State of the Union

Catching On to the Pyrrhic Victory of a GOP Senate

Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

And here you thought I was being all #slatepitch-y: In February, I argued that President Obama shouldn’t get too uptight about Democrats losing the Senate; and, more, that the dead-end ideological fealty required to control Congress is, paradoxically (but only seemingly), what prevents Republicans from being a true national party; and, finally, that a Congress fully under Republican control will make a fat target for Hillary Clinton.

Zeke J. Miller reports in Time that GOP moneybags, as well as potential Republican presidential candidates currently serving as governor, share the latter concern:

Behind closed doors and in private conversations with reporters and donors, GOPers eyeing the White House in 2016 are privately signaling they wouldn’t mind seeing the party fall short in this year’s midterm elections. For all the benefits of a strong showing in 2014 after resounding defeat in 2012, senior political advisers to some of the top Republican presidential aspirants believe winning the Senate might be the worst thing that could happen.

The opinion is most strongly held by Republican governors, who are hoping to rise above the Washington political fray. Already the central theme adopted by governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey, Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin is their ability to cut through partisan gridlock to lead their states. A dysfunctional Washington hamstrung by ideological division accentuates their core argument.

Others are taking a ride on my hobbyhorse. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report recently conveyed the similarly glass-half-empty sentiments of “Republican umbrella carriers” who “worry that success in 2014 will mask the real, structural problems that Republicans need to fix before 2016. Namely, that the party doesn’t stand for much more than standing against President Obama. As important, the GOP heads into 2016 with a brand that has been deeply tarnished and not easily repaired.”

The redoubtable Charlie Cook himself added:

This is so true. If Republicans do gain a Senate majority, which they may very well do in November, and manage to pick up eight or more House seats, it will be because of who they are not, not because of who they are. They aren’t in Obama’s party, and they aren’t in the party that unilaterally passed the Affordable Care Act, which, like the president, is unpopular. Republicans may win a bunch of races without measurably improving their party’s “brand” and without making any clear progress among minority, young, moderate, and female voters. The fact that midterm electorates are generally older, whiter, and more conservative than their counterparts in presidential elections exacerbates the difference between the world of 2014 and the one that will exist in 2016. The Republicans can win in 2014 without having fixed their problems.

Granted, Cook and Walter are not making precisely the same argument as mine, though I of course agree that a win in 2014 might give the GOP “false hope.” I go a bit further: I believe Republicans, or at least a good portion of those who matter, know full well that the party has a problem going into 2016, quite apart from what happens this fall. The crux of it is this: there’s nothing they can do to change it in the near term. The adjustments they need to make in order to recapture the White House—find some way to deal with undocumented immigrants; give up on tax cuts for the wealthy; acknowledge the painful trade-offs of any serious Obamacare alternative—would jeopardize their grip on Congress.

It’s possible that Republican leaders are merely biding their time until the Senate is in hand. Why rock the boat when you can win by default? I suspect, however, that the truth is more inconvenient: Rocking the boat will be no easier in 2016 than it is now.

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Hobby Lobby vs. the Order of Justice

The Crimson White / Flickr.com
The Crimson White / Flickr.com

Ross Douthat affectionately calls out me and Rod Dreher for applauding Patrick Deneen’s moral-economic brief against Hobby Lobby and other big-box retail chains. He laments that the paleo/crunchy-con mentality tends toward self-marginalization.

Speaking only for myself, I actually agree with Ross.

I’m not Catholic. I’m not a traditionalist (if I were, I’d have a lot of explaining to do regarding that infatuation with Keith Richards). When asked to describe my politics, lately I call myself a good-government Bush 41 conservative. (I maintain that H.W. was inferior to Reagan as a communicator and politician—obviously—but at least as great, and maybe even better, a president. I think his leadership during the meltdown of the Soviet empire was brilliant, and I’d take Dick Darman over Grover Norquist every day of the week. Sue me!)

All that said, I fear I’ve muddied the waters on where I agree with Deneen, and where I part ways with him (as well as, I’m going to presume, Dreher).

