Weekend Links

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Halloween selfie!

Hope everyone had a great Halloween. We arranged a trick-or-treating experience for the kids in our school with the help of 20+ friendly businesses here in Dali, Yunnan Province in China. It was a lot of fun. As my wife noted, it was interesting to see how quickly Chinese kids – who had never been trick-or-treating before – picked up the familiar rhythms of Halloween: say “trick or treat,” get candy, say thank you, walk as quickly as possible to the next place for more candy, repeat. Our horde of 60+ costumed kids (and even some of our adult students joined in costume) moving through town was quite the spectacle. It looked like we made a lot of people’s nights, and had a great time ourselves.

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Here I am with one of my classes. I’m supposed to be a pirate.

Some links for the weekend:

  • Here’s a more respectful piece on John Boehner’s tenure as congressman and Speaker of the House than the one I wrote just after he announced his decision to leave.
  • Among Charlie Pierce’s many good reads this week is this one on the “Palinization” of the Republican candidates. Apparently any question that asks a Republican candidate to explain himself or herself, or his or her policies, is evidence of liberal bias. I look forward to debates run by candidate-approved moderators, such as Sean Hannity, that include hard-hitting questions like “Why does Hillary Clinton love terrorists so much?” and “Assuming Zombie Reagan doesn’t enter the race and we can’t vote for him, please tell us how much you love Reagan, and why are you the next best choice?”
  • Martin Longman on the problem “sane” Republican candidates are having calling out the insane ones. The word “sane” in quotes gives it away, but that problem would be the fact that they are just as full of it as the insane ones.
  • David Brooks, a writer I dislike, annoys Paul Krugman so much this time that Krugman calls his New York Times colleague out by name. Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns, and Money reminds us that Brooks-style commentary on the more nebulous aspects of candidates, such as their “signals” or tone, is one of the reasons we ended up with eight years of George W. Bush.
  • Scott Lemieux on the death of ESPN’s sports and pop culture website Grantland. Nothing to add really; as Lemieux notes, hopefully its writers will find work somewhere, because they are some of the best.
  • Two months have passed since I wrote this about the Republican primaries and quite a bit has changed, though the basic dilemma facing the Republican establishment has not. I’d like to update my analysis of the polls next week, but in the meantime here are some quick takeaways:
    • Scott Walker, one of the candidates I listed as an establishment favorite, is toast.
    • Establishment candidates are doing even worse taken together than they were two months ago.
    • Support for Ben Carson has surged and it’s now less likely that he will drop out before the primaries begin.
    • Carson challenging Trump for king-of-the-polls status really complicates Trump’s core message that he’s a winner so vote for him because winners win and voters who vote for winners win, or something.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Boehner Saves the Day, Sort Of

A Freedom Caucus member reacts to the news. By steenslag (P1010533) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
We won’t have John Boehner to kick around much longer and it looks like he’ll succeed in doing the country a favor by kicking his party’s own Freedom Caucus in the teeth before he steps down as Speaker. I still hesitate to give much credit in a situation that involves Republican party leaders saving the country from their own party.

Boehner has negotiated a budget and debt ceiling deal with the White House that presumably will require Democratic votes to pass the House. Freedom Caucus types are already kicking and screaming, but Boehner doesn’t need them. They can’t chop his head off a second time. As long as the deal doesn’t deeply cut programs important to Democrats, they’ll probably be more than happy to vote for it and take one of the Freedom Caucus’ favorite hostages, the US debt ceiling, away. The deal is reported to extend the country’s borrowing authority through the 2016 elections, which means the Freedom Caucus would never again be able to take it hostage in a vain attempt to extract ridiculous concessions, such as total repeal of Obamacare, from President Obama. They’ll have to wait for President Clinton or Sanders.

I’d just like to note, though, that reporters really need to stop taking claims by Republicans that they care about the budget deficit seriously. Reading this Washington Post article about the deal, you’d think Republicans were the fiscally responsible party. It quotes conservatives unhappy about the deal because it claims savings in the future in order to offset spending increases now. These “budget hawks” would prefer to see concurrent cuts to offset any increases.

