Sunday, January 27, 2013

Brooks's Paradox And Brownback's Panacea

Brooks’ Paradox And Brownback’s Panacea

David Brooks has an interesting piece in last Friday’s New York Times, "The Great Migration"  in which he writes about the lures beckoning the academically gifted from more rural and economically depressed communities.  Smart high school kids from all over the country end up going to top tier universities that operate at a different pace; harsher, more competitive, faster, more meritocratic.  Some are turned off, but most are brought into the vortex.  These same universities are feeders to the best internships, the best graduate schools, the best employment opportunities.

Brooks is wrestling with a central paradox in his desire for communitarian conservatism.  Unlike many Republicans at the national level, he accepts the obligation to care for those in need.  What he rejects is the Obama/Democratic approach, in which government always provides the safety net.  In Brooks’ view, the best places to deliver charity and community support are at the grass-roots, and the best ways to create the wealth that enables that charity is to unleash the private sector and to educate the talented. 

But, in practice, as he acknowledges, it doesn’t work.  Education creates intellectual and financial free agency; the smart kids from Nebraska, or Newark, or rural Ohio, leave the home team and take their talents elsewhere.  Their movement from a more socially egalitarian and supportive culture to one that is more focused on a “relentless quest for distinction” is transformational, and does nothing to solve the inequality problem.  The Great Migration perversely produces the opposite effect; when you’ve shown the Nebraska farm-boy Paris (or Davos) the livestock back home looks less appealing.  They simply join a new team, and they like it.

Brooks doesn’t make the direct connection, but this mirrors part of what Murray and Herrnstein were talking about in “The Bell Curve.”  We “smart” people, from all across the country, come together in the great universities, go off to graduate school and the professional world, and choose our friends and spouses from among the people we meet there.  We settle in communities with the same group, have kids, who then go to elite public or private schools together, then those kids go on to some of the same universities we went to, and the closed loop of education, influence, class, and genetics self-reinforces.

So, in American, land of the free capitalist, why is this bad? If we earned it, why we shouldn’t we enjoy the fruits of our labors?  More coarsely, who cares about income disparity if we have what we want, and, even better, can pay our politicians to make sure we get more? 

The problem, which Brooks understands, isn’t that we have elites.  We always have.  And it isn’t that we have the poor, who will always be with us.  But, when you join the ever-widening gap with a stretched middle class, a demographic time bomb, and a political system that is trapped in absolutist absurdities, you create the potential for serious disruption.  Income inequality needs to be addressed, not out of some do-gooder impulse, but because we have to.  There is no other way to expand our base of productive, taxpaying citizens, and, in the long run, there is no other way to maintain a stable society.

We are running headlong, eyes open, but apparently unseeing, into a declining future.  The Republicans like to call it “European” because it sounds more Socialist and effete--they being the manly party that knows how to say no.  In fact, we are less Europe and more Japan.

The Japanese have been in a two decades-long recession; too much incestuous cross-investing among business and the financial services industry, a calcified social system, excessive bureaucracy, antiquated work rules, and a rapidly aging population which needs more and more support, not because they are lazy or unwilling, but because they are unable.  The Japanese government has abetted all this, printing and throwing money everywhere to keep all levels of society quiet.  But there isn’t enough vibrancy in the private sector, or enough young people, to support the aging and the economically displaced, and fiscal policy may be reaching the end of the road.   Sound familiar?

How do we escape?  We probably do need a “Grand Bargain.”  That is where things get tricky, because we need to convince people that a little bit of altruism is actually in their self-interest.

In Brooks’ communitarian society, that should be self-evident. Communities take care of their own, providing economic support while encouraging Protestant work-ethic values that ultimately lift all boats.  

Brooks is right, at least in the laboratory of both ethics and smart policy. Subtle societal pressures plus training takes a needy person from eating the proffered fish to fishing himself.  But outside the laboratory, the reality is very different.  Brooks’ belief in civic virtue appears naïve; politicians conflate their own ideologies and ambitions with the public good, and many people prefer to take or keep rather than to earn or give.

