Category Archives: Political Theory in Politics

Conservative Groups and Money–Both Mind and Body–Undermine the Republican Party

It took just a few months for us to be able to call the Republican Party’s latest effort at re-branding a failure.  If anyone thinks that’s a bit much, why are the House Republican leadership unable to pass the bills they have previously called crucial to this effort?  To date the 113th Congress has actually been far less-productive than the 112th to this point in 2011.  This includes Republican filibustering of background checks for unlicensed gun sales, House Republicans’ refusal to support a catastrophic-risk insurance pool favored by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor as a partial alternative to the Affordable Care Act, failure to reach agreement in the Senate to prevent a doubling of student loan interest rates, House Republicans’ oddly-timid refusal to negotiate a budget with Senate Democrats (after demanding Senate Democrats pass a budget plan for years) and the failure of a farm bill that was supported by a majority of House Republicans but opposed by a majority of the House.

Because of its chronic inability to follow-through on any broadly-accepted agenda outside of obsessive opposition to President Obama’s policies, the Republican Party is actually much weaker than its current electoral strength should suggest.  Two sources of this weakness were until recently believed to be strengths of the New Right–its intelligentsia which insist on ideological purity, and the free flow of money to and from special-interest groups that can organize votes more-easily than local constituencies of interest.  Some people have called these groups a cancer in American democracy, but strictly-speaking they are actually a cancer in the Republican Party.  National Journal has had some excellent reporting of House Republicans’ undeniable and unprofitable dysfunction of late, and these remarkable words of protest from the House Agriculture Committee Chairman in a recent article on the next step for the farm bill bring to mind the closing words from Lord of War: “Never go to war–especially with yourself”:

“Last week the relentlessness of the conservative campaign became apparent when House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., was back in his district. On July 1, the Tulsa World reported that conservative activists, some of whom do not live in Lucas’s 3rd District, had shown up that day at a town-hall meeting in Skiatook, Okla. ‘If you want the conservative Republican vote, you need to come forward with a conservative Republican bill,’ said Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, a conservative activist from Broken Arrow, which is in the 1st District, where tea-party groups in 2012 ousted Republican Rep. John Sullivan in favor of now-Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who voted against the farm bill.

“Lucas, who has also been the target of Heritage Action radio ads threatening to recruit a ‘real conservative’ to run against him, fought back. ‘I’m under attack by those people,’ Lucas said. ‘They’re coming after me. They are all special interest groups that exist to sell subscriptions, to collect seminar fees, and to perpetuate their goals.’

“Lucas continued, ‘You’ve got to understand: They don’t necessarily want a Republican president or a Republican Congress,’ he continued. ‘…They made more money when [Democrat] Nancy [Pelosi] was speaker.… It’s a business.’

“Vuillemont-Smith replied: ‘That’s a perverted way to look at it.’

“‘I’m sorry. I have to deal in the real world,’ Lucas said, adding that by opposing the bill, conservatives were turning their back on the bill’s $40 billion in savings over 10 years, including a $20 billion cut in food stamps.”

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Affordable Care Act Implementation Among the States, Part 1: Health Insurance Exchanges

