Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Even Bigger Republican Suicide to Come?

A veritable mountain of mostly bizarre political news has transpired across this great country of ours in the year since my last political commentary. From the arresting spectacle of Sarah Palin's dazzlingly incoherent resignation speech, on the occasion of her inexplicable departure from the Alaska Governor's office, to the openly infuriating spectacle of a pro-life, pro-gun Senator from Montana placing himself in charge of framing the debate about health care reform. And though I've been as busy as ever with competing demands on my time, I'd be lying if I said that the reason for my silence through all of this was any more complicated than the absence of enough heart to face it all, in print.

Much of this past year I spent personally expecting the Obama Administration to finally abandon its efforts to pass a major health care bill, and then to reap the consequences of same at the polling stations in 2010 and, perhaps, even 2012. All of that is over now, thanks to three indefatigably persistent individuals -- without any of whose efforts the health insurance reform just passed would still be flopping its dorsal fins on a committee-room table in the bowels of the Senate somewhere. Perfect sense, really: A tough legislative effort with broad scope and sweeping consequences, teeters on the brink of dying a dozen times over, and is ultimately dragged across the finish line thanks to the dogged efforts of a tiny handful of people. Except for one small problem: The three people deserving of all the credit, in this instance, are Scott Brown, Jim Bunning, and Jim DeMint -- all of them, of course, Republicans.

Scott Brown.
The man who was told he had no chance whatsoever to rise from his lowly status as a first-term Massachusetts state senator and seize the United States Senate seat left vacant by the heartrendingly poignant passing of Ted Kennedy (on the very precipice of seeing his own lifelong dream finally fulfilled), ignored all the pundits who told him the state would never give Teddy's seat to a Republican, ignored all the fractious in-fighting attendant to a chronically minority party in a party-machine state, ignored the polls that showed him, at one juncture, over thirty points down to the Democratic nominee (state Attorney General Martha What-The-Christ-Was-Her-Name-Again-I've-Already-Forgotten), and, thanks to a season of Republican fear-mongering about the Democrats' sixty-seat majority and what they were doing with it, plus a few strategically placed gaffes on the part of Ms. Already-Forgotten, came from almost literally out of nowhere, and won -- bringing the always more-cohesive and message-disciplined Republicans to the crucial threshold of 41 seats, in the Senate.

Giddy with the delight of the legislative implications for this stunning upset, noted political columnists from the right-wing began openly chuckling, if not actually thumping their chests. On January 20th Fred Barnes wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard entitled, "The Health Care Bill is Dead." Toward the end of the piece, he wrote, "The health care bill, ObamaCare, is dead with not the slightest prospect of resurrection. Brown ran to be the 41st vote for filibuster and now he is just that. Democrats have talked up clever strategies to pass the bill in the Senate despite Brown, but they won’t fly."

Quite aside from the fact of Mr. Barnes' amusing inability to hyphenate compound verbs like "talked-up," there is the odd dissonance of Mr. Barnes having predicted the demise of something that had already passed both chambers of Congress -- albeit in very slightly different forms. Far from dead, in fact, the bill had received in Scott Brown's victory precisely the kind of this-or-nothing exigency without which it had been paper-cut to pieces by the gun-nut-Democrats on the center right, and the (equally wrong, by the way) FireDogLake crowd, on the extreme left. Brown's victory, and Mr. Barnes should have been comfortably smart enough to realize this, empowered Nancy Pelosi to go to her fractious left-flank and say, with unquestionable credibility, "If you don't vote for the Senate's admittedly more conservative version of the bill, there will be no bill."

Lacking such leverage on her part, we would still be talking about pushed-back deadlines for Mr. Obama's trip to Asia. The first round of thank you's, then, go to Scott Brown, for helping us get this deal done by changing the optics of the bill's end-game in a direction that allowed it to actually, conceivably, ever, actually, end. We were never going to get a Public Option with the way legislation gets made these days in Washington and, more to the point, it was never obvious exactly what holding-out for the Public Option was going to accomplish, anyway. Scott Brown took this Will-Rogers-no-organizaed-party bullshit and put it in proper perspective for the Will-Rogers-bullshitters. It slapped them hard across the face. They deserved it. But more to the point, it got the thing seriously rolling for the very first time.

