Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn will seek to offset federal aid to victims of a massive tornado that blasted through Oklahoma City suburbs on Monday with cuts elsewhere in the budget.> more ... (0 comments)
Since this got me thinking about it again…
What’s bizarre about House of Cards is that it’s theoretically a drama, but it’s not very dramatic. There aren’t any “edge of your seat” moments in the series, because there isn’t really any suspense. After a few episodes you know that Frank Underwood is going to want something, he’s going to do whatever it takes to get it, and he’ll be completely successful doing it. There will be no ramifications or unintended side effects. He’s always going to win. Inevitability doesn’t make for good drama, quite the opposite. Underwood is clearly the creators’ version of a ruthless politician, but he’s somehow less than that. Applying “ruthless” to a politician implies further attributes and characterization. Like Mitch McConnell, who aptly deserves the term as an palpable source of incredible and inexplicable anger and bitterness. Or Lyndon Johnson, whose climb out of desperate poverty created a character so restless, so corrosive and clinging, that he just couldn’t stop himself from making the mistakes that tanked his presidency. You could also toss in Richard Nixon, another poor child driven to a large extent by hatred of condescending swells who looked down on him. The sorts of men this term is applied to help shape the connotations of the word, make it suggest a broader theme of character, of darkness and negativity manifest.
In the case of House of Cards, it doesn’t. He’s “just” ruthless, in that he doesn’t care about how his decisions affect people other than himself, and he has no scruples. This is more like full-on psychopath territory than standard Tony Soprano-inspired antihero stuff. Tony was selfish and inconsiderate, and a violent killer besides, but he wasn’t identifiable as a genuine psychopath until the tail end of the series. Underwood more or less starts out that way. Where else can you go with this character if that’s the start point? You have to give the audience some reason to root for the protagonist. With Tony Soprano, the major reason is because all of his rivals were far worse than he was, and also that he tried to be a good father as well as his version of a good husband (which did not include sexual fidelity, of course). And he had other intriguing attributes as well: he was genuinely curious about certain things, like history and animals, for example. He had depth. If The Sopranos had begun with the version of Tony we saw in the last season, it would have tanked. And yet, this is precisely what House of Cards does with Underwood. Having him be the final iteration of this character would have been inspired. The initial version, eh, not so much.
Of course, his predecessor was very different from all that. Francis Urquhart rocked the UK series for a number of reasons. He was a master of the political game, cheerful and cynical. But he was also an arrogant man with an impulsive streak, which often got him into trouble. Sometimes he’d underestimate his opponents and pay a price. Sometimes he’d overreact to a threat and get into trouble from that. The basic story of the UK series is a man trying to hold his conscience together while maintaining power, but the drama often revolved around his matching wits with opponents with different philosophies than his own, but of the same political caliber as he. So he had to resort to desperate measures to secure victory. These things had the effect of creating something called suspense. On one level, you know that Urquhart is most likely going to win, because he is the show. But on the other hand, because of well-managed stakes and strong characterization, how this happens is a mystery, and it always comes with a cost to Urquhart. Urquhart isn’t an antihero, he’s really just a decent guy who keeps trying to make his values fit with his desire for power, often fails to do so, and slips ever further into melancholy, self-hatred and grief. Meanwhile, you have Frank Underwood just winning all the time and flashing a smile. Why we should care is unclear.
Ultimately, House of Cards just depresses me, and makes me worry we’ll never get a great US politics television series (though I do have high hopes for Veep). The instinct to pander to the audience is simply too extreme in US political shows, it would appear, to really tell the truth about what the problems with our politics are. And it’s time we called out the backstabbing politician who is only looking out for himself for what it is: a Hollywood cliche without much basis in reality. Even the shallowest knowledge of politics makes a person realize that this is almost a complete fiction, that getting such a reputation is a career killer because nobody will want to have anything to do with you, and getting elected Speaker of the House, let alone President of the United States, requires the support of lots and lots of people. The real work of officeholders is about building relationships, doing favors, continually accomplishing gradual progress. Politicians are self-interested and ambitious as a group, but there’s only very little one person can do alone out of 435. It’s depressing to see such cliches just thrown around, especially since I think the public largely has this image of politicians too. It’s the equivalent of the evil businessman in movies, though it has less of a basis in truth as there are some businessman who do such things (though usually more in bullshit and denial than in movielike gleeful self-awareness). But both mislead as to where the real dangers in those professions lie.
