Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
They Said It:
But a government by discussion, if it can be borne, at once breaks down the yoke of fixed custom. The idea of the two is inconsistent. As far as it goes, the mere putting up of a subject to discussion, with the object of being guided by that discussion, is a clear admission that that subject is in no degree settled by established rule, and that men are free to choose in it. It is an admission too that there is no sacred authority – no transcendent and divinely appointed man whom in that matter the community is bound to obey. And if a single subject or group of subjects be once admitted to discussion, ere long the habit of discussion comes to be established, the sacred charm of use and wont to be dissolved.
“Democracy,” it has been said in modern times, “is like the grave; it takes, but it does not give.” The same is true of “discussion.” Once effectually submit a subject to that ordeal, and you can never withdraw it again; you can never again clothe it with mystery, or fence it by consecration; it remains for ever open to free choice, and exposed to profane deliberation.
Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics, Chapter V, “The Age of Discussion,” 1872.
GOOD GRIEF: WASHINGTON AND LOSS.
Most of you, we’ll guess are familiar with the Kubler-Ross model, though you probably know it by its vernacular name, the five stages of grief. In brief, in 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist who worked with the terminally ill, developed the model by which patients tend to deal with the news that they are dying. They, and their loved ones, Kubler-Ross argued, experience at least five general emotional states in progression: Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; and Acceptance.
For our purposes today, the specifics of the model aren’t all that important. And neither, for that matter is its ultimate clinical validity. We don’t care. All we care about is that it provides a framework for understanding how people process bad news, depressing news, in some cases, devastating news. There is, we think, an equivalent in electoral politics. This equivalent may not be as well defined or as specific as the five stages, but it is, nevertheless, a real phenomenon, one that provides a framework for the discussion of political debate and commentary in the months and weeks leading up to an election, the results of which are, more or less, a foregone conclusion.
For much of the election cycle, the Democrats and their allies have been in the denial stage. There is no Republican wave, we were told. The dumb-dumbs in the GOP are exaggerating both their advantages and their ability to make use of those advantages. “We” Democrats are positioned precisely where we want to be, and we will stomp the stupid, regressive red necks, making them the permanent minority party. Just you wait and see!
At this point last year, you may recall, the Democrats were practically giddy. They knew about the 6th-year curse and the fact that the electoral map tended to favor the Republicans. They knew that most analysts expected them to lose a narrow election. They knew that they were proverbial underdogs, in short. But they had also just been through the Great Government Shutdown, which, they swore up and down, would prove a disaster for anyone anywhere who had an “R” after his or her name. Their time is finished, the Democrats crowed, and there is nothing to do now except sit and back and wait for the accolades, the votes, and the Congressional majority to roll in.
Did you even remember that the government was shut down last year? Neither did we. And neither, we suspect, do many other American voters, all of which is to say that all of this prattling on about the Republicans’ breach of public faith was pure nonsense. The Democratic expectation that they would do well this fall was, from the very beginning, evidence of denial.
Now, obviously, the political model of the stages of grief is a little different from the standard one. Among other things, this means that the political model has an extended and expanded denial stage. In addition to the usual, generic political back-and-forth, (i.e. We’re gonna win! No! We’re gonna win!), the electoral denial stage is filled with all sorts of explanations as to why observers should not let their own eyes deceive them. The classic example of this, of course, is the insistence that the polls are wrong. They’re undercounting support here, overcounting support there, and are generally biased and skewed. They’re out to get our guy! Don’t believe ‘em!
In 2012, the Romney campaign and its boosters suffered badly from this poll-denial delusion. They believed all along that their guy was going to win on Election Day, because the polls showing otherwise were just wrong. Romney would win big among independents. He would win white voters overwhelmingly. The models overestimated Obama supporters’ enthusiasm. They overestimated minority turnout. Etc., etc., ad infinitum.
As it turned out, of course, this was denial pure and simple. Mitt Romney was blindsided by the outcome of the election because he never advanced past the denial stage. He never even thought that he might lose. It never occurred to him that the polls might actually be right.
