I suppose you’ve heard of the “We Are The 53%” right-wing counter-movement. If not, you can get a taste of it here and here. Be warned, though, it’s really dumb. As most Erick Erickson-conceived projects inevitably are.
What interests me is the notion in both these examples that Wall Street isn’t to be blamed for the economy, that individuals are solely responsible for their success. Taken to their logical conclusions, this idea has to be understood as extreme hubris and delusion. It is a pretty common delusion among the compulsive achiever types in our society, and I suppose it’s useful for them. But it’s an odd and antiquated notion to still carry around in 2011, and a lot of conservatives and paleolibertarian types seem unwilling to part with it. Here’s how I think of it: back during our country’s subsistence farming era, it really was the case that what other people did didn’t really have much of an impact on everyone else. And a small government structure is entirely appropriate to that sort of setup. Government basically exists to do things that people can’t do for themselves, and having a Ron Paul-esque system for a nation where most of the country grows their own food and consumes might be entirely appropriate. Maybe you have authorities for land disputes and whatnot, but not much more. As a participant within that sort of system, you don’t have to deal with anyone in that sort of structure unless you want to, and you can control exactly how much influence others have on you. Ron Paul’s vision would, I think, be the credibly liberal position in that kind of setup.
But we don’t live in that sort of system anymore. The emergence of the free market that people like Erickson cherish put an end to all that for good. Nowadays, even the most basic interactions humans have these days involve many people, visibly or invisibly. Buying something in a store with a credit is a pretty complex action when you think about it–there are a lot of systems being accessed in that transaction that require maintenance, upkeep, and improvement, and if they don’t get it, you notice. Which means that your ability to feed yourself relies on dozens, actually hundreds, of other people doing their jobs well. And if your ATM system breaks when you want to withdraw some cash, clearly your life has been affected by someone else. This is just not the case in a subsistence model, but it is how it is in America now. In our current age I think most interactions are more like this than not, where our lives are affected by lots and lots of other people who we don’t know but we completely depend on. Autonomy is quite a bit less than it used to be, maybe even less than it was only a few decades ago. This bothers people, understandably. The Kinks made a great song about it. But it’s unclear to me what you do about it without sacrificing an awful lot of the things people like that make life convenient. Conservatives I think believe that if we just got rid of all this damn government we’d be able to recover a lot of that autonomy, but they often sidestep the fact that we’d have to give up all this damn technology too, and go back to a 19th century subsistence farming scheme to make Ron Paul’s vision practical. And people just won’t do that, regardless of what the ending of Battlestar Galactica might suggest.
What bugs me about some forms of conservatism and paleolibertarianism is that I think that many forms are really not new or fresh ideas, so much as the reintroduction of outmoded 19th century ideas into the public bloodstream. They don’t make sense anymore given our current society, which like all societies has its tradeoffs (though we have much fewer deaths by dysentary than they did back then). But some (though not all) of the small government types take a blinkered view of the problem, and the solution invariably winds up not working so well. I mean, if there aren’t enough jobs, it doesn’t matter how much of a go-getter you are, you’re just not going to work. People naturally want a sense of autonomy, which I understand, though it’s not exactly like the 19th century was some grand era of personal freedom and initiative for too many people, and random things like where you were born, what color your skin was and whether you got sick in an era with no sanitation need to be taken into account as well as being outside of individual control, and yet having a dramatic impact on the contours of one’s life. The notion that we’re masters of our own destiny is really a demonstrable exaggeration, though it has its uses. Which is why most systems of religious belief teach that our fate is out of our hands–it’s actually a good bit of worldly wisdom. I would think that a self-professed Christian like Erick Erickson would get that.
Assuming that Brian Beutler’s interpretation of McConnell’s remarks is accurate (and it could be, though I think it’s a bit more ambiguous than he does, he could just be talking about his own personal vote), I don’t see why “making Democrats vote for Medicare cuts” is such a brilliant strategy for overcoming the public’s hatred of the Ryan Plan for a few simple reasons:
- Privatization/phaseout is substantively more extreme than making cuts. If a Republican who supports Ryan were to attack the Democrat he/she were running against for making cuts to Medicare, the obvious rejoinder is, “Well, I voted to cut some wasteful spending to corporations out of it. But my opponent voted to end it!” Which is exactly what happened in NY-26 anyway, and the Republicans lost that one, as you know.
- The Republican coalition has more seniors in it than the Democratic coalition, and those seniors are going to be pissed off about any cuts. If they both take it out on their parties, the Republicans will get the worst of it simply by having more seniors. I just don’t see how you solidify your advantage among seniors by attacking programs they like, this is Beltway counterintuition ad absurdum, and nobody’s falling for it.
- The House Democrats that survived 2010 were already able to survive an election where Republicans attacked them for cutting Medicare, and in a much worse political environment than exists now, or likely will exist in 2012. They’ve seen this game already and know how to play it.