In less myopic times, we would look for the problem to be addressed nationally in that Grand Bargain.  It is clear that is unlikely now.  Washington fails because neither party really grasps the scope of the problem, they merely use its existence as a boogeyman to continue stale policy prescriptions.  The Democrats seem to care more about creating a permanent fish-giving entitlement, while the Republicans prefer people to starve while they wait for tax cuts to induce a job creator to order a trawler.

Of course, with no compromises, both sides need a clean win to enact their program, and neither side has it in Washington.  But, at the state level, the opposite is true.  More than 35 states are completely controlled by one party or the other, two dozen by the Republicans.  If Brooks is right, Governors and state legislators will be more responsive to local needs, giving them more freedom to experiment to find a cure.  

Indiana is solidly Republican, notwithstanding Richard Mourdock’s self-immolation.  They dominate the State House (69-31) and Senate (36-13).  Outgoing Governor Mitch Daniels had previously been George W. Bush Director of OMB, where he earned the name “The Blade”, and not for Zorro-like looks.  The new Governor, Steve Pence, hard right as a Congressman, just gave his first Inaugural Address as Governor.  Pence noted that one in five children live below the poverty line, and then proposed a budget that while fiscally conservative, also increases funds for education, job training, transportation, veterans, child-protective services, and health care for the poor.  That is one approach.

Stronger medicine is being administered in Kansas.  There, Republicans have such a free hand that they are comfortable purging all but the most ultra-right in their midst.  Governor Sam Brownback, a social conservative and tea party darling, has cast his cold eye upon the land, and found both moral and economic sin.  His panacea for stagnant economic growth is not more investment in training and education (Kansas ranks near the bottom in several quality measures of education ) but to effectively eliminate virtually all income and business taxes.  He finances those cuts, in part, by a regressive higher sales tax, fewer basic services, and (naturally) significant reductions in school aid.  It would be redundant to point out that these changes are entirely on the backs of working and middle class families, who will, perversely, pay more and get less, while giving the top one percent of Kansas taxpayers an average tax cut of about $21,000 per year.  Brownback and his supporters claim this will bring businesses pouring into Kansas.

Brownback’s Panacea might play well politically in Kansas, which is deep crimson.  Democrats have only 9 seats of 40 in the State Senate, and 33 of 125 in the State House.  Will it, in fact, attract business, and will the promised economic growth do anything about income inequality?  I am not sure Brownback cares about the latter; he has a government that suits his philosophy.  Presumably, it will suit the majority of Kansans, who can always use the ballot to express their opinions.  I’m betting Brownback keeps his position, and Kansas’s poor and working class keep theirs. 

And that brings us back to Brooks’ Paradox.  Does the social mobility afforded by elite higher education benefit everyone, or is it merely transformative, taking 4-H kids out of their communities and placing them in cloisters of the good life?  Do they keep their communitarian values and couple personal success with continuing efforts for the greater good?  Or, do they just “forget where they came from” and invest in their favorite politicians to get more? 

If we are going to tackle the problems ahead of us, we are going to need an answer, and soon.  Power and money are neither moral nor immoral.  It is what you do with them when you have them that counts. 

David Brooks understands that as well.  If you read “The Great Migration,” you may find more than a little despair.

Let’s hope he’s wrong.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

What Abraham And John Could Teach Barack

What Abraham And John Could Teach Barack

This coming Monday, Barack Obama will take the Oath of Office for the second time, and give his second Inaugural Address.

His ascent from obscurity to being the most powerful person in the world was so improbable that, when I went into the voting booth in 2008, I carried with me my immigrant maternal grandfather’s pocket-watch, and wore my late father’s over-sized leather jacket.  Both of them (and my mother) were patriots in the best sense of the word.  They were not uncritical of America’s flaws, but believed deeply in its promise and its goodness.  I thought they should be there. 

