Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Center cannot hold

I've tried to make a general point about the current obsession of everyone with the antics of the Right, and its tea-baggers, birthers, tenthers, and the rest. Some highly visible part of the Right has been displaying their literal craziness.

But, the scary thing is not that the Right is crazy -- they've always been crazy.

What's scary, and needs critical attention is the complacency of much of the Middle, which acts as if the Right are not-crazy. This is true, both of some politicians, who should know better, and a lot of Media personalities.

Mark Kleiman takes on the fake controversy over "czars":
"The gullibility of the national political press corps has seldom been on more hideous display. Glenn Beck and his tame dogs in Congress have managed to make “czars” an issue without anyone’s ever bothering to define the term “czar.”

Then, after 287 words, in which he himself seems to succumb to playing the straight man in this political, Groucho Marx "secret word" fest, Mark finally comes to the real point:

"Again, the astounding thing isn’t that Republicans are pulling this stupid pet trick, but that reporters are covering it rather than asking basic questions about it."

Mark Kleiman shouldn't have to be arguing this silliness. The Media should not even let it take up our time or attention, and the politicians, who promote it should pay a high price, in derision from non-partisan journalists and pundits. That that is not happening is extremely worrisome. The poor functioning of Media journalism has been a serious, serious problems since Clinton and Whitewater; but, we need to notice the failures of journalism more, and the antics of the Right, less.

As if to illustrate, Matthew Yglesias points to this Newsweek story:
"Anyone who watches cable news surely knows that conservatives are getting themselves all hot and bothered over the Obama administration's appointment of so-called czars. Today, the Democratic National Committee is going nuts in response. I've got more e-mails from them about this today than I care to count. This whole debate is descending into complete partisan hackery: GOP operatives are fanning ridiculous fears while Democrats are proffering inflated claims to counter them."

Matthew Yglesias restates the Newsweek complaint:
"Silly Democratic National Committee, boring reporters by tediously pointing out that the central political argument being made by their opponents is totally dishonest! What partisan hackery! How sad that the debate is “descending” to this level! But who’s to say who’s to blame for this situation? Maybe the DNC should have just turned the other cheek and not annoyed Newsweek with its pesky emails."

Kevin Drum pretends to be David Broder

Why Bipartisanship Matters | Mother Jones:
"Bipartisanship is in bad odor these days because it's associated with a knee-jerk, David Broderish tendency to assume that the answer to any policy dilemma is automatically halfway between the liberal position and the conservative position. But that sells bipartisanship short. Where it shines is its ability to allow politicians to make tough decisions.

If all you want to do is hand out goodies — tax cuts, prescription drugs, defense contracts — life is easy. Everyone loves goodies. You don't need help from your opposite numbers to get stuff like that through Congress.

But what if you want to pass something tougher? Something that takes as well as gives? If you have bipartisan support, you can do it right: you can stand up to special interests and K Street lobbyists and enact real reform. But you can only do this if you have political cover and plenty of votes."

But, of course, this is the David Broder argument. David Broder does NOT argue for split-the-difference; David Broder argues for leaving "partisan ideology" and "partisan bickering" at the door, and having the "adults" just "get together" and "solve problems" like there are no legitimate partisan or ideological differences about policy.

The problem of assembling a governing coalition is always the same: how to enable the rational and sane to cooperate, against the corrupt and crazy.

When the rational and sane, and the corrupt and crazy, were both split between the Parties, bi-partisanship made sense, to the extent that it meant assembling the rational and sane from both Parties, to govern together. That's how Civil Rights got passed: liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans voted together against reactionary southern Democrats: voila!

And, that's how bi-partisanship got a great reputation, in a now lost era, when political polarization between the Parties was minimal, and both Parties had extremist nutcases in approximately equal measure.

The Parties are divided differently today, in case you haven't noticed, but, in the end, the motivation for assembling a governing coalition of the sane and rational remains the same: policy has consequences.

You don't want politicians to "make tough decisions" because it sounds dramatically satisfying. You want them to do so, because the consequences are serious.