I am taken with Deneen’s argument that there is an uninterrupted continuum between the Founding (“progressive” in a Baconian sense) and the present; that classical liberals and modern liberals are both liberals. If there’s anything remotely distinctive about my blogging here and at U.S. News since ’10, I hope it’s been a counterweight to the despair of both moral traditionalists like Deneen and Dreher and market purists-slash-declinists like Kevin Williamson. My gravamen, my conceit, my shtick is this: Government has grown alongside our continental economy. There is not a hydraulic relationship (one goes up, the other goes down) between markets and government. If our capitalists were smart, they’d favor effective social insurance alongside free enterprise. Etc.

While I sympathize, somewhat, with Deneen’s aesthetic recoil from Hobby Lobby and strip malls and big boxes, I don’t get nearly as exercised about such things as he does. In any case, I don’t think there’s much that can be done practically to change it at the level of policymaking. I’m all for traditionalists and orthodox believers bringing their beliefs to bear in the marketplace. To the extent that I used the Hobby Lobby case as a springboard for my last post, it was only tangentially about contraception and religious liberty. My beef is not with religious conservatives participating in modern capitalism; it is with those who conflate modern capitalism and the Constitution with Judeo-Christianity. I have a beef with them because this conflation, I believe, is one of the main drivers of our current antigovernment ferocity, the rampant and irrational fears of inflation, and the counterproductive fear over short-term budget deficits.

I could be wrong about that.

In any case, I don’t think I made this point clear in my post on Hobby Lobby (which, for the record, I had never heard of before it became news).

While I’m at it, I might as well spell out what I think about the particulars of said case. On that score, I’ll associate myself with Yuval Levin’s recent post in NRO’s Corner. He writes that conservatives:

take the arrangement of rights and liberties at the core of the liberal-democratic understanding of society to exist in the service of sustaining the space in which society thrives, rather than of taking society “forward” and away from its roots. There is room in that space for different parts of society to sustain quite different ways of living, and room for people to debate our broader society’s social and political course – which can take different directions at different times in response to different circumstances. Liberty is not the yearned-for endpoint of that story, when we will be free at last from the burdens of the past. Liberty is what exists in that space now, what allows for different people (and groups of people) to pursue different paths and debate different options, and what allows society to address its problems in various ways as they arise. Liberty is not what we’re progressing toward but what we are conserving.

Here, Levin calls to mind Garry Wills’s distinction between the progressive-liberal “order of justice” and the “order of convenience.” To sum up a complex essay, Wills believed it should not be the aim of the state to dispense “raw justice” (Chesterton’s phrase), but rather to facilitate convenience (in the John Calhoun sense of the word—to “convene” or “concur” or bring about social peace). Sounding a lot like Burke and Nisbet, Wills wrote:

For if the state arises out of man’s social instinct, then the state destroys its own roots when it denies free scope to the other forms of social life. The state, when it is made the source of justice, must be equally and instantly available to all citizens; and, in achieving this, in sweeping away the confusion of claims raised by families, economic orders, educational conventions, codes of conduct, natural gradations of privilege, the Liberal leaves society atomized, each man isolated, with all the weight of political power coming unintercepted upon him. The higher forms of organization do not grow out of and strengthen the lower, but counter and erase them. This is what happened under the Order of Justice from the time when Plato pitted the state against the family to the modern breakdown of divided jurisdiction in the centralized state. …

The state, as extending throughout all other levels of social solidarity, must have a certain neutrality towards them all, and as the order-enforcing agent, it must take upon itself a certain negative, punitive function. This neutral and negative aspect of the state will be perverted, and become a positive push—as life-giving, rather than life-preserving—if the other forms of spontaneous activity wither; or if the state officials try to use their power to call up a positive vision of their own; or if politics is considered the all-inclusive area of man’s achievement of excellence. …

A proper order of convenience would be able to accommodate Hobby Lobby’s religious objections. On this matter and others, the Obama administration seeks an order of justice. I hope, in this case, that it loses.

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The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Played

Every Sunday, the rector of my church appends a brief note of spiritual guidance to the weekly bulletin. Recently, he noted that whereas “the world” encourages individuals to satisfy their desires, the Scriptures teach that we’re often to deny those desires.

That generality—“the world.”