As you read various articles and predictions over the next few weeks, you should be aware that a great many Democrats and their supporters are still, like Romney was, in denial. They think there is a secret weapon, an October surprise, of sorts, that will carry the Dems to victory. And they want you to believe it too.
Don’t take the bait.
Over the last several weeks, Democratic-sympathizers in the media and the political prognostication communities have been carefully and bemusedly explaining to the rest of us which issues will really matter next month and which issues won’t. They understand what matters to voters, and the rest of us non-Gnostics just don’t get it. Consider for example the following, from Bloomberg News, the contentions and data from which have formed the foundation for optimistic Democratic hopefuls – in the press especially – for much of the last couple of months:
Republicans seeking to unseat the U.S. Senate incumbent in North Carolina have cut in half the portion of their top issue ads citing Obamacare, a sign that the party’s favorite attack against Democrats is losing its punch.
The shift — also taking place in competitive states such as Arkansas and Louisiana — shows Republicans are easing off their strategy of criticizing Democrats over the Affordable Care Act now that many Americans are benefiting from the law and the measure is unlikely to be repealed.
“The Republican Party is realizing you can’t really hang your hat on it,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. “It just isn’t the kind of issue it was.”
The party had been counting on anti-Obamacare sentiment to spur Republican turnout in its quest for a U.S. Senate majority, just as the issue did when the party took the House in 2010. This election is the first since the law was fully implemented.
Now, Republicans are seeking a new winning formula, with the midterm election less than three months away.
Or, to put it another way: Ha ha, suckers! Obamacare isn’t that big an issue anymore, and therefore the Republicans are in deep doo-doo!
It never really seems to occur to these people that the reason that Obamacare isn’t that big a deal anymore is because there are much BIGGER deals about which to worry. In the ten months since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, the Obama administration has completely fallen apart on issues entirely unrelated to health care. Indeed, the string of setbacks Obama et al. have suffered is so long and has come at such a dizzying pace, that many seem all but forgotten now, having been replaced in the news cycle by other scandals and missteps. Remember Bowe Bergdahl? He was the POW/possible deserter for whom Obama traded dangerous five Taliban terrorists. Remember when the Russians shot down the Dutch plane and the whole world was outraged? Remember the VA scandal? Remember when the United States used to be opposed to the Assad regime in Syria because of its use of chemical weapons? Remember the red line? Well, you get the picture.
People aren’t complaining about the health care law right now, and opposition politicians aren’t using it as much in their ads, but not because the reform is working or because suddenly everyone loves governmental health insurance. Rather, health insurance and Obamacare have disappeared as election issues because there are so many other issues for which to blame Obama and his Democratic henchmen. Frankly, we think that most democrats running this fall would be THRILLED to be talking about Obamacare. If they were, that would mean that they wouldn’t have to talk about ISIS, or the IRS, or the Secret Service, or Ebola, or even Benghazi. Health care would be a welcome respite from the more current and more pressing disasters. And anyone who thinks that health care’s disappearance from the election radar is a good thing, is out of his mind.
A week ago, Juan Williams, the resident liberal on the Fox News Channel used his column in The Hill newspaper to make a similar, though slightly different argument. To Williams, the fact that the economy is doing better is an indication that the Democrats are going to do well. Or the fact that most people don’t believe that the economy is doing better is an indication that Democrats are going to do well. Or . . . well . . . something. Either way, he put it like this:
One of the biggest surprises on the midterm campaign trail is hearing President Obama echo President Reagan’s famous question by asking voters whether “you are better off than you were four years ago.”
The question is the hammer in Obama’s toolbox for nailing down his Democratic majority in the Senate in this year’s midterm election.
“By almost every economic measure, we are better off today than we were when I took office,” the president said in a Sept. 19 speech to the Women’s Leadership Forum, sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.
Speaking to a Labor Day rally of union workers in Milwaukee, he also pointed to America’s improved economic performance over the last five years. “You wouldn’t know it from watching the news,” he lamented. . . .
