Category Archives: Political Theory in Experience

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.”

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.

“They Just Jumped the Sharquester”

That memorable phrase Is the contribution of John Hart, a spokesman for Conservative Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), and was made in response to the White House’s report that it will discontinue spring tours due to the forced spending cuts of sequestration.  This phrase is perhaps the pithiest manifestation of Congressional Republicans’ talking points over the spending cuts, the most-common form of which is “crying wolf.”  So far, the public essentially agrees.

So, the forced spending cuts of the sequester have officially begun, and the sting hasn’t been felt yet.  That was always a possibility–exact budget authority is a bit of an abstraction, since it’s the money that various Federal Departments and Agencies are allowed to spend, rather than how much money is actually spent and what it is spent on.  In coming weeks we will probably get a clearer grasp of where the money won’t be going and who will be most-affected by it, and then perhaps our preliminary picture will change.  For the time being, though, President Obama’s grim portents of the budget cuts of the sequester look like bluster.

This was the concern that I raised in my last entry, at which point I’d concluded that President Obama was gambling too much on setting-up Republicans to take the blame for allowing the forced spending cuts to happen.  Since the State of the Union Address I’ve suspected the President was priming the public for the sequester to happen; in recent weeks Congressional Republicans deftly parried this attack by offering the President the power to modify spending levels within affected Departments or agencies so that spending on priorities could be left intact.  When the President and Senate Democrats refused to entertain the offer, the focus shifted to why.  It didn’t help that the Senate Democrats’ proposal to replace the cuts to domestic spending in the sequester was obviously designed to be unacceptable to Republicans.  The bill would have instituted a 30% minimum tax on millionaires, elimination of all farm subsidies, and left the deep cuts to Defense spending in place, in exchange for restoring all other cuts to domestic discretionary spending.  It failed on a filibuster, 51-49–irrelevant, since it wouldn’t have had a prayer in the House.

Congressional Republicans, surprisingly, comported themselves with perspective and discipline throughout all of this.  Indicating early on that the forced budget cuts of the sequester were likely to go into effect, several Congressional Republican leaders said that “President Obama already got his revenues,” and that the sequester could only be modified in the context of a farther-reaching deal to reduce future Federal spending.  Congressional Republican leaders then allowed a successful vote to raise the debt limit for 3 months, though many Republicans voted–without fanfare–against it.  As I already mentioned, when President Obama said these spending cuts were unacceptably blunt-edged, they offered to give him the power to shift budget authority from 1 part of an affected office to another to shore-up priority spending at the expense of less-essential programs.  Now the House of Representatives, mostly through the House Republican Conference, has voted for a continuing resolution to maintain Federal discretionary spending at the level permitted by the sequester through September 30th–the balance of this fiscal year.  So far, Congressional Republicans are keeping to the strategy I had thought leadership media statements in January had suggested: Avoid direct confrontations with President Obama (who is now a 2-termer and personally popular), bend on his other legislative priorities, and focus relentlessly on their supposedly-urgent message of cutting Federal spending.

To the President’s credit, he seems to have recognized that his effort to force Republicans to choose between capitulation and public embarrassment over the sequester has failed, at least for now.  On Tuesday he pivoted to outreach, calling several Republican Senators to discuss Federal fiscal policy and inviting 8 of them to a White House dinner that night to discuss the outline of a “grand bargain” to replace some of the cuts to domestic discretionary spending with a combination of tax loophole closures and long-term benefits reductions to Social Security and Medicare.  Several Republican Senators who were party to these discussions are cautiously optimistic.

So the House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution maintaining Federal discretionary spending levels at roughly the cap set by the sequester through September 30th, the end of this fiscal year.  The measure passed the House 267-151, with 214 Republicans and 53 Democrats voting for it.  It’s unsurprising that most House Democrats voted against the lower spending levels of the continuing resolution (as they had also proposed to raise certain taxes in order to restore some spending); it’s also noteworthy, however, that even with a slightly-reduced attendance the House Republican Conference almost needed Democratic votes in order to pass it due to 14 Republican holdouts from the right and 4 non-attendees.

