In October, I wrote the following in the Los Angeles Times, in the wake of a government shutdown that now seems like a tempest in a teapot:
The first step is the most basic and most urgent: to prove to the country that Republicans are capable of governing …
There is plenty of other important business to attend to … Topping the list is the so-called farm bill—a grab bag of agricultural support programs that hung fire last summer because of the tea party’s insistence on steeper cuts to food stamps than Democrats could stomach. Since both sides agree that spending on food assistance should decline as the economy recovers, a deal on precisely how much shouldn’t be impossible to reach.
With a good farm bill, Republicans have a chance to show the country they are serious about government reform—if they can muster the courage of their convictions. To do so, the party must demonstrate that it is as serious about weaning agribusiness off federal subsidies as it as about controlling spending on the needy.
Also on Republicans’ radar are bills to overhaul federal transportation and water infrastructure programs. These aren’t headline grabbers, but they are an opportunity to demonstrate that the party can function legislatively.
Needless to say, absolutely none of this happened. (A farm bill was passed and signed into law, but there was nothing in it to cheer reformers.) Nothing of any significance made its way out of Congress. The GOP hewed to an ultrasafe, I’m-not-him strategy, and it payed off.
And Republicans are, as I write, poised to take control of the Senate. If anything, results are even better for the GOP than analysts had anticipated as of yesterday. Rep. Cory Gardner trounced Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, a state carried twice by Obama. The Georgia Senate race will not require a runoff. Florida Gov. Rick Scott held off Charlie Crist, and Gov. Scott Walker did the same, comfortably, in Wisconsin. Sen. Pat Roberts relatively easily handled the independent Greg Orman. Iowa, too, looks to flip to the GOP. For the second consecutive statewide race in my adopted home state of Virginia (also carried twice by Obama), pollsters undercounted Republican support: It seems Sen. Mark Warner will just barely squeak past challenger Ed Gillespie. (N.B.: Can there be any doubt, with Gillespie’s employment by the Bush White House, that the establishment is back?)
Nationally, things broke sharply for the Republicans.
Only poor Scott Brown, lately of New Hampshire, was left on the outside looking in.
What does it all mean?
I still think, though perhaps somewhat more tepidly, the conventional wisdom—that is, don’t overinterpret these midterms, with their whiter electorate and their overwhelmingly red battlegrounds—is sound. Hillary Clinton cannot possibly do as poorly among whites as President Obama. The electorate will look vastly more like 2012’s electorate than 2014’s. And so on. …
What does it mean for the short term?
Washington Post Wonkblogger Zachary Goldfarb writes:
The president apparently has grand ambitions for the final two years of his presidency—even if Republicans control the Senate. Here’s an interesting line from Politico last week: “Aides are discussing potential areas for agreement: tax reform, infrastructure, sentencing reform, renewing unemployment insurance, raising the minimum wage and expanding early childhood education.”
It’s cute of the president’s aides to think any of this is in the cards. For “areas of agreement” to translate into actionable legislation, House conservatives will need to make concessions to Democrats. They’ve given no indication of a willingness to do so. Will tonight’s results soften their resolve? I strongly doubt it.
You’re living in two countries, locked in mortal combat.
The red one won handily tonight.
The Washington Post editorial page has an endorsement in the local Arlington County, Va., race I wrote about last week. It is a neat little encapsulation of much that is wrong with Beltway media, in addition to being a train wreck of logic.
By almost any measure, Arlington County is a local and national success story, having remade itself over two decades — with a big assist from Metro — from a green but sleepy suburb into a still green but diverse, dynamic and highly desirable set of communities. Lately, the political comity that helped guide that transformation has frayed amid a bitter debate over a proposal to build an expensive streetcar line on fixed tracks along Columbia Pike.
On this thorny central question, the Post essentially sides with Democrat Alan Howze (who, again to fully disclose, is a personal friend to whom I’ve contributed money):
We happen to agree with Mr. Howze that the streetcar would yield long-term economic benefits and added passenger capacity that buses — even expanded ones — cannot replicate. …
Mr. Howze … [cites] a consultant’s estimate that a streetcar would generate $2 billion to $3 billion more in benefits than would improved bus service over a 30-year period, plus several thousand additional jobs. We’ve seen nothing to cast serious doubt on the consultant’s numbers.
And yet, the paper endorses purple Republican John Vihstadt because … because … he’s a nice guy:
[H]e made the case against the streetcar in a civil and cogent way.