I get it. I appreciate the New Testament connotation of the “world” as distinct from the church and its principles and disciplines. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right. “The world,” depending on where you live and which tradition you may or may not have been raised in, says a lot of different things. American consumerist culture, on the other hand, very definitely does encourage us—entice us, seduce us—to satisfy our desires. That culture is now global and, on balance, I think material human welfare is vastly better for it.

Thinking holistically of the human person, however, consumerism, with its valorization of individual choice and autonomy, is spiritually problematic.

And so it’s a great and terrible irony that the church—I should specify, a large segment of the conservative Protestant church—has invited “the world” into the church. It has embedded its economic imperatives into its doctrines. Indeed, it has elevated the marketplace into a thing affirmed and designed by God himself.

With characteristic brilliance, Patrick Deneen shone a klieg light on this “delicious irony,” with his post on the Hobby Lobby contraception case currently before the Supreme Court. A self-styled “religious corporation” seeks

to push back against the State’s understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring. For that “religious corporation” operates in an economic system in which it has been wholly disembedded from a pervasive moral and religious context. Its “religion” is no less individuated and “disembedded” than the conception of the self being advanced by the State. It defends its religious views as a matter of individual conscience, of course, because there is no moral, social, or religious context to which it can appeal beyond the autonomy of its own religious belief. Lacking any connecting moral basis on which to stake a social claim, all it can do in the context of a society of “disembeddedness” is seek an exemption from the general practice of advancing radical autonomy. Yet, the effort to secure an exemption is itself already a concession to the very culture and economy of autonomy.

Deneen of course is a conservative Catholic. I’ve yet to come across a rejoinder from a conservative Protestant arguing against Deneen’s contention that there is, or should be, a “separation of church and economy.” If no one has written it yet, someone will soon. For this is an unfortunate, ahistorical, heretical bedrock belief of the conservative base: the American economy is God’s economy. Any attempt to regulate it is contrary to the God-breathed Constitution. It is atheistic, humanistic, and tyrannical.

This could be the greatest trick the devil ever played.

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Rand Paul and Libertarian Switcheroos on Race

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Like the very evenhanded Jamelle Bouie here, I think Sen. Rand Paul’s heart was in the right place when he remarked on the irony of a black president presiding over a domestic security apparatus that, decades ago, had targeted civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. “You don’t have to support Rand Paul or his policy agenda to see that he was right to call out the president on the tension between his position and his actions,” Bouie writes.

Yet Paul’s invocation of race and civil liberties still gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Perhaps uncharitably, I see in it the same kind of ideological switcheroo that conservatives have, in the past, employed to distance themselves from other abuses involving race. Like segregation: over the years, the right has sought to evade guilt for this legacy by sowing confusion over party ID: Segregationists were Democrats! True, but only trivially so. (It was possible, back then, to be rightwing and belong to the party of Jefferson and Jackson.) The more sophisticated version of this defense says that segregation was economically wasteful and inefficient; it violated free-market principles. Also true, and also trivial.

A similar rhetorical trick was brought to bear on South Africa in the 1980s. The Jack Abramoff-fronted International Freedom Foundation held up the apartheid government as a bulwark against expansionist communism. After apartheid ended—presto!—it was apartheid itself that was socialist: a “pervasive system of government regulation, regimentation and control.”

This kind of sleight of hand ignores the lived reality of libertarian ideas in America. As historian David Hackett Fischer has written, the ordered liberty of 18th-century New England was altogether different than that of Virginia in the same period, with its conflation of liberty and the “hegemonic condition of dominion over others.”

The unfortunate fact is that, when it came to segregation, apartheid, or domestic spying before Obama, the oppositionist energy issued from the left.

Too often, my conservative friends sound like post-WWII Frenchmen: we all joined the resistance! During the years between the September 11 terrorist attacks and the inauguration of Barack Obama, for example, the line was that Sen. Frank Church and the left had eviscerated our intelligence-gathering capabilities. Now you can find a positive gloss on Church at Breitbart.com!

Rand Paul’s criticism of Obama from this flank amounts, in my opinion, to an inadvisable sort of concern-trolling.

By all means, slam the brakes on the NSA.

But save the convenient harrumphing about MLK.