Four years later, it seems we have all been hurtling through a tunnel with kaleidoscope sides.  Mr. Obama has presided over the end of one war, the winding down of a second, the death of Osama Bin Laden, and the gradual easing of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Despite the worst words of the worst of his critics, he has done a lot of good.  But, along with those accomplishment come the largest deficits in our history, the highly controversial Obamacare legislation, and a relationship with Congress that is strained at best, and often characterized by what can best be described as profound mutual contempt.  

Mr. Obama is not the first President who is deeply polarizing, in fact, the end of his first term marks twenty years of intense partisanship--an entire generation of ugliness. If you were born the year Richard Nixon resigned, you have never had the opportunity to vote for anyone who wasn’t deeply and personally disliked by at least a third of the electorate.

Mr. Obama’s election was a historic one.  But, there comes a point where milestones and promise must be followed by even more tangible results across a broad spectrum of issues, lest the milestones and the promise become nothing more than last year’s entry in Trivial Pursuit.  What matters is what he does now and for the next four years, where he intends to lead the country, what his goals are, and whether he can get consensus.  He can start on Monday. 

This doesn’t mean a great and soaring Inaugural.   The eminent political historian Larry Sabato wrote this past week that Inaugural Addresses tended to be prosaic affairs.  Sabato felt that there had been only two great ones; Lincoln’s majestic Second, which we wrote about last July recast the meaning of the Civil War in moral terms and looked outward to a compassionate and inclusive post-war reconciliation, and Kennedy’s.  Sabato spoke of the excitement of being a schoolboy in a Catholic school, assembling with classmates and the nuns around a black and white television to watch the first Catholic President inspire and uplift, and of going home that day to grab the evening paper and commit the text to memory.  He was proud of himself that, fifty years later, he could recall so many of Kennedy’s words, and proud that Kennedy could show a hesitant nation that a young Catholic could, in fact, speak both to assuage their fears and for their aspirations.

We are no longer in such innocent days.  Obama could give the Sermon on the Mount, and many on the Right would call it class warfare or complain all that turning of the cheek was yet another example of a weak foreign policy.

Is this fair?  Fair isn’t relevant, and Obama should ignore them, and search for a broader spectrum of people who simply want government to work.  More relevant is the criticism from mainstream commentators, and even present and former supporters, for failing to lead.  They are, in part, correct.  Obama, on certain key issues, hasn’t led.  We absolutely have to tackle the enormous gap between the expanding entitlement obligations to an increasingly aging society, and the need for economic growth and innovation.  In short, we have to find a way to honor our commitments to both young and old. 

This isn’t simple, and, unfortunately, the gist of the advice of many of the well meaning is that Obama should articulate his compromise positions, assuming that the GOP will be reasonable. To lead, in their minds, is to tell the country where we should end up by identifying what you would accept.  They are wrong, of course, at least in that analysis.  The hard-liners in the GOP are not going to be reasonable, and an Obama offer of any part, much less all, of what he is ultimately willing to give will simply be rejected, and taken as a new starting point in negotiations. 

The post election Obama, more assertive, more vocally unyielding, is a reflection of his grasp of this.  After getting rolled in 2011 on the first debt-ceiling crisis, he knows he has to be tougher.  But it may also be a tacit acknowledgment of another Obama weakness; that when he first came into office, he believed his own rhetoric as a historic bridge-builder.  What his Presidency has shown so far is that he is a complex man with great strengths and significant shortcomings.  One of those shortcomings is that he is a poor negotiator. It is not for lack of intelligence, or grasp of the intricacies of the deal, but more a deficit in in a particular type of interpersonal skill.  In the give and take of negotiation with others who possess some bargaining chips, Obama is neither a bridge-builder nor a back-slapper. He simply isn’t that good at getting to yes.

