Monday ReadsPosted: October 7, 2013
I’ve made plans to go to Seattle next month again to stay with my dad and hope that I can also spend time looking for the possibility of a job since my daughter is joining a small ob/gyn practice about an hour north of Seattle. It’s hard not to long for the safety of a blue state given what’s been going on recently and given the conversations that I have with people that safely dwell in the Faux News Reality of Welfare Queens, Pedophile Gays, Scary Black People in Hoodies, and Invading Mexicans. I’ve been in a long Facebook conversation trying to explain the Affordable Care Act details and why the exchanges are not “government-backed” insurance until I’m blue in the face. No amount of numbers convinces them that all the jobs are not becoming part time. I was just told I obviously don’t have common sense if I don’t see the Affordable Care Act as a giant give away to lazy poor people even though I’ve tried to explain that Medicaid still exists and it still is the plan for poor people. There just exists this ever deepening divide between the realities of Red and Blue States. Did Nixon’s Southern Strategy doom our Democracy?
In a merciful twist of fate, Juan Linz did not quite live to see his prophecy of the demise of American democracy borne out. Linz, the Spanish political scientist who died last week, argued that the presidential system, with its separate elections for legislature and chief executive, was inherently unstable. In a famous 1990 essay, Linz observed, “All such systems are based on dual democratic legitimacy: No democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature about which of the two actually represents the will of the people.” Presidential systems veered ultimately toward collapse everywhere they were tried, as legislators and executives vied for supremacy. There was only one notable exception: the United States of America.
Linz attributed our puzzling, anomalous stability to “the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties.” The Republicans had loads of moderates, and conservative whites in the South still clung to the Democratic Party. At the time he wrote that, the two parties were already sorting themselves into more ideologically pure versions, leaving us where we stand today: with one racially and economically polyglot party of center-left technocracy and one ethnically homogenous reactionary party. The latter is currently attempting to impose its program by threat upon the former. The events in Washington have given us a peek into the Linzian nightmare.
Traditionally, when American politics encountered the problem of divided government—when, say, Nixon and Eisenhower encountered Democratic Congresses, or Bill Clinton a Republican one—one of two things happened. Either both sides found enough incentives to work together despite their differences, or there was what we used to recognize as the only alternative: gridlock. Gridlock is what most of us expected after the last election produced a Democratic president and Republican House. Washington would drudge on; it would be hard to get anything done, but also hard to undo anything. Days after the election, John Boehner, no doubt anticipating things would carry on as always, said, “Obamacare is the law of the land.”
Instead, to the slowly unfolding horror of the Obama administration and even some segments of the Republican Party, the GOP decided that the alternative to finding common ground with the president did not have to be mere gridlock. It could force the president to enact its agenda.
It used to be that elections came with the usual majority rules ramifications. This current group of Tea Party insurrectionists evidently has changed that equation. The question now is what can we do about it?
And as the saying goes, elections have consequences. It’s how Democratic victories in the 1930s paved the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, how Dem victories in the 1960s led to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, how Republican victories in the 1980s resulted in Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, how Democratic majorities in 2006 and 2008 led to Obama’s health-care law, and how the GOP’s midterm wins in 2010 extracted spending-cut concessions from Obama the following year.
Yet what’s extraordinary about this current political fight is that Republicans are seeking another round of concessions — over the president’s signature domestic achievement — after losing the last election, which was viewed in part as a referendum on the health-care law.
“It’s as if Ted Cruz slept through the entire 2012 cycle,” a senior Democratic aide tells First Read. “It’s not like Obamacare, spending and debt weren’t major issues in 2012. They were central — and we won.”
Nevertheless, Cruz and House Republicans maintain that Obama and the Democrats must negotiate over the health-care law to re-open the federal government. And House Speaker John Boehnersays Democrats must negotiate to raise the debt ceiling. “The nation’s credit is at risk because of the administration’s refusal to sit down and have a conversation,” he told ABC News. “The votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit. And the president is risking default by not having a conversation with us.”
I found that Boehner comment about the lack of votes to be really strange given that he seems to think that the Democrats in the House and their votes do not matter. What exactly is the conversation and why should the rest of the country have it when we thought we decided that about a year ago during the election? Why is Boehner willing to weaponize the debt ceiling again? (This is the same Jonathan Chait article I referenced above.)
The debt ceiling turns out to be unexploded ordnance lying around the American form of government. Only custom or moral compunction stops the opposition party from using it to nullify the president’s powers, or, for that matter, the president from using it to nullify Congress’s. (Obama could, theoretically, threaten to veto a debt ceiling hike unless Congress attaches it to the creation of single-payer health insurance.) To weaponize the debt ceiling, you must be willing to inflict harm on millions of innocent people. It is a shockingly powerful self-destruct button built into our very system of government, but only useful for the most ideologically hardened or borderline sociopathic. But it turns out to be the perfect tool for the contemporary GOP: a party large enough to control a chamber of Congress yet too small to win the presidency, and infused with a dangerous, millenarian combination of overheated Randian paranoia and fully justified fear of adverse demographic trends. The only thing that limits the debt ceiling’s potency at the moment is the widespread suspicion that Boehner is too old school, too lacking in the Leninist will to power that fires his newer co-partisans, to actually carry out his threat. (He has suggested as much to some colleagues in private.) Boehner himself is thus the one weak link in the House Republicans’ ability to carry out a kind of rolling coup against the Obama administration. Unfortunately, Boehner’s control of his chamber is tenuous enough that, like the ailing monarch of a crumbling regime, it’s impossible to strike an agreement with him in full security it will be carried out.