Paul Krugman recently reminded us that all of the Republican candidates for president have huge, deficit exploding tax cut plans. Sure, the candidates claim that they can cut away the difference, but they never seem willing to explain where they will cut. That’s because they’d have to drastically cut defense, Social Security, and Medicare to offset their tax cuts, and Republicans are smart enough to know that they can’t get elected promising to cut these things. They save that for private meetings with their donors.

Advice to reporters: ask lawmakers and candidates for president what they are willing to cut in order to offset their tax plans and rein in the budget deficit. If they hem and haw or make stuff up, report that, and stop calling them “fiscally responsible” or “deficit hawks.” If they explain in detail what needs to be cut, report that and make sure the ramifications are clear. This isn’t that hard and the country’s future is at stake. Do your jobs.

Weekend Links

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Stopped for a bottle of water on my way to work this morning. That’s my bike in the foreground and Dali University at the foot of the mountains. The light is really striking between sunrise a little after 7 am and the time this photo was taken, about 7:45 am. This photo doesn’t really do it justice.

Teaching today and tomorrow, so I might not get around to another full post this week. Some links:

  • First, some self-promotion. Here’s a link to something I wrote this week. It’s my longest essay and I think my best one so far. I tried to explain the leadership crisis in the House and why it’s kind of a big deal, both historically and for the country’s current well-being.
  • Hillary Clinton testified yesterday and it was basically an unpaid advertisement for her presidential candidacy. Seriously, when is the GOP going to realize that angry old white men yelling at a woman who’s much smarter and more dignified than they are is not a good look?
  • Not sure how the author managed to write this piece with his lips so firmly attached to Paul Ryan’s ass, but it’s good to check in sometimes and see what narratives the Right constructs about its heroes.
  • Let’s check in on the state of the presidential primaries. Things are still looking bad for the Republican establishment. Click this link and marvel at the awfulness of Jeb Bush’s trend line. Somehow, JEB! is actually worse than his brother. If you don’t feel like looking at the polls, here’s a quick summary: non-establishment types (in order of support: Trump, Carson, Cruz, and Huckabee) combine for 60.4%. The leading establishment candidate is Rubio, sitting in third place overall with 9.2%, but that’s dwarfed by Trump’s 27.2% and Carson’s 21.4%. Bush’s 7.2% is good enough for fifth place overall.
  • No real reason to check in on the Democratic side, with Biden deciding not to run and Webb and Chafee dropping out. Most polls have included Biden even though he has never officially been in the race, and he has been polling around 15% or better recently. So that totally skews things. And polls coming out next week ought to take in the full impact of the Democrats’ debate. I’ll be very curious to see if Clinton pulls ahead in any significant way in the early states of Iowa (where she’s been leading most of the time) and New Hampshire (where she’s actually been running behind since the beginning of September). I expect Clinton to see bumps in her numbers across the board. Much of the mainstream media believed its own breathless reporting on Clinton’s pseudo-scandals, and they’ve been making up for it with “comeback” narratives in the wake of the debate.
  • Looking forward to the second part of this conversation between President Obama and author Marilynne Robinson.
  • Drew Magary on the perennial uselessness of rooting for the Washington Racial Slurs.
  • What did I do with the remainder of Steve’s Artisanal Reduced Carbon Footprint Pesto? See the photo below.

Have a great weekend!

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Pepperoni and Pesto Biscuits. Really, really good! Click the link for the biscuit recipe: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/7040/jps-big-daddy-biscuits/

Morning Coffee in China Links

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Taken from my back porch, around 8:30 am.

Working for an English training school in China means teaching on Saturday and Sunday, so my weekend is actually Wednesday and Thursday. It’s a gorgeous day here, as you can see, but I’ve come down with a cold. Better take it easy and catch up on my internets.