And because he seems pretty smart:
[M]any Democrats have accorded Mr. Vihstadt grudging respect as someone who formulates and presents his views intelligently; he is no tea party bomb thrower.
Seriously? Is that it?
The kicker: Vihstadt is “a badly needed independent voice in a heavily Democratic county. … Whether Mr. Vihstadt prevails or not, it’s important for Arlington to have the debate; without him, the board runs the risk of groupthink.”
On its face, this is a reasonable assertion.
But in the context of our politics nationally, it’s been the foundation for self-pauperizing, self-crippling fiscal policy. (Before you jump on me over the Federal Reserve and quantitative easing, please re-read the preceding sentence and home in on the word “fiscal.”)
As it happens, “Not a tea party bomb thrower” is going to be one of the central talking points you’ll encounter after Tuesday night’s Republican victory. The party, you’ll be told, recruited the “sane” candidates, avoiding Christine O’Donnell and other tea party witchcraft. It’s true, as far as it goes. The problem occurs one stratum below: the Beltway media’s idea of what constitutes “sanity” is itself suspect.
In the same way that Fred Hiatt’s editorial page, among many others, aided and abetted the Iraq war, the establishment lent cover to those “tea party bomb throwers.” The “fiscal cliff,” sequestration, the debt-ceiling crisis—none of this could have come to pass without the “badly needed independent voices” of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. As soon as the frame of deficit crisis was hung around an economy on the brink of deflationary spiral, the likes of Ted Cruz had all the legitimacy they would ever need to wreak havoc in a divided electorate.
To reiterate my gravamen against Mr. Purple: the Republican party did not lose in 2008 and 2012 because of social issues; and marginalizing the tea party is no guarantee of success in 2016. The tea party’s economic agenda, to be sure, sucks (with refreshing exceptions such as Sens. Mike Lee and Marcio Rubio’s family-friendly tax reform proposals). But the Republican party establishment’s economic agenda also sucks.
And on Tuesday—across the Potomac in Washington, and perhaps here in Arlington as well—the voices of “sanity,” of independence, of the Green Lantern and his magic ring, of let’s-eat-lunch-together-more-often bonhomie, will be seen to have prevailed.
Republicans are on the verge of picking up six House seats in the New York/New England region, according to the Wall Street Journal—and they will have done so, it’s argued, by plumping for the Purple:
As a group, Republican candidates in the region this year have focused on the pro-business, small-government planks of the GOP platform. Some have avoided the social issues familiar in the campaigns of their peers in more conservative states.
Charlie Baker, the GOP candidate for governor in Massachusetts, supports gay marriage and abortion rights, while Richard Tisei, who is running for a House seat and has featured his husband in campaign ads, skipped the Massachusetts GOP convention this year because of its socially conservative platform. Tom Foley, the Republican candidate for governor in Connecticut, supports abortion rights and said he wouldn’t try to end gay marriage, which is permitted in the state.
If these seats do indeed flip to red next week, you can expect a lot of media types in Washington and New York to urge the party to jettison the traditionalism while leaving intact an economic agenda that overwhelmingly benefits elites.
This would be terrible advice.
The essential thing to bear in mind about these midterms is that they’re, well, midterms; as I’ve noted before, America is two countries, and Republicans dominate the smaller one. And the smaller one is what’s up for grabs on Tuesday. Just because Republicans win in these (traditionally competitive) congressional districts does not mean they will be able to win statewide, and among a browner and younger electorate, in 2016 with the same agenda.
Republicans did not lose in 2012 because Mitt Romney was pro-life or opposed to gay marriage. And they’re not going to win because Charlie Baker is the opposite of those things. They’re poised to win, as David Frum notes, because a majority of voters will “protest that proceeds of economic recovery [are] not reaching most Americans.”
These same conditions will obtain in 2016. Republicans either will coalesce around an agenda that addresses the struggles of working- and middle-class Americans, or they will lose. A shiny elite veneer on social issues will gain the GOP nothing except a demoralized religious base.
Remember this as you’re forced to listen to the inevitable paeans to Purple.
Locally and nationally, seemingly everywhere, my senses are assaulted by the color purple.
Purple is the expression of a beau ideal in modern American politics: that just-right mix of red and blue in the eyes of elite media. The fiscally conservative, or “responsible,” social moderate. The live-and-let-live economic libertarian.