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Richard Powers and the Blown-Up Cultural Narrative

J Blough / Flickr.com
J Blough / Flickr.com

Andrew Leonard has a fascinating, if discursive, profile in Salon of the novelist Richard Powers. In it, Powers registers a note of discontent with the proliferation of both pop-musical content—the “insane torrent,” as he puts it in his latest novel Orfeo—and all the digital mechanisms that deliver it today.

“Suppose you were born in 1962 and you are coming into your own and music starts to become essential to you,” says Powers. “You are right on the tail end of that sort of folk rock thing, but you are aware historically of how these guys were revolting in a way against the previous generation. And because of the nature of the distribution mechanisms that you talk about, where it’s two radio stations and one record store, there’s a saturation effect for whatever is in vogue and there has to be a countervailing cultural move just to refresh our ears. And that’s the start of punk.

“So you can see these revolutions and counter-revolutions and you can see a historical motion to popular music and it’s thrilling and you want to know what happens next. The state that you just described of permanent wonderful eclectic ubiquitous interchangeable availability — there’s no sense of historical thrust.”

Leonard sums up the point thus: “Universal ubiquity has blown up the narrative.”

There’s something to this, I think. Granted, I’m pushing 40; I’m not as hip to trends as I was when I was a kid, and certainly not when I was covering them for a daily newspaper. But the point is, it’s undeniably the case that it was once fairly easy for a casual music fan to keep abreast of the latest thing. Right up until the early aughts and the passel of “The [monosyllabic plural-noun]” bands playing neo-garage rock: that’s the last time I can remember there being some kind of identifiable “movement” in rock music.

Now there is no one thing.

As a caveat, I will admit it’s somewhat rockist to think along these lines. Just because Pharrell Williams or Bruno Mars or Robin Thicke aren’t trad-rock frontmen, why can’t they be seen as the vanguard of an eclectic dance-pop revival?

Point taken.

And part of the fragmentation that Powers laments isn’t even technologically-driven; it’s generational and racial. Much of what we would’ve called rock music 30 years ago now falls under the rubric of country music. It’s Top 40 for white people. It’s blues-based rock tricked out with splashes of fiddle and pedal-steel. (Bruce Springsteen astutely noticed this recently: “country music is kind of where rock music has gone, really, at this point … It’s basically kind of pop-rock music … It’s where rock music continues to have a certain currency.”)

So, a good chunk of the energy in rock-ish songwriting is devoted to the Nashville machine, which critics don’t take terribly seriously and hence wouldn’t bother to suss out trends that fit on the continuum of Powers’s reaction/counter-reaction “historical thrust.”

All that said, I suspect Powers is right. We’ve probably seen the last of swing-turns-to-bop or prog-is-wiped-out-by-punk cultural shifts in popular music. Powers seems to quite openly admit that these shifts had been abetted by self-styled tastemakers, who have seen a drastic decline in influence over the last 15 years. He argues unabashedly that the culture desperately requires those media filters.

I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. Then again, I say that having come of age in a culture that had filters. I say I can do without them. But I was shaped by them. What about my kids’ generation: how will they know what’s good, what’s worth listening to, what (as a Clash fan would have put it) matters?

They’ll be free of a “narrative” imposed from above. Instead they will have the “insane torrent.”

Everything will be at their fingertips.

But perhaps they will miss greatness right under their noses.

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For GOP, Congress Is a Pair of Cement Shoes

golzfamily / Flickr.com
golzfamily / Flickr.com

When I said, in December, that we were “probably at peak Republican,” I hadn’t considered yet the possibility that the GOP might capture the Senate, as now seems more like probable than possible. So let me say it here, now, and emphatically: Winning the Senate isn’t going to accomplish squat for the party; Obama needn’t overly fear the prospect; and — the kicker — success in the legislative branch is actually going to make it harder for Republicans to win the White House in 2016.

Picture it like this.

There are two chambers of Congress.

For Republicans, each is like a cement shoe.

Given the institutional structure of the Senate, wherein rural populations enjoy disproportionate representation, the vulnerability this year of Democratic senators in red states, plus the contemporary practice of gerrymandering House districts, it is now the case that an essentially regional party can win unified control of Congress. It can look like a national party without actually being one.

In practical terms, Republicans can win one chamber of Congress and keep another by running relentlessly on the repeal of Obamacare — but the same stance is probably a net loser nationally.