This is not a fatal flaw, even in a President.  He doesn’t have to be Lyndon Johnson.  He is the President.  He can hire people to do it for him.  That is, in effect, what Secretary of State Seward did for Lincoln in “procuring” votes for the 13th Amendment.  And it is also what Joe Biden did in the last round of the Fiscal Cliff negotiations.  Presidents are rich in power and in resources.  Obama should use them.

So, what is Obama’s job on Monday and beyond?  He could start by recalling Kennedy’s words to the nation’s enemies abroad. “So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

He should remember Lincoln’s vision, to “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

And, finally, in the privacy of his own time and his own place, he can ruminate on the following;  “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”


Monday, January 14, 2013

Chuck Hagel Inspects The Troops

Chuck Hagel Inspects The Troops

The marvelous World War I novel, “All Quiet On The Western Front” contains a scene where Baumer, a young infantryman in the Kaiser’s army, is sent home on leave.  Baumer is out of place; he’s not a schoolboy anymore, he’s outgrown his clothes, his proud but worried family hovers over him.  One day, looking for escape, he wanders the streets.  But there is no private place; he is scooped up by one of his former teachers and dragged to a café table, to be pecked at by a group of middle-aged academics.  As middle-aged men are wont to do they monopolize the conversation; their self-esteem leaves them without a sense of irony.  Too young to have served in the Franco-Prussian War, and too old for World War I, they have all become military experts. Assuming victory, they argue over what sections of Europe Germany should annex.  A Headmaster insists that only all of Belgium, the coal-areas of France, and a part of Russia will do.  Then he turns to Baumer to lecture him on how to prosecute the war.  Enough trench warfare he says, smash through the Jonnies, and on to Paris.  When Baumer demurs, saying that the Army thinks that breakout might not be possible; the Headmaster “dismisses the idea loftily and informs me I know nothing about it. "The details, yes," says he, "but this relates to the whole. And of that you are not able to judge. You see only your little sector and so cannot have any general survey. You do your duty, you risk your lives, that deserves the highest honour--every man of you ought to have the Iron Cross--but first of all the enemy line must be broken through in Flanders and then rolled up from the top."

I thought of this while reading about the Right’s vociferous reaction to President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, former Republican Senator from Nebraska. Leading the charge, as usual, is the dyspeptic John McCain.  Hagel and McCain were once very close friends; Hagel served as national Co-Chair of McCain’s 2000 Presidential Campaign.  That, of course, was “BB” (Before Barack), so naturally Hagel is no longer qualified. 

McCain has been getting headlines, but he’s really a sideshow.  There are two critical aspects to the Hagel nomination: The first is McCain’s--anything associated with Mr. Obama must be opposed and slimed.  The second is far more strategic.  The Neocons are desperate to defend and promote the “legacy” of George W. Bush; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the unmitigated successes of a visionary, we must invade Iran as soon as possible, and, more generally, American military power should be expressed at all times possible, particularly in the Middle East.

Hagel, in particular, is a challenge to that world-view; he is closer to Mr. Obama in looking for defense spending cuts that are anathema to the Right (notwithstanding the Sequester agreement), he supports the draw-down in forces from Afghanistan, Mr. Obama’s more gradualist approach to Iran, and the use of drones to attack high-value targets. 

The problem for the Republicans is that many of those Obama policies are generally supported by the public and were litigated during the last Presidential election cycle, so they are unable to attack them directly. Defending the neo-con position, past any muscular generalities, now requires doing everything but actually talking about it.

This is a rather subtle dance.  If you can’t go after the policy, you have to go after the person.  So Hagel’s old friends from his side of the aisle are torching him in an unusually pointed and personal way.  He’s been called incompetent to manage a complex organization, an anti-Semite, and someone with “temperament issues.”  Kansas Senator Pat Roberts may have worked closely with Hagel to ease embargo restrictions to benefit Midwest grain exporters, but Roberts is already on record as opposing the nomination.  Lindsay Graham went on Fox to tear into his former colleague, and Kelly Ayotte, the newly minted “third Amiga” (following the un-mourned departure of Joe Lieberman) pronounced herself “troubled.”   

