Monthly Archives: January 2013

Lincoln: A Review Through the Lens of the Theory and Practice of Politics

I find it ironic that a friend of mine and I who went to Lincoln in high spirits came out of the movie fighting bitterly.  We didn’t see eye-to-eye at all about the quality or significance of what we had just seen on the screen.

I had been riveted by the account of an America divided and almost ruined by completely-incommensurate views on politics, whose Representatives were guided through a time of great uncertainty to vote for a far-reaching change to the United States Constitution; my friend had been bored by a staid representation of a perfect President Abraham Lincoln, a cliché-ridden one at that.

We both saw the same movie, and we were hoping to find different things in it.  Considering the story was one of people who were worlds apart coming together to give incomplete standing to a burning moral truth, our complete disagreement over what we had just seen was disappointing.  (Actually, it fouled-up the whole evening.)

Lincoln 1

President Lincoln in the opening scene, speaking with curiousity to 2 Negro soldiers. Lincoln seemed far less certain about the prospects for good race relations than he did about the need to abolish slavery. He is portrayed as finding his way on the issue.

But this is a review of the movie through my eyes.  Lincoln is not a probing biography of 1 of our most-beloved Presidents, but rather a political account of 2 momentous months of his life–December 1864 and January 1865 to be precise, just weeks before his death.  Lincoln is simply about the passage of the 13th Amendment, or about President Lincoln’s way of achieving it.

This is the story of the crowning political accomplishment of an Illinois lawyer, elected President during a time of profound political division, who would controversially assume a variety of powers to the Executive Branch, antagonizing both the opposition party in Congress (those thus often implacably opposed to his political goals) as well as those of his own party who found the President insufficiently-zealous in his advocacy against racism (and thus counted him either a consummate opportunist or worse, an academically-aloof appeaser).

Lincoln 2

In several scenes we have the benefit of watching President Lincoln deliberate with the many naysayers of his Cabinet. As per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Lincoln was good at identifying and contending with loyal opposition.
In a memorable early scene, it gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his intellectual fancy footwork, his lawyerspeak.

That’s right, when I watched Lincoln I saw a good parable for President Barack Obama’s political circumstances.  I’ve previously been told the likeness is a bit melodramatic, but I strongly-disagree (and I truly think the fact that I love President Obama is incidental).  It’s certainly true that our current political deadlock pales in comparison to the 600,000 Americans killed in a war to end slavery and preserve the Union, but political junkies who downplay the likeness between our time and theirs at the elite level are actually minimizing how abnormal the depth of current partisanship is.  Put differently, shouldn’t it bother us that we have to reach back to the Civil War in order to put today’s partisan political differences into perspective?

Lincoln may not give us the upstart young lawyer, the Congressman from Illinois or the eloquent but failed candidate for the US Senate, or even the evolution of the hapless pragmatist into the crusading Abolitionist, but what it does give us is 2 months of cat-herding within an energized Republican Party which culminates in the legal abolition of slavery in the United States.  At the time the Republican Party is split, primarily between an establishment wing we would now characterize as Conservative and the Radicals who might otherwise be viewed as Conservatives today but whom were adamant about enshrining full racial equality (and providing basic property for former slaves through subdivision of the old Southern plantations) in Federal law.  The Democratic Party is mostly Southern or rural in its power base, though it is also powerful in New York City, where many Irish immigrants were conscripted for the war but lacked much experience with Protestant Abolitionism; overall it is quite opposed to abolishing slavery.

By this time the Emancipation Proclamation has already abolished slavery in the Confederate States by wartime Executive order.  But in a marvelous monologue we see the lawyer Lincoln, as he runs through competing, often exclusive rationales for the Emancipation Proclamation that might not hold up under Constitutional scrutiny at the end of the war.  The Border States–Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Missouri and the Oklahoma Territory–still have legal slavery because “forced” emancipation could not be constitutionally justified as a wartime measure.  Not only could the Emancipation Proclamation be ended and slavery even restored in the Confederate States at the end of the war, but in a particularly cruel reversal plantation owners may even have the gall to demand the return of their “property.”

The Senate has already passed the 13th Amendment by a large 38-6 majority, but the House of Representatives retains a large-enough Democratic Caucus that they need crossover votes in that chamber to send the 13th Amendment along to the States.  While many House Democrats have lost their bids for re-election, it is uncertain how quickly the Confederate States will rejoin the United States, thus raising the prospect that the political window to abolish slavery could shut suddenly.  Thus, President Lincoln is unsure when the 13th Amendment will pass, if not in this lame-duck session of Congress.  The abolition of slavery must have the force of law before any delegation of the Confederate States of America is able to ask for preservation of slavery as a condition for rejoining the Union.