Democrats running for Congress are reminding voters of the GOP’s lack of interest in boosting wages for working people. The GOP has turned back efforts to raise the minimum wage and to invest in infrastructure. . . .
President Obama is on to something. If the midterms turn into a referendum on which party to trust to boost middle-class wages, look for Democrats to hold the Senate.
Maybe it’s just us, but we can’t figure out what Williams is trying to say here. Seriously. Is he arguing that the economy is doing better, which will help Obama’s ratings and lead the Democrats to a comeback of sorts? Or is he saying that the economy only appears to be doing better and that real, middle class Americans aren’t seeing any benefit, and so THAT will lead Democrats to a comeback? Or is he saying both? Whatever the case, the guy is grasping, and that last line in the above quote is the key to understanding that: “If the midterms turn into a referendum on which party to trust . . .” Well, sure. And if it turns into a referendum on which party is better able to handle national security, then the Dems will get crushed. And if it turns into a referendum on competence, the Dems will get crushed. But if it turns into a referendum on rainbows and puppy dogs, then . . . well . . . who knows? We’re sure Williams can make it fit his argument, though, since that argument appears pretty malleable. But it’s not an actual representation of the electoral forces as they stand today. It’s his interpretation of how things might look if reality were altered.
We suspect that what happened here was that Juan Williams had a column deadline to meet and had been told that he had to appear to be the optimistic Democrat. And so he tried. He never quite figured out how to do that, though, and so he just strung together a bunch of sentences. From a writer’s perspective, that’s understandable, we suppose, if sloppy. From a political perspective, though, it’s just sad. It’s desperation heaped upon denial.
It is not, we should note, merely journalists who are showing signs of struggling to come to terms with their grief. In an example of what undoubtedly qualifies as “bargaining,” two weeks ago Obama went to the United Nations and made a speech ostensibly about Ebola and the Islamic State. If you paid close attention, however, you might have heard him make this sad and desperate plea: You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours – ALL of yours! Specifically, he said:
In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri – where a young man was killed, and a community was divided. So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. Like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear.
Why, exactly would the President of the United States go to the UN and prattle on, seemingly at random, about the erstwhile obscure Ferguson, Missouri? What, exactly does Ferguson have to do with anything? And even if it had something to with anything, why would this strange man feel the need to undercut his own country in making his plea for action against other countries? Why, in short, would anybody do something like that? According to a White House spokesman, Obama wanted to acknowledge that “we’re not perfect” – as if anyone could possibly come to any other conclusion after nearly six years of his presidency. On the surface, the whole thing was bizarre, even for a man whose wife was never in her life proud of her country until it nominated her husband for the presidency.
Just to reinforce the point for those us who may have missed it the first time around, the following weekend, Obama attended a Congressional Black Caucus event and again brought up Ferguson – despite the fact that neither he nor the federal government has any real role in the investigation of a local police shooting. This time, he was even more specific and more galvanized. Speaking about a justice system that he believes is racially biased, Obama said the following:
We have to close the justice gap: How justice is applied but also how it is perceived, how it is experienced. That’s what we saw in Ferguson this summer when Michael Brown was killed and a community was divided. We know that the unrest continues. . .
The anger and the emotion that followed his death awakened our nation once again to the reality that people in this room have long understood that in too many communities around this country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” Obama said. “Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement, guilty of walking while black or talking while black — judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness.
Clearly, President Obama is making a pitch here. And clearly, he is making a pitch to the one constituency upon which he has always relied and onto which he has pinned his last, dying hope to save his presidency, racial minorities. Obama’s implicit bargain here is as simple as it is crass and cynical: vote for our guys, and I’ll make it up to you. Turn out at the polls in November, and I’ll see that the last two years of my presidency are used to advance your agenda.