Similarly with immigration: congressional Republicans cannot take up the issue without dividing their ranks. And yet, as John Feehery has noted, the party’s inability to address immigration is a drag on the party nationally:

[I]f Republicans continue to express disgust with illegal immigration, if they continue to oppose comprehensive immigration reform, if they continue to show disrespect for folks who should be their natural political base, they will be a minority party at the national level, and they will never win back the White House.

There’s no easy way around this. Republicans are in a classic Hellerian catch-22: they’re crazy — and they’d be damn fools to behave any different. Their control of Congress depends, in many ultrasafe Republican districts and several deepest of deep red states, in part on fealty to conservative doctrine that will be problematic for the next GOP presidential contender.

There are green shoots, of course. On taxes, would-be reformers like Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Dave Camp are incrementally edging away from the disaster that was the Romney fiscal agenda. It’s possible that the 2016 Republican nominee won’t be burdened with the albatross of campaigning on a tax reduction for the rich. That’s progress. The party passed a budget. That, too, is progress. But the seeming tranquility in Washington is simply the sound of two parties behaving well until a midterm election. If and when Republicans retake the Senate, the intraparty feud, now simmering, will begin to boil anew. The rightmost flank, flush with victory, will need to be appeased. And the ideological toxicity; the demographics of death; the lack of a viable national standard-bearer — these factors and others will conspire to elect the next President Clinton.

The fact is, we are two countries.

Republicans dominate the smaller one.

The consolation prize, awarded in the off years, is Congress.

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Bill Kristol’s Tea Party Constitution

Jonathan Chait amusingly shoots at the fish in the barrel that is Bill Kristol’s recent column urging Republicans to “get off the sidelines” and prevent another rout in 2016.

Of Kristol’s evocation of the “original Constitution”—and, by implication, modern liberalism’s trashing of it—Chait writes, “The ‘original Constitution’? The one that permitted slavery? Does Kristol want to do away away with the 11th through 27th amendments to the Constitution? I’m sure he does not. But if Kristol obviously does not mean what he actually wrote, what does he mean?”

We all know the drill by now: the “original,” pre-Progressive era Constitution was not designed for the expansive power to regulate interstate commerce that Congress now enjoys; for “transfer payments” or the redistribution of wealth; or, generally speaking, for any interference between the consensual acts of individuals in the marketplace.

I return to it from time to time, because it’s such a perfect distillation of the kind of jurisprudence that infuses the tea party and liberty movements, and Kristol’s musing furnishes me another excuse: Ken Cuccinelli’s legal brief against Obamacare’s individual mandate in the Texas Review of Law & Politics.

In it, Cuccinelli answers Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous Lochner dissent that “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory … The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s social statics.” (Hence Chait, lazily switching between upper- and lower-case “c”: “The Constitution is not a vague set of ideals; it’s a clear set of rules. That’s the whole point of a Constitution.”)

Cuccinelli says Holmes was arguing with a straw man. Of course it’s nonsense to claim the Constitution or the 14th Amendment embody Social Statics. But could Holmes plausibly deny that it embodies John Locke? “This would have been regarded as puzzling at best and at worst demonstrably false.” So there, fine: Forget Herbert Spencer. We can appeal to Locke (and Blackstone, and Hooker) and basically arrive at the same libertarian defense of economic rights. Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas: so use your own as not to injure another’s property.

For now, let’s table this aspect of the debate. Readers know I’d rather live under Chait’s Constitution than Cuccinelli’s. My point here is this: Bill Kristol is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ambassador for the Tea Party Constitution!

A constitution whose notion of executive power is expansive enough to satisfy the likes of Bill Kristol and John Yoo should have no trouble accommodating social insurance programs or public assistance for the needy.

I’m sorry: you don’t get to have your kickass policy suite of torture, democratism, intergalactic swamp-draining, World War XXIV, and “We’re all Everybody-ians now,” and also complain about food stamps or federal insurance exchanges.

Tea Party and liberty movement conservatives have every right to argue for an originalist interpretation of individual economic rights.

Bill Kristol does not.

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Scott Walker Hints at Bush Sequel With Misguided Tax Cuts

Gov. Scott Walker has fashioned a reputation as a fiscal steward and political survivor. He made some tough choices during a severe economic downturn and turned a budget shortfall (how much of one is a matter of some dispute) into a surplus and, for his troubles, faced down a partisan recall effort.