But while support from Conservative and centrist Democrats in the House may be a coveted goal if the House Republican leadership want to pass viable bills in their chamber, the fact remains that President Obama and Senate Democrats correspondingly have little choice but to support reduced Federal spending for now.  They could win some modifications in spending levels for particular domestic program priorities as long as overall spending levels remain within the limits mandated by the sequester, but that’s no more than what Republicans offered them before the sequester took effect.  Now, Senate Democrats are preparing their own continuing resolution.

In other words, Congressional Republicans won the staring match over the sequester.  True, the full effects of Federal program cuts may not be felt for a few weeks or a few months, and at that point public sentiment may shift more-emphatically against further spending cuts.  But in the meantime President Obama and the Democrats will have had the opportunity to shore-up some of their own budgetary priorities at the expense of programs they consider less-essential.  So, some hurtful cuts may never really go into effect, and other programs may be eliminated outright.  After many losses in years of fights over government with President Obama, the Republicans won this one.

This win is significant, because President Obama has been playing to take the House in 2014, and the public seems to be skeptical of his claim that House Republicans are on the warpath.  If they can otherwise keep their focus on Federal spending, their unassuming passivity may work for them.

Just a Theory I Have…

“Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion — mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.  As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances.

“Now we need to finish the job.  And the question is, how?

“In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year.  These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness.  They’d devastate priorities like education, and energy, and medical research.  They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs.  That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as the sequester, are a really bad idea.

“Now, some in Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits.  That idea is even worse.

“Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population.  And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms — otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations.

(President elaborates, mostly on proposals designed to reduce cost inflation in Medicare.)

To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and the well-connected.  After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks?  How is that fair?  Why is it that deficit reduction is a big emergency justifying making cuts in Social Security benefits but not closing some loopholes?  How does that promote growth?

“Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.  We can get this done.  The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms, and more time expanding and hiring — a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can’t work the system and pay a lower rate than their hardworking secretaries; a tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas, and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that are creating jobs right here in the United States of America.  That’s what tax reform can deliver.  That’s what we can do together.

“I realize that tax reform and entitlement reform will not be easy.  The politics will be hard for both sides.  None of us will get 100 percent of what we want.  But the alternative will cost us jobs, hurt our economy, visit hardship on millions of hardworking Americans.  So let’s set party interests aside and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future.  And let’s do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors.  The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.  We can’t do it.”

–President Obama, 2013 State of the Union Address, Tuesday, February 12, 2013 (emphasis mine).

I have a theory: For weeks, both parties have decided that the harmful spending cuts of the budget sequestration are inevitable, and offers of alternative policies have essentially been designed to reflect a narrative in which the other party is responsible.  How’s that?  For one, in last week’s State of the Union Address President Obama counts the $1 trillion in sequester spending cuts he wants replaced towards the achievement of about $2.5 trillion deficit reduction he considers accomplished.  The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the recent tax increases and the sequester spending cuts combined will shave about 1.25% off of this year’s GDP growth and cost the national economy about 1.5 million jobs.  This disaster wouldn’t be fully-felt initially, and while it would reverberate through certain industries these Federal spending cuts won’t necessarily tip us back into recession.  (For one, the Dow Jones Industrial Average may have largely priced-in the susceptibility of certain sectors and companies to steep, blunt spending cuts.)  In any case, the President has made it clear that the arrival of these Federal spending cuts would be very bad–for the economy, our competitiveness, and our military standing abroad.

As an alternative, the President specifically mentioned both revenue-raising tax and entitlement reform, particularly to Medicare–in other words, tax increases that cross a red line for Republicans and cuts to entitlements that are outrageous at least to Liberal Democrats.  In short, the President proposed replacing spending cuts that are bad for the health of the country with a combination of tax increases and spending cuts that offend each parties’ ideological sensibilities.

