solution; it will take years of isolation and economic pressure, just as it took to destroy the Soviet empire.

Hell To Pay In Oklahoma

I see that Oklahoma has potentially gotten itself into a bit of a pickle.

You see, the good, conservative Christian politicians of the Sooner State decided they were going to show everyone who was boss by putting up a Ten Commandments monument on the state capitol grounds. This decision, of course, runs contrary to the Constitutional prohibition of the establishment of a religion, but that’s what you’ve got to love about conservative Christians who yammer endlessly about how much they believe in the Bible and the Constitution: they’re never in a hurry to disregard either one of those sacred documents the second it serves their purposes to do so.

Well, it turns out that the Devil is in the details, and Oklahoma might just have Hell to pay.

The Satanic Temple of New York City has stepped up to the plate to request its equal treatment under the Constitution. It has designed a statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed little devil, to grace the capitol grounds along with the Ten Commandments. While it is not necessarily a Satanic figure, the fact that the Church of Satan decided to adopt Baphomet as its symbol certainly has not helped the billy goat’s reputation any.

The folks in Oklahoma have decided not to just take this lying down. They cleverly moved to deny the original b-a-a-a-a-a-d boy his place in the sun by placing a moratorium on new monuments at the Capitol.

You see how that works, don’t you? Aw, shucks, Satanists, now that we’ve placed the Ten Commandments monument, well, the Capitol grounds are all full now. Sure is a shame about that charmin’ Billy Boy y’all had in mind, but you were just a little too late. Y’all come on back when we build a new state Capitol, sometime around the 23rd century. You know, when the Rapture comes and we move the Capitol to Uranus. Your-Anus! Get it? Haw haw haw haw! Ain’t that a good one? But just in case y’all didn’t get it—we know you heathen New York City boys are a bit slow—you can stick your statue, and all your fancy talk about the Constitution, where the sun don’t shine! Now don’t let the door hit you where the good lord split you.

See, this is how they’re going to show us all that they’re going to do what they damn well please in Oklahoma. In much the same way that a dog urinates on a bush—and for essentially the same reasonthe State of Oklahoma has decided to demonstrate that Christians are the favored class in that state; that everyone else belongs to an inferior class with fewer rights; and that those in a lesser class must accept the dominance of the favored class.

But here’s the funniest part of all, folks—you’re going to spend years, and God knows how much taxpayer money, fighting this case in court. Because no matter what some of the more fringy right-wingers would like you to believe, the states do not have the right to nullify federal law. We fought this battle—literally—150 years ago, and your side lost. You cannot legally extend a particular right to one class of people while denying it to all others.

So, God help you, Oklahoma, because you’re going to have a Devil of a time with this one.

Doesn’t that really get your goat?

Ridgemont High and the Changing Cultural Treatment of Abortion

When I got home from work last night, HBO West was showing Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I hardly ever miss a chance to see this classic, which I believe came out in 1983. (For anyone who has been living in a cave for the last 30 years, the basic storyline is a year in the life of a group of teenagers at a typical American high school, learning how to be adults one youthful mistake at a time.) I’ve always thought it was a pretty good representation of that era, as best as I can recall (I was 10 at the time). Every time I see the movie, I can’t help but ponder the societal differences between then and now.

It struck me last night that the society of the 1980s, in some ways, was simultaneously more naive and less sheltered than today’s society. To wit: Stacy and Damone never gave a second’s thought to using birth control when they had sex—and yet, when Stacy became pregnant as a result, she immediately owned and took charge of the situation in a decisive, clear-headed way that I don’t think some adults could do today.

And that brings me to a related point which I think also demonstrates a major societal change in the last 30 years: confronted with an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 15, Stacy decides to have an abortion. The movie conveys that this is just a matter-of-fact thing: She’s 15 years old; of course she’s going to have an abortion. End of story. She has the abortion and goes for ice cream. There’s no long, drawn-out, agonizing decision-making process, no wailing, no seeking out of counseling, no crisis of conscience—either before or after the abortion.