- On the other hand, the people really at risk from the Ryan Plan are the Class of ’10 Republicans in the House. You know, the ones that won on “Mediscare” tactics. They’re still going to have the Ryan vote hanging over their heads, and their 2012 opponents are not the ones currently serving in Congress and won’t have to answer to charges of cutting Medicare because they won’t have to vote on the bill. Which is to say that Republicans will still have to defend their Ryan votes against challengers who will largely be able to co-opt the Hochul Doctrine wholesale. The only exceptions are representatives who are going to be redistricted into a district with an incumbent Republican representing it, but that won’t amount to many, and they’ll probably vote no anyway.
- It will not be hard to make the case that Republicans forced Democrats into doing this on pain of default and economic destruction, making them shoulder the blame for unpopular cuts. If they need help, surely the comments of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, would help make that case. In fact, if they insist on unpopular cuts, expect Democrats to run on restoring those cuts, blaming Republicans all the while. Which is to say, the issue won’t go away, and things won’t really be all that different next year. Bill Clinton, after all, signed a welfare reform bill that many Democrats found too stingy and then campaigned for a second term as president on the grounds that he would reverse some of the cuts that Republicans forced upon him. And it worked! He got a second term and reduced those cuts. It’s not too complicated of an argument to get across to the electorate, and it’s worked before.
What this shows, ultimately, is how desperate Republicans really are. This hostage situation they’re now proposing isn’t really one that helps them out in any way I can see. They say you make more mistakes when you’re angry or afraid, which is the only explanation for a mistake of this magnitude. But given their support of the Ryan Plan, Republicans only have bad alternatives to choose from anyway. I have to think that stunts like this are the reason why House Republicans’ unpopularity is surging at an incredible rate. Intense disapproval of Republicans outnumbers intense approval by 3-to-1 now, wouldn’t you know? Do you really think that forcing benefit cuts in Medicare is going to make people like Republicans more? If so, please show your math.
It’s true that you can easily overstate the importance of congressional special elections. Democrats won a string of them last year before a bad beat in the midterm elections. Scott Murphy’s unexpected win in NY-20 didn’t even ensure him a full term, as he lost his seat the next November. But I do think that NY-26 matters for a few reasons:
- It’s the first election in a few years in which the Tea Party appeared to have played no role at all. Sure, Jack Davis adopted the “Tea Party” label, but his pro-choice protectionist campaign was hardly based on Tea Party themes and he didn’t get that much support. The debate became about Paul Ryan’s plan, which is to say it revolved around preserving government programs, rather than amorphous platitudes about size of government and spending. In fact, there was little evidence that the energies powering the Tea Party movement were harnessed, or even present. The public, at least in this heavily Republican district, has moved on.
- I mentioned it earlier, but to the extent that this is the GOP’s “Scott Brown Moment” where the wheels came off the wagon, it’s a much clearer and direct case than Brown’s election was. Brown’s campaign was pretty vacuous in terms of policy and theme, but it was canny. He had a lousy opponent and a favorable environment, thanks to Democrats changing the rules for special elections and insisting that Ted Kennedy’s legacy necessitated another Democrat in the Senate. This led to a lot of bad blood that the charismatic Brown capitalized on. Nothing like that was present in NY-26–Corwin was a bad candidate, but not Martha Coakley bad. The public in NY-26 just hated Ryan’s plan, while the public in MA generally approved of Obamacare. The latter was something of a less pressing issue, though, to the state that already had universal healthcare.
- I wouldn’t be surprised to see Republicans use this to double-down on Ryan. That’s just what they do at this point.