In a sure sign that you’re about to read an unconscionable puff job, George Will had a recent column that began with a dateline, in this case signaling an on-location report from Shawnee, Kansas.
Historically, whenever George Will visits someone in person, he is there to sing that person’s praises in a tone of uncritical effusion. His tete-a-tete with “independent”— put another way, purple—Senate candidate Greg Orman is a classic of the genre:
Orman discusses policy problems with a fluency rare among Senate candidates and unusual among senators. From his firmly Republican father, who owns a small furniture store in Stanley, Kan., Orman acquired an animus against “the beehive of regulations”: One regulation is a “pinprick,” but cumulatively, regulations are akin to “falling into a beehive.” He is reading Paul Ryan’s new book, “The Way Forward,” and shares Ryan’s anxiety about how nearly 60 percent of federal expenditures are not subject to annual appropriations. He also shares Ryan’s dismay that a single mother earning about $20,000 can pay, in effect, a marginal tax rate twice as high as the 39.6 percent top statutory rate on the affluent because she can lose government benefits and incur expenses when she increases her earnings.
Orman is anxious about the deficit explosion that will occur when the cost of government borrowing doubles, as surely it will. (“Deficits are nothing more than deferred taxes.”)
Sweet Jesus, if that pabulum is what passes for fluency, then I’ll take my chances with gibberish.
Orman’s apparent migration from Obama 2008 supporter to Mitt Romney 2012 supporter is an example of a kind of summum malum of fiscal politics in the Obama era, dominated as it has been by the doyens of austerity.
Not all that long ago, the Republican party was divided by supply-siders like the late Jack Kemp, whose optimistic faith in the power of tax cuts bordered on cult-like fervor, and more soberminded budget-balancers like Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush. The former were willing to tolerate higher deficits on the belief that lower marginal taxes would eventually finance themselves by stimulating growth and productivity (as late as 2001, Kemp’s protege, Rep. Paul Ryan, was making the case for the stimulus potential of tax cuts during a recession); the latter were willing to raise taxes to close budget shortfalls.
There are, alas, no Bob Doles left in the Republican party, but their graying peers still populate the capital in the form of entities like the Campaign to Fix the Debt.
And for reasons that probably have a lot to do with partisanship, the Kempian cult has gone the way of the (pardon the expression) Dolerite wing.
They’re all austerians now.
The fruits of austerity since the crash of 2008 have been downright rotten. The balance of evidence suggests that American and Europe elite picked the absolute worst time to behave as though the Great Recession was at all similar to those of 1981 (when inflation was high) or 1990-’92 (when bond markets were spooked by high deficits and the threat of inflation).
Throughout the early years of the Obama administration, we ran historically high deficits—and yet runaway inflation has failed to materialize. Washington worked itself into a crippling panic over deficits—a panic that that birthed destructive and mindless politics such as sequestration, the “fiscal cliff,” as well as the by turns comic and macabre drama surrounding the statutory debt ceiling. As a sideline to the unnecessary material pain, the spittle-flecked gamesmanship over annual deficits killed any chance of a bipartisan deal on long-term debt—which is a genuine threat just over the horizon.
What to show for it all?
A toxic political climate, a lengthened employment slump, on top of anemic GDP growth.
Indeed I’d be willing to say that, cumulatively, the politics and economics of austerity have been the domestic equivalent of the Iraq war—an unforced error of disastrous proportions.
But, ah, those short-term deficits are falling, and fast!
Lately, my sorrow at the Preeminence of Purple is in my face, literally, everywhere I turn—in the form of campaign yard signs.
Where I live, in deep-blue Arlington, Virginia, there’s a surprisingly hotly contested race for a county board seat. John Vihstadt, a Republican-turned-independent, captured the seat in a special election in April and is seeking election to a full term this November. His campaign’s yard signs are tricked out in, you guessed it, purple—a nod, no doubt, to the “big-tent Republican” philosophy he touted for the Weekly Standard. The “big tent” here, as always, denotes fiscal conservatism and social inclusiveness.
This local campaign (full disclosure: Vihstadt’s Democratic opponent, Alan Howze, is a personal friend to whom I have contributed money), has turned largely on a controversial project to build a streetcar service that links southern Arlington to neighboring Fairfax County. (This is a portion of the county that’s not served by the Washington Metro system.)
Vihstadt vigorously opposed the streetcar, likening it an extravagant “vanity project” that will detract from the county government’s “core services.”
This argument—which helped to flip 20 percent of registered Democratic voters into his column back in April—is flatly absurd.