The people in Congress, who are genuinely responsible and not hopelessly corrupt or stupid, are all in the Democratic Party. And, outside of the Congress, almost all of the remaining responsible conservatives are allied closely with the Administration.

If you want good policy, the governing coalition has to be assembled, within the Democratic Party. The "bi-partisan" gambit just won't work. The marginal, semi-corrupt or semi-stupid vote has to be afraid of the consequences of policy failure, sufficiently afraid that they will compromise their greed with people they recognize are smart and care about the consequences. Only a handful of such marginal votes will come from nominal Republicans; most Republicans are committed to the politics of the shock doctrine and bringing on Armegeddon, or simply don't believe in reality and policy consequences.

Now, you can argue that governance from within the majority Party simply cannot work, but the problem is not the lack of consensus, or even the lack of party discipline, which would enable those "tough decisions" of which the Village Pain Caucus among the punditocrisy has become so fond. The problem must be that responsible governing by a single Party cannot be successfully "branded" and the brand marketed. FDR managed it with a very unlikely Party, but nevermind.

We've had a remarkable experience over the last 16 years: a responsible, albeit fairly conservative President followed by an irresponsible, conservative President, from different political Parties. Now, we're back to a responsible, conservative President from Party Number 1.

I have my doubts about whether this contrast can be brand-marketed. But, my doubts concern the role of the news Media, as fair and sensible tribunes.

If Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are going to judge what constitutes responsible government, and what consequences are to be blamed on what policy, then we are in a lot of trouble.

Have a Nice Day

Tom Friedman - Have a Nice Day - "if you like importing oil from Saudi Arabia, you’re going to love importing solar panels from China."

Tom Friedman is an ass. But, he makes a good point. Change we can believe in? Where the hell is it, already?

The compromise without the cover.

I've been writing about how the re-alignment of American politics, ratified in Obama's election, and the marginalizing of the Republican Rump, will require a shift in the composition and habits of the governing coalition.

Governing coalitions are always shifting and morphing. But, a basic dynamic, for 40 years, has been conservatives in both Parties, conspiring against the bases of their respective Parties. This "bipartisanship" of conservatives has been continuously blessed by the corporatist Media and its punditocrisy.

It broke down in the Bush years, as the reactionary and radical base of the Republican Party came to dominate that Party's conservatives and throw out the moderates. The dominance of reactionary radicals undermined confidence in the ability of conservatives (aka "the adults") to control things.

Since the election, there's been a tremendous effort to restore conservative "bi-partisan" government, but the Republican reactionary base is having none of it.

The obvious alternative is cooperation between the Progressive and Conservative wings of the Democratic Party. So far, conservatives in the Democratic Party have not embraced the obvious. We're getting close to the cliff, here, folks.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller Dumps on Baucus' Bill and No Snowe Yet - George's Bottom Line: "the fundamental problem is that Democrats “are being asked to support a bipartisan bill that doesn’t have bipartisan support.” The compromise without the cover."

It's a bad bill. It's a bad bill, because it is a "conservative" bill, designed without meaningful concessions to progressives. Bad policy, for not respecting principles. Bad politics, for not empowering progressives.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Republican Extremism

Mark Kleiman hopes extremism among Republicans becomes repulsive: "the key question is whether the public comes to identify the Teabaggers as a lunatic-fringe group, to the point where Republican office-seekers are afraid to be associated with them."

Ah, yes, the public.

Kleiman recalls how LBJ was able to tar Goldwater as an extremist, and win a massive landslide election.

Of course, Goldwater was an extremist, even if he did distance himself from, say, the John Birch Society. That helps.

But, LBJ also had Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley and a great Middle, which could recall World War II, and took politics seriously enough to actually worry about the lunacy of the extreme Right.

Our current dysfunction is not at the extremes, but in the Middle, among the professional non-partisans in the ranks of celebrity journalism and punditry, and among the apathetic, mis-informed mass of Americans, who take their cues from the corporate propaganda machine, which is cable news, radio talk, and failing newspapers.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Truth and Facts

US Census Press Releases:
"The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that real median household income in the United States fell 3.6 percent between 2007 and 2008, from $52,163 to $50,303. This breaks a string of three years of annual income increases and coincides with the recession that started in December 2007.