  • Like Josh Marshall, I really like Vice President Joe Biden. I also agree that his running for the presidency would only make sense if Hillary Clinton’s campaign somehow implodes, most likely due to scandal, and now it’s looking less and less likely that will happen.
  • Paul Ryan may walk the plank yet. It looks like he’s got enough support now (math explained here in a previous post) to become Speaker with only Republican votes. But the Freedom Caucus won’t go quietly, and I really don’t see how Ryan becomes anything other than Boehner 2.0 as Speaker. If the Freedom Caucus continues to demand government shutdowns and default on US debt in order to achieve its goals, then we’re right back where we started: the Speaker needs Democratic votes to pass clean budgets and clean authorization to pay US debts, will look weak for it, and conservatives will call him a RINO (Republican-in-name-only, i.e. no better than a Democrat) and kill his career… And now I see some conservative groups are already calling Ryan a RINO.
  • A writer I don’t like, David Brooks, is caught yet again peddling his “Oh, where have all the reasonable conservatives gone” bullshit. Corey Robin lets this tired lament hang from its own rope. But if you really want to understand what Robin is getting at, read his lengthy post, or better yet, his book. Conservatism, going all the way back to one of its revered founders, Edmund Burke, has always been about resistance to democratic government and its potential to change the status quo.
  • When will these tragedies ever end? I look forward to the NRA explaining that this 4-year-old would still be alive today if only she had been packing as well.
  • The fight against our country’s sick fascination with firearms and the consequences of said fascination is going to be long and uphill, but Erik Loomis finds some interesting strategies that could make a difference. One interesting idea already introduced in the House is to make all gun owners carry insurance. If done well, this could make the kind of guns most likely to result in harm or death prohibitively expensive for the average gun nut. The prospect of confiscating guns newly made illegal by such a law, however, is fraught with danger.
  • Erik Loomis again, this time about the idea of relative poverty. Here he is previously on the backlash – weirdly enough in some otherwise progressive spheres – against reporting that reveals, shockingly, that poor Americans are poor.
  • Ok, it’s my “Sunday” so I’m going to make some comfort food for brunch. Here are some good recipes I’ve used many times before for biscuits and bacon gravy.

Later.

The House Leadership Crisis, Explained

Republicans in national politics all basically agree on the same agenda: keep taxes as low as possible, raise the eligibility ages for Medicare and Social Security and decrease their benefits, destroy Obamacare, gut the Environmental Protection Agency, force all women to bring their pregnancies to term regardless of circumstances, allow fundamentalist Christians to impose their beliefs on others, round up and deport all illegal immigrants, allow people to openly carry basically any firearm they want with as little hassle as possible, etc. Where they might disagree is on tactics that can achieve these goals. Current House Speaker John Boehner, probably because he has read the actual US Constitution rather than the imaginary one inside many conservative brains, understands that Republicans cannot ram through a radical conservative agenda while a Democrat is president.

The Freedom Caucus, a group of more than 40 far-right House Republicans (and perhaps there are dozens more House members who sympathize with its strategy), disagrees with Boehner. Its members literally believe that Obama will eventually sign the extremely reactionary bills they want to send him if only they shut down the government long enough or default on US debt long enough to show Obama that they are serious about holding the country and the world economy hostage to their demands. No joking here – shutting down the government and defaulting on US debt obligations are exactly the tactics they want the next Speaker to promise to use.

This time, the Freedom Caucus is up in arms over Planned Parenthood and want to cut its funding. This is the great cause, which the American people are overwhelmingly against, over which they want to see the world burn. Over in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is demanding cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Boehner shares all of these goals. What he doesn’t share is the Freedom Caucus’ apocalyptic vision that the chaos surrounding government shutdowns and US debt defaults will cause Obama to capitulate to all of their demands. That’s why Boehner wants to step down. Which brings us, finally, to explaining the House leadership crisis.