For those readers not familiar with Arlington, let me paint you a brief picture: Its government is flush with cash. Its unemployment rate is, by national standards, obscenely low. And it has undergone robust population growth in recent years.
Inward migration into Arlington has in turn led to a school system bursting at the seams with children—this, is in a dense urban landscape already short on open space and, hence, vanishingly few ideal lots on which to build new schools.
Vihstadt has cleverly parlayed concerns over school overcrowding—we’re talking about a city with scads of overeducated, hyperambitious parents who fret about elbow space for their privileged offspring—into a more general disaffection with county-government spending priorities. (That the county board has for years been ruled by an often insular-seeming single party, the Democrats, has only added to the disaffection.)
More than hyperventilation about teacher-to-pupil ratios, however, it’s obvious to me that Vihstadt has tapped into the broader appeal of the Purple. Everyone, including a fair number of NoVA progressives, fancies himself fiscally “responsible.” It just so happens that, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, self-styled “responsibility” has proved to be more like recklessnesses. In an environment of cheap money, low inflation, persistently high unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure, elected officials continue to opt for disinvestment—because, don’t you know, we’re “broke.”
In this current crisis, you, Mr. Purple, are the problem.
Now seems like a good time to re-up my prediction that we’re headed toward a messy policy convergence on healthcare: a mixed bag I’ve called “Orydencare”—that is, a cradle-to-grave system in which Medicare has undergone premium support reforms along the lines proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Ron Wyden, with Obamacare more or less remaining in place.
This is—very broadly speaking—what conservative healthcare wonk Avik Roy has in mind with his plan to (as he puts it) “transcend,” rather than repeal, Obamacare. In addition to reforms of the Affordable Care Act, Roy’s proposal would shift many Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries into a new, more tight-fisted universal system of private-sector exchanges.
While lightly praising Roy’s realism on Obamacare’s essential permanence—and he no doubt deserves praise for this—liberals have balked at his provocative companion plan to reform social insurance for the elderly. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, for instance, writes that “Roy is especially hostile to Medicare and Medicaid. This is entirely consistent with conservative hostility to all social insurance.”
But, honestly, what’s so terrifying about moving future Medicare enrollees into a system of managed care? Most baby boomers are covered by such plans right now. Does it make any sense to then move them into a fee-for-service system to which they’re not accustomed—and which everyone, including liberals, agrees is dysfunctional?
Instead of waiting for baby boomers to descend en masse into an outdated system, why not look at this as a rare generational opportunity? Baby boomers relished the chance to rebel against the Greatest Generation. So why not let them rebel against their parents’ overburdened healthcare system too?
Remember you heard it here first. Orydencare for all.
In a letter written in 1816, Thomas Jefferson famously asserted:
No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best.
Jefferson’s insight—that the dispersal of power throughout multiple levels of government will help ensure the preservation of liberty—has informed antistatist conservative rhetoric pretty much for as long as such rhetoric has existed. It’s a truism of classical liberal thought: the concentration of power begets tyranny.
Yet is this truism entirely true? Certainly as regards race, something like the opposite proved to be the case from Jefferson’s time to the civil rights era. States and localities brutally suppressed liberty, while the federal government, in particular the judiciary, gradually assumed the role of guarantor of minority rights.
But I think the issue—call it the tyranny of the local—extends far beyond race.
It should seem obvious to most that state power is sort of like the Cosmic Cube of Marvel Comics lore (sorry, I just took my kids to this show in downtown D.C.): that is, it’s subject to abuse in fragments as well as in toto.
I wrestled with this back in 2010, writing in reference to the tea party, aka, That Which I’ve Wanted Nothing to Do With:
Administering transfer payments—the redistribution of wealth—is often one of the least complicated things that the federal government does, requiring simply the collection of a tax and the cutting of a check. It is far, far less intrusive, for example, than the creepy surveillance apparatus that surrounded us even before 9/11.
And it’s arguably less intrusive, less “nanny”-like, than what local government does. Think of your interactions with your municipality: It hits you, literally, where you live—the composition of your neighborhood, the dimensions of your house and the lot it sits on, the standards that govern the guts of your house: electricity, plumbing, heating and air-conditioning. It collects taxes on that property to pay for the school your children attend. It collects your trash and yard waste.
By comparison, Nanny doesn’t reside in Washington. She’s in city hall or the county seat. She’s on your school board and sewer board and in the zoning office.