Jim Bunning
Mr. Brown's victory in Massachusetts would of course have meant nothing if the hate-inflamed rhetoric of the Republicans in Washington hadn't gone a step too far (or was it about eighty yards too far?) in the personage of a certain Senator Jim Bunning. For those unfamiliar, Bunning is at the best of times a cranky and often overtly incoherent old coot -- even by Republican standards. A man who in this instance applied his consistently un-astute sense for political opportunism to the bad polling numbers for the health care bill, and came up with the brilliant idea of ignoring his own party leadership to launch a one-man filibuster against a completely different, popular, and macroeconomically essential jobs bill. The sound-bites arising from this bizarre decision looked temper-tantrum'y enough, even before Mr. Bunning threw a reporter off an elevator, called him some AM-radio names, and then, just for good measure, gave the reporter and his colleagues in the press corps the finger.

"The Republicans have chosen to give America the finger," came the immediate response from the suddenly clever Democratic message-machine. And it worked. Approval ratings for the Republicans in congress -- already lower than either their Democratic counterparts, or the President -- took the kind of nosedive usually reserved for fuel-starved Mesherschmitts over the forests of Belgium, and suddenly the most articulate and credible Democrats in Washington could appear un-conflicted on the Sunday talk-shows without fear of being painted as cartoon characters in their upcoming election campaigns. Meanwhile Mitch McConnell, who'd already previously tried to get Mr. Bunning not to seek reelection out of fear that his undiagnosed but self-evident dementia would inspire him to do something just this stupid, with just this lack of warning or sensitivity to the party's larger messaging, was left in the uncomfortable position of trying to explain why the senior senator from his own state doesn't want people to have jobs -- instead of explaining how a bill that mandates personal insurance coverage could possibly constitute "a government takeover of health care." The second round of thanks, then, goes to Mr. Bunning.

Jim DeMint
Once upon a time, before any of this -- before Max Baucus, before Joe Lieberman, before Bart Stupak -- there was an idea. A relatively tired idea, a relatively facile and one-dimensional idea, but in American politics these particular strikes against an idea are rarely deal-breakers. The idea in question was, "If we Republicans can defeat this health care bill, it will badly weaken this President in all the same ways that it badly weakened Bill Clinton in 1993 and '94." Lots of Republicans thought it, and lots of Republicans made the mistake of saying it, though goodness knows it didn't seem like a mistake to them at the time, since it played so well to the base of their own party, and anyway it seemed for so much of the last year like it was so inevitable, thanks to all the help they were getting from Baucus, Lieberman, Stupak, et. al.

No one was more vocal, or at least more memorably vocal, on this subject, than Jim DeMint. Speaking in mid-July to one of the numerous front-groups for the insurance lobby that had been ingeniously camouflaged to look like rank-and-file concerned citizens, this one cleverly called "Conservatives for Patients' Rights," Mr. DeMint said, "If we're able to stop him on this, it will be Obama's Waterloo. It will break him." In making such an incendiary and willfully counterproductive remark, a statement that at the time served only to further galvanize his own side, Jim DeMint equipped the President with the sort of in-case-of-emergency-break-glass argument he could use in those last, fateful meetings with the most persuadable but not yet persuaded members of his own congressional caucus: The Republicans would react to the bill's defeat with the same kind of schoolyard bully celebrations, and the same associated electoral momentum, as they had in '93-'94. And during the final few days leading up to last Sunday's House vote, the President argued just that. And it worked. Indeed it is fair to say that without this frame -- without this unforgettable incarnation of the argument that Republicans would fare so much better in the '10 midterms if the bill were to fail -- the critical handful of wavering Democrats in the House would surely have fallen the other way. The last, biggest round of thanks, then, goes to Jim DeMint.

No sooner had the whip-count become evident than some of the more thoughtful and circumspect Republican columnists began to opine about the extent to which the GOP's all-in strategy to sink the bill had been suicide from the very beginning -- none more eloquently, or with more arresting consequences for himself, than former Bush speechwriter David Frum, who lamented that the party leadership had caved to its own extremist base, and whose reward for such provocative self-honesty was forced dismissal from his $100,000/year salary at a conservative Washington think-tank. "It’s a good bet that conservatives are over-optimistic about November," he wrote, chastening those from his own party who would celebrate the presentation of a legislative hammer with which to drive the nails of midterm messaging. "[B]y then the economy will have improved and the immediate goodies in the health care bill will be reaching key voting blocs." But more to the point, he argued, "So what? Legislative majorities come and go. This health care bill is forever. A win in November is very poor compensation for [this legislative defeat] now."