The House has 435 voting members. A Speaker must be chosen by an outright majority of members, making 218 votes the minimum threshold. Republicans currently enjoy a majority of 247 members to the Democrats’ 188. The Freedom Caucus contains at minimum 40 members. The math shows that if the Freedom Caucus refuses to vote for a candidate for Speaker, Republicans have at best 207 votes, not enough to elect a new Speaker. This is why Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become Speaker went down in flames. The Freedom Caucus refused to endorse him, leaving him without the necessary 218 votes.

Now, most Republicans would strongly prefer to elect a Speaker with votes only from their party. Majority parties are loathe to beg for votes from the opposition party in order to elect a Speaker. Why? Well, the minority party would most likely demand some real influence as the price for their votes. Democrats have been shut out of influential roles in the House since 2011 even though they have repeatedly covered Boehner and “moderate” (non Freedom Caucus) Republicans by giving them enough votes to pass routine spending legislation and authorization to pay US debts. As Martin Longman explains, the only meaningful House majority is the majority of members willing to keep the government operating and to pay US debts. At the moment, that is essentially a coalition of Republicans who understand the actual US system of government as laid out in the US Constitution and Democrats. Longman argues that this arrangement ought to be formalized by Republicans allowing Democrats to chair some House committees in exchange for votes for the next Speaker, thus freezing out the Freedom Caucus and relegating it to the sidelines.

Sounds easy, right? But it’s not! “Sane” Republicans who understand the limits of power in our constitutional system are always at risk of facing a primary opponent who undoubtedly will make them pay for any compromise with Democrats. Want to keep the government open? Congratulations, you win a Tea Party primary opponent! Want to pay US debts? Congratulations, you win a Tea Party primary opponent! House Republicans who don’t want to destroy the country are genuinely between a rock and a hard place. Lose your job and avoid global catastrophe, or keep your job and facilitate global catastrophe?

Obama has already made clear that Freedom Caucus and Senate Republican budget demands are non-starters. But isn’t Obama just as responsible for avoiding disaster? This is where the whole thing gets a little difficult to explain. Our system of government is predicated on deliberate compromise. We have seen all kinds of difficult or noxious compromises in order to preserve the Union in our history, beginning with the country’s original sin of allowing slavery in a republic supposedly founded on the ideals in the Declaration of Independence, on through the Missouri Compromise, and on and on.

Such compromises came about because usually a majority or plurality in power has never been willing to burn the country down in order to achieve all of its goals, instead settling for the proverbial three-fifths of a loaf. The one major exception to our long history of making compromises no one was fully happy with is the Civil War, and if anyone wants to criticize Lincoln’s decision to go to war against people committing treason in order to protect slavery, be my guest.

I don’t want to overstate things, but that’s essentially where we are now. Obama does not want to set a new precedent in which a small minority – and from his point of view, a small minority that is an extremist faction – is allowed to hold the government hostage to its maximalist demands. If the 40-plus member Freedom Caucus is allowed to dictate deeply unpopular terms to the rest of the country then our form of representative government is again in a crisis different in degree but not in kind from that which precipitated the Civil War. What’s the point of a president if less than 10% of House Representatives, mostly hailing from the country’s backwaters, are able to tell that president – one from the opposite party, no less – what to sign, no negotiation?

This probably sounds like an exaggeration of the actual situation, but it’s not. The Freedom Caucus is that recalcitrant, and Boehner and McCarthy and everyone else have not been able to reason with it. The last hope for a Republican unity candidate for Speaker would seem to be Paul Ryan (R-WI), Mitt Romney’s pick for Vice President in 2012, darling of the mainstream media, and unapologetic con man. Some Freedom Caucus members have said nice things about Paul Ryan, but why would he possibly want the job? To become Speaker with only Republican votes, Ryan would have to promise the Freedom Caucus he would hold the government and US debt commitments hostage to their demands until Obama agrees to pay the ransom. Then, once Speaker, Ryan would be faced with two impossible choices. Either he’d have to follow through and shut down the government and default on our debts, causing pain at home and perhaps worldwide catastrophe, or he could screw over the Freedom Caucus, pass budgets and authorization to pay US debt with the help of Democrats, and suffer the same fate as Boehner and McCarthy. Either way lies ruin and humiliation and an end to any ambitions Ryan has to one day run for president.