The President needs the votes of Democratic Representatives–fast.  Naturally, he turns to the offer of patronage jobs as the easiest way to obtain them.

1 of the things I liked best about Lincoln was its juxtaposition of Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of an almost pure President Lincoln (and this portrayal is every bit as amazing as you must have heard) with the amorality (some would say corruption) of politics–a state of affairs which doesn’t trouble the President in the slightest.  He isn’t campaigning against corruption, he’s campaigning against a great evil.  He has bag-men collect lame-duck Democratic votes in the House for him, sometimes literally in the dead of night, he serenely lies in public about the state of peace negotiations with a Confederate delegation, he insinuates powers to the Executive Branch–and primarily troubles himself about the Constitutional ramifications when he suspects that the Supreme Court will soon do the same.  President Lincoln can be called a Conservative on policy and philosophy, but not in spirit.  To appearances he shares nothing of the Constitutionalism and innate fear of Federal Government expansion which binds contemporary Conservatives together.

Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA)

Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who distrusts President Lincoln as a self-aggrandizing politician. President Lincoln is able to appeal to his sense of what is achievable in their political environment to temper his zeal.

The tension between President Lincoln and Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA), a Radical Republican who militates against racism to the point of maintaining the full equality of Whites and “Negroes,” provides a simple but very timely lesson in good politics.  President Lincoln warns Congressman Stevens that his blunt public expression of belief in the full equality of faculty of Blacks with Whites strikes many as too radical, and thus a political burden in the fight to abolish slavery.  Stevens defends unvarying argument from principle, likening it to having a compass, saying that his aim is simply to move towards true north.  Lincoln in turn agrees that such basic orientation is valuable (and implies the possibility that Congressman Stevens has it), but then notes that the map of local terrain is at least as important for navigation as the compass.  “If, deprived of knowledge of the terrain, you should happen to wander into a swamp, what good is it that you know true north?” the President asks.

Congressman Stevens, normally almost contemptuous of President Lincoln as more of a politician than a moral champion, allows this point and even seems troubled by it.  During subsequent debate on the draft of the 13th Amendment in the House, 1 of the Democrats opposed to passage puts to Stevens the question of full equality of faculty between Negroes and Whites.  Though he has visible difficulty with the question, Stevens avers that he merely seeks to secure legal equality of Negroes with Whites.  Tellingly, this evasion angers both the pro-slavery Democrats and the Radical Republicans.  Representative James Mitchell Ashley (R-OH) has it out with Stevens right outside the House chamber.  “Is there nothing you won’t say?!” he asks, mortified by what he considers Congressman Stevens’ extreme abdication of his integrity.  Stevens, however, has internalized the President’s message of circumspection, and acknowledges that if it provides for the abolition of slavery in America then and there (as opposed to untold years hence), there is indeed nothing he would not say to achieve it.

Congressman Stevens dominates a scene laden with irony late in the movie, in which a re-elected Democratic Congressman from his home State of Pennsylvania informs him he wishes to vote for the 13th Amendment and subsequently switch parties.  Before accepting his offer, Stevens rebukes the Democrat, who is tongue-tied, transparently self-serving and seems almost frightened by the man he has come to see.  Stevens says he is a sorry inheritor of the party of Thomas Jefferson.  In an instant, the irony of the party of Lincoln becoming a fundamentally-Southern party struck me, and I was met again with this mythological resemblance of the story to our own partisan deadlock.  This was 1 of the aspects of the film my friend found the most distasteful: President Lincoln’s adversaries in the Democratic Party are portrayed as an assortment of deplorable human beings–some afraid, some complete yokels, some transparent bigots relying on the decorum of their legislative chamber for protection, some violent.  I was untroubled by the portrayal of the President’s Democratic opponents as morally-ugly or as fools–for a very specific reason: This is a story about how President Lincoln and his political allies were able to win some House Democrats’ votes.  The political story we need is 1 about an opposition party we might be inclined to see as morally-ugly or as fools, but whose votes are needed on far-reaching legislation whether we come to see merit in what they stand for or not.  If that sounds like too bleak of a message, ask yourself if it is not true that 1) Democrats and Republicans in the Federal Government disagree with few cross-cutting party cleavages on most of the policy issues that either party considers urgent, and 2) Democrats and Republicans will have to continue to work together for at least the next 4 years even to pass a budget.  This is the aspect of President Lincoln’s story that is most-illuminating to us at this moment.

On this point my friend averred that this meant the film was not meant to be timeless; in response I said that a work of art–or of history–is permitted to bear the mark of the time it was made as much as it may the time it recalls–as long as it does so in a manner that reveals rather than obscures something about the reason it was made.