But, the most intriguing criticism (and the best pivot from the real issues) is fleshed out in an   op-ed piece by Eliot Cohen, now a Professor at Johns Hopkins’s SAIS, but formerly Counselor to Condoleezza Rice, and an early advocate of the use of force in Iraq and Iran to cause regime change.  Cohen doesn’t spend much time advancing neo-con arguments. Instead, he relentlessly belittles Hagel’s service in Viet Nam, that “long-ago war” where Hagel was twice wounded in combat, and won a Silver Star.

Cohen has set up a straw man; he knows full well that Mr. Obama isn’t nominating Hagel because he served in Viet Nam.  But, by implying that Hagel’s only real qualification is that he served, he puts Hagel in the same Swift boat as, say, my late father, who was also a Sergeant (albeit in World War II.)  Dad would be amused.

Cohen’s critique is important, because it touches on a vulnerability that the GOP in general and neo-cons in particular seem to have.  Most of them, like the “experts” in “All Quiet On The Western Front” are basically armchair warriors, or what my Dad would have called “patriots with the mouth.”  Cohen is my age--just young enough to have escaped the draft, and too old for the first or second Iraq wars.  Others of his mind-set, but older, such as George Will, Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney, and Mitt Romney, were able to engage in perfectly legal “draft avoidance” which is much like perfectly legal “tax avoidance.”

The problem, of course, is that all the back fires that the Right has lit are obscuring three central questions: The first is whether the President’s approach to the use of military power is the correct one, the second is whether he has the right to select someone who sufficiently attuned to his views, and the third is whether Hagel is truly qualified to carry them out.

As to the first question, it appears that the American public seems to agree with Mr. Obama; they are pleased with the wind-down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leery of military involvement in Iran, and not too troubled by the use of drones to kill Al Qaeda operatives.   As to the second, we have the Senate to “advise and consent” but the general principle (pre-Obama) was that on most nominees, if they were qualified, they would be confirmed.  The unloved Rummy himself was confirmed on a voice vote.  It is the third, Hagel’s qualifications, that really counts. 

Is Chuck Hagel qualified?  I don’t know.  Bush trusted him enough to send him on a secret mission to Israel in December of 2000, to reassure then-Prime Minister Barak Ehud that, if Ehud’s government supported a Clinton-brokered peace deal, the incoming Bush Administration would support it.  I would like to hear more about that meeting, and more about Hagel’s background and views.  Presumably, that is what we have confirmation hearings for. 
That, and an opportunity for the GOP’s armchair warriors to further explore the “troubling” aspects of this non-commissioned old soldier’s service. 

Of course, they might agree with the Senator who called Hagel "one of the premier foreign policy voices" and "one of the giants in the United States Senate." 

That would be Mitch McConnell.   In 2007, which is, after all, so Before Barack.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Anatomy Lesson: Hillary's Head and Boehner's Back

Anatomy Lesson:  Hillary’s Head and Boehner’s Back

One of my New Year’s Resolutions has to be “always expect the worst from Washington.”

I was hoping to write a thrilling piece about the back-stage machinations that led to a far-sighted, tough-but-fair settlement of all those taxing and spending issues that made up the “Fiscal Cliff.”  In my fantasy, hard work and harder decisions would be made by strong-minded realists, all working together like grand masters at a chess board, skillfully moving around the pieces. 

Silly me.  The surpassingly superficial agreement, a Band-Aid that is already oozing, is merely a warm-up act to what is likely to be a truly vicious contest a couple of months from now.  You need no further confirmation of its clinical toxicity beyond the fact that President Obama, apparently on the advice of his physician, signed it by Autopen.