The nation’s official poverty rate in 2008 was 13.2 percent, up from 12.5 percent in 2007. There were 39.8 million people in poverty in 2008, up from 37.3 million in 2007.

Meanwhile, the number of people without health insurance coverage rose from 45.7 million in 2007 to 46.3 million in 2008, while the percentage remained unchanged at 15.4 percent."

Lies and lying Liars

PolitiFact | Statements we say are Pants on Fire!

The St. Petersburg Times,, has a list of egregious lies.

It is quite an interesting list. Nearly all are from, or on behalf of, the Republican Right.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

tristero at Hullabaloo makes a critically important point, today:
Many Top Democrats, today, are Conservatives.

And, what does that make top Republicans?

they are not what we think of as conservatives. . . . , but the standard term, when being polite to them, is "movement conservative." Whatever you call them, they hate liberalism with a passion. And by "liberalism" I mean liberalism as in the Englightenment and the American Founders such as the Jefferson of the Declaration and the letter to the Danbury Baptists. These are people, who are still fighting the battles lost by the Federalists in the earliest days of the United States. These are very, very strange people and there is no common ground to be reached between liberals and them. They can only be defeated and their ideas relegated to the margins of modern American political discourse, where they belong. Fortunately, as powerful as they are, there are not too many of them. Unfortunately, they are extremely good at disguising their extremism; many decent Americans have been bamboozled.

Among the most important ways to defeat movement conservatives is to refuse to take their bullshit seriously, even for a moment. In fact, when they are given undeserved influence and respect, as they were in the months before Bush/Iraq, innocent people die.

On the other hand, dialogue with conservatives, genuine conservatives, is not only possible, but something liberals are having right now, every day. A prime example is the intense argument many in the blogosphere are having with the current president of the United States. I'm not kidding or being a smarty-pants: Whatever his personal beliefs, Obama governs as a centrist and even, in some areas, like a conservative. Therefore, it is no surprise at all that it has been very, very difficult to introduce genuinely liberal ideas into this administration, . . . .

That said, the Obama administration has not heaped the kind of eliminationist scorn on us that [Robert Stacy] McCain and his fellow brown shirt wannabes have. It is with Obama and other Democrats that you will find the discussions you want to have. You may not like what they're doing, but they are not in the grip of a genuinely creepy ideology.

Indeed, most top Democrats adhere to what used to be called "conservatism," including the Clintons, Reid, and of course the even-more-conservative blue dogs. It has been noted, often with amazement, that today's Democrats are to the right of Nixon on many issues; needless to say, that is pretty damn far right.

A governing coalition can be had, between conservatives and progressives, within the Democratic Party and its adherents controlling the Executive and Congress. But, beyond the bounds of that coalition, there be dragons . . .

The Failing Center

Our politics is failing at the center. The focus on the telegenic freak show put on by the extreme Right is distracting us from the reality, that the Center, complacent and corrupt, is failing the country.

The functional task of the elite Center is to resolve conflict into pragmatic choice. The duty to compromise invites contempt from idealists, but a functional center wields the awesome power to marginalize as extremists those, who would attack the legitimacy of the Center's pragmatism and practicality.

A dysfunctional Center cannot exercise its power to marginalize the crazies, or chooses to marginalize people of good will and good sense, instead. A dysfunctional Center cannot manage the intellectual coherence to construct policy compromises that remain functional, creating Frankenstein corpses, instead of possibly ugly, but supremely useful camels*.

That's where the U.S. is at, politically. The elite Center is dominated by people, who are wrong about everything, who have no understanding of what can work, who, in their complacency and corruption, are intent on marginalizing good will and good sense.

Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck are the by-product, not of their audience, but of the corporate executive elite, that cannot, or will not, set any reasonable standard for the conduct of their journalistic enterprise.

The University of California cannot muster the will to fire torture-attorney, John Yoo.