- Ezra Klein has a smart take on the situation: “Republicans now need that deal more than ever. And, in particular, they need a deal on Medicare, because they need something that takes the Ryan plan off the table while putting both parties on the hook for Medicare cuts. That’s their best, and perhaps their only, chance to defuse the issue in the 2012 campaign. But a Medicare deal is hard to reach on its own terms and almost impossible so long as Republicans are also saying tax increases are off the table. Democrats aren’t going to bail Republicans out and accept painful cuts to Medicare so long as Republicans aren’t budging on taxes.” In other words, Democrats have some leverage here. I actually think that, if Republicans are willing to budge on taxes, Democrats should take a deal with some Medicare cuts, even if it takes Ryan-based attacks off the table in 2012. My rationale: the Dems are rebounding in the polls even without the Ryan Plan as the central issue (and there are plenty of other cuts to attack aside from Medicare, such as Planned Parenthood cuts, EPA funding, and so on), getting a deal is worth it on the merits, and it would have the effect of slicing a wedge into Republican politics by infuriating the anti-taxers. Either Grover Norquist will see his status diminished as the Republican Party essentially votes en masse against his pledge, or he’ll manage to defeat a deal and keep the Ryan Plan open as an avenue of attack. Or, he’ll lose and then mount a civil war against Republican supporters that will keep Republicans divided headed into 2012. Or maybe he swallows it this once, and all that’s left is a high-profile compromise that cements Obama heading into 2012. The worst-case scenarios just don’t seem that bad to me at this point. Republicans are in sort of a terrible position right now, but the elites assure me that Paul Ryan’s Plan is a great idea and that John Boehner is a tremendous Speaker, and if you can’t trust the D.C. elites…
With every day I become more and more convinced that the Republican Party has fatally overreached in a short period of time back in power. Yesterday, we looked at how the generic ballot was looking worse and worse for Republicans, and it’s worth nothing that even pulling even by November 2012 would mean dozens of (mostly recently elected) Republicans would be shown the door, though due to various reasons they’d probably still have a small majority. Other than that gauge, one has to play the semiotics to see this happening, and Taegan Goddard has rounded up a few such examples:
The Nashua Telegraph reports New Hampshire Democrats captured a strongly GOP-leaning state House seat in a special election
The St. Petersburg Times reports a Democrat may have edged out a Republican for mayor of Jacksonville calling it “a big, big deal that nobody would have remotely predicted a few months ago.”
Add that to Democrats picking up a swing assembly seat in Wisconsin a few weeks back, and possibly a big upset in NY-26 next week. So, not so much good news here for Republicans on a grassroots level. And I think it’s only likely to get worse. Gas and food prices are falling already, and the job market has been picking up momentum at an increasing rate over the past few months. Those are the sorts of things that could well ease public pessimism on the economy and strengthen Obama’s poll numbers. Now would be an ideal time for Republicans to make a shift, but thanks to shoddy strategy they’re stuck on the defensive on Paul Ryan’s disastrous budget, and are otherwise busy ensuring that Wall Street never gives them another penny by downplaying the dangers of a debt default. I don’t see the grand strategy here. Republicans are known to have issues with science, but perhaps they’d better take another look at Newton’s Third Law, which seems to apply as much to the use of power as to anything else.
Here’s how I see it:
- According to Speaker Boehner, we absolutely, positively have to address the deficit and debt–even during a period of 9% unemployment and too-low investment–because, “We’re broke,” and we’ll leave a disastrous legacy to our children if we don’t. As always, won’t somebody think of the children?
- In fact, it’s so important to address this issue that Republicans are completely willing to do things they don’t want to do, like raising marginal tax rates and taking other actions to raise more revenue. Just kidding, they think it shouldn’t even be on the table for such an important and extraordinary occasion, even though making a bipartisan deal would almost certainly have to include tax hikes of one sort or other.
- Republicans are so, so very uncommitted to cutting the deficit that they’re unwilling to consider revoking the subsidies on the highly profitable oil and industries that are unpopular with the public. That’s right, they’re spending political capital to defend the most egregious government handouts out there (with the possible exception of agriculture subsidies). Admittedly, there’s a political element to the Democrats’ push here, and it’s not going to make much of a dent in the deficit. But if spending is so paramount, so essential, then why not just start dumping junk like this? Symbolism matters, and this tells you all you need to know.
- Needless to say, defense spending is untouchable as well. Though, admittedly, that quote is from Mitt Romney, so it could change a few times by tomorrow.
- That leaves, by default, the only acceptable option: to make massive cuts to entitlements. Convenient, I say! This has come to mean the Ryan Budget Plan, best known for being panned (and unpanned) by Newt Gingrich, possibly losing the GOP a special election in New York, and described by Ezra Klein as being designed to be, “completely, almost gleefully, unacceptable to Democrats.” Yes, the deficit is so important that playing partisan games with the budget and the debt ceiling automatically takes precedence over it.
Looking at this honest attempt to piece through the arguments leaves one with the conclusion that Republicans are (surprise!) lying almost completely about their commitment to cutting the deficit. Their actions are the opposite of a party wanting to seriously do it, though they correspond almost exactly with a party that wants to kill off public programs and is using its limited leverage to do what it can, or at least lay down markers. The only people who could possibly believe otherwise are people who listen only to speeches and press releases in which the deficit is addressed with solemn tones and “more in sorrow than in anger” sentimentalism, and whose understanding of politics is shallow and silly. But that aptly describes the Washington elite establishment, which explains why we are here.
Now, obviously, if you find these sorts of programs unacceptable, then the Republicans’ strategy is a pretty smart deployment of power for ideological ends. But most people don’t find them unacceptable. Regardless, if you actually want the government to come up with a plan to lower the deficit (you beautiful dreamer!), which is to say for Republicans to actually do what they promised, this is a huge (and predictable) disappointment. And if you want the government to focus on job creation, as nearly all Americans do, then you’re completely out of luck.