This Times article is simply horrible. The article implies that it’s some deep failing that Obama was unable to twist enough Democratic arms on background checks, ignoring the fact that even with every Dem on board the filibuster would have ensured it wouldn’t have mattered. So the idea of whether Mark Begich feels intimidated or not is moot. With only four GOP votes, the venture was doomed to failure. People looking for a place to vent ought to focus either on the filibuster or the power of the NRA, not on Obama. This one really isn’t his fault.
Admittedly, a lack of fight has been a problem for the Obama Administration in places. But it’s been a very small problem in the grand scheme of things. The major problems do not include a lack of fight so much as poor assumptions and lousy priorities. The former comes in the form of baseless assumptions that Republicans are always close to pulling the trigger on a grand bargain and thus must always be placated and not have their feelings tweaked, and the latter comes in the simple reality that, with some exceptions*, if it won’t reduce the debt, the White House simply doesn’t care all that much. Put these together and they account for most of the teeth-gritting, frown-generating moments of the Obama Era. Endless health-care delays? Negotiating strategies that even little kids could outwit? The Smoot-Hawley-esque Budget Control Act of 2011, which included sequestration? Letting Tim Geithner guard the henhouse of FinReg? Shrugging at a climate bill? That’s most of them, and they’re all easily explained by one or both of the two flaws. Toss in an inexplicable fear of conservative talkers and a misguided attempt to placate coal country and you get a few more, like the Plan B decision, delay of climate regs, the indefensible SMOG decision, and so on. But really, between fear, assumptions and priorities, there’s really not much failure unaccounted for. Additionally, in those situations, Obama was in a position to act, and his actions were flawed. With gun control, Obama was in no position to act, making blaming him silly.
Since a lot of critiques of this argument involve Aaron Sorkin, I think it’s time to identify the flaw with Sorkin’s politics. There are different kinds of liberals out there. One kind believes that all you have to do is put the best argument out there and you will win (this assumes that dreaded cliche, the “free marketplace of ideas” along with the supremacy of reason, a curious Victorian idea whose time has long since passed). That’s it! If you don’t win, it’s because you didn’t put the idea out there enough, or didn’t phrase it right, or whatever. Sorkin obviously believes this, and so do quite a few (most?) liberals. But it’s completely wrong and glib and stupid and probably damaging too. Making the big speech is merely the beginning. After that comes organizing, action, and all the other hard work of molding public opinion. I do think the background check episode will wind up having helped. No, we didn’t win, but things will be different from now on. The NRA is never going to command the same prestige it used to. They don’t own the issues, they own the politicians, and politicians change. The NRA were revealed to be extreme, unctuous nutcases whose vision of a world in flames doesn’t have any appeal outside the Right. It’s never going to be the same again. I think so, anyway, and I’m not usually the “find the silver lining” type.
* I actually think Obama played gun control about right. Immigration is the other major outlier here–you could make a bankshot case that making undocumented workers legal, taxpaying citizens would have some impact on the deficit, but that’s a long way off. I think Obama’s support for it is partly political and partly out of social justice concerns, with a small fraction about possible long-term revenue gains.
I found this article about how Chinese folks are getting bored with American big-budget CGI explodarama brainless action quasi-epics to be pretty funny. The capper about how Chinese audiences want to be challenged is somehow perfect, especially since the big studios have gone all in on these fucking things doing huge business in China because fewer and fewer people in the U.S. give a shit about them. Reminds me of the news media, which made a different but similarly disastrous choice to base their brands on access rather than providing brilliant content or sharp analysis (presumably because access is much cheaper to obtain). Both decisions made their respective industries’ decline much worse and quicker than it otherwise had to be.