The standoff embroiling Washington represents far more than the specifics of the demands on the table, or even the prospect of economic calamity. It is an incipient constitutional crisis. Obama foolishly set the precedent in 2011 that he would let Congress jack him up for a debt-ceiling hike. He now has to crush the practice completely, lest it become ritualized. Obama not only must refuse to trade concessions for a debt-ceiling hike; he has to make it clear that he will endure default before he submits to ransom. To pay a ransom now, even a tiny one, would ensure an endless succession of debt-ceiling ransoms until, eventually, the two sides fail to agree on the correct size of the ransom and default follows.
This is a domestic Cuban Missile Crisis
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Sunday said changes to President Obama’s signature healthcare law should be tied to a debt ceiling increase.
The Texas Republican said any deal on raising the nation’s borrowing authority should include some “significant structural” plans to reduce government spending, avoid new taxes and “look for ways to mitigate the harm from ObamaCare.”
“The debt ceiling historically has been among the best leverage that Congress has to rein in the executive,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Of the 55 times Congress has raised the debt limit, Cruz argued that 28 of those times Congress has attached “very stringent requirements,” many designed to reduce spending, including the 2011 sequestration plan.
So, a debt-ceiling increase should “respond to real harms coming from ObamaCare,” Cruz said.
Cruz said Republicans have leverage because of “so many nasty partisan jabs from Democrats” proving that “we’re winning the argument —Obamacare isn’t working.”
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reiterated on Sunday that the federal government will run out of borrowing authority on Oct. 17.
And the world thinks we’ve completely lost it. Here’s a taste of the German press as excerpted by Der Spiegel.
Munich’s national Süddeutsche Zeitung offers a slightly more depressing take, pointing blame at all sides. “What has already been apparent in America for a few years now is the self-destruction of one of the world’s oldest democracies. And the great tragedy here is that this work of destruction isn’t being wrought by enemies of democracy, greedy lobbyists or sinister major party donors. America’s democracy is bring broken by the very people who are supposed to be carry and preserve it: the voters, the parties and the politicians.”
The argument? The Republicans who have brought Washington to stillstand are repeatedly and democratically elected by voters and given a mandate to block. The parties themselves are fomenting an increasingly radicalized culture that deepens political, societal and geographic divisions in the country, argues the newspaper. And finally, there are few politicians in America who are willing or capable of thinking beyond their own electoral constituencies.
“At the moment, Washington is fighting over the budget and nobody knows if the county will still be solvent in three weeks,” the paper concludes. “What is clear, though, is that America is already politically bankrupt.”
America enjoys the “exorbitant privilege” of printing the world’s reserve currency. Its government debt is considered a safe haven, which is why Uncle Sam can borrow so much, so cheaply. America will not lose these advantages overnight. But anything that undermines its creditworthiness—as the farce in Washington surely does—risks causing untold damage in the future. It is not just that America would have to pay more to borrow. The repercussions of an American default would be both global and unpredictable.
It would threaten financial markets. Since American Treasuries are very liquid and safe, they are widely used as collateral. They are more than 30% of the collateral that financial institutions such as investment banks use to borrow in the $2 trillion “tri-party repo” market, a source of overnight funding. A default could trigger demands by lenders for more or different collateral; that might cause a financial heart attack like the one prompted by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. In short, even if Obamacare were as bad as tea-party types say it is (see Lexington), it would still be reckless to use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip to repeal it, as some Republicans suggest.
What can be done? In the short term, House Republicans need to get their priorities straight. They should pass a clean budget resolution without trying to refight old battles over Obamacare. They should also vote to raise the debt ceiling (or better yet, abolish it). If Obamacare really does turn out to be a flop and Republicans win the presidency and the Senate in 2016, they can repeal it through the normal legislative process.
So how did it get to this point? “Its fear-driven behavior,” says Voss. “They get angrier because they feel they’ve been defeated. People notice losses twice as much as they notice wins. It’s a sports metaphor you hear all the time: ‘I hate losing more than I like winning’…I think there’s a very strong sense of loss on their part over what they refer to as Obamacare and resentment over that is carried forward.”
But hostage negotiators aren’t the type to give up hope. “Ultimately, everybody wants success. And there are a lot of definitions of success,” Voss says. “Bottom line, they want to be made to look like they were effective and got things done for their side. So it’s a matter of refocusing on what’s in everybody’s best interests.”
He’s looking to the Obama White House to help start the reset: “I would ask them to start saying, ‘I understand that the people on the other side of the table have the best interests of the American people at heart.’ Simply recognize that. Everybody wants to do what’s best for the American public. Those sorts of statements repeated on a regular basis, it’s the start of dialogue. It’s not concession; it’s the beginning of dialogue.”
But the prison siege mentality Voss describes is exacerbated by an absence of strong calming leadership in the congressional GOP. “Those guys are sitting on the sidelines,” Voss says. “There are quite a few Republican politicians that I have a tremendous amount of respect for that are exceedingly silent these days.” He mentions House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers: “I’ve never heard anything out of Mike’s mouth that wasn’t really thoughtful and nuanced.”
Another possible constructive calming voice on the conservative caucus could be former President George W. Bush. “I think there’s a possibility that he would be somebody that you would talk to behind the scenes, and potentially an intermediary himself. I think he absolutely has the ability to be a stabilizing influence.”
But how to do you deal with the hyper-partisan congressional bomb-throwers? “Well it’s like a game of tic-tac-toe with the tantrum throwers,” Voss says. “In tic-tac-toe, if you’re going second, the best you can possibly do is tie—if you play the game. There’s a first-mover advantage. The minute you stop playing that game the first mover advantage goes away. So you don’t play their game at all. That’s the way you respond.”
So, the craziness continues and escalates. If things come apart at the seams, I do not want to be stuck in Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana.
What’s on your reading and blogging list today?