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was enacted by Congress, it contained basic provisions that would impact the situation of public health in certain States differently.  Primarily, it would be left up to the determination of each State to decide whether to establish its own health insurance exchange, to run its health insurance exchange in a complimentary partnership with the Federal Government, or to leave the task of instituting such an exchange up to the Feds completely.  The health insurance exchange is a regulated marketplace, accessible online, which provides item-by-item comparisons of various private insurance plans.  Federal guidelines indicate what information has to be provided by insurers to the general public, just as new regulations instituted through the Affordable Care Act mandates certain minimum responsibilities for health insurers.  (For example, health insurance companies had to insure children of their policyholders through age 26, could not deny their policyholders’ claims on the grounds of possessing “preexisting conditions,” and could not cancel their insurance policies in advance of claims for treatment after making them pay premiums.  These sorts of measures–as well as declining to provide apples-to-apples comparisons between one’s own health insurance policies and another insurer’s–were all legal before the Affordable Care Act was passed, just so you understand the measures Congressional and State Republicans have so doggedly fought.) By my count (based on a critical reading of information provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation), 18 States (including the District of Columbia among them) have instituted State-based insurance exchanges, 7 States are planning partnership exchanges in conjunction with the Federal Government, and 26 States have declined to institute their own exchanges, instead opting to let the Federal Government establish and run the exchanges for them. Every State with both a Democratic Governor and a unitary Democratic State legislature–there are 16, counting nominally–has opted to create either a full State-based or partnership exchange.  Of the 25 States with both a Republican Governor and a majority-Republican State legislature–counting Virginia with its nuclear partisan control and excluding Nebraska with its non-partisan State Senate–only 3 have instituted State or partnership exchanges, 1 of which (Utah’s) was pre-existing.  Ohio has a State-Federal partnership exchange in all but name, based on an existing State regulatory agency which reserves the right to oversee health insurance companies listed on its Federally-operated health insurance exchange.  Of the 10 States (counting Nebraska) that have split-control governments, 6 have State or partnership health insurance exchanges.  3 in this latter category were proposed by Democratic Governors (though 1 Governor, Kentucky’s Steve Beshear, had to implement it through executive order to bypass the Conservative-Republican State Senate) and 2 by Republican Governors who work with Democratic legislatures; 1 (Iowa’s) was already in place shortly before passage of the Affordable Care Act and was fashioned into the State component of a partnership exchange.  Rick Snyder, the moderate Republican Governor of Michigan, failed to persuade his Republican State legislature to institute either his desired partnership health insurance exchange or the expansion of Medicaid.State Health Insurance Exchanges as of April 1, 2013

So, we can group States on implementation by several types.

States that already had State-based or partnership exchanges: Massachusetts, Utah, Ohio, Iowa

States that produced health insurance exchanges in response to ACA enabling legislation and grants: Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Illinois, Arkansas, West Virginia, Maryland, Washington DC, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire

States in which health insurance exchanges were proposed by a Governor but rejected by a legislature or by referendum: Montana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina

State in which a State Insurance Commissioner proposed a State health insurance exchange which was not sustained by either the Governor or the Department of Health and Human Services: Mississippi

States which rejected creation of a State or partnership exchange without controversy: Alaska, Wyoming, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maine

A few political realities can be inferred from this outcome:

1.) Democratic Governors and State legislatures were eager to embrace the Affordable Care Act, period:  Every Democratic Governor except the relatively-Conservative John Lynch of New Hampshire at least attempted to institute a health insurance exchange.  2 of these Governors were thwarted by Republicans–the now-retired Brian Schweitzer in the Legislature in Montana and Jay Nixon by a failed referendum in Missouri.  Governor Beshear in Kentucky was able to act on his own through executive order; on that note…

2.) Where institutional agency resides matters.

3.) The health insurance exchanges were the earlier State-based component of the Affordable Care Act to be implemented, and it brought fewer obvious benefits from the Federal Government than the Medicaid expansion; consequently, few Republican Governors felt compelled to join even if they were relatively pragmatic: Only 6 out of 30 States with Republican Governors–20%–have either State-run (Utah, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico) or State-Federal partnership (Iowa, Ohio) exchanges.  Utah, Iowa and Ohio instituted exchanges or health insurance plan management agencies through pre-existing State offices, while the other 3 States created new exchanges.  It’s worth noting that in 2010 Idaho Governor C. L. Otter faced charges from his Democratic opponent that he was too ideological, while Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susanna Martinez of New Mexico are both Hispanic Governors of States with large minority (particularly large Hispanic) populations and majority-Democratic State legislatures.  So, Republican gubernatorial buy-in to the health insurance exchanges was largely a function of a path of least resistance or greater political pressure to compromise.

4.) On health insurance exchange implementation, Governors were about as willing to play politics as State legislatures.  As I mentioned before, every Democratic Governor save 1 at least attempted to establish a State-based or partnership insurance exchange; in the case of Governor Maggie Hassan, elected in 2012 to replace New Hampshire’s retiring Governor Lynch, she used her election and her party’s massive victory in the State House elections that year to reverse her Conservative-Democratic predecessor’s decision to forego both a heallth insurance exchange and the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.  The rump Republican majority in the State Senate, coming off an election that was even more disastrous for its party locally than it was nationally, has assured Governor Hassan of its cooperation.