And, health care is suffering the tender mercies of "fiscal conservative" "moderates" for whom only a dysfunctional health reform makes "sense".

*A reference to the insight that a camel is a horse designed by committee.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

$30 billion

There's been a lot of attention in the news media devoted to the far-Right extremists and nutcases, upset with health care reform (and the President giving pep talks to young students). Birther, Deathers, and Tenthers.

My concern, though, is that the Center is failing. The antics of Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs are symptoms of a failing elite Center -- for one thing, the elite Center, which includes the corporate executives, who head major Media corporations, are unwilling to fire Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck. The University of California will not fire torture lawyer John Yoo, let alone uber-econ-hack Lee Ohanian.

The trick in all politics, as I learned from Stirling Newberry, is to create a coalition of the sane, decent and rational against the crazies. And, key to such an elite coalition is a moderate Center of pragmatists, concerned with what is possible, what works. Barack Obama presents himself as the embodiment of such a Center.

The danger is that such a Center does not hold, that the Center lacks all moral conviction, abandons all intellectual effort for complacency and corruption.

That's what I see looming in the fate of health care reform. Not reform killed outright, by the extremism and nuttiness of the Right, but health care reform killed by the corruption of the Center.

Ezra Klein - What If They Had a Health-Care Reform Bill and Nobody Could Support it?:
"I'm firmly on the record as being willing to support all manner of compromises on health-care reform. Policy dogmatism has not, over the long history of this issue, proven a successful strategy. But there's an increasingly evident path by which health-care reform begins to hurt the very people it's meant to aid. . . . , making health-care reform affordable for the centrists in the Congress could make it unaffordable for the people.

The basic structure of the bill has three main planks working in conjunction with each other: The individual mandate creates a mechanism for a universal, or near-universal, system. A universal, or near-universal, system creates the conditions for insurance market reform. The subsidies make the individual mandate affordable for people to follow.

There are a few ways to destabilize this system. The most likely way is to reduce the subsidies so that the individual mandate isn't really affordable.

The happy news is that the difference between a plan with decent benefits that's affordable for people and a plan that's not affordable for people and doesn't offer decent benefits is not that large. Optimally, you'd want to spend about $1.3 trillion over 10 years. You could probably do it for $900 billion to $1 trillion. But you can't do it for, say, $700 billion, which is a number I'm hearing fairly frequently.

The difference between doing this right and doing this wrong is, in other words, about $30 billion a year, or $300 billion over 10 years. To put that in perspective, many of the legislators who are balking at the cost of health-care reform voted for the Kyl-Lincoln bill to reform the estate tax at a cost of $75 billion a year, or $750 billion over 10 years."

Friday, September 4, 2009

A strange madness

Paul Krugman -
"I get spitting, incoherent rage over articles on, um, health care economics or macro modeling. What enrages people so much about these pieces? Usually, it’s impossible to tell — in fact, I often have the sense that the enraged correspondents haven’t read the things at all. But that’s OK — they know that I’m corrupt, a liar, a Nazi, and have been spewing my evil in my writings.

The point is that whatever is driving all this doesn’t have anything to do with the realities of what I, or, much more important of course, Obama say or do. Obama could have come in proposing to pursue an agenda identical to Bush, and he would still be a socialist/Commie/fascist, with those of us who don’t see it that way lying Nazis ourselves.

Something is going very wrong in the heads of a substantial number of Americans."

Cable news? Glenn Beck?

Too much television, generally?

Too much change, technological and social?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Struggle for Realignment

Matthew Yglesias:
". . .in the wake of Barack Obama’s election the main reason to be hopeful about the prospects for universal health care wasn’t so much the election of a new progressive president as the fact that Max Baucus, one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus and also Chairman of the Finance Committee, had essentially adopted the main outline of Hillary Clinton’s universal health care plan.