So, it all comes back to an intra-Republican Party argument over tactics. Many Republicans who disagree with most everything Obama and Democrats stand for understand that, at the end of the day, Obama cannot allow a conservative rump to demand 100% satisfaction of their demands and 0% concessions in order to avoid a government shutdown and default on US debts. These “reasonable” Republicans agree with Obama and Democrats on at least one thing – burning the whole thing down is not an option. They understand that, in our system of government, they have to take their case to the American people and go out and win congressional majorities and the presidency. If they can’t do that, then they have to live with divided government and negotiate.

Freedom Caucus members insist on trampling the conventions of our political system, which have generally worked out for 200-plus years, and want to see what happens after they set the whole thing on fire.

It’s really not clear how this plays out. The best thing for everyone – except, one supposes, for the Freedom Caucus – might be for Boehner to stay on in a kind of caretaker role, as Josh Marshall explains. He would answer to no one and could use whatever coalition he pleases to pass whatever he wants. Enough Democrats would be willing to help him pass budgets and a US debt payment authorization that don’t monkey around too much with Democratic spending priorities. If he was really feeling emboldened, Boehner could even try to revive things like comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship that Democrats can accept.

The latter is extremely far-fetched and Boehner staying on in lieu of Republicans electing a new Speaker is unlikely. But it’s one unlikely alternative among several unlikely alternatives. Does Boehner stay on and see the country through the 2016 elections that will hopefully change the status quo? Do enough Republicans pressure Paul Ryan to run for Speaker, elect him, and can he survive in that role AND keep the government running AND pay US debts? Do 218-plus Republicans and Democrats join together in an unprecedented coalition government, elect a Speaker and share power in the House, thus officially recognizing the current de facto ruling coalition? Does some other Republican emerge who can bring the Freedom Caucus to heel without fearing for his or her job?

I don’t even know how to begin handicapping these possibilities. Let’s just hope that two additional unlikely alternatives, a government shutdown and/or default on US debt, don’t happen.

How Not to Govern in America

Yes, John, I’m still the president. No, John, I won’t sign a bill repealing all of the Democratic Party’s achievements. (Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
John Boehner’s decision to resign as Speaker later next month can help explain why the Republican Party in its current state is incapable of governing. As Jonathan Chait points out, Boehner resigned/was ousted because of extremely unrealistic expectations that he would, or could, force Obama to cave to conservative demands.

The story here is quite simple. Obama won a decisive election in 2008 and enjoyed unified Democratic control of Congress when sworn in as President in January 2009. Obama and Democrats in the Senate and the House managed to pass several important laws, including the momentous Affordable Care Act, without any meaningful cooperation from the Republican minority. The Republican minority managed to stifle several other important bills by abusing the filibuster.

The midterm election of 2010 featured a much whiter and older electorate than that of 2008, and Republicans managed to take over the House. The 2010 election ushered in the era in which we currently live, where no meaningful legislation gets passed, and Republicans repeatedly threaten to shut down the government over whatever is their pet issue of the day.

What’s the point here? Republicans accept election results when they win, and ignore them when they lose. They refuse to compromise in any way whether they’ve won or lost an election. If they’ve won, they insist that their opponents accede to all of their demands. If they’ve lost, they refuse to negotiate, then whine like hell when Democrats actually manage to pass something without their help. This is no way to approach governance, especially in a country with our particular system of government.