The final House vote tally is tense.  There is evidence, however circumstantial, that lack of access to information once facilitated the passage of legislation: The 13th Amendment has been justified to Congress as a measure that could bring the war to a swifter conclusion, as with the Constitutional abolition of slavery the Confederate States of America would have no bargaining motive to prolong a war its leaders already knew they could not win.  In reality, however, while the House debates the 13th Amendment there is already a Confederate delegation in Virginia negotiating terms for their surrender!  The Confederate delegation, in turn, must be misled into thinking that the 13th Amendment isn’t going to pass, and that their prompt surrender improves the chances that their States could be readmitted to the Union in time to block its passage during ratification.

These multiple deceptions seem not to trouble President Lincoln in the slightest–not even, particularly, in the exceptional level of risk they entail.  He cares about his goal, which is the abolition of slavery.  He was originally pragmatically-oriented towards this social question, but the circumstance of the way gave it such a central importance in his mind that he came to append a transcendent importance to ending it.  He didn’t care about assuming statutory powers not provided to his office in the Constitution, he didn’t care about doling-out government jobs for votes, he didn’t care about what legal or moral rationales would persuade people, he didn’t care about lying to fellow leaders of his own party he had known for years or for lying to everyone outside of a handful of confidants in order to marshal needed votes on the day the Amendment was passed in the House.

President Lincoln was a pragmatist who re-defined his later life as being about the achievement of a moral end, procedure, the appearance of scandal, and parsimony of philosophy be damned.  He was right, and his critics were wrong.  He is counted among the heroes of history, and he got there (as is so often the case) by refusing to concern himself with the cosmetic side of politics that is the fodder of so much daily political discussion.  While it is so often our lot to pedantically discuss what is right before us, he exercised his moral imagination.



Do Republicans in Congress Have a Way Forward?

You might recall that Republicans were more-sullen about the New Year’s Day tax increase deal than Democrats, and a majority of House Republicans (as well as the few Conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats) were the prime holdouts in the widely-supported bipartisan New Year’s Day compromise.  But neither the sullenness nor the recalcitrance of dozens of House Republicans indicates who is down and who is up, as there are dozens of House Republicans for which expressions of sullenness and legislative recalcitrance have long been preferred to the challenge of, you know, legislating.  (Politicians who say they are going to “clean up” government often find that, in spite of their best efforts not to participate in any of its normal operations, they somehow fail to seize complete control of it just by virtue of getting a seat in a legislature.)  Of course, the general Tea Party policy goal–specifically, balancing the Federal Budget entirely through spending cuts–wasn’t really possible to begin with.

President Obama and most of the Senate called the tax increase agreement that ended the fiscal cliff standoff a success.  The irony of that round of Congressional brinksmanship is that it all but left the Senate as a whole adversarial towards House Conservatives.  This time the notion that Conservative Republicans in the House were standing in the way of a broad consensus in the Senate hit with such force it was as if the conflict between House ideologues and Senate pragmatists were a novelty.

This contrast is the farthest thing from a novelty, but that the Senate should be the source of viable legislation (passed by massive majorities) while the House is an ongoing source of frustration for its inability to work with the other chamber is indeed unusual.

The contrast between the zealous Congressmen of the House of Representatives and pragmatic Senators in the US Senate is structural, 1 of the anti-majoritarian provisions the Founding Fathers deliberately included in the Constitution; in a well-known story Thomas Jefferson supposedly asked General Washington why the Constitutional Convention agreed to a bicameral legislature.  “Why are you pouring that coffee out into your saucer?” the elder statesman asked him.

“To cool it,” the politically-hotheaded but scientifically-astute Jefferson replied.

“Well, that’s why we’ll send legislation to the Senate,” General Washington concluded.  “To cool it.”

But for all the frustration expressed in recent calls to scrap the filibuster, it is the slower-moving Senate that, by requiring consensus in legislation, actually gives it a chance to become law today.  Act.  When the Senate reaches an agreement, President Obama and House Republican leaders know they have found the most politically-plausible legislative midpoint between them.

What is different now is that, with our current divided government and hyperpartisanship, the anti-majoritarian Senate, in 2010 known as “the place progressive legislation goes to die,” was recast as the place where durable compromises could be forged.  Remember, for his long pursuit of an agreement with President Obama through his more-populous and clamorous legislative chamber, it was not House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)–previously more openly-hostile towards President Obama–who worked-out both the 2011 Budget Control Act and the New Year’s Day fiscal cliff deal with Vice President Joe Biden.

But where do the 2 parties stand right now?  With Republicans securely in control of the House but isolated and unpopular, Democrats in control of the Senate but vulnerable to filibuster, and President Obama securely re-elected but term-limited, who has the political initiative and how durable is it?