Let’s take another look at that generic ballot (sans Rasmussen) to see how the new House Republican majority is playing in Peoria:
That straight line is really quite dramatic. I’ll be the first person to express my frustration with the public for their lapses of attention, but they’re not fools and they’re not patient with people who can’t deliver. As Republicans desperately try to salvage the Ryan Plan and sink millions into what was supposed to be a comfortable win in upstate New York, it doesn’t even occur to them that they’ve lost the thread, and that the public is getting sick of them at an incredible rate. It is largely true that Democrats’ view of the median voter is a lot more optimistic than reality when it comes to how well engaged and informed they are. But it’s also inescapably true that Republicans’ view of the median voter is equally if not more skewed in the other direction. The last election cycle pivoted largely around the Democrats assuming that voters would see the Fox/Rush/Drudge misinformation about health care for what it was and being disappointed, and it looks like this one will pivot around Republicans assuming that the voters won’t notice that they’ve wasted time on NPR, abortion and Medicare privatization bills that were never going to pass and were never very popular, and getting a hell of a surprise on election day.
And I don’t see this dynamic changing in the short term. Thanks to the tactical brilliance of Boehner and Cantor, nearly all House Republicans are basically stuck with a vote to privatize Medicare. This means that, if they just cut Ryan’s plan loose as they were making moves to last week, the House Republican Caucus will have nowhere to turn. It’s not a matter of frosting out a few marginal members–the whole House is up for re-election, and if Democrats can play in NY-26, they can play anywhere. Republicans are stuck with this vote for good, and Democrats have been exploiting it fairly well so far. Shit, GOP elites are so desperate to keep from losing this outright that they’re at the verge of reading Newt Gingrich out of the movement, which is something I never thought would ever happen. Starbursts is writing columns attacking him and he’s as big a hack as they come, which means Newt’s off the protected list. Anyway, my question is: when the Republicans lose in 2012 (I’m guessing they lose the presidential race and the House, with something close to a tie in the Senate), where do they go next? Do we finally get that Republican civil war that we’ve been promised for decades? They won’t be able to say they lost for not cutting spending enough, like after Bush. Do we get another pseudomoderate “compassionate conservative” type in 2016? Will they walk around dazed for years like the Democrats did after 9/11? The latter might be a little wishful thinking, but just think of what could get done…
If you look at the crazy attacks on Clinton they always involved Clinton doing something sleazy—running drugs out of that airport in Arkansas, killing dozens of people in Arkansas (google “Clinton body count”), molesting staffers—whereas the crazy attacks on Obama usually involve Obama being a passive participant in something sleazy—the faking of his birth certificate by his family, the writing of his book by Bill Ayers.But it’s also true that the conspiracy theories about Obama are just so much more pathetic than the Clinton ones. I subscribe to few conspiracy theories but I am interested in what makes a good one, and how they work psychologically. The JFK conspiracy theory is a very good example of the genre. You have a case where the given story has a few glaring flaws, and where the stakes are (or at least were) potentially enormous. If the Russians were involved, wouldn’t that have been an invitation to war? If the government was somehow in on it, then we clearly have something big and ugly on our hands. And so on. And, while most of the JFK conspiracy theories are easily dismissable–Oliver Stone’s film is entertaining but far from convincing, or even coherent–the best ones leave you with that one shadow of doubt that even hardened skeptics can’t quite dismiss. A bad example of a conspiracy theory is the whole thing about Shakespeare allegedly not writing his own plays (soon to be a movie by the director of Independence Day, which is not really my thing, though I’ll see it if the whole thing is scored to Radiohead’s Kid A like the trailer). This theory–usually presented as a desperate attempt by schoolteachers to show how totally controversial and crazy the world o’ Shakespeare is–just doesn’t cut it. It’s low-impact, there are no stakes, and if it were true it would change nothing. They wouldn’t even change the name on the books because you don’t change a pen name, like there’s no “Sam Clemens” section in your local Barnes & Noble. They’d just have to swap out the paintings of Shakespeare for some other guy, and that’s it. All of this is a prologue to say that I think that the conspiracy theories around Barack Obama are just really lame, while the Clinton ones were more compelling (though I suspect equally untrue). Why is that? At least with Clinton there were all these deaths and loose ends that got woven into outlandish theories, and they were more effective at damaging Clinton because even the suggestion–however farfetched–that the president is murdering people is unnerving and scary. But is anyone really afraid that Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s books, or that Obama himself was born in Kenya? The practical effects of these things being true are zero, which is why they’re so easy to dismiss. Zero stakes, in other words. These frankly aren’t scary prospects unless you already buy into the whole right-wing worldview and know exactly how to put them into context. This is opposed to the Clinton stuff, which is pretty much accessible to everyone. Just another sign that the right wing is becoming more insular and inscrutable to everyone else, I suppose.
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