What made Mr. Frum's column so inflammatory to certain members of his own party is that in substance it argued that a better strategy for Republicans would have been one rooted in the original principles of shared-power governance, instead of holding the line on the kind of all-out obstructionism that has played so well to the grassroots donors who in these tough economic times have kept the conservative think-tanks solvent. "This time," he wrote, "when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none." The Republicans had been hoping for an Obama Waterloo, and what they got instead was their own Ardennes. Their own, extremist-fueled, under-powered counteroffensive that, through sheer force of numbers alone, was doomed to failure before the first shot was fired.

Frum's column has attracted the kind of viral attention it deserves among political junkies of all stripe, but the fact that Mr. Frum lost his job for saying what he said is of course the real story here -- in that it highlights the extent to which the extremists among them have hijacked the otherwise delicate and professional job of crafting platform strategy. It's a job for grown-ups, in the end, and when the fulminating partisans take it over with their checkbooks, disaster always follows. Just ask Walter Mondale. Just ask Barry Goldwater. Just ask George McGovern.

Today, after a generation of hate-wing radio and cable entertainment dressed as news, the people making the opinions that lead the future direction of the Republican party are the people who gave rise to all of this infrastructure of hatred by following the direction of the Republican party. It has gone from an institution whose talking-points are crafted by William Buckley, to an institution whose talking-points are being vetted, gong-show style, by folks like Sarah Palin. And just as David Frum has noted, it may still net them some small gains in the '10 midterms, but as a long-term strategy it has so far been nothing short of self-destructive. But the real sign of trouble for the Republicans is that now, with the extent of this extremist takeover now too deeply rooted in donor-dollars to easily undo, it will be next to impossible for the policy leaders in their midst to reverse course -- as evidenced by the self-evidently, jaw-droppingly bad idea of turning around, the moment health care finally passed, and immediately calling for its repeal.

The repeal agenda has the same exact superficial sexiness that the defeat-at-all-costs agenda had in the first place: It puts elected Republicans on friendly footing with the crazies writing the fifty-dollar-at-a-time checks. But it also has, if this is indeed possible, an even greater downside, insofar as the most attractive elements of the legislation are easily framed by Democrats as the targets of would-be repealers. Just look at this excerpt from an e-mail I recently received from the Florida Democratic Party, the trigger for which was the filing of a court case by current state Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum, contesting the individual mandate:

"...Bill McCollum isn't alone. Governor Charlie Crist and former Speaker Marco Rubio are also some of the loudest members of the repeal caucus of the Republican Party as they fight to appeal to extreme right-wing voters in their Senate primary. We know that McCollum, Crist, and Rubio are fighting to:

* Take away health coverage to 32 million Americans
* Re-open the Medicare Part D 'donut hole' for 565,000 Floridians
* Raise taxes on 216,000 small businesses in Florida.
* Allow millions of Florida children to be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions

We need the resources to ensure all Floridians learn of their schemes...."

Notice how inconspicuous the word "repeal" is in there? No: The message the Democrats are going to run on in the fall is, "The Republicans want to take away coverage, raise taxes, and open a donut hole in Medicare." If the policy defeat the right-wing just suffered in Washington ended up being their own Ardennes, with this kind of framing the repeal effort will be their Iwo Jima. They will get absolutely clobbered if they allow this case to be made against them by continuing to push for repeal. The low-information set will hear about young people getting tossed off their parents' policies, denials of coverage for preexisting conditions, taxes, donut holes, and, by golly, by the time November comes around, half of those low-information voters will think the Republicans started the whole thing. And, most deliciously of all, at this point -- with the Frum dismissal as the canary tumbling from its perch -- it seems apparent that they have no other choice but to keep hammering this issue anyway, because the small-donor extremists simply won't let them quietly concede defeat, and move on.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida
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