Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Top Ten Explanations for the Proposed (Discretionary, Non-Defense) Budget Freeze

1) Scheme to Vindicate Ralph Nader's Historical Reputation by Proving the Uselessness of 2-Party System

2) Decided to Run On "Hopelessness" Just For a Change of Pace -- heck, *anyone* can get elected on "Hope".

3) William Kristol Is Remote Controlling Obama By Use of a Voodoo Doll

4) They sent him a toe. (You want a toe? I'll get you a toe. Hell, I can get you a toe by 3:00 this afternoon, with nail polish.)

5) Choosing political strategy via drunken "pin the tail on the donkey" game always good for a few laughs

6) Onion hacked NYT site again

7) On payroll of the "Palin '12" campaign.

8) Someone told Obama today was opposite day. Or maybe April 1.

9) Obama was vamped sometime in February 2009. (Anyone seen him in daylight recently?)

10) Democrats learned in 1967 that, worried about the declining power of evil, Satan has decided to directly destroy the nation in the event of another genuinely liberal Democratic administration, and have been heroically shooting themselves in the gonads ever since as a secret act of patriotism.

11) A cowardice virus has been released in the Democratic National Headquarters, which is spread to all Democratic candidates, and which sooner or later overcomes the immune system of even the most progressive elected officials.

12) Obama doesn't like being President and is looking for a face-saving way to quit after four years, not eight

Note: "Count-to-ten" functionality for this post provided by the Democratic National Committee.

Update: Breaking! New possible explanation revealed!

Thursday, January 21, 2010


I've seen Democrats as angry as they are now once before – in November and December of 2000. But although they were frustrated with the passivity of the Gore campaign, much of their anger was directed at George W. Bush. Right now, in contrast, Democrats aren't angry at Republicans. Every ounce of feeling they have is directed at the people who are supposed to represent them, the people who had – and still have! – historic majorities in Congress, yet act as though they're powerless. If Democrats can't show their supporters that they have some spine, those supporters won't be supporters anymore. This fall, they will decline to vote in huge numbers, and a bad midterm election will become a catastrophe. This is a moment of real crisis for Democrats when it comes to their base of support. And I've seen precious little evidence that they realize it.

-- Paul Waldman
Based on my unscientific sampling of opinions from friends and acquaintances and bloggers I read, it seems like there is an enormous anger in the Democratic party base -- not at Republicans, but at Democrats. For acting like spineless wimps. For running and cringing at the first sign of trouble. For not passing the damn Health Care Bill -- Senate version, in the House -- which, for all its deficiencies, is as close as we're going to get in the foreseeable future to decent health care in this country, and without which the Democrats are totally doomed in 2010.

Enormous anger.

Here's one of the best expressions of it I've seen, from (generally moderate and temperate) blogger Ezra Klein. I was going to excerpt it, but it's too good -- here's the whole damn thing:
It's worth taking a step back from health-care reform for a second. What Democrats are doing isn't just abandoning a particular policy issue. They're proving themselves unable to govern.

Democrats spent most of 2009 with 60 votes in the Senate and about 256 in the House. They had a popular new president who was following a disastrous Republican administration and a financial crisis. The opposition party was polling somewhere between foot fungus and spoiled meat. You don't get opportunities like this very often. The Senate majority, in fact, was larger than either party had enjoyed since the 1970s. And what have Democrats accomplished?

Well, not much. You can see a list here. A stimulus that was too small. Ted Kennedy's Serve America Act. Credit card regulations that were largely an acceleration of rules the Federal Reserve was going to impose anyway. I guess they almost passed a compromised health-care bill, but you don't go down in history for almosts.

If Democrats abandon health-care reform in the aftermath of Brown's victory, the lesson will be that they can't govern. No majority within the realm of reason will give them the votes to move their agenda swiftly and confidently. Even the prospect of the most significant legislative achievement in 40 years, an achievement that will save hundreds of thousands of lives, will not keep them from collapsing into chaos when they face adversity.