Does anybody think that situation would be dealt with in the same way on screen today? I think it is clear that it would not. In most TV or movie productions we see today, characters who face unplanned pregnancies do not even consider abortion except obliquely and momentarily (such as in Juno, Knocked Up and Fools Rush In, to provide three cinematic examples), and then, they dismiss the option almost immediately. In fact, it seems the very word “abortion” can’t even be used. The most outlandish circumventing of the word comes from a character in Knocked Up, who hints that the procedure the Katherine Heigl character should consider “rhymes with shmashmortion.” Seriously?

Even more interesting is the fact that when abortion is summarily dismissed as an option in these films, it always results in a positive and “ideal” outcome. Let’s examine the three movies I’ve cited:

  • In Juno, the title character is “saved” from her appointment at an abortion clinic by a well-meaning protestor, and she ends up finding the perfect person to adopt the child she will bear. Of course.
  • In Fools Rush In, two total strangers, connected only by the fetus they conceived during a one-night stand, magically overcome tremendous cultural differences and fall in love.
  • Worst of all, in Knocked Up, a successful career woman’s pregnancy, resulting from a one-night stand with a perpetually stoned slacker, causes said stoner to straighten up, overnight, and fulfill his responsibilities.
So this is what the American cinema is selling—just have the kid, ladies, and everything will work out? Yeah, sure, because that’s realistic.

I wonder if anybody in 1983 thought we would be at a point today where we can’t even hear the word “abortion” in a movie, much less see a female character actually decide that abortion is the most appropriate choice for her. What’s next? Are we going to get to a point where we cannot view a movie about Charles Darwin in most American theaters because it focuses on his Theory of Evolution?

Oh, wait.

All Blame Is Not Created Equal

Not surprisingly, I am seeing a number of people, on Facebook and other message boards, offering the opinion that the current federal government shutdown is equally the fault of Republicans and Democrats. I am sure it seems like a reasonable thing to say, and it provides the effect of making the person who says it look moderate and evenhanded.
There is only one problem: it just isn’t true.
I am sure there is very little need for me to pause here and note, in the interest of fairness, that I am a Democrat. Most people who know me understand that I generally support what the Democratic Party supports, and I generally oppose what the Republican Party supports. I am not going to take the time here to get into all the reasons for my support of a liberal political philosophy, which is another discussion for another time. But to be fair, I feel it important to note up front that I do have a very strong political bias, so that those of you reading this post can make your own judgment as to my objectivity.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I am going to do my absolute best to present the facts of the case, and I am going to try to leave my own personal bias out of it as much as I can.
The Republicans, as you probably know, have a majority of seats in the United States House of Representatives, while the Democrats control a majority of the United States Senate and the presidency. We have come up to a couple of deadlines.
One deadline, which passed October 1st, was the deadline for Congress to pass a law that would continue funding the federal government. The failure of Congress to do so, due to the inability of the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate to agree on passing the same bill, is why most federal functions have shut down at this time.
Another deadline, which is approaching on October 17, is the date by which Congress must raise the nation’s debt ceiling. I’m going to take a moment here to explain what that means. The debt ceiling has to be raised to pay for the bills our country already owes. If the debt ceiling is not raised, the country will have to begin defaulting on the bills it has already incurred but has not yet paid. That is expected, by most financial experts, to have extremely negative effects on the financial markets and very possibly create another economic recession or depression.
To go back to the first deadline, which passed days ago, the reason why the House and Senate failed to agree was because the Republicans who control the House refused to pass any bill that did not defund or delay the new health care law, passed in 2010, which the Republicans began calling “Obamacare.” That bill, of course, passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama, at a time when Democrats had very large majorities in both the House and the Senate. The law passed with the support of no Republicans in either the House or Senate.
Republicans have strongly opposed the health care law from the beginning and have continued to try to find ways to end it, especially after the 2010 Congressional elections gave them control of the House and more members of the Senate (though Democrats maintained a majority). The Republicans in Congress are now attempting to force the Democrats to go along with either ending “Obamacare” (by taking away its funding) or delaying it, in exchange for Republican consent to continue funding the federal government and pay its bills.
What I have presented, to this point, is strictly factual. Here, I am going to begin to offer my opinion as to why the Republican position is unreasonable and why it is incorrect to blame the Democrats for “refusing to negotiate.”