Still, this last week was not without its diversions.  That part of Washington not lobbying for tax breaks for rum, film studios, and NASCAR owners also had time to preoccupy themselves with the study of anatomy, or, more specifically, Hillary Clinton’s head, and John Boehner’s back.

First, the cranial woes. On December 15, apparently dehydrated from flu, Mrs. Clinton allegedly fell and suffered a concussion, forcing her to stay home and out of the public eye for the balance of the month.  

I use the word “allegedly” because the entire concussion story was apparently something ginned up by that conspiratorial duo, Bill and Hill, to avoid having to testify over the Benghazi incident.  The deaths of these particular four Americans, including Ambassador Stevens, has finally given the GOP an opportunity to express all the angst and grief they had to suppress when Americans died from foreign attacks during Republican Administrations.  Since, unfortunately, there were quite a number of them (starting with the 258 American lives lost in 1983 at the Consulate and Marine Barracks in Beirut) that’s a lot of angst and grief that has been bottled up.    

Why has Benghazi become the favorite tourist destination for the Right?  Well, it’s clearly a screw up, there is no point sugarcoating it.  But Benghazi has presented to the GOP one of those wonderful moments you will sometimes see in a game of snooker.  You carom the cue ball off Susan Rice, have it careen into Hillary Clinton, and then run its way across the rail right at Mr. Obama. The GOP (amplified 24 hours per day by Fox) had hoped the deaths would be the compost that would fertilize a Romney victory.  Sadly for them, the organic material didn’t break down quickly enough, and Mitt fell short.  Still, the American people were clearly wrong when they re-elected Mr. Obama, and Benghazi would be like Rudolph’s Nose, bringing home the presents.  All the GOP needed to do was play the angles right, and you could have one terrific summer indulging yourself with the Impeachment Game.

Unfortunately, the Secretary of State didn’t cooperate.  She agreed to testify, but then that alleged “slip and fall.”  Loud groans of disbelief were heard to emanate from the Right, and not merely from the shock jocks, but also people whom we had previously trusted to represent our interests abroad.  None other than the eminent and superbly mustached John Bolton, former Ambassador to the United Nations, and putative Romney Secretary of State in waiting, weighed in, denouncing it all as a fake “diplomatic illness.”

Ah, but these Clintons be wily folk.  Something more was needed, so they brought in a special FX team from Hollywood (where else?) and cannily constructed something right out of the old Mission Impossible. Sadly, Peter Graves and his excellent white hair was unavailable, but they were able to find some very convincing-looking doctors and airbrush in a shadow behind her ear to the radiology report.  “Blood clot.”

This information caused several Republicans to have their own strokes. Spoilt a perfectly good narrative, at least among “official” Republicans (the nastiness continues on line, naturally.)  But, the GOP does have top tier talent, and since being Republican means never having to say you’re sorry, Ambassador Bolton kept his equanimity.  He allowed the reality of the blood clot, but deftly pivoted to how it was being presented.  “I think it’s the too-cute-by-half approach that’s reflected in the absence of transparency that’s going to end up damaging her and damaging her credibility,” he said on Fox News. 

Bolton is very smart, and this is the new line of attack for the GOP. Hillary is still to blame for Benghazi (except for Obama, who all but ordered the deaths of the four Americans.)  But, there are those that think that Hillary could be a candidate, and a formidable one, in 2016.  She is apparently widely admired, even beyond the Democratic base.  So, she being 65, and looking a little pale these days, and having the flu, and bonking her head, and perhaps suffering diminished capacity…. and did I mention the paleness? Who knows, at 3AM, she might even be afflicted with the vapors, and you know how it is with the vapors.  And, if she’s this way now, imagine how much more pale and vapory she will be in four years.