At that point, what's the pitch for voting for Democrats? That they agree with you? A plumber and I both agree that my toilet should work. But if he can't make it work, I'm not going to pay him any money or invite him into my home. Governance isn't just about ideology. It's also about competence and will. That's where Democrats are flagging.

You could argue that it's not fair to brand "Democrats" as at fault here. There's something to that. The leadership and the president would happily pass and sign legislation. But a party is as a party does. Democrats often run on the need to have enough votes to act. If they can't act even with those votes, then there's a real problem. Would Republicans be so terrorized if they were in a similar circumstance? The GOP forged ahead with its attempts to impeach Bill Clinton even after voters cut them down for it in the 1998 election. Those were some odd priorities, but at least the party was committed to the agenda it ran on. Democrats may not want to go quite that far in terms of party discipline, but they need to get a whole lot further than they are now.
There are a lot of similar posts around -- such as this one from Nate Silver, this one from Publius, the one from Paul Waldman I quoted at the top of this post, this one from Kevin Drum and his anonymous emailing friends, this Obama-focused one from Jonathan Cohn (who also penned this letter to nervous house Democrats), this one from Adam Serwer, this one from David Rees (who is writing as if channeling the Rude Pundit, fair warning), this one from M. J. Rosenberg, and so on and so forth.

Update: Paul Krugman offers his own version here, in his weekly NYT column. (via)

But the point is clear. Flawed as it is, the Senate legislation is now what's on offer. Universal health care is one of the great progressive goals -- has been for decades. The Democrats have a majority in the house. They could just fucking pass it.

And if they don't, if they're too cowardly to do that -- then what good are they? If they can't pass this with such large majorities -- when will they do anything?

Which is why good policy -- the bill is clearly better than the status quo, for all that it's not what I'd want (compromised in an always-futile hope to get Republican votes and in a pathetically necessary maneuver to get Lieberman's, Nelson's, et. al.) -- here meets good politics.

The Democrats will loose seats in November. Everyone gets that. (Most people get why, too: because the stimulus they passed was too small, chopped down from an already-too-small version to an even smaller one in order to placate preening centrists like Lieberman, Nelson, et. al., by a President who never seemed to take negotiation 101: ask for *more* than you want so that they can chop it down later. If they'd passed a sufficient stimulus -- one not only good enough to save us from depression (as the extant one did) but to actually put Americans back to work -- then people wouldn't be so angry and scared and they'd reward the party that did it, rather than the fear-merchants who caused the mess and are now pretending they didn't. It is, in brief, the Economy, stupid -- and the Dems listened to Larry Summers and not Paul Krugman, and were, therefore, stupid. End of story.)

They'll loose seats. But if they have something positive to run on -- a real accomplishment, like the health care bill -- they might loose fewer.

If all they have to run on is a year of trying and compromise, ending in pathetic failure, they will demoralize their base to the point where Sarah Palin could win the bluest district in the goddamn country.

They can still pull this one out. But god damn it, they better do it. Or they -- and the country -- and the world -- are all in really serious trouble.

Oh, and what can we do? Phone our representatives -- not Senators, our representatives -- and demand that they pass the Senate Bill. Like many of my friends and perhaps some of my Noble Readers, I live in a safely Democratic district where my Congressman can usually be counted on to do the right thing -- and am sometimes even frustrated I can't do more by phoning. Now is the time: everyone with a Democrat for a Representative should phone and demand they pass the Senate bill immediately. (Or even those with Republican Representatives, sure -- although it won't do any good, of course.)

There's just too damn much on the line.

Pass the bill.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Top 10 Consoling Thoughts About Brown's Win In Massachusetts

10) Conservative Dems wouldn't have let Senate do anything after health care anyway;

9) Dems so good at messing sh$t up that they would probably have still managed to mess up health care even if Brown hadn't won;

8) We all still have a few days to fantasize that Obama & Congress will respond by actually doing stuff (like passing a health care bill that will help millions, or a stimulus that might be big enough to actually create some !@#$ing jobs) -- that is, act like this and this -- rather than by being even more polite, even more bipartisan, even more conservative... that is, by being their usual craven, cringing self.