5.) Barring implementation trouble with the new health insurance exchanges, which could just as plausibly be used as talking points against the Affordable Care Act, the picture of State and Federal health insurance exchanges depicted above is unlikely to change.  Unlike States which reject the expansion of Medicaid, which will clearly deny health care in aggregate to millions of the poor, a State’s failure to create its own health insurance exchange won’t necessarily have repercussions for its residents.  While a State-run health insurance exchange is likely to be more-convenient to use and will probably be governed differently, the handling of its functions by the Federal Government won’t necessarily lead to perceptibly-different service or the failure of the exchange itself.  (To an extent, this reality may depend on House Republicans’ efforts to deny funding to health insurance exchange implementation, but it may prove difficult either procedurally or politically to deny funding to implementation.)  As such the picture you see above of mapped variation in the creation of health insurance exchanges above is likely to stay with us.

Social Conservatives in the Republican Party: Their Disenfranchisement is Real, the Threat They Face Less-Than-Existential

Jonathan Martin recently wrote an interesting conceptual scoop for Politico, wherein social Conservatives offer a surprisingly-subtle recriminatory argument: They can’t be the source of systemic weakness in the Republican Party because President Obama’s banner Presidential Election wins in 2008 and 2012 came in the face of socially-moderate Republican Presidential candidates.  Sure, President Obama may have won election and re-election on the basis of energizing a majority coalition for Liberalism, but that doesn’t mean (goes the argument) there isn’t such a natural constituency for Conservatism.  They assert that the Republican Party was weak in the past 2 Presidential Elections because the party’s leaders were running from their base, rather than because it alienated key demographics.

It’s an interesting, counterintuitive argument.  It’s also rubbish.  Christian Conservatives actually surged around the moderate-ish John McCain in 2008–and he performed about as poorly as any Republican Presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater in 1964.  Furthermore, it’s curious how easily the Christian Conservatives interviewed here either forgot or skirted around the shameful cases of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, 2 Republican Senate candidates who were considered near-guarantees to win Red State Senate seats until they each argued that raped women shouldn’t be allowed to obtain abortions.  Oops.

Towards the end of the article, the author notes that abortion is not gay marriage; he is right.  The much-noted sea change in attitudes towards gay marriage is real and irreversible; the general spread of opinion on abortion, strangely, has hardly shifted at all since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.  So, I expect the Republican Party’s positions on social issues to be determined not so much by some aggregated interest group within the party winning some abstract argument but by actual party leaders and candidates following incentives.

Gay marriage is gaining acceptance and legal recognition so quickly now because it is about people who differ from us only in sexual orientation asking for the same rights the rest of us have; once people feel safe to admit they are gay (which the bigotry of Judaism, Christianity and Islam made almost impossible for millennia), it soon becomes difficult to appraise bans on gay marriage as anything other than institutional discrimination for a difference of orientation that is both beyond one’s control and completely harmless. The very fact that one doesn’t need to live in fear means that society will be confronted with any attendant forms of exclusion or domination of their difference, and when this is seen it will be found to be bereft of justification.

Abortion is not an issue in the same class; it has never stopped being divisive.  In fact, as the article notes, the Republican Party is now more consistently pro-life (and the Democratic Party more consistently pro-choice) than ever before.  With the domination of several State governments–as with the much-maligned new Virginia requirement that women seeking an abortion first submit to a transvaginal ultrasound and most recently as a Republican legislative supermajority in North Dakota legally establishing personhood at the point of quickening (roughly 6 weeks)–the pro-life side has flexed its muscle and expanded its denial of women’s right to choose.

Before you opine that its pro-life stance is killing the Republican Party with women, remember that the Republican Party was, if anything, more emphatically pro-life in 2004 and that didn’t stop President George W. Bush from taking a slim majority of the popular vote in that Election.  Plenty of women are pro-life; they were going to vote for Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, too–until they realized how callous they were towards rape victims.  The Roe v. Wade decision remains the law of the land and the Supreme Court doesn’t seem to be interested in re-litigating it; many of the qualifications to abortion rights which Conservatives have pushed for in Congress or in the States are actually broadly popular, if perhaps their real-world impact on women isn’t well-understood by many.  My point is that, disappointing as it may be to many fellow-Liberals, there is no reason to believe that Republicans will feel motivated to jettison their hostility to abortion rights, or that they will pay an electoral price for their disinclination to do so.  (Much as some social Conservatives say, Republicans would pay an electoral price for giving up the pro-life cause, no less if it was explicitly done as a groping attempt at re-branding.)