Now, never mind the fact that nothing in his promise makes much sense. Never mind that his presidency has been – by any objective measure – a disaster for black Americans especially. Never mind that he has never appeared, at least to date, to care much about the causes of the perceived racial imbalances in the justice system, namely the war on drugs and its draconian sentencing guideline. And never mind that two years is hardly enough time for one man to accomplish much of anything with respect to race, particularly a man who has not shown any genuine interest in the matter or any proclivity for persuading others of the validity of his argument, a crucial factor in a one-man crusade against injustice. Never mind any of that. It doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter because the “bargaining” stage is, by definition, irrational; it is when those facing traumatic events make promises they never intended to keep, largely because they are desperate and see no other choice.
Obama’s desperation will, we suppose, endure through election day. How could it not? We know the guy doesn’t really have all that much interest in governing and that he has largely detached himself from the day-to-day operation of what is still ostensibly “his” government. But he is concerned about appearances. In fact, that may be the only thing that he in the world about which he is concerned. The loss of the Senate, on top an expansion of the House majority, would make him look bad. And he can’t have that. He can’t stand the thought of looking bad. All of which means that his desperation and his bargaining will all but certainly continue right up until the moment the election results are official.
This is bad news, for Democrats especially, but for the country as well. There’s no telling what a man this desperate will do, no telling what he will bargain away in the vain hope of retaining at least some semblance of power for the political faction he represents. He won’t be able to do so, of course. He is deluding himself. But that’s not to say that he can’t do some damage trying. Already, we’ve seen that he has amped up the rhetoric on immigration, telling activists that “America isn’t Congress. America isn’t Washington,” and that “no force on earth can stop us.” This is a man who will, we’re afraid, say or do anything to get votes and thus to prevent or mitigate his personal humiliation. If that doesn’t keep you up at night, then you’re just not paying attention.
Fortunately, not everyone on the Left is stuck, like Obama in the bargaining stage. Some have moved on to the acceptance stage. Unfortunately, this acceptance is itself politically tinged and thus treats the loss, the trauma, not as an actual loss but as a mere, temporary setback in a battle for power. There is no consideration for the causes of the loss; no thought whatsoever about the forces that created and solidified the loss; no worry at all for the 300-plus million people whose lives are affected in some way or another by the causes of the loss, by the loss itself, and by the reactions to the loss. Those who have moved on to acceptance, in other words, have moved on not because they’ve come to terms with anything but because they have decided to begin planning their next move in what has become a zero-sum game intended to facilitate the greatest accumulation of power in the smallest number of hands.
This past week, Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House and current House Minority Leader, appeared to concede the 2014 midterm elections, but only in the process of confidently predicted that her party would “sweep” Washington – meaning that it will capture the House, the Senate and the presidency – in 2016. “Their days are numbered,” Pelosi said, referring to the Republicans. “I know that in two years there will be a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president.” Although she later denied the suggestion, the fact that Pelosi projected her triumphant return to power two years out into the future indicates that she knows that this year’s elections are already lost.
You will notice here, naturally, no sense of reflection on Pelosi’s part, no acknowledgement that perhaps the American people might be handing her and her party a third term in the minority for a reason. The problem, as always, is the other guys, the Republicans. Sure, the Dems will lose in November, but it’s not a loss that Pelosi or her cohorts need to take seriously because it’s not their fault. It is a loss derived purely from historical anomaly and conservative deception, or so we’re told. And once the universe has straightened itself out, the loss will be reversed and all will be right and well with the American Congress.
Thus is the nature of American politics these days. It’s all about personal and partisan power. It is not about anything else, like good governance or the well-being of the people. Those things, apparently, are passé, the purview of philosophers and melancholy relics alone. Others have joined Pelosi in her backhanded version of the acceptance-stage, various analysts and prognosticators who seem to acknowledge that this year’s contest is decided already, but who refuse to concede anything beyond that. They see the GOP victory not as an occasion to reflect and ponder the circumstances that enabled it, but as merely one more discreet and ultimately irrelevant move in a much longer, much more important game. According to them, any Republican victory this November will be both short-lived and self-destructive.