He’s putting that reputation at risk in an apparent effort to pad his presidential contender resume with force-fitted tax cuts. Politico’s Rachel Bade notes the obvious:

With a nearly $1 billion projected budget surplus expected next year, Walker wants to slash property and income taxes as he heads into reelection this fall — a move many say could also grease a 2016 presidential bid should he decide to run.

The interesting, and to my mind, encouraging, thing is that the move, which will cost Wisconsin an estimated $860 million over two years, has met with skepticism from some Republicans in Wisconsin. Bade reports that “he’s facing headwinds from a handful of Senate Republicans who say the tax cuts should come after paying off a slew of unpaid bills due in just a few years. Walker’s plan would actually worsen the longer-term deficit outlook.” One state Republican senator told Politico, “The tax plan sets us up for a very bad time in the future.”

And Walker would do well to listen to him—because if he’s truly eying a run in 2016, he’s badly misreading the mood of the national electorate and even of congressional Republicans. The salience of revenue-reducing tax cuts as a plank in the national Republican platform has diminished over the years, as gains in income have been concentrated among a small cohort of already-wealthy voters. Recall: Mitt Romney, if only vaguely, promised to pay for lower tax rates by limiting deductions. Rep. Paul Ryan’s most recent budget proposal also was revenue neutral. Sen. Mike Lee’s barebones tax reform proposal is possibly revenue-negative, but it hasn’t been scored and, as written, won’t see the light of day.

The bottom line is that the GOP isn’t anxious to return to the playbook of the Aughts. In his first presidential campaign, Gov. George W. Bush warned against letting Washington get its hands on projected budget surpluses—“the people’s money”—so he promised to cut taxes instead. In office, Bush drained federal coffers of the surpluses—and then some.

Governor Walker is foolish to think Republicans, let alone the electorate in general, want to see that movie again.

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Why Obama Shouldn’t Fear a GOP Senate, Ctd.

I was pleased to see Howard Kurtz respond to my post on why President Obama shouldn’t fear a GOP Senate, even as he thinks I’m “all wrong.”

Writes Kurtz:

An all-Republican Congress can make life miserable for Obama and, by extension, for Hillary Clinton if she runs. The notion that the GOP will suddenly function as a cooperative partner totally underestimates the poisonous atmosphere in Washington.

Nowhere in my post did I suggest that the GOP would “suddenly function as a cooperative partner.” I made a narrowly focused prediction that “things may actually improve slightly”—most likely on the issue of immigration, concerning which Kurtz argues:

Republicans are highly unlikely to be passing immigration reform in 2015 even if they win the midterms. The base hates it, and more important, we’ll be in the opening innings of a presidential campaign in which the party’s contenders will be pulled to the right, as Mitt Romney (he of “self-deportation”) was in 2012.

Kurtz here is just projecting the status quo into the indefinite future. Yes, the base “hates” the idea of amnesty. But guess what? 1) The base cannot deliver a Republican president in 2016. 2) The Romney campaign sucked; and the GOP establishment is not anxious to repeat its mistakes (the “self-deportation” rhetoric was a particularly and self-evidently disastrous mistake). This is why I believe there’s at least a sliver of a chance of compromise over the issue. With unified control of Congress, the GOP will very likely be able to present to Obama a bill with tough enforcement measures and no path to citizenship. It will be able to declare victory on a major issue on its own terms, not the Democrats’, and it will have laid the groundwork for a campaign that courts Latinos afresh. And as I noted in my original post, Obama will have little choice but to accept whatever cards the GOP deals him on immigration.

Kurtz takes, issue, too with my argument that “Republican Congress” will make for juicy target for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign: “Two years of a Republican Congress won’t be much of a 2016 target, if things aren’t going well, compared to eight years of the Obama administration. As a bogeyman, John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich.” Well, yeah, true. But I never made such a comparison. The Republican nominee will run against Obama’s eight years no matter which party controls the Senate. And Hillary won’t need a neo-Newt bogeyman. She will instead sow fear of unified Republican control of the federal government. Of a return to the mismanagement of the Bush years. Of unchecked power.