So, forget about the Republican Party becoming the Libertarian Party or the culture wars simply disappearing; there is no evidence of a link between broader demographic shifts and Republican concessions on certain social issues and Republican concessions on other issues.  Regarding low levels of support among women, Republicans probably just balanced their social Conservatism with support from Conservative women poorly in 2012–specifically, on account of recent extremist gestures.

Gay marriage has taken up more of this discussion–as it did in this article–but immigration reform is another example of an issue where the Republican Party is coming around, in this case to former President W. Bush’s Liberal-leaning position.  A legal guest worker program for nominally illegal immigrants, which offers an opportunity for them to work their way to citizenship, has a serious chance of passing through a split-control Congress, which it couldn’t do in 2007 with a Democratic Congress due to massive opposition from Senate Conservatives from both parties.  Again, here the Republican Party is simply following incentives: The party’s leaders and leading lights are anxious about their party’s growing reputation for callousness and simply need to assuage Hispanics’ fears of their intentions if it is going to remain viable in the Southwest–and eventually, in the biggest States of the South.

Add a possible cultural shift against the “gun show loophole” in favor of universal comprehensive background checks for gun purchasers (and hopefully, reasonable restrictions on the high-capacity bullet clips that allow any private citizen to mount their own assault), and we’ve probably just about seen the extent of the concessions Congressional Republicans will feel they have to make to Liberals in the Culture Wars.

Note that these distinctions represent different factors–an abrupt and broad cultural shift following open acceptance of homosexuality; Republicans mounting offensives against abortion rights and facing electoral punishment from alienated women and secular men in specific cases where the optics suggested callousness towards women; a simple need to calm the fears of and do something for America’s largest minority group; and growing public awareness of the dangerous gaps which NRA interference has left in our nation’s ability to research who is trying to buy a gun in the wake of a growing number of mass shootings.  These general factors have put pressure on Republicans because they fear appearing cruel or too insular on these issues (which have identifiable constituencies).  It doesn’t mean the Republican Party will become openly affirming of gay marriage in every State (at least not for a generation, perhaps), or that it will stop being pro-life (it won’t), or that we are going to see another 1986-style amnesty as President Reagan instituted (we have nearly 4 times as many illegal immigrants now as then and this has become an emotional issue) or that Republicans will stop being active supporters of the gun culture (actually, if President Obama’s gun control legislation passes Congress this year it will likely create significant headwinds for Congressional Democrats in 2014).  Republican retreat on these issues is real and tangible; but in the fashion of good military metaphor, not to make strategic retreats on these issues would bring far greater injury to Republicans on the electoral front lines than the ideological space under contestation warrants.  But this is by no means a wholesale exchange of a Conservative ideology for a Libertarian one, or even a Republican Party that is going to have any chance of appealing to metropolitan Liberals as merely a “fiscally conservative” party.  The Republican Party still has its power base in rural areas and culturally-homogenized suburbs; there is no reason to believe it will try to profoundly alienate those people, and I really don’t think its electoral situation is that desperate.

Now, in contrast to what social Conservatives such as Gary Bauer said, limited-government Conservatism probably *is* needed to bind the party’s disparate wings together, so if the Republican Party feels more-Libertarian than it did when George W. Bush was President, well, by that general standard you are right.  Whatever gays, women, Hispanics, Asians, the Millennial generation, the college-educated and metropolitan-dwellers may think it, the Republican Party has remade itself with impressive speed as a more-committed small-government party, and it has to maintain this promise to its core supporters.  Hence the focus on cosmetic changes which encourages jokes: The Republican base doesn’t want “armies of compassion,” it wants to be left alone…unless someone wants an abortion, of course.

Sequestration: No One Knows How This Story Ends

To hear President Obama and Congressional Democrats speak of sequestration is to receive advance warning of drastic spending cuts that will put as many as 1 million Americans out of work, furlough enough air traffic controllers to delay a lot of flights, many National Parks will become almost impassable, productivity in the civilian Defense Department will plummet while all branches of our military will slip out of readiness while the Navy and Air Force will fall out of a state of good repair, and drug addicts, sick or disturbed children, destitute senior citizens, and very young children awaiting their vaccines all will be abandoned.  Hundreds of millions of dollars in both humanitarian and military aid, including some funding for a successful program to fight AIDS in Africa started by former President George W. Bush, will be cut.  The United States Border Patrol will be cut.  700,000 children lose Head Start services, resulting in the layoffs of 14,000 teachers.  $1.12 billion in total funding will be cut from FEMA.  Hundreds of millions of dollars will be cut from the FBI and prisons, among other law-enforcement and penitentiary institutions.  The National Science Foundation will lose $375 million in research grants, while NASA will lose almost $1 billion in funding.