Everyone agrees that President Obama commands the agenda right now.  His approval ratings surpass his party’s in Congress and far exceed the Republicans’ in Congress.  Congressional Republicans face a widely-publicized catch-22: President Obama’s substantive positions on the issues under debate–immigration reform, gun control, tax and spending levels and Federal deficit-reduction–range from having majority support to being hugely-popular.  In some cases public sentiment on these issues may be enduring, while in others it may prove malleable or even fickle.  In some cases House Republicans have the means to stall-out the President’s agenda until the public moves on–indeed, many of them represent remote rural Congressional Districts where this is what self-professed Conservatives want them to do.  But House Republicans can’t stall the President (and the now consensus-prone Senate) out without reinforcing their well-earned reputation for obstruction and incapacity to govern.  Bad political decisions in the past become the sufficient cause of bad political decisions in the future: Have Republicans tracked into an un-navigable mire where some members are punished in 2014 by Republican primary-voters for compromising, while other members are punished in 2014 in the Midterm Elections for holding-out?

Actually, we can see the outline of House Republicans muddling-through in a way that works for them.  1st of all, unless the Democrats manage to recruit some very-electable Conservative Democrats in some Southern and Midwestern Congressional Districts (which in fairness is what they did in 2006 and 2008), House Republicans need to be far more-afraid of competitive primaries than of being unseated by Democrats in a wave election.  It’s generally-known that Midterm Elections are hard to nationalize unless it’s in reaction to ideological overreach by the President (which of course is the story of the 1994, 2006, and 2010 Midterm waves).  While Republicans did lose a lot of Districts they wouldn’t normally lose in 2006 and 2008, that was because of the major foreign policy failures, corruption, ideological drift and eventual economic collapse either facilitated or missed by the George W. Bush Administration.  Today House Republicans are unable to act on all their ideological passions and turn some of the public’s attention on the actions of the Obama Administration.  So, by 2014 Republicans will have to worry less about being charged with obstructing the President and more about continuing to stand for Conservative principles in ways the public can take seriously.

Hint: Refusing to raise the Federal debt limit and thereby flirting with another financial crash will not work, nor will trying to hold disaster relief money hostage as House Republicans embarrassingly attempted after Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.  (That last attempt to nickel-and-dime disaster relief provoked expressions of outrage from Republican Congressmen Peter King of New York and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey–as well as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is still considered Republican Presidential material.)

The faster Republicans can roll over on immigration reform (and they are rolling over on it impressively quick thus far), the better; they seem on-track to claim policy concessions like increased border security.  This will alienate some Conservatives, but party leaders have been saying that the demographic writing is on the wall on this issue for some time.  Some have rightly noted that (unlike Charles Krauthammer’s rather-simplistic recommendation) Republicans can’t just pass Liberal immigration reform and win-over Hispanics in large numbers, but this is a big outstanding issue that has been at an impasse after almost 6 years of push for reform.  It’s time Republicans stopped making the political the enemy of the humane and moved-on.

Whatever the conventional wisdom may be, the debate over gun control poses fewer risks (and more variability in outcome) for Republicans.  This is part of the reason why I reject the assertion that President Obama has raised the issue of gun control simply for political gain: While Congressional Republicans are playing a defensive game on gun control, I still think it’s an easy defensive game for them to play.  I think the strategic picture gets a little harder for them at the State level, where Democratic governments in Blue States seem quite prepared to pass new gun control legislation and existing “stand-your-ground,” guns in bars and schools provisions, and even concealed-carry permit States have been implicated in some shameful episodes and higher overall rates of gun crimes.  Republicans who have pursued regulatory anarchy with regards to guns at the State level in recent years have created a political vulnerability for themselves in some places.

This doesn’t mean Congressional Republicans will be able to oppose any and all gun control without consequence.  Right now information obtained through background checks is destroyed, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms isn’t able to keep electronic records of guns used in the commission of crimes.  This is generally because of legislative manipulation by Congressional Republicans.  But if the Democrats attempt to ban the AR-15 rifle, the Republicans may have their counterattack.

I count over a dozen close Congressional Districts and 4 Senate seats (AK, NC, SD, WV) nationwide where the vote has been sufficiently-close or approval ratings sufficiently-volatile that the Democrats defending those seats should consider a vote for gun control legislation politically perilous.  (I could list as many as 4 more Senators, but I actually think the power of the NRA is a bit hyped.)  This isn’t to say that greater oversight of gun sales and restriction of certain weapons modifications is dead on arrival in Congress, but I frankly agree with those who expect a renewal of the assault weapons ban won’t be possible.

Then there is government spending.  This is an issue where Republicans’ policy path is relatively straightforward, but its political path is not.  The Republicans are not going to back down from their call for a limited Federal Government, but they seem disinclined to politicize the Federal debt limit again.  Still, there will be no shortage of opportunities for them to call for lower Federal spending.  It isn’t clear at all at this time who has the political advantage on this issue: Democrats have the political advantage in arguing their case for higher taxes on the rich and in opposing Federal spending cuts in particular, while Republicans have the political advantage in calling for overall deficit-reduction and in favoring Federal spending cuts as general policy.