Kurtz’s final point:

If they control the Senate machinery, Republicans will be able to launch twice as many investigations as they can now by holding just the House. They will be able to block Obama nominees, creating a sense of dysfunction. They will be able to bring bills to the floor, while Harry Reid watches helplessly, solely for the purpose of forcing Democrats to cast politically dangerous votes that can be used in attack ads. They can cut the budget in the name of deficit reduction. They may even be able to force Obama to veto legislation that suits their purposes. In short, the White House will lose the bulwark of a Senate that ensures all conservative legislation dies in the House.

I will concede that a Republican Senate could make life for Obama marginally worse than the carnival barker Darrell Issa already has. But the rest of the paragraph is almost adorable. “They will be to block Obama nominees, creating a sense of dysfunction [emphasis mine].” No kidding? I’d say Obama is fairly used to that kind of thing by now. “They can cut the budget in the name of deficit deduction.” You don’t say? And good luck getting legislation to the floor. There’s this thing in the Senate about invoking cloture. I hear it’s really difficult to do lately. And about “conservative legislation dying in the House”: I was around in the late 1990s when complaints from House Republicans about their lamentably milquetoast brethren in the Senate were routine and vociferous. Such may be the case again in 2015. With a Republican Senate, “conservative legislation” won’t die in the House. It will die instead in conference.

Kurtz’s scenario of Republicans’ eliciting embarrassing vetoes on show-me bills (“legislation that suits their purposes”) is outdated. Obama’s not running again. There will be no painful vetoes for him—only gleefully satisfying ones. And if, as a consequence, Hillary needs to run to Obama’s right because of something he vetoes, so much the better for her. If legislation that’s sufficiently moderate does miraculously make its way to his desk—most likely, and probably exclusively, an immigration bill—he will sign it.

That’s all I’m saying. There will be no “Kumbaya” around a campfire.

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Understanding Fuddy-Duddy Beatle Haters

The occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show has inspired some obligatory guffawing at those old squares who greeted the band with derision. One putdown that fairly stands out for its utter revulsion was from none other than William F. Buckley, who wrote in the Boston Globe in September 1964:

The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.”

Without appearing willfully contrarian, I get where these critics were coming from, if only in a roundabout sort of way. I’m an enthusiast of early rock and all its British exponents, from both London and Liverpool; I appreciate and admire the Beatles just fine; etc. Yet at the end of the day I’m a Stones guy—and I can’t help but bristle when Beatlemaniacs diminish the Stones for their comparative lack of technical sophistication or proficiency. There is no end to my puzzlement at those who swear by the Beatles because of their proto-progressivity. Because here’s the thing: rock-and-roll really was retrogressive. Yes, even the Beatles.

Oh, I can just hear you out there. Look at George’s sweet jazz-guitar technique!

To which I can only respond, give me a freakin’ break.

George—a lovely player; in my opinion, the finest of the three Beatles guitarists—could never have hung with the likes of Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Les Paul, or Wes Montgomery, all of whose mastery of the guitar (in the 1950s!) far exceeded that of any rock-and-roller of the 1960s. This is to say nothing of Django or Charlie Christian.

For all the magic that the Beatles, with not a little help from the classically trained George Martin, created in the studio; for all their genius at crafting songs, there is not a chord or trope or motif of theirs that Cole Porter and George Gershwin would not have recognized. As Elijah Wald has noted, the Beatles did not so much push musical boundaries forward as they consolidated the earlier advances of other 20th century greats, from Louis Armstrong all the way to Tin Pan Alley. (I’m reminded of a bit of trivia I learned from Terry Teachout: the Beatles had mistakenly thought they were the first ones to end a tune on a 6th chord. Martin informed them that Glenn Miller already had.)

Again, don’t misunderstand: I’m a Beatles fan. I appreciate the unparalleled pop-cultural phenomenon that they were. But if I squint just a little, I find it easy to put myself in the shoes of someone who’d lived through hot jazz and hard bop, and who found the Beatles to be amateurish lightweights. In my own shoes, I would defend the Beatles without denying this fact. The amateurishness of rock music was a feature, not a bug. And it still is. If your passion for the Beatles stems from this outsize opinion of their technical competence, I regret to inform you, you’re doing it wrong.

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