I’ve been thinking recently about movies from the ’80s, which was sort of an underrated decade for film. Sure, the highs weren’t as high as the ’70s, but if you look at the really successful films of that decade, there’s a level of baseline competence and quality to even the middle-of-the-road and lesser films that nowadays you struggle to find at all. Dirty Dancing and Lethal Weapon are good but not great movies, but both have a surprising amount of edge considering that they were big mainstream hits–the former centers around a story about abortion, the latter includes a character whose jagged, depressed desperation actually feels human–and both told satisfying stories of their respective genres without indulging in too much cliche. Back to the Future and the Tim Burton Batman are considered classics even though neither one has great artistic statements to make (though the former does have a lot of fascinating, non-canned observations about both time periods it takes place in). But both are, in very different ways, highly entertaining films. Hell, even a mostly-bad schlockfest like Footloose still has a few things going for it. John Lithgow’s character is the real protagonist of the film, and while he’s wrong he’s not evil, just a decent guy doing the wrong things for the right reasons. The movie is, really, about his journey, and that element of the movie is satisfying (less so the idea that corporate rock is where real rebellion is taking place, kids!). Generally speaking, during the ’80s there was usually (not always, as this was the decade that brought us Field Of fucking Dreams!) some level of assuredness in handling the story in hit movies, many include some fairly edgy concepts and characters with just a hint of damage or desperation to them, and if you look at all the movies I mentioned, you notice that they’re all over the map in terms of genres. Hell, one of the biggest hits of that decade was two middle-aged women singing to each other about having cancer, or something. (I’ve honestly not seen much at all of Beaches, though my significant other assures me it’s not essential viewing.)
I just don’t think Hollywood has it in itself to replicate that track record. They’ve gotten lazy on relying on CGI and fat publicity budgets to do most of the work for them, and the ability to tell a satisfying story has atrophied. Yes, I know the economics have changed since the 1980s and there are a ton more entertainment options available than just going to the theaters. This is a chicken-and-egg problem to some extent. But if the China option doesn’t work out for them, they really ought to take a second and rethink what they’re doing. For example, I just watched Dredd, the latest movie based on the Judge Dredd character that came out not so long ago. Now this movie is not going to change anyone’s life. But it was about as good as an action movie can be. There’s a strong concept, a story that moves and characters that are interesting, and the violence was frequently portrayed in offbeat and stylistic ways, and even with some ambivalence at the end. It’s really a pretty solid movie of its type, distinctive and engaging. But what it really made me think about was how unusual it was to watch a mainstream movie that actually kind of fulfilled the expectations you might have for it. That’s why it stuck out: it’s the exception where it used to be the rule. We’re stuck with robots punching each other and Shia Laboeuf from now on.
Sen. Murphy gets it just about right here:
“The story here is a Republican filibuster,” said Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy after the vote. “The filibuster stopped it. That’s hard to explain to these senators, why a majority in the Senate doesn’t prevail. I don’t think you can explain this filibuster just based on the influence of the NRA. There’s a significant portion of the Republican caucus who are gun control Darwinists. They just believe everyone should have guns, and the good guys should shoot the bad guys.” And what explained the Democratic noes? “A lot of ‘em had concerns about the impact of the bill in rural areas. We thought we solved that. I’ll be interested in the reactions they get when they head back home.”
I’m not sure this gets quite at the nuances in play though. I grew up in a place with a fair amount of gun nuts, and the analogy I heard more than once was that of the Wild West. As in, if everyone has a gun, then the possibility of massacres dips extremely low. The flipside of this is that there’s some larger level of ambient violence because of all these guns, but this is a tradeoff they’re more willing to make.