The Democrats tell us the cuts in spending on these priorities will be catastrophic. All of that is certainly bad–and that’s what the sequester, as programmed, entails.  But what if the spending cuts aren’t as broadly-felt as it sounds like they will, or if creative operational changes or greater budgetary discretion blunts the edge of some of these spending cuts?  What then?

Well, that could represent a major political victory for Congressional Republicans.  In recent weeks, Republican Conference leaders have argued that the coming forced spending cuts of the sequester are insignificant in the scheme of things; as it turns out, $85 billion in cuts expected this year is at least statistically-significant, but a better way of making this point might be to say that the list of cuts described above tells you nothing about what Federal spending is left intact by the sequester, or about how massively Federal spending has grown over the last 12 years.  Adjusted for inflation, President Obama’s budget proposal for 2013 calls for overall Federal spending that is 52.4% higher than the total for 2001, which was President Clinton’s final Federal Budget.  Does a cut of just over 2% of that spending, Republicans ask, really herald the collapse of our civilization, or even more than the needy can bear?

Make no mistake about it: These Federal spending cuts will be as draconian as they are crudely-designed–to the people directly affected.  But I ask my usual crass question: Will the persuadable center segment of the public feel the impact of the sequester cuts as advertised?

Much has been said in the political press about what a risk Congressional Republicans are taking in sitting on their hands over the sequester.  It’s true that Congressional Republicans are already pretty widely disliked by the public; on a related note, it’s true that recent polls suggest Congressional Republicans face prospective blame from a much larger share of the public if the automatic spending cuts go into effect.

But I’m not crowing.  I’m thinking.

Waxing cynical, Chris Cilizza and Aaron Blake at The Fix noted that most Americans are playing little to no attention to the coming budget sequestration, either because they don’t believe the spending cuts will affect them as directly as the tax cuts of the New Year’s Day “fiscal cliff” or because they simply don’t understand what in the budget is being cut.  In any case, President Obama has taken to the road calling for public support for a negotiated budget solution–and it isn’t working.

There is a broadly-sustained conventional wisdom that Congressional Republicans are playing a dangerous game in waiting-out the President and Democrats to let the automatic spending cuts go into effect.  They seem to think in part that they are doing what their base wants, and that they can deflect some of the blame back onto the President by noting that they are offering the Executive Branch greater discretion to decide just what parts of the budget get cut, as long as the cuts fall within the same broad portfolio and aren’t reduced in size.  Reading polls which indicate a small majority of the public are ready to blame Republicans for the sequester, some pundits conclude this is a weak hand, and doomed.

But the impact of the sequester is going to hit some States much harder than others.  This is a big country, and the broad-based spending cuts we’re talking about take more money out of programs that are important to particular cities and States.  President Obama has issued dire warnings about the way people’s lives will be inconvenienced or even needlessly endangered under sequestration, but what if the proposed spending cuts aren’t perceived (or at least not fully-appreciated) by a broad swath of voters outside of the Democratic base?  The dramatic warnings could then backfire, leading Republicans to repeat their charge that the President of playing politics and to demand further spending cuts.

So the conventional wisdom may be wrong.  While most political prognosticators say the Republicans are so committed to the game of chicken that they’ll hurtle off the cliff, there may be less at stake for them in making this gamble.  The Republican Party’s reputation is already in the toilet.  It’s President Obama who commands a tenuous majority support but who is at the start of his 2nd term and whose party faces another Midterm Election in less than 2 years’ time.  Midterm elections, especially in 2nd terms, are characterized by lower turnout–anywhere from 2/3 to 1/2 of what is expected in a Presidential Election–with the opposition party’s voters better-represented due to frustration with the President’s policies.  While the massive Republican gains of the 2010 Midterms were an historic outlier case, they were definitely facilitated in part by President Obama’s and Congressional Democrats’ Liberalism.