This peculiar variety of “acceptance” is as obstinate and unthinking as Pelosi’s variety, only exaggerated by the pretense of being an actual examination of the political forces at play. In a recent piece for Politico, the Left-of-center purveyor of Inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom, Bill Scher, a liberal political operative, makes the case for losing, for accepting the trauma and loss, in other words. To wit:
If the latest round of polls is accurate, Democrats will lose nearly every competitive Senate race, giving Republicans full control of Congress for the first time in 10 years.
This is excellent news for Democrats.
Instead of another two years of the same old gridlock that has turned voters off of both parties, Democrats will get to kick back with a large tub of buttery popcorn and watch the Republican soap opera hit peak suds.
In the House, the Boehner vs. Tea Party plot line will heat up, as several anti-Boehner party rebels are expected to win seats now held by more genteel Republicans. The Senate may end up more like a classic sitcom: Can two grandstanders like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz run for president at the same time without driving the majority leader crazy?
And if you thought that was enough conflict for one season, you’ll be on the edge of your seat as these two Animal Houses flail about and flagellate each other trying (or not trying) to keep the government open and avoid a debt default.
Sen. Mitch McConnell has already mapped out a confrontational budget strategy with no end game: Jam spending bills, which are necessary for funding the government, with a bunch of right-wing riders unpalatable to President Obama . . . .
The inconvenient truth for the Republican Party is that it’s not ready for prime time, yet it’s on the verge of fully sharing with the president the responsibility of running the country.
Losing is excellent news for Democrats, you see, which is to say that there’s no real loss at all, just a temporary setback, the results of which will be absolutely high-larious to watch. Get the popcorn; the show’s about to start!
The problem with this is that the United States Congress is not some show put on for the amusement of various politicians, consultants, and journalists. It is the ruling body of arguably the most important and inarguably the most powerful nation in the world. And when the political class treats it all as a game, as a source of amusement and entertainment, then the risks to the American people tend to metastasize.
There are, we’re afraid, too many Republicans enjoying the debacle that is the Obama administration’s handling of the Ebola outbreak, both in Africa and, possibly, in this country. It shows big government’s ineffectiveness, they chortle. This is bad, bad, bad for big government types. What they fail to acknowledge – or even perhaps to understand – is that it is bad for the American people as well.
Likewise, Democrats like Bill Scher chuckle at the Republicans and the problems they will face in handling budget negotiations with an intransigent and inattentive president. What good times we’ll all have when the two dysfunctional groups undermine each other and raise the very real specter of American debt default! Boy, oh boy won’t that be uproarious!
Except that it won’t be. It will be hazardous. It will be unpleasant. And it will be potentially irreversibly damaging to the American economy.
But what does that matter when there is good fun to be had?
The Democratic Party has, for much of this year, been advancing through the strange and self-centered version of the stages of grief, coming to grips with the fact that it will lose – and likely lose big – in next month’s midterm elections. Because this is the American political class, however, that process of dealing with grief is not therapeutic, but rather antagonistic and egocentric. Loss, as it turns out in Beltway “logic,” reflects not on the losing party but on the electorate, who must therefore be punished for their miscalculation. And for the record, the partisan nature of the dysfunction merely applies to this election. Were the parties’ positions reversed, the GOP would be just as likely to demonstrate its own variety of dysfunction.
In the long run, what this means is that the American political experiment is unsustainable in its present form. Something has to give. The dysfunctional grieving that plagues Washington, even as it accrues to itself greater and greater power, is a symptom of greater dysfunction, greater self-absorption, and even, believe it or not, greater risk of maintenance of the status quo. If loss reflects mere superficiality, then why bother to change anything? Give it some time and the world will rotate back around, providing the opportunity to regain that which was lost, without having to think or do much of anything at all. As the nation’s fiscal and international problems proliferate and intensify, this continuance of the status quo will result in nothing short of long-term political disaster.
In the near term, all of this suggests that the next two years – and then the next four after that – will be, more or less a replay of the last 14, in which the fighters withdraw to neutral corners and wait to begin slugging it out again, mindful of nothing but their own preservation. Bicker, pick, fight. Bicker, pick, fight. Bicker, pick, fight. And so on it will go.
And the real grief, we fear, will be your and ours.
Copyright 2014. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.