A testament to the stickiness of this issue, a new poll finds the public evenly-divided over whether to pursue deficit-reduction through a combination of tax increases and Federal spending cuts, or through Federal spending cuts alone.  Oddly, this poll finds that upper-middle-class and wealthier voters as a whole favor a combination of tax increases and spending cuts nearly 3:2, while a majority of middle-class and working-class survey respondents said they favored spending cuts alone.  So, the people whose taxes are most likely to face further increase generally support some tax increases, while people who are more likely to be directly-affected by budget cuts apparently prefer budget cuts alone.  In any case, Congressional Republicans were right: As long as they confine the fight to one over Federal spending cuts and leave things like the Federal debt limit or a tax increase deadline out of it, they have a political opportunity.

This is why House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), Governor Romney’s 2012 running mate, has quietly re-emerged with enhanced stature.  Seemingly overtaking both House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) as his party’s unofficial spokesman, Congressman Ryan recently said Republicans should work with the Democrats on immigration reform and called for closing the gun show loophole (while still expressing skepticism towards an assault weapons ban)–and yet still doubled-down on Federal spending, arguing that the sequester’s spending cuts are likely to happen and that “the President got his additional revenues,” apparently ruling-out further tax increases.  So, House Republicans have a plan and a point man; let’s see if they can stick to both.

Live-Blogging the President’s 2nd Inaugural Speech

12:12 pm: That was a clever speech.  It was a statement of principles with an unabashed Liberal bent, it validated the President’s 1st term accomplishments, it set-out the highlights of his intended 2nd term agenda, and it laid the blame for partisan gridlock at Congressional Republicans’ feet for refusing to work with him while maintaining neutral language.  Being President truly means you have the 1st, middle, and last word in American politics–provided you know what to say.  Our President does.

12:08 pm: Perhaps that’s not fair.  Calls for non-discrimination against gays in the workplace and in marriage, criticism of legalistic voter disenfranchisement, and immigration reform that allows undocumented immigrants to remain in the country were at least as resounding in applause.

12:07 pm: Equal pay was a far bigger applause line than the President’s commitment to World peace.  Heh.

12:05 pm: “Every corner of the globe” is a funny phrase, don’t you think?  A globe has no corners; it is continuous and curves.

The World has no edges.

12:02 pm: The President has taken the opportunity to explicitly attack the idea that Americans who receive Federal assistance are “takers.”  The interesting thing about this reference to the recent Republican political lexicography is that few are likely to remember where and why and by whom the term was initially used–but they will remember the President rejecting it in this speech.

11:59 am: I have just noticed the departure in President Obama’s tone from so many other speeches.  Sometimes we hear a more-serene, academic President Obama.  Today, he’s shouting.  It’s graceful shouting, not unlike Martin Luther King’s speech on the Mall 50 years ago, but it’s shouting nonetheless.

11:57 am: “For Americans can no more meet the challenges of today’s world alone than our enlisted men could have met the forces of Fascism with muskets…”  Put that in your tricolor hat and let it steep, Tea Partiers!

11:55 am: “…for while these truths are self-evident, they are not self-executing…”  President Obama leads the political party that accepts that the country doesn’t run itself.  In national politics that is a mild exaggeration, and a revealing one.

11:53 am: President Obama’s speech begins.

11:50 am: President Obama has taken oath (without incident).  Chief Justice John Roberts took a lot of flack for the stumble during the 2009 Inaugural reading of the oath, but it was actually a joint stumble, caused not so much by the Chief Justice committing the Oath of Office to memory, but by failure of the 2 men to agree on the cadence of the Oath.  So, President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts continue to be bound together as collaborators in controversy.

11:39 am: “There’s something within me that holds the reigns,
There’s something within me that banishes pain,
There’s something within me I can’t explain,
But there’s something within, America,
There’s something within.”

Why does this rub me the wrong way?  Oh, that’s right: I have Buddhist metaphysical sentiments, and they are irked by this reference to a core of self that increases confusion…Eh, I suppose I can abide it, you know, in the spirit of national unity.

11:34 am: The next speaker is a civil rights activist.  Interestingly, she speaks not of humankind, but of “mankind and womankind.”

11:30 am: Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) dismisses talk that says America’s problems are politically impossible.  Optimism is perhaps the cheap virtue of American political speeches, but then look at the President who sits directly behind him now.  Yes, I am a believer in this man.