First of all, I consider the Republican position unreasonable because the Republicans are offering the Democrats only one choice, which they know the Democrats cannot accept: either destroy or delay the program they worked very hard for many years to get
. The Republicans are offering no other alternatives. They are demanding that Democrats give them 100 percent of what they want, or they will shut down the government and possibly default on the nation’s debts, with potential catastrophic effects for the economy of the country and the world. This is not a good-faith attempt to negotiate; it is blackmail.

Secondly, I consider the Republican position unreasonable because the Republicans are trying to block the health care program before the government has even had a chance to implement it and see if it works or not.
Even though the program was enacted in 2010, it has taken time to get it ready, and it won’t be fully functional until 2015. Naturally, Democrats think “Obamacare” is a good idea, or they wouldn’t have enacted it, and Republicans think it is a bad idea. However, there isn’t a single person alive who can tell us, with any certainty, how it is going to work out. Anybody who says he can tell you that it will succeed or fail is either 1) just guessing or 2) lying. Most people would say that it is perfectly reasonable to get rid of the program if it fails. What is not reasonable, in my opinion, is to keep the program from ever being tried out, and that is what Republicans are attempting to do, by trying to force Democrats to defund it or delay it. To defund it would keep it from getting started at all. To delay it for a year inevitably would lead to another Republican demand, a year from now, to delay it again, and another, and another, until such time as a Republican president and Congress are elected and can overturn it. The Republican object is, clearly, to keep it from ever getting off the ground. I do not think this is a reasonable position.

Third, the implementation of “Obamacare” has nothing at all to do with funding government operations or raising the debt ceiling.
Changing the health care program is not required to do either of these things. Republicans are simply holding the country’s fiscal health hostage in order to gain leverage to destroy a program they oppose, before anyone knows whether that program will be good for the country or not.
If Republicans were offering ideas to help improve the health care program, I would consider this a more reasonable approach. But they are only offering a demand to stop it, which I do not consider reasonable.

In short, the Republican Party is the party that is making what I consider unreasonable demands, and I do not think the Democrats are at fault for refusing to give into unreasonable demands.
To do so would only encourage more unreasonable demands in the future.

It should also be noted that Democrats are attaching no demands to their own legislation that would fund the government, and in fact have already compromised on many of the things they would like to do.
The bill the Democratic-controlled Senate passed already had much lower levels of government funding than the Democrats wanted.

And in fact, it is also true that the health care law Democrats enacted in 2010 was much less than what Democrats wanted, or the president campaigned on.
The law did not include a “public option,” which would have created a government-based health insurance option to compete with private carriers; Democrats left this out as a concession to conservatives, even though it was a centerpiece of President Obama’s 2008 campaign and very popular with the people who voted for him. The president took a lot of political heat from his own base by leaving the public option out of the final proposal. So to claim that Democrats are being stubborn about government funding or health care is to ignore the fact that they have already made substantial concessions. It is the Republicans who are not making any concessions.
So when people claim that the Democrats are equally at fault, I believe the facts of the case prove that this is simply not true. The Democrats have made many concessions. It is time now for the Republicans to back away from their unreasonable demands and allow the government to be properly funded.

The Speaker's Dilemma

Even though I am a committed and partisan Democrat, I feel a bit sorry for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Sure, the man has his faults, but generally speaking, he strikes me as a reasonable adult who would love to make some sort of far-reaching deal with President Obama.