Most of the public isn’t paying attention to budget sequestration, President Obama is calling the effects of spending cuts dire and Congressional Republicans are being pushed by some in their divided base to ask for further spending cuts.  As previously noted here, President Obama has committed to a more-confrontational politics in order to inspire the Democratic Party’s growing Liberal base.  He has successfully built public support for a number of his policies this way.  But if, whatever the reason, the impacts of budget sequestration aren’t broadly-felt after the warnings he has issued, Congressional Republicans may choose to characterize his philosophy towards government as archaic.

If they can make that claim, President Obama may lose an edge he didn’t realize he’d wagered.  In politics, it’s dangerous to confuse your own perspective with a microcosm of reality.

President Obama’s 2nd Term Strategy: Real Benefits and Real Costs

President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address laid-out a Liberal policy agenda, validating it in terms of government’s power to help Americans, the need for the rich to contribute more towards Federal deficit-reduction, and our common status as American citizens.  While the tone was amicable compared to that of the President’s bold (some said brash) 2nd Inaugural Address last month, he nonetheless doubled-down on his staring match with the diminished but probably secure Republican majority in the House of Representatives–a chamber he needs in order to pass most of the agenda he laid-out in the Address.

President Obama--2013 State of the Union Address

President Obama during the 2013 State of the Union Address last night. The President has become more confrontation-prone towards House Republicans over the course of the past 2 years; now it seems to be his standing approach in dealing with them, even in central policy speeches. Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/Agence France Presse/Getty Images.

Do you remember President Obama campaign pledge to be the postpartisan President during the 2008 Election?  I do, and that promise is now completely gone.  That is a pretty good mark of how far the President–and the country–has come.

“Bipartisanship is stupid,” a friend–a fellow graduate student in political science–said almost exactly 4 years ago, and I essentially agreed.  Don’t the 2 parties exist in order to represent different material interests or values?  Why would either party agree to work with the other on their legislative priorities, unless it is thereby able to attain what for its members is a higher policy priority in exchange for concessions on a lower priority?

Republicans seemed to feel this way; in general, they never gave President Obama a chance.

I should clarify that I have always liked the idea of bipartisanship in the sense that I do not believe that the other party is just evil or stupid, or that it serves entirely illegitimate interests.  When I was younger I had a little more trouble embracing this notion, but ironically it was shortly before the President George W. Bush Presidency fizzled in 2006 I have accepted that you can tell a lot of clashing stories with reference to the same facts.  (In a different context, 1 of my professors once called this the “Rashomon effect.”)  Taken to an extreme, the sentimental call for bipartisanship ignores premises on which democracy was based–that the meaningful political questions of the day can still inspire people with legitimately-differing opinions, and that the political parties should explain the respective philosophies that motivate them and propose policies which they both think will work and will help them to achieve their values.  At an extreme bipartisanship seeks to dilute that ideal into “Well, here is what I want to do; you should get on-board or you’re being a bad American.”

I’m not saying President Obama was either foolish or disingenuous to call for a bipartisan coming-together (though I do think he was a little naive).  Consider the professions President Obama came from: He has been a lawyer, a Constitutional law professor, a South Chicago community organizer, an Illinois State Senator, a US Senator from Illinois, and 4 years after election to the US Senate he became President of the United States.  During his 4 years as a US Senator he saw President W. Bush have about 4 months of good news and policy successes before the bill started coming due for the information manipulation, unsustainable policies and political contradictions of his 1st term; after that Congressional Democrats found their voice, went on the offensive and enjoyed successive wave elections.

What am I getting at?  Well, Governor Romney did at least have a plausible critique of the President: Barack Obama never ran anything.  I find the President’s policy record compelling and I have found him to be a consistent champion for the right causes; binding those 2 findings together are Barack Obama’s good political instincts.  But the fact remains that his record of dealing with resistance from Congress indicates significant amounts of denial and even avoidance behaviors.  Democrats and Republicans have made those charges.  This isn’t damning–and as I’ve said before, the President has won more political battles than he has lost.  But rather than explain this in terms of President Obama’s professorial inclinations, I think this is best-explained through the fact that his political experience prior to becoming President was through community-organizing and serving in 2 legislatures: Our President has a lot of experience marshaling those who share his causes but before becoming President had never really herded the legislative cats himself.

The low point of my confidence in President Obama’s political abilities came in mid-November 2010, just after the Republicans had their best wave election since the 1920s or 1930s.  While admitting that he had just suffered an electoral “shellacking,” President Obama nonetheless explained his loss in terms of failure to get his message out.