11:25 am: Vice President Biden whispered something to President Obama, and now the latter is smiling tensely, almost repressing a laugh.  You know that thing about Vice President Biden that people speculated was bad for the Obama Administration?  It seems it is in fact good for Barack Obama.

11:23 am: “Barack H. Obama.”  “H” for “How ’bout that?”  Huh.  Well, I guess you’re expected to do something with it…Have I not heard this one before?

11:10 am: I’m parroting CNN now, but it seems to me that it warrants mention: Barack and Michelle Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sacha, really do comport themselves with exceptional poise under public scrutiny.  It’s proper not to make political hay out of one’s family, but President Obama’s critics rarely acknowledge the exemplary nature of the family he and his wife have raised.

11:08 am: The Liberal Ironist is fully-aware that at this moment he is facilitating excessive political navel-gazing.  The President’s noon speech isn’t going to make or break the next 4 years for him, the next 4 years will make or break the next 4 years for him.  Instantaneous media, including social media but as usual in particular the proliferation of the 24-hour news networks and their punditry, has all but removed clinical distance from political speeches.

It may be the constant chatter of the pundits helps at a time like this, actually.  They keep the focus on the policy telegraph contained in political speeches.  Amid the fixation on the First Lady’s coat–in good ironic fashion I simply cannot understand it–and all the odd, grave talk about how this Inauguration speech must be compared to all the others–when President Obama has already served 1 term and been re-elected–we have political junkies such as myself who nonetheless watch the President’s speech out of fascination with the prospective glimpse at political…whatever.  That’s it, it’s whatever.  We all want to be ahead of the curve, so we dwell on much-anticipated speeches in the hope that it will give us a clue to what lies ahead in American politics.  Very little provides us with such information.  The upcoming 2013 State of the Union Address will certainly provide better clues than this speech.

10:56 am: The National Mall is covered with a sea of American flags, President Obama, his vivacity somewhat diminished by thought and care but his head unbowed, walks through Congress with a lot of Congressional leaders on his way to his 2nd Inaugural.  A stony-faced former President Bill Clinton and former First Lady and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pass through the Capitol Building on their way to the swearing-in ceremony.

“Fact: A black president has never lost reelection,” a friend said with a mix of gravity and irony, noting all at once the novelty and the political success of Barack Hussein Obama as our 1st Black President.  (“His middle name is Hussein?”)  The January 2009 crowds of over 1 million have sadly thinned…to merely over 800,000.  The expectations of a post-partisan future of hope and change have tragically given way to what is now considered possible–entitlement reform, general deficit-reduction, new regulations on gun possession and sales, immigration reform.  The optimism of the President’s 1st term could not hold-up in light of what policies could actually be achieved–the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Stimulus, the Bailout of Detroit, Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (hate crimes protections for gays and lesbians), the extension of unemployment insurance, ground-breaking provision of Federal funding for stem cell research, reforms that expanded access and lowered interest and principal repayments on student loans, massive health care reform through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the successful building of an international coalition to impose harsh new sanctions on Iran for its rogue nuclear program, the Dodd-Frank financial reform, new energy efficiency regulations, the New START Treaty with Russia, the integration of gays into the US Military, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, new FDA food safety regulations, the payroll tax holiday, respectful forebearance while presiding over historic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, initiating the operation that killed the terrorist Osama bin Laden, aggressive and unrelenting military action against the al-Qaeda terrorist network around the World, the successful intervention to overthrow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and help Libyans form a government for themselves, historic inclusion of labor-protection agreements in new free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea, the ending of the Iraq War, investment liberalization for small businesses through the JOBS Act, the historic upholding of Health Care Reform by the US Supreme Court in NFIB v. Sebelius, and the setting of permanent new tax rates in the face of fanatical opposition from Congressional Conservatives.

OK, President Obama has been fantastic.  No President is perfect–he is after all a human being shepherding other human beings in what can be a dangerous and is always a troublesome World–but President Obama is not just an historic President, he is a great one, a good mix of political prudence, moral compass, and that sense of pageantry.  The Liberal Ironist, happy to return after a  busy holiday season, will have a brief live blog of a hard-fought and well-earned 2nd Presidential Inauguration.

After all, President Obama has done some amazing things, but how’s today’s speech?  How do the shadows on the back wall of that cave look?