The problem for Boehner is that there are, by most estimates, about 40 of his 232 members that are dead set against making any kind of deal with the president or the Democrats. And without those people on board, and needing (currently, due to vacancies) 217 votes to pass anything, the only way he can get a deal done is with Democratic votes. This, of course, sets up a problem for the speaker—retaining his speakership. He can only lose, at this point, 15 Republican votes and still win a majority of the House at the next speakership election. That number will go up a little, or down a little, after the current vacancies are filled and the next general election is held in 2014, but the bottom line is this: if he gets crosswise with the Tea Party element of his caucus by bypassing them and doing a deal with the Democrats, he loses his speakership.

But there’s another problem, which is this: if this shutdown goes on or, even worse, Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling in two weeks and the economy tanks, most polling shows that the voters, correctly, will blame Republicans. That could mean, as Boehner himself has reportedly warned his caucus, Democratic control of the House in 2015, or at the least, a loss of Republican seats and a narrower majority. In either case, Boehner probably loses his speakership—definitely so if the Democrats win the House, but probably so if his party loses seats in a midterm under a Democratic president, which almost never happens. The last time that happened to Republicans, in 1998, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) was obligated to resign.

Boehner’s dilemma, in short, is that if he cuts a deal with Democrats, he probably loses his speakership; and if he doesn’t, and things get bad for the Republicans, he probably loses his speakership. It’s a real damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. Maybe he can hang on if Republicans do lose seats but keep their majority, or perhaps the voters will forget all about this by next year (entirely possible, sad to say) and Republicans will increase their majority, in which case Boehner could keep his job. But those possibilities, at the moment, look unlikely.

So at this point, Speaker Boehner really has to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask himself this question: “If I’m going down one way or another, how do I want to go out?” And one hopes that he will decide it’s better to go out with some honor and dignity, and that he will work a deal with the Democrats, and a few reasonable Republicans in swing districts who are scared to death of losing their seats next year, to prevent an economic calamity. History will be far kinder to him if he sacrifices his speakership in a good cause. It would be far better to go out with his boots on than to be found, at the end, hiding under his desk, in fear of his own caucus, and going down as a coward.

False Equivalence, Obamacare, the Government Shutdown, and the Failure of the Beltway Media

With a government shutdown perhaps a little more than a day away, the nonsense emanating out of Washington is heavier than usual, but this bit of claptrap on Twitter by a fellow who normally seems like a pretty decent journalist, Mark Halperin, got my blood up this morning:

Tips for inciting left/right attacks on CR tweets: say both sides share blame; say media is doing its best; say Obama/Boehner both good men

— Mark Halperin (@MarkHalperin) September 29, 2013


I’d like to take issue with at least two of Mr. Halperin’s three points of contention.

First of all, how exactly is this whole mess even partially the Democrats’ fault? Allow me to recap precisely what is happening here. The House Republicans, attempting to appease their wacko primary voters who might otherwise vote them out unless they stick it to the black man in the White House, sent a bill to fund the government to the Senate that would defund “Obamacare.” That, of course, would be the most notable accomplishment of the Obama presidency, which hasn’t even been implemented yet.

OK, let me pause here for a quick civics lesson. Generally, when a law is enacted, it is given time to work before we determine it is a failure. If it does, in fact, fail to work as hoped, we overturn it at that time and try something else. We don’t strangle it in the crib before we see whether or not it is actually going to do what we hope it will do. This latter thing—strangling it in the crib—is what Republicans are proposing to do because they believe it won’t work, or perhaps more correctly, because they fear it will work.

So, to get back to where we were: the House Republicans sent a bill to the Senate that would condition the funding of government operations IF the Senate Democrats agree to take away all funding for their chief accomplishment that hasn’t even been implemented yet.

The House Republicans had to know that this proposal would be rejected, as in fact it was; the Senate amended the bill to take out the defunding of Obamacare and sent it back to the House. At this point, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who is not normally known for standing up to Republican bullying, told the House: stop wasting our time. We are not going to agree to gut our own healthcare bill, so send us something else.

The House Republicans responded by passing another bill, this one delaying Obamacare (which is what you do when you can’t defund it outright—you delay it and delay it until you get control of the government, and then you kill it). And when it became even more clear that Harry Reid really wasn’t bluffing (which, let’s face it, the Republicans already knew), they pivoted to a third bill that, also, will take steps to prevent Obamacare from ever taking effect.