Of course, I tend to see this as a false choice. Fewer guns around in general can mean less ambient violence and fewer massacres. Won’t end murder or anything like that, but the psychological resistance to killing a person with a knife, say, is much higher than with a gun, so it won’t help but result in fewer deaths. But I tend to think that the conservative vision of society in general is sort of an idealized Wild West, one more rooted in television programs from the ’50s and ’60s rather than any sort of reading into history and what really went on then (hint: desperate poverty, unceasing danger, extreme boredom). Actually, that does sort of overlap with the gist of their policy outcomes, come to think of it.
Now that the wheels are falling off the Sanford for Congress wagon, to the point where he’s a likely loser in a safe GOP seat, the Republicans’ campaign committee is dropping out of the fun. This might seem less urgent now, but Democrats really ought to make a big investment in the district for the following couple of reasons:
- House math. It’s going to be really tough for Democrats to claw back the 17 seats needed to take back the House. Colbert Busch would have a difficult time holding the seat in 2014, but any incumbent is a better bet than almost any challenger given incumbency rates. An investment now (when it’s arguably not needed) could strengthen Colbert Busch and make a stronger and broader first impression upon the people she needs to hold onto in a year and a half. And the best part is that, given Sanford’s fumbling campaign, you could stay positive and exclusively define Colbert Busch positively, which would pay great dividends.
- Despite the odds, she’s the best bet of holding the seat. SC-01 is a staunchly Republican district, but it’s more fiscally- than socially-conservative. So Colbert Busch, a social liberal but pro-business fiscal conservative, isn’t the worst fit for the district. The odds of her winning a full term would have to be strongly against her, but then again, Mark Sanford had six opponents for the Republican nomination and they fell around him like a house of cards. It’s not unheard of that sometimes parties get complacent in their strongholds and fail to maintain a strong bench for safe seats–Hello Martha Coakley! These are, admittedly, reasons full of caveats. However, barring a wave, the way to taking back the House seems to lie in defeating lots and lots of incumbent Republicans, a difficult task. Any way to get around that…
- Establishing a bench in South Carolina. The state is actually not as out of reach as some might think: Obama got 45% of the vote there, though it’s not an elastic state. It’s more like the GOP equivalent of Pennsylvania than, say, Vermont. But being competitive requires running actual, credible candidates for things, and Democrats don’t have many of those in the state. For sure, if Teahardist Nikki Haley gets shown the door, a Democratic governor could jump-start this, thanks to cabinet appointments and such. That, however, is speculative for the moment. Colbert Busch wouldn’t be all that formidable as a part-term incumbent, but if she won again in 2014, she’d be very credible for a statewide race.
- Narrative setting. Special elections don’t tell you all that much about the national mood. Democrats won a bunch of them in 2009 and 2010, and then got wiped out. They also won one in 2011 in Upstate New York that revolved around the Ryan Budget (which mostly served as a wake-up call for Republicans to muddy the waters and dissemble about said budget), while the GOP won one in New York City centering around frenzied anger about the “9/11 Mosque” that faded right afterward. Neither of these elections predicted anything. But both got quite a bit of coverage, and what those elections “meant” to any extent a person can tell did in fact shape the discourse for a time. Even if all we get out of SC-01 is “Mark Sanford is an idiot and a pig” that’s one less day spent on discussing, say, a grand bargain. Politics is zero-sum and a Sanford loss could be a political boost.
Also, isn’t just tearing through Mark Sanford’s personal foibles and awful politics like Bruce Campbell with a chainsaw a reward in and of itself.
I don’t have anything really useful to say about Boston right now, just a brief meditation on appropriate action versus inappropriate re-action:
From John Cole, in Something Else to Talk About:
What happened today was absolutely horrible, make no doubt about it. Another dead child, hundreds wounded, and the worst thing I heard was that a lot of the injured were dealing with leg amputations, and many of them were runners who were in the bleachers after finishing the race. It’s just horrifying.