Another Not-so-Grand Bargain

The 2001 Bush income tax rate cuts will expire for individuals earning more than $400,000 a year and couples earning more than $450,000 a year; above that amount the top marginal income tax rate will rise from 35% to 39.6%.  (Congratulations, Congressional Republicans: You have created another tax bracket.)  Capital gains taxes, already set to rise from 15% to 18.8% on individuals making more than $200,000 a year and couples making more than $250,000 a year through the 2010 Affordable Care Act, will rise to 23.8% at a $400,000/$450,000 threshold.  The estate tax will rise from 35% to 40% on estates valued at more than $5 million for individuals or $10 million for couples–though the estate tax will also now be indexed to inflation, thus rising to a projected $7.5 million/$15 million valuation threshold by the end of the decade.  The Alternative-Minimum Tax, designed as an alternate tax rate to prevent affluent taxpayers from claiming too many deductions and paying too little tax, will now be permanently indexed to inflation, thus sparing millions of middle-class households regularly protected from the tax only by annual adjustments to its income threshold.  The Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the college tuition tax credit–all part of President Obama’s 2009 Stimulus–have been extended for the next 5 years.  A large, complicated assemblage of business tax deductions set to expire, including 1 for business capital spending also created through the 2009 Stimulus, have been extended for 1 year.  The President’s late-2010 payroll tax cut, a temporary stimulus measure which was extended through all of 2012, will be allowed to expire.  Additional unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed will be extended through this year at a cost of $30 billion; this additional safety net spending will not be offset with spending cuts.  The “Medicare doc fix,” which spares Medicare service-providers the rate cuts scheduled to take effect through the mandatory spending cuts of the dreaded “sequester,” has been put off for 1 year, hopefully pending some more-extensive deal on deficit-reduction.  All other sequester mandatory spending cuts will be put off for 2 months.  This 2-part suspension of the sequester is projected to cost about $110 billion.  All of that increased spending is to be deficit-neutral, 1/2 through offsetting spending cuts and 1/2 through taxes on new Roth IRAs for Federal employees.  The recent farm bill will be extended for 9 months to buy time to pass a replacement, thus preventing an expected  doubling of milk prices due to the automatic return of outmoded 1949 price controls.  Finally, a recently-instituted pay raise for Federal employees (including Congress) will be frozen as a small (but in Congress’ case, satisfying) cost-saving measure.

The new income tax, capital gains tax, estate tax and Alternative-Minimum Tax rates are all permanent and will not require further statutory maintenance.

Nobody likes this deal intrinsically, which is the hallmark of a legitimate compromise.  No one has anything good to say about the institution through which this deal was struck–Congress–which simply reflects a lack of reciprocity and trust all around.

So, who won the fight over the fiscal cliff?

What’s that?  You think it’s cynical of me to ask after the political optics of this deal immediately after offering only the general analysis of the plan itself?  Why yes, I suppose that is cynical of me.  I am in an exceedingly cynical mood.  The least-productive, most self-injurious Congress in American history nearly collapse in appalling dysfunction as it adjourned, and the reason for this is clear: The House Republican Conference is not well-adjusted enough play with others.

If you’ll indulge me, I will review a dreary history: In January 2010 Republican Scott Brown had an upset win in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s (D-MA) old Senate seat.  Since that time, when the Republicans advanced to 41 seats in a 100-member Senate, they proceeded to filibuster any attempts to pass a budget–just the ordinary budget–through their chamber; Congressional Republicans then repeatedly and for years noted, with false indignation, that Senate Democrats had failed to pass a budget through their chamber since 2009!  It had become the default strategy of Congressional Republicans to stall Democratic policy initiatives while offering few of their own that had any chance of becoming law, then blame the Democrats for being unproductive.

For the record, there is a difference between being a Conservative and manipulating institutional checks and balances in order to make the country ungovernable in order to undermine the other party for temporary tactical advantage, then refusing to negotiate about anything whatever.  I can’t believe this needs to be clarified, but it is a point dozens of House Republicans have consistently failed to grasp.

Consider Congressional Republicans’ highlight moments since gaining that 41st vote in the Senate: In November and December 2010 41 Senate Republicans filibustered President Obama’s New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that would integrate gays into the US Military, new FDA food safety inspection standards, the DREAM Act which would allow immigrants brought into the country illegally as children but who were either studying a 4-year college or serving in the US Military, and most-horrifyingly the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.  They waged this filibuster because President Obama did not intend to extend George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, and for no other reason.  At the same time they were railing against the largest Federal budget deficits in decades, and repeatedly insisted that no new sources of Federal revenue would be needed to lessen these deficits.  I was and remain an expositor of the tax cut deal that followed, which allowed President Obama to complete most of his 1st term agenda in 2 years as well as institute the payroll tax cut, which served as a valuable form of stimulus in giving an average-income family a $1,000 tax cut; but whereas I hoped this peculiarly Republican form of brigandage could transmute through this deal into the grounds for broader consensus, it turned-out to be what the pessimists thought it was–the honeymoon, done before the 112th Congress even met the following January.