I’d like Mr. Halperin to answer this question: exactly what part of this is the Democrats’ fault? The Republicans have made it plain that they will shut down the government unless the Democrats agree to give up on the centerpiece of their brief control of the government from 2009-11. They have given the Democrats no other options; they have put no other proposals on the table. It’s either gut Obamacare or government shutdown. Every time the Senate Democrats say “Leave Obamacare out of the funding bill or we won’t pass it,” the House Republicans send the Senate another bill attacking Obamacare. How, exactly, are the Democrats even partially to blame for the fact that they are being blackmailed by obstinate, childish Republicans? That is a case of “victim blaming” on an epic level.

As to Mr. Halperin’s second point (the media is doing its best)—please. Today’s media covering federal government and politics, with a few exceptions, appears to be a hapless collection of glorified stenographers who feel their only responsibility is to accurately report what either side says. So if one side lies, and the other side tells the truth, both are given equal weight because it is not the media’s responsibility to actually find and report objective facts. If they merely present each side’s talking points accurately, they seem to believe that they have done their job properly. “Team A says the sky is blue, and Team B says the sky is pink with purple polka dots. We report; you decide!”

As to Mr. Halperin’s third point, that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are both good men, well, that one may well be correct. From my observations over the last few years, I’ve always gotten the impression that Boehner would like to cut a deal with the president, but that the absolute loons on the far right of his caucus have blocked him from doing so. But even this point, if correct, is irrelevant to the larger point. That point, simply put, is this: the Republicans are so hell-bent on strangling Obamacare in the crib that they are willing to shut the government down to do it. Shouldn’t the media be making that point and, more importantly, asking why?

Did Pressure-Based Diplomacy Win The Day In Syria?

As President Obama prepares to go on the airwaves to seek support for a military attack on Syria, a new development has entered the equation. A new Russian proposal would have international monitors take control of Syria’s chemical weapons, offering everybody involved a face-saving way out.

For the president, the Russian plan is a lifeline. Having been trapped by his own pledge to become involved in Syria’s civil war if dictator Bashir al-Assad used chemical weapons— which hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and his protege, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) have used to put constant pressure on him—Obama needed a way out to avoid an unpopular attack. He made a smart political move to put the onus on Congress—which, importantly, broke a longstanding precedent of presidents violating Congress’s constitutional war-making prerogative—but this gives him an opportunity to get out of the trick bag cleanly.

If the deal happens, and Syria gives up its chemical weapons, President Obama can say—probably not without justification—that his threats of force brought the Syrians to heel. He will have won, through a triumph of pressure diplomacy and the happy coincidence of the Russians saving his political bacon, a diplomatic triumph without firing a shot. One wonders if he and Russian president Vladimir Putin didn’t cook this up during the recent G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. If so, it was a brilliant move by both presidents. It gets Obama out of a political mess at home, and it makes Putin look like a positive contributor to the global diplomatic scene—not exactly a familiar role for the often-criticized, autocratic Russian leader.

In fact, it is probably Putin who comes out the big winner here. It’s a PR coup for him, at home and abroad; this marks a major return to the world leadership arena for a country that has suffered a crisis of confidence since losing the Cold War and seeing the Soviet empire break apart at the seams. Putin can make the case that Russia is back on the world stage—if not quite at the top, then at least near the head of the table.

But even if Putin is the big winner, Obama can also come out smelling like a rose too, which seemed impossible just a day ago.

I have been a harsh critic of the president’s push for military intervention in Syria over the last few weeks. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was gambling that mere bluster and threats would win the day, and he wouldn’t have the need to actually engage militarily. I obviously have no idea, but if that was his plan, it wouldn’t be the first time Obama was playing chess while everyone else was playing tic-tac-toe.