How much confidence could he possibly have in the prospects for a proposal that offends the 2 parties’ base supporters merely because it is in the nation’s common interest?  Reflecting a more-partisan angle, Senate Democrats have offered their own interim proposal to replace the sequester spending cuts, which they also cannot really expect to happen since it both deliberately embarrasses Congressional Republicans and doubles-down on spending cuts that hurt Republican policy priorities.  The Senate Democrats’ proposal leaves the drastic military spending cuts intact while eliminating all US farm subsidies, calls for a 30% minimum effective tax rate on millionaires and closes a lot of tax loopholes that Republicans have protected, the last provision having descended from 2011 proposals leading up to the debt limit crisis.  The temporary measure would only last for a year, but why would Senate Democrats leave the controversial 2nd round of military spending cuts intact and propose abolishing all farm subsidies?  They don’t want Congressional Republicans to seriously consider supporting the proposal.

And what about Congressional Republicans?  Are they negotiating in good faith?  Well, that depends on whether you think negotiating entails ever making an offer–but their self-representation is completely different from the Democrats’.  While President Obama and (somewhat less-plausibly) Senate Democrats have modeled their appeal on an offer of compromise, the Republicans propose a litany of ideological wish-fulfillment that would be politically-damaging to their party if it could actually happen.  House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who while certainly a Conservative has generally avoided either partisan histrionics or dissembling about his policy goals, currently claims to be writing a multi-year budget outline that will balance the Federal Budget in about 10 years.  This is a suspicious promise for Congressman Ryan to make less than 2 years after an already-radical Federal Budget proposal that would have made a neutral balance possible after 30 years cost his party several previously-safe House seats in special elections.  Now the Republicans’ budget specialist proposes an even more-radical plan to cut Federal spending, just months after facing a decisive rejection by the electorate in a Presidential Election explicitly waged over the size and scope of government.  And would you be surprised that Congressman Ryan has been saying for weeks that he expects the sequester spending cuts to happen?

If it’s hard to imagine a plan being a political success both if it were to be seriously aired and debated in Congress and if the effects of implementation were actually felt, you should ask yourself if it could be boilerplate.  Why scale-back your dreams–Indeed, why scale-back your fantasies–if you think being pragmatic won’t avail you?

So, either President Obama and the Democrats wanted a balanced, negotiated solution and Republicans were just too fanatical to accept it, or Republicans were genuinely ready to pursue the ideological budgetary goals their Conservative party base demanded of them, and the Democrats simply blocked them on account of holding the upper reins of Federal power.  Or maybe neither of those propositions is true, and all of this is a rehearsal of the respective eulogies that Democrats and Republicans will deliver for their disparate visions when a very unpleasant round of blunt-force spending cuts take effect on schedule in a matter of weeks.  Make no mistake: The sequester will be bad for the country.  But any significant changes to those cuts will offend 1 or the other of the parties’ bases all the more.  So, the sequester is the most-likely outcome, and both parties have moved on to preemptively setting the tone for this costly failure to compromise.

If this realization causes the less-partisan among you to lose faith in the political system, you should know that the reason stunts like this (and harmful policy results like sequestration) happen is because activists are the ones who pay the closest attention to politics.

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.

Merry Christmas, Everyone

I’ve said more about Christmas before, but it warrants mention every year: Christmas is about the birth of a child in a stable in a backwater Roman province who will grow up to declare that every human life has meaning.  2,000 years later, the World has been made new by this idea.  This message of seeing potential for greatness in every human life didn’t sufficiently create Modernity (which won’t be recognizable in our political thought for over another millennium and a half following its appearance), but with Jesus’ message it is perhaps on the edge of our thinking and aspiration for the first time.

We celebrate Christmas just days after the darkest night of the year.  The message, I think, is clear: When people come together in full faith–in each other, not some divinity–they can completely remake the circumstances in which they find themselves.  This is among the youngest of the ideas bequeathed to us by Antiquity; indeed, this idea eventually transcended Antiquity itself entirely.  We can make the darkest time of the year into the brightest–but we need each other to do it.

Don’t trouble yourselves overmuch with 3 persons or 1 persons of some divinity, or of whether the Pope succeeds validly from Peter, or whether you rely on the clergy for the administration of sacraments, or of the nature of the Communion, but with communion itself.  Consider the provocative words of the man who said that, if a traveler asked you to go 1 mile with him, you should be prepared to go 2.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  Find your peace in others today.