And what a worthless Congress the 112th was!  I can still remember February 2011, when Speaker Boehner cordially proposed $38 billion in mostly-nominal spending cuts, which amounted to several hundred million dollars in probable cuts to actual spending outlays.  Speaker Boehner found he couldn’t carry the House Republican Conference along for a budget with such modest spending cuts, though he was already pulling against President Obama, who had already proposed new spending to invest in our infrastructure, basic research and education system in his 2011 State of the Union Address.  Anyway, several weeks of incoherent and rancorous negotiations and several temporary budget resolutions later, the US House and Senate signed off on…just under $38 billion in mostly-nominal spending cuts, which amounted to about $350 million iI didn’t know it then, because I had wanted to think that the Conservatives of the 112th Congress were simply getting their bearings and learning their limits–but the spring 2011 fight over the Federal Budget was a microcosm for our whole experience of the 112th Congress.  It was shrill, it deepened mistrust, the top negotiating parties were ambiguous or kept changing, resolutions were ad-hoc and budgets effectively lasted for several weeks, there were multiple threats of government shutdowns of varying severity, consumer demand nationwide was weakened by what spending cuts the Republicans did get, and the financial markets tumbled several times in reaction to multiple phases of weeks of uncertainty about taxing and spending policies–or even uncertainty about whether the Federal Government would pay Social Security checks and Medicaid services on-time.  On more than 1 such occasion the Conservative “Tea Party” Republicans in the House of Representatives ended-up either acceding to or unable to stop last-minute deals that were worse for them than what President Obama had offered them, simply because they have previously refused to compromise on any tax increase.  The dramatic failure of Speaker Boehner’s “Plan B” proposal to raise income taxes only on those making over $1 million a year is fresh in most political junkies’ mindsbut do you recall that the exact same thing happened in the House in late-July 2011 with the confrontation over raising the Federal debt-limit?  There was the prelude of the November-December 2010 tax rates fight, the February-April 2011 Federal Budget fight, the appalling June-July 2011 debt limit fight, about 3 months of fruitless argument over how to reduce Federal deficits in a balanced way that ended with the “sequester” spending cuts activating on Thanksgiving 2011, the FAA shutdown, the near-suspension of Federal highway spending (which could have shut-down highway construction and maintenance projects in progress all over the country) in June of year past, and now the December and November wrangling over the “fiscal cliff,” wherein House Republicans clamored that they would risk letting taxes go up several thousand dollars this April for middle-income families rather than entertain raising tax rates only on millionaires.

This is the bizarre non-record of the 112th Congress, simply-put and in all seriousness the worst Congress in American history.  But for all the uncertainties and contingencies in political life, I can tell you exactly the primary source of all the problems: It’s the House Republican Conference, which for 2 years has vainly passed a series of activist bills that had no chance of becoming law.  These bills weren’t intended for the real World but for a Tea Party fantasy-land in which Republicans had a supermajority in the Senate, there was a Conservative-Republican President, and the country wasn’t still starving for consumer spending following the worst financial shock in 4 generations.  By promising to and then proceeding to fight the President at every turn Congressional Republicans lost the middle American voter, who gave them their best election night in decades in November 2010; by attacking the welfare and regulatory state President Obama sought to modernize and constantly negotiating in bad faith, they transformed their political nemesis from a parliamentary consensus-leader into a fighting executive; by refusing to compromise when the Speaker of the House presented them with favorable compromise antes the Republican right-flank ruled themselves out of any legislative winning coalitions and drove last-minute deals on the budget and taxes to the left.

Having seen the full scope of the 112th Congress and what it was capable of (which is essentially less than its automatic functions), we can safely conclude in its last full day that the 112th Congress was not worth a damn.  In aggregate this Congress could not avoid actively harming the nation’s economic recovery; it could only desist doing it when 1 of its parties–always the same one, I have concluded–relented in the face of the realization that it was about to be blamed for causing that harm.

So, since political considerations (as opposed to policy, let-alone public service) are all Congress can concern itself with today, I will move right on to the “vulgar” political question: Who won the fight over the fiscal cliff?  Well, I don’t even know know at this point, and if you’ll pardon the cliche, the American people lost on account of all the attention invested in such narrowly-conceived issues, and the (understandable) investor ambivalence which has set our economy back while Congress wrestled with itself to prevent middle-class taxes from rising thousands of dollars in a single year, or a doubling of milk prices.  So we lost, that much goes without saying.  And it is at this point that I realize the 112th Congress is best understood as the theater of a war started by the Tea Party.

Does that seem a bit extreme?  Well, what was this Congress but a steady and intrinsically profitless destruction of 2 parties’ resources in the hope that 1 party would eventually give up and make massive political concessions in the hope of peace?  That would be a war.  True, there were no literal casualties.  That’s because the Federal debt limit was increased in summer 2011.

So who won?  Unfortunately, the ugliness truly is in the eye of the beholder this time.  I actually have a lot more to say about this, but this is the thought I want to leave you with.