Assuming the Syrian government takes the deal—and it would probably be stupid not to, because what it gives up in chemical weapons, the Russians will more than make up for with conventional ones—it looks like this thing may have just come together as well as possible, and that rarely happens by accident. The only losers here appear to be the Syrian rebels, and given the uncertain character and composition of their movement, that may not be a terrible thing. Assad’s a bad guy, sure, but sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

What "Independent" Means To The Far Right

I recently moved from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area. After a few weeks here, working in San Francisco and living in Alameda, I am convinced that this move was a no-brainer and that I should have made it years ago. But I digress.

My move involved me driving in excess of 2,500 miles, including a little more than 40 hours of actual road time. Fortunately, I did not have to do this all in one shot, i.e., driving 14 hours a day for three days. I had some friends along the way who I met, which broke up the monotony considerably.

One of my stops was a side trip to Kansas City, where I met a good friend and former colleague of mine, as well as her husband and their new baby. My friend is a moderate Republican, and her husband is very conservative. We managed to find a way to discuss politics without any weapons being drawn, which was fortunate for me, because they have a lot of guns, and I do not. Go figure.

During my conversation with my friend’s husband, I finally came to understand something that has perplexed me for years. Although he is an uber-conservative who believes that everything Rush Limbaugh says is fact, he described himself as an “independent.”

As I mentioned, this is a phenomenon that has perplexed me since the onset of the Tea Party disease in 2009. As anyone who closely follows politics can attest, there is a large number of Tea Party adherents who describe themselves as “independents,” although it is clear that when they vote, they vote almost exclusively for Republicans and against Democrats.

The reason this confused me, at least until my conversation with my friend’s husband, is because my working definition of a political independent has always been someone who will vote for politicians of either major party, depending on which person appears, to the independent voter, to be the better candidate. An independent, by my definition, may vote more predominantly for one party or the other, but does at least on some regular occasion cross party lines. Up until the late 1990s, when it dawned on me that there weren’t very many Republicans who cared about anything beyond the preservation of wealth and privilege for a handful of Americans, I considered myself an independent and almost always found a Republican or two to vote for in every election—usually in some relatively modest office such as city council member, in which political ideology tended to take a back seat; there’s no liberal or conservative way to fix a broken street light.

And yet, there has been this explosion of Tea Party supporters who clearly would sooner be boiled alive and flayed than vote for a Democrat, but steadfastly refer to themselves as independents.

Well, I’m pleased to report, after my discussion in Kansas City, that I get it. Because what my friend’s husband made plain to me was that, to him, political independence means that he is independent of the Republican Party and its fortunes.

To explain: he’s never going to go out and vote for a Democrat, but he doesn’t give a flying crap about the Republican Party, either. While he is going to vote for Republican candidates pretty close to 100 percent of the time (except, perhaps, for the occasional Libertarian or Constitution party candidate that tickles his fancy), he isn’t particularly interested in whether the Republican Party sinks or swims. He isn’t interested in the party making compromises or moderating its principles for the purpose of winning elections. He’s going to adhere to principle, period. How the Republicans are going to win elections by spouting a grocery list of unpopular positions is their problem, not his.

All right. This makes absolutely no sense to me at all, but at least I get it now. To the Tea Party “independent,” it isn’t about splitting your ticket and voting for a few Democrats. It’s about only supporting those Republicans who are conservative enough for you. If this means Republicans lose the election well, gee, we didn’t really think about that, and that’s not our responsibility. (A Republican strategist, Myra Adams, recently wrote an excellent piece that addressed this issue. It’s good reading; very illuminating.)

So the next time some poll shows that “independents” favor a Republican candidate over a Democrat, keep in mind that a lot of these people calling themselves “independent” are not moderates, and if they don’t especially like the Republican candidate, hell, they might not even vote at all. Self-described “independents” supported Mitt Romney in 2012. Self-described moderates voted for Obama. We all know how that turned out.

The lesson here: the opinions of people who call themselves moderates are likelier to be closer to the actual results than the opinions of self-described independents. If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it doesn’t matter how many times someone calls it a unicorn; it’s a duck.