With the exception of anarcho-capitalists, virtually no one denies the need for and legitimacy of this sort of governance. But the early-modern conservative movement trained its fire instead on things like free school lunches and social insurance for the elderly. High taxes, overgenerous welfare, excessive regulation—these were the things that animated the Reagan insurgency, again with a focus on Washington. Petty corruption in Congress (check kiting, the House Bank) as well as the specter of new federal gun regulations—these are what sparked the 1994 GOP takeover.
But thanks in part to a center-left/libertarian consensus on a suite of urban issues, it’s possible that a more holistic approach to government reform might emerge. Jonathan Chait has a must-read essay on what he calls “Big Small Government.” Chait twins the excesses of the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department (to that he could have added the sexual horrors permitted tacitly for decades by police in Rotherham, England) with onerous municipal regulations on housing density and occupational licensure; he writes, too, of poli-sci research demonstrating that state election outcomes are driven by considerations of national politics.
His provocative conclusion:
The myth of localism is rooted deep in our political psyche. Left and right alike use small and local as terms of approbation, big and bureaucratic as terms of abuse. None of us is equipped to see that the government that actually oppresses us is that which is closest to us.
What all this means, perhaps, is that, as a polity, we’re unhealthily obsessed with the federal government. For conservatives, this obsession, hardly confined to the fringes, often borders on paranoia. And the legacy of Jefferson has left them blind to the kind of government intrusiveness and bullying (and worse) that actually, and profoundly, affects our daily lives. Granted, when I say “our,” I’m talking about those of us who live in or near large or mid-sized cities. Still, I’m confident that if conservatives running for office maintained a sense of proportion about the ills, real or imagined, of a strong central government—if they didn’t quite so readily extol the virtue of state and local government—it’s possible they wouldn’t frighten a majority of the national electorate, as they currently do.
Less than a year ago, just 18 percent of GOPers said that the United States does “too little” when it comes to helping solve the world’s problems, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Today, that number has more than doubled, to 46 percent.
Over that same span—from November to today—the percentage of Republicans who say the United States does “too much” has dropped from 52 percent to 37 percent, and those who say the United States does about the right amount has declined from 26 percent to 14 percent.
As with proposals to reform popular entitlement programs, GOP voters appear to have a low pain threshold. “Take it out of the other guy’s hide” thus has its foreign-policy equivalent: “Dovish, when all is quiet.”
Unlike during Obama’s first term, when realism looked both easy and wise, all is no longer quiet. Now, realism is hard. The relentless-seeming barrage of bad news from the Middle East and Eastern Europe meets with troubling equanimity from the White House. Vox’s Max Fisher describes the president’s long-view restraint and “stubborn optimism” this way:
This may be the closest that Obama, in his second term, has come to a foreign policy doctrine: everything will work out in the end, and America needs to resist the impulse to overreact to today’s crises abroad. This confidence is alarming to US foreign policy elites—in part because it is so different from the reactive, crisis-to-crisis leadership that Americans are used to. It flows out of Obama’s commitment to restraint; to avoiding the disastrous overreach of not just George W. Bush, but of an entire string of Cold War presidents who mired the US in one conflict after another.
A realist-minded GOPer will be forced to make a similar case—as much against the centrist-hawkish chirpers sitting in the dugout of the Washington press corps as to his own base.
Daniel Larison worries, rightly, that Gov. Chris Christie is all swagger and no substance and “all too representative of his party’s elites.”
But the party regulars are reconciling themselves to swagger.
I say buckle up for more of the kind of fun depicted above.
Thanks to the website Open Culture, I came across George Orwell’s 1940 review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Not only does Orwell suss precisely the nature of Hitler’s menace and the source of his popularity, he provides a neat thumbnail description of European liberals and social democrats that could easily attach to today’s American Democrats:
Also [Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.
Dig that prescient reference to birth control!
There’s a variety of reasons—see Santayana, Garry Wills, and our own Dan McCarthy—why liberalism leads to force and coercion, but it’s simply not the case that progressivism or modern liberalism or whatever you want to call it is akin to European fascism and Nazism, a virulent outgrowth of German romanticism that should not be confused with the rationalist-materialist hubris of Marx, Engels, and scientific socialism. Since I began blogging semi-regularly four years ago, the conceit that, well, Nancy Pelosi should check her sleeve for a swastika, has been a constant irritant.
I’m glad to learn that the great Orwell would have been similarly irritated.