7) In 2012, Mass Democrats might decide to nominate a candidate with a pulse (or Bobby or Ted Kennedy. Even without a pulse they'd rock.)

6) ...

I dunno. Anyone have any more? 'Cause from where I sit it looks pretty damn grim.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Because Sometimes You Just Need To Focus On the Positive...

...so after last post's depressing ruminations, here's a totally cheery quote of the day (via):
...the great consolation of the Oy’s, for me and people like me, was – and I mean this in a healthful, life-affirming way – our ruthless and total conquest of the culture. Science fiction, fantasy, superheroes, vampires, zombies and werewolves are the mainstream now. We own your movie theaters, your TV screens, your bestseller lists, even your highfalutin’ literary awards. Even what’s left of the dread New York Literary Establishment has largely succumbed. The remaining anti-fantasm holdouts no longer have the power to infuriate; they are not even tiresome any more because there aren’t enough of them to tire one. On the very rare occasions when one encounters a supposedly serious critic condemning fantastic fiction out of hand, it’s like discovering an eight-track-tape player in a flea market: you marvel that it might still work, but it’s tempered by realizing that it couldn’t play anything that matters to you these days.

-- Jim Henley
I'm not totally convinced -- at least, not yet -- that Henley's right about this. But it's a cheery thought, and I wanted a cheery thought today. So yeah: geeks rule!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Failure Has Consequences: A Tale of Three Essays

I read two essays today (when I should have been doing other things, natch) that seemed to do a good job at capturing our political moment, and the precise contours of its problems: one broadly, one narrowly.

The essay with the broader lens was James Fallows's interesting essay in the Atlantic this month on the current notion that America is in decline, and whether it's true or not. It's largely familiar material -- at least to me; I bet it isn't to a lot of people -- but I'd summarize it as follows: we've always had the sense of collapse, and some of the specific problems are familiar; relative decline is an overstated problem; so many of our worries are groundless -- or would be, except that our political system is too !@#$%ed up to fix them, so in actual fact we're screwed.

Fallows doesn't actually end on quite that pessimistic a note. But it's not a stretch from what he actually says, I don't think.

The piece with narrower focus was Harold Meyerson's weekly column on the disappointment with Obama from liberals (via) and why his term has, in fact, not been what liberals would hope. As he puts it:
The legislative torrents of the New Deal and the Great Society -- a few brief years in the 1930s and the '60s that fundamentally reshaped the nation's economy and society -- are the templates that fire the liberal imagination. ... But as the first anniversary of [Obama's] inauguration approaches, it's clear that despite the impending enactment of a genuinely epochal expansion of health care, a progressive era has not burst forth. Major legislation languishes or is watered down. Right-wing pseudo-populism stalks the land. The liberal base is demobilized. The '30s or the '60s it ain't.
I think Meyerson does a decent job of talking about why this is so. But what struck me reading the two essays was the way they outlined the lost possibility that has slipped away -- probably irrevocably.

Fallows mentions, twice, the lost opportunity after 9/11 to remake a now-paralyzed political system and set our country on course for the coming decades:
...if we can’t fix what’s broken, we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away.

In 2001, America endured an event that should have been this era’s Sputnik ; but it wasn’t. It doesn’t help now to rue the lost opportunity, but there is no hiding the fact that it was an enormous loss. What could have been a moment to set our foreign policy and our domestic economy on a path for another 50 years of growth—as Eisenhower helped set a 50-year path with his response to Sputnik —instead created problems that will probably take another 50 years to correct.

But I think Fallows is slightly off on the timing here. Sure, in some sense, 9/11 could have been a moment for national correction such as Sputnik was. But that opportunity was lost with the post-election fight of 2000. Al Gore might have used 9/11 (assuming a more competent government wouldn't have, in fact, stopped it) in this way. But George Bush, with his incompetence, arrogance and above all allegiance to a fundamentally malign political movement was never going to do this. He might have responded less negatively, not creating (in Fallows' apt if over-optimistic summation) "problems that will probably take another 50 years to correct". But he wasn't going to do anything good.