The modern Republican Party, or at least its conservative base, does not seem to understand the structure of the American political system. There is a deliberate separation of powers when it comes to lawmaking. No bill becomes law without being passed by both houses of Congress and without receiving the president’s signature, unless, of course, both houses of Congress pass the law and can override the president’s veto with two-thirds majorities in both houses. So, a party that refuses to compromise with the other but wants to enact laws must either a) hold majorities in both houses of Congress and the presidency, or b) hold two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress that are willing to override a president’s veto. There is no other way to enact laws in our system of government other than the two just mentioned.

At no point since Obama’s inauguration in 2009 has the Republican Party met either condition. Yet its members refuse to compromise. This is why Boehner repeatedly had to go to House Democrats, hat in hand, begging for the votes needed to pass routine spending legislation. Boehner, because he’s human, is tired of these repeated humiliations.

Well, what’s so crazy about a party winning a significant congressional majority in an election and then demanding a say in legislation? Nothing’s wrong with that, as long as the party is willing to compromise. Here’s what has happened instead.

The 2010 election-winning Republicans triumphantly declared themselves to have a mandate, because the people had spoken, and they claimed the people had said loudly and clearly that they wanted the Affordable Care Act (aka the ACA or Obamacare) repealed and the deficit reduced via spending cuts. Regarding the ACA, obviously, this was a maximal position. Republicans didn’t want to tweak the ACA, and they didn’t want to repeal it and replace it with a different version. They wanted to repeal it, period.

Imagine you are the president and your name is Obama and you are presented with a bill that repeals the law that has become known as Obamacare and you believe that this bill has helped a lot of people (full disclosure: my wife and I now have health insurance thanks to Obamacare). Would you ask, “Where do I sign?” Of course not. And to make matters worse, Democrats still controlled the Senate, and they sure as hell were not going to pass a bill repealing Obamacare.

The 2011 budget negotiations aimed at reducing the deficit is an even better example of Republican intransigence. Boehner had negotiated with Obama a budget leaning heavily on spending cuts to cherished Democratic programs. Obama insisted on including some measures that would raise revenue. Obama knew he couldn’t get the Senate, still under Democratic control, to pass this budget without at least some new revenue. But Republican hardliners refused to accept even this small compromise to their anti-tax agenda, essentially telling Obama that he would either have to accept the Republican budget agenda in its entirety (and in this fantasy land scenario somehow the Senate would accept this as well) or nothing would pass.

Obama said no thanks, and Boehner had to pass a very different budget with the help of Democratic votes. To be fair, this budget was still terrible from a Democrat’s point of view (as evidenced by only half of Democratic House members being willing to vote for it). In the end, though, conservative Republicans’ refusal to compromise backfired and robbed them of their one real opportunity to get a Democratic president to cover their asses and sign a bill cutting spending from Social Security and other important programs.

Now, back to the idea of a mandate. The Republicans did indeed win a landslide election in 2010 and took over the House. This was all the evidence they needed to claim the American people had spoken and that the Republican Party’s agenda should be adopted in its entirety. Again, though, imagine you were Obama or a Senate Democrat. Wait a minute, you would’ve thought, I’m still president and my party still controls the Senate. And wait another minute. Sure, Republicans just scored an impressive victory, but the America that came out to vote in 2010 looked a lot different from the one that swept us to power in 2008. (This is a long-standing phenomenon in which presidential election year electorates skew younger and towards more minority participation, while off presidential election years skew whiter and older). So if you were Obama or a Senate Democrat at this time, you would’ve been wondering why, exactly, you need to dismantle your own programs.

Of course, Obama won reelection overwhelmingly in 2012, giving the lie to Republican mandate claims. Actually, mandate claims by either party are always nonsense. Obama could’ve won every single state in 2012, claimed a mandate, and then still he would’ve confronted a Republican-controlled House with no intentions whatsoever of cooperating on his agenda.

This is why the Republican Party needs to change, or go the way of the Whigs. It is no longer a party interested in governing. Governing in the American political system means making compromises. Today’s Republican Party thinks compromise means “give us everything we want and you get nothing or we will shut down the government.” That’s not compromise. That’s this.