But I am done watching the coverage. I will, of course, follow the news over the next few days and weeks and months as we actually start to know something, but I am just not watching the death porn and overt rumor mongering on the cable channels. I’ve known journalism students. Many of them are not very bright. They don’t get better as they age and get cozy sinecures at CNN or Fox or MSNBC. I can internally recognize how bad this attack was without having to watch Chris Matthews on a high blood sugar kick saying crazy stupid shit. I simply refuse to let this dominate my life. Again, it is horrible, but I am not going to let the media work me into a froth.
Further in the article he mentions:
But again, people all over the world deal with this every single god damned day. That does not minimize the tragedy, but like I noted earlier, 37 people were killed in Iraq.
This echoes a quote by Alan Moore in Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman:
Digging people out of rubble is kind of business as usual everywhere in the world apart from America.
This seems like a good thing to remember, in judging how we react to this, both personally and “officially”. The following sentiment reported by TPM re: the media obsessing about Obama, comma, “terrorism” — why ain’t he said this word yet, *doesn’t* seem useful:
The media was listening for that word yesterday because they identified it as a potential source of a future, contrived political controversy; reporters were acting as opposition researchers for the people they cover, and identified a sin of omission.
By “doesn’t seem useful,” read “sounds like gossip-column-level writing” (on the part of the media in general, not TPM for reporting it, I mean).
I recommend reading “This is Information,” a response to 9/11 by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. It’s about reaction to loss, and the complex role history plays in leading up to the single “now”, and about the appropriate use of information in the really-real world. IE, *not* gossip-column-level writing.
Odd that “why ain’t he said terrorism” follows so soon on the heels of all the public media “where did we go wrongs with Iraq” mea culpas. Some lessons, I guess, either need to be perpetually relearned, or never get around to being learned in the first place.
One of the interesting aspects to the chained CPI story has been how little we’ve heard from Democrats about it. Not much going on in the ol’ RSS reader about Democratic reactions to the idea, so I went ahead and searched to see what top Democrats and key Obama allies had to say about it. The answer, it turns out, is nothing. Harry Reid, who one would figure would be a key figure in making any deal happen, said nothing. No statements of any kind. Max Baucus, another person who one would figure would be key in a grand bargain, also said nothing. One of Obama’s closest Senate allies, Claire McCaskill, has similarly kept mum. And Steny Hoyer, #2 House Democrat and one of the biggest grand bargaineers in all of D.C., chose not to mark the event of the President’s new budget with any sort of formal remarks. He has, in fact, gone nearly a month without issuing any statement on the subject, which is pretty amazing, and shows the lack of intensity in finding a deal within D.C. but outside of the White House. In fact, just about the only left-leaning senator to chime in so far has been Bernie Sanders. He is, unsurprisingly, not a big fan of Obama’s idea.
Now, to be sure, it’s easy to read too much into this. And you could argue that these folks quietly support Obama’s bargain in concept but don’t want to get nailed for saying it publicly. Could be! But I’m not sure that fits best. That might account for, say, Max Baucus, who is up for re-election next year and would be in trouble from both sides if he enthusiastically supported and worked on the project. But not for the others. I mean, Hoyer isn’t going to be primaried like ever (though that wouldn’t be the worst idea I’ve ever heard), and it’s actually more noticeable that he isn’t commending the president for his serious, bracing vision than if he’d put out a pro forma statement that said nothing. Is he afraid the whip job would be imperiled if he gave it a hearty cheer? Or could it be even too far for him? One wonders.
I don’t know what it means, but my guess is that the highly vocal intramural resistance to chained CPI has not gone unnoticed by officeholders. My working theory is that there’s significant Democratic resistance to this idea, but keeping quiet avoids breaking with the White House over a deal that will most likely never come to pass in any form. This is perhaps why Obama feels the need to go so far to the right with his proposals, as there’s not much support on the left for this kind of bargain. Of course, there’s not much support for it on the right either. In any event, the pattern is pretty interesting.
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