But there was another lost opportunity -- one that, I am increasingly convinced, has genuinely been already lost -- that is far more painful. And that was the possibility of a liberal renewal in January - March of 2009.

Obama not only came into office with a powerful mandate -- a historic election, a mobilized citizenry and high levels of personal popularity -- and not only had impressive majorities in both houses of Congress. He also took office in a genuine period of national crisis: not just two wars, although those are pretty spectacular, but an urgent economic crisis of a sort not seen since the 1930's and a looming environmental catastrophe of a sort never before seen in recorded history.

This, noble readers, was an opportunity.

And he blew it.

Oh, it looks like he's going to get health care passed. But he had to scratch that out, painfully, over a year, while his inadequate economic response drained away people's hope and his own popularity. He's done what he could on the environment, I suppose -- but it is inadequate to stave off disaster, so no points for effort here. And above all the moment is passed: the moment which combined not only Obama's political apogee, but the stunning, undeniable failure of the conservative movement which has poisoned our national politics for more than a generation.

We won't get that back.

The model that was needed, I think, was that of FDR in 1933. FDR also faced a government utterly inadequate to the crises of his moment. But -- without amending the constitution, by extending and transforming existing institutions as well as creating new ones, and above all by changing customs and expectations -- he not only got us through the crises, he also remade the government. To be sure, some of FDR's government-changing gambits failed spectacularly (most famously this). But he nevertheless remade the federal government, what it could do and how it worked, to solve the problems he was confronted with.

Obama? He tried to be bipartisan. And the hope he ran on drained away as he did.

I think this is the failed opportunity that will haunt us for decades to come.

Sure, political realists now talk about how all that Obama can do is what the 60th-most-liberal-Senator is willing to sign off on. And that is, undoubtedly, true -- now. But in the conjunction of genuine crises and a powerful electoral victory, more might have been done -- if Obama had steered the political conversation, and public opinion, well.

There are all sorts of ways this could have been done. For instance: there is reason to think that when the Senate writes its rules each time a new Senate organizes (i.e. every two years) that the filibuster could be eliminated simply by not writing it into the new rules. To be sure, this would be a gross violation of Senate tradition and decorum -- but then, the routine use of the filibuster is (as has been often pointed out, to little avail) just as gross a violation of Senate tradition, a distortion of a formerly little-used provision into a routine supermajority requirement. Meeting one unfairness-and-borderline-rule-breaking with another could have been justified -- in January 2009. Not now.

But the technical details aren't important. They might not even have been necessary, if the proper approach to the politics had been taken. If Obama had told the right story about the crises we were in, about what brought us there, and what his election meant, it might have created a political wave that couldn't have been fought.

But Obama didn't do it. And now it is, I fear, far too late.

(Parenthetically, this is why I think the oppose-the-health-care-bill liberals are ultimately wrong. The better bills of their dreams -- which would, of course, be much better -- were lost last spring, if not before. Now, now, the current cobbled-together sausage is the best that can be done.)

If Obama had used the sense of crisis properly, he could have passed a stimulus large enough not only to stave off catastrophe (as the actual stimulus was) but to have put America back to work (as what he passed was not). And this, more than anything, would have improved his poll numbers, which are now falling in no small part as people (reasonably) begin to ascribe more of the failures of the economy to his and not Bush's column. Political success creates momentum and political capitol: a stimulus bill such as this might have helped us get a better health care bill later.

And more than that: a good stimulus bill would not only have allowed us to begin to attend to the rotting infrastructure that Fallows mentions in his above-linked article. It might also, if done well, have kick-started some of the economic changes we need to begin to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. A good stimulus bill might not have only saved the economy -- it could have begun the most urgent task of all, saving the planet.