You see, the loss of 7 Senate seats (starting in January of that year), 63 House seats, 6 Governorships and about 700 seats in the State Legislatures nationwide in a high-turnout Midterm Election came about because people just didn’t understand all the great things President Obama and the Democrats were doing.  Wow…

But the fact remains that President Obama was re-elected by a pretty-solid margin for a Presidential Election, with an unusually-high unemployment rate and Republicans running an extremely well-financed campaign around a message of limited government and citizen independence that had them excited.  They had a lot of existing elected officials nationwide to help them carry that message to most parts of the country.  There had been discipline problems, but this message and the 2012 Republican National Convention had largely assimilated intraparty differences of opinion while maintaining substantive policy positions.

Yet as it happened, the Republicans performed worse nationwide in the 2012 Elections than the consensus of the pundits had allowed.

The reason for this was positively identified by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight by late-August of last year, and is simple: The constituencies that tend to support Liberal policies now form a natural majority in Presidential Elections.  This situation has been developing steadily for the past 20 years, though it was not always perceptible on the surface; this year was a fairly-strong test of it.  The Republicans actually dominated the vote of self-identified independents, and they had a bad election year anyway.  As a consequence, President Obama has realized that Democratic Presidential candidates don’t require the support of constituents who might be antagonized by Liberal causes and legislation.  Being “outed” as a Liberal doesn’t preclude election for President by a popular vote majority.

For some, the strategic tack the President should take in light of this realization is straightforward: Divide and conquer.  But the truth is, this situation poses a choice in which both courses of action offer benefits and costs.

Ron Brownstein noted as much in an interesting article for National Journal on the demographic changes that have created an electoral majority for Democratic Presidential candidates: President Obama’s turn from appealing to the center to appealing to his base, crossing a threshold by actively-supporting gay marriage in 2011 and perhaps hitting full-bore with his combative 2nd Inaugural Address, is not just a personal political tack but a bid to capitalize on massive demographic changes that actually make it easier for Democratic Presidential candidates to ignore or even alienate the White working-class voters the Democratic Party used to need in order to win.

The importance of the diverse Democratic Party base to President Obama’s election and re-election is a story that has already been told, but President Obama’s pursuit of a Liberal agenda of immigration reform, new gun control, rescinding the Defense of Marriage Act and new climate change legislation reflects his recognition that aggressively pursuing his party’s platform is actually good politics.  This hasn’t been true for Democratic Presidents since Lyndon Johnson won passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

So we’ve come along way from Senator Zell Miller (D-GA)’s 2003 lamentation that the Democratic Party was A National Party No More because it had alienated social and fiscal Conservatives…or have we, in a more-comprehensive sense?  While appealing to the Democratic base may actually be advantageous to Democratic Presidential candidates now, this strategy comes with a probable cost: it may actively disadvantage the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives. Even without the partisan gerrymandering that so heavily favors Republicans in the Midwest and the South, Congressional races tend to have about 2/3 or less of the turnout of a Presidential Election; even non-partisan Congressional Districts probably aggregate towards a natural Republican majority in the House because of political geography–working-class Whites live in wide distribution through suburban and rural America–and the Voting Rights Act’s mandate to create a proportional number of majority-minority Congressional Districts where possible (which makes drawing adjacent Conservative-leaning Congressional Districts easy).  So, for a Democratic President to promise and proceed to govern from the Left could help the Democratic Party dominate the Executive Branch for the foreseeable future–but it also could also keep the Democrats out of the House for years, perhaps indefinitely, because this strategy basically takes a dump on socially-Conservative parts of the electorate that are more-likely to vote down-ballot, especially in the Midterm years.

I remember the expansion of the party’s ranks in 2006 and 2008. Some of those Congressional gains, at least in 2008, were probably based on the post-Financial Crash reaction against the Republicans and the coattails from President Obama’s high-turnout, massive 2008 Presidential win. But some of those Congressional gains could have been permanent (at least Districts we could have retaken if not held through 2010).  Brownstein’s argument is President Obama’s decision to go to the left was made possible by structural changes in the electorate; it still wasn’t inevitable or even the only plausible strategy.  He suggests, and I think the evidence corroborates, that we had to choose between our Congressional majority and investing in strategic dominance over the Presidency–at least for the next few Congressional terms, and maybe a lot longer.

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.

LINCOLN

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.