One natural question to wonder is what happened to this? Does Baucus still think those were good ideas? If he does, I would be eager to see him write them up as legislation and see what kind of support they can garner. Maybe 60 votes aren’t there. But I’d like to see. Nobody can accuse Baucus of being a wild-eyed liberal or a member of the “left of the left.” It seems to me that we’re stuck in a dysfunctional dynamic where you have a powerful centrist senator lay some ideas out (including, for example, a public option), which leads progressives to embrace them as a realistic path to reform, which leads the centrist ideas to be rebranded as left-wing ideas which, in turn, leads to the ideas being abandoned by centrists. Very hard to accomplish anything that way."

There was a lot of speculation after the 2006 Congressional elections gave Democrats control of Congress, whether a political realignment was underway. Earlier, Karl Rove, rather famously, had speculated on whether a realignment akin to that accomplished by McKinley's 1896 election, and the split between the Populists and the Gold Democrats, which ushered in Republican dominance that lasted until 1930, might be accomplished in 2004. If you like the 36-year cycle theory of American politics, then 2004 would have been the year of expected realignment (1788-Founding, 1824-Jackson Democrats, 1860-Lincoln, 1896-Republicans, 1932-FDR, 1968-Nixon); of course, this leaves out 1800-Jeffersonian Republicans; 1828-the year of Jackson's actual election; 1876-the "election" of Rutherford B. Hayes by Election Commission and the End of Reconstruction; 1912-Woodrow Wilson wins, due to the Bull Moose split; 1964-LBJ landslide enacts Civil Rights legislation and War on Poverty, initiates Liberal Social Revolution.

Every election matters, but the search for political realignments also matters. Realignment marks a shift in the composition and habits of the governing coalition, as much or more than the composition of partisan political Party identification, per se.

In 2006 and 2008, propelled by repulsion as much as anything, a small slice of the electorate, and of the political elite, moved from strong identification with, and loyalty to, the Republicans to openness to supporting and working with a moderate Democrat. Partly, it was nostalgia for Clinton, which only a moron like Bush could engender, and partly it was the deft way Barack Obama positioned himself, using every asset of personality and personal identity.

This small slice of moderate/conservatives changed partisan identification and voting habit, but not personal philosophy. The country did not become more liberal. Liberals did not increase in number, although they may have gained a bit of credibility with youth.

"Bi-partisanship" has been the dominant pattern of assembling governing coalitions since WWII. FDR built up the internationalist wing of the Republican Party, under Tom Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller, to oppose the old Main Street reactionary conservatives, under the Taft dynasty. The extreme Right of the Republican Party was excluded from Power, by this form of bipartisanship, which featured moderate Democrats reaching out to moderate Republicans to form "consensus compromises" that just happened to coincide with the needs of the Center.

Gradually, "bi-partisan" shifted under Nixon, who, though personally popular, still led a Party incapable of achieving Congressional majorities. Nixon's particular personal gifts, allowed him to establish "triangulation" as a propaganda tactic, aimed at spliting the moderate from the Democrats within the Democratic Party. Reagan continued the pattern. Conventional and mainstream Republicans continue to dominate their own Party, and to take the lead into forming compromises with, and governing with, the Democrats in Congress.

Things shifted a bit with the Gingrich Revolution and a House majority for the Republicans. A far more extreme brand of reactionary conservative arose, and insisted on dominance within the Republican coalition, and a "take no prisoners" attitude toward the Democrats.

Many Americans still "expect" cooperation between the Parties, a cooperation of good will and common loyalty to the country, which never really existed. But, it simply is not possible.

To govern the Democrats have to form a coalition almost entirely within their own Party.

It's a new pattern, for forming a governing coalition. It remains to be seen how, or if, it will work.

Health care is proving to be an interesting test case, precisely for the reasons the astute Yglesias notes: as long as the centrists have no real principles, and define themselves in contradistinction to the liberals, it will be very hard for centrists and liberals to agree on governance.

Simple Questions, Simple Answers

David S. Broder - Accountability, but at What Cost?: "Looming beyond the publicized cases of these relatively low-level operatives is the fundamental accountability question: What about those who approved of their actions? If accountability is the standard, then it should apply to the policymakers and not just to the underlings. Ultimately, do we want to see Cheney, who backed these actions and still does, standing in the dock?"