And more: a vigorous, successful use of the government to ward off disaster would have combined with the manifest failures of anti-government conservatism (from the negligence that abandoned the victims of Katrina to the deregulation that almost destroyed the world economy) could have been used to do the crucial ideological work of restoring the name of liberalism, tarnished by several decades of conservative lies and propaganda (and, to be fair, some of its own failures remaining from its heyday (outmatched by its successes, but the conservative propaganda have ensured that only the failures are remembered)).

And all this could have been done while changing the political culture, the very way our government works in that one brief moment of opportunity -- as FDR had to change his to build a federal government able to confront the great depression (and the Nazis).

It could have been done. But it wasn't. And when might a chance come again? If Obama muddles through, that won't actually fix what needs fixing. If he fails, he'll be replaced by someone from the party of Sarah Palin -- the most bile-filled, boneheaded and unabashedly crazy political party ever to afflict our Republic. A mediocre political party will be replaced with one that is stupid where it is not malevolent. And by the time they fail again, it will most likely be too late.

Lest anyone claim that this is all retrospective griping, I will point out that this was foreseeable well in advance. The best formulation of it that I've seen was the article by the brilliant historian Rick Perlstein, called "The Liberal Shock Doctrine", from August, 2008. He wrote:
Progressive political change in American history is rarely incremental. With important exceptions, most of the reforms that have advanced our nation's status as a modern, liberalizing social democracy were pushed through during narrow windows of progressive opportunity -- which subsequently slammed shut with the work not yet complete....

[FDR and LBJ] legislated at such a breakneck pace his aides were in awe. Both presidents understood that there are too many choke points -- our minority-enabling constitutional system, our national tendency toward individualism, and our concentration of vested interests -- to make change possible any other way....

...if Barack Obama is elected president with a significant popular mandate, a number of Democrats riding his coattails to the House, and enough senators to scuttle the filibuster of his legislative agenda -- all of which seem entirely possible -- he will inherit a historical opportunity to civilize the United States in ways not seen in a generation....

Weisbrot and Mackenzie's The Liberal Hour is a very aptly named book: a splendid evocation of just how evanescent American moments of reform truly are. They are not unlike an action movie starring Bruce Willis, who has 60 minutes left to defuse a time bomb before everything blows up. Take immediate action, and you might just get reforms that had seemed impossible the day before but are impossible to imagine America without just one and two generations later. Take it slow, however, and you might not get anything at all.
Perlstein spells out the details in the full article. (It includes the apt retort to those who point out that Obama did not run as a radical transformer, namely, that FDR didn't either, and that LBJ in the 1960 election was seen as a conservative Democrat. Obama running as a moderate didn't mean he couldn't have seized the moment when it was offered.)

But what Perlstein wrote then as a hope -- that a moment of progressive activity worthy of the heritage of the New Deal and the Great Society, that might improve our country as the lasting achievements of those eras of reform did -- has become bitter, a lament to what might have been. Perlstein accurately forecasts how conservatives have tried (with depressing success, especially given the failure of their own governance) to undo Obama; he spells what Obama could have done to avoid it.

But Obama didn't do it. And now the moment is lost.

Perlstein's article -- outlining the best hope for our nation's future -- is now a grim reminder of what could have been, but no longer can be.

In politics, it is often said (quoting the title of a famous book) that ideas have consequences; on the same pattern, it is said that elections have consequences. But failure, too, has consequences. Obama had a chance to transform the country for the better -- possibly even save it from decline. And he pissed it away.

Good as Fallows's and Meyerson's essays are, I think that Perlstein's essay -- of seventeen months ago -- encapsulates best what has gone wrong with our politics now.

In January, 2010, it makes for hard reading.

What now? Fallows has some suggestions, none convincing. The moment to informal rewrite the rules of our politics (at least for the better; rewriting them for the worse seems an always-open option) has been lost. Any formal rewriting of them is highly implausible -- and likely to be disastrous even if it could be brought about.

And so the problems that need fixing cannot be fixed. There are too many choke points in our politics: and the conservatives have grasped them, and have us by the throat. The country, and most likely the world, will be long the worse in consequence.