Meanwhile, Hillary’s head was not the only anatomical part that fascinated Washington last week. There is also the issue of Speaker John Boehner’s back, both from perspective of who, if anyone, has it, and what is sticking out of it.  On the former question, the answer appears to be that if John Boehner has friends right now outside of his immediate family, they certainly aren’t spending a lot of time advertising it.  And, as to the apparently large number of implements that protrude from his dorsal side, there seem to be no shortage of auditions for the roles of Brutus, Cassius, and Casca. 

Before we feel too sorry for the Speaker, we should point out that his own machinations in the snake pit aren’t completely admirable.  Boehner, fairly obviously, does not control his own caucus.  As was amply demonstrated in the first debt-ceiling showdown in 2012, it is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor who has a tighter grip on the loyalties of the hard and Tea Right.  So, after the failure of Boehner’s Plan B gambit, this will be the second time he blew up a Grand Bargain because he didn’t have the support of his people.  That marks him as someone who, in diplomatic parlance, “is not a partner for peace.” 

Boehner clearly knows that, and is dancing on the head of a pin.  He wants the job but to keep it he has to show manliness all around.  He must be tough on the President and tough on the wayward souls who flout his authority. 

He basically has three problems:  His first is technical; the so called “Hastert Rule,” named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, who decreed that nothing can be moved forward or voted on in the House unless it commanded the support of a majority of Republicans.   That empowers the most radical in his caucus to just say no to everything--and Hastert was back on Fox this past week to denounce Boehner for deviating.  The second is practical; it is simply not possible for him to be tough enough on the President to satisfy the zealot brigade (there is that sticky “Constitutional” thing where both the President and the Senate also have a role in government.) And the third is tactical; those zealots have protectors, most notably Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and so by and large, they are going to escape punishment.

All these issues came to a head New Year’s Eve, when Boehner, facing his own Cliff in the Speaker’s election scheduled for Thursday, first said the House would not vote on the Fiscal Cliff bill hammered out by Senator McConnell and Vice President Biden, then said they would amend the Senate bill more to their liking, and finally, under immense pressure, agree to let the up and down vote take place.  It passed, but nearly two thirds of the Republicans voted “no”, including both Cantor and McCarthy. 

For the leadership to split that way had to be an embarrassment for Boehner.  Ordinarily, Members would be allowed to vote their conscience (or vote strategically, if a measure was opposed by people in their Districts) when there were sufficient other votes, but the Leadership should be seen as speaking with one voice.  Cantor not only went off the reservation (as he did the year before during Boehner’s previous effort to do a Grand Bargain) but spoke passionately and at length against it in caucus.  “Played well with the base” was how one observer characterized Cantor’s performance. 

This angered Boehner, who then decided to pick a particularly inopportune moment to bring Cantor to heel, and a particularly infelicitous set of victims as collateral damage; people impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  On his own, Boehner pulled a $60 Billion aid bill that had passed overwhelmingly in the Senate.  There would be no vote before the 112th Congress went into recess.  

Why would Cantor care?  The backstory on this was fascinating. Cantor was apparently in close communication with Republicans from the Northeast waiting for the relief bill, and they had been running interference for him with their State’s delegations.  And Cantor may be an ambitious ideologue, but he’s a practical ideologue, and a good part of Virginia is exposed to hurricanes.  There was every reason to think the entire Senate Sandy bill would have passed, but Boehner, angry with Cantor, and hearing the clamor from the crazies in his own caucus who think the Treasury is only for the use of Republicans, shut it down.  He also apparently refused to tell Cantor this.  It was the New York/New Jersey delegation that first informed Cantor that the Sandy bill had been pulled.

No vote, no money. Enter the very large and very angry Chris Christie, who lambasted “palace intrigues,” praised Cantor and ripped into Boehner.  Sensing a PR disaster (let’s not forget that over $51 Billion dollars was handed to GOP Gulf State Governors less than two weeks after Katrina) and a personal one (if the New York and New Jersey Republican delegations voted against him for Speaker, their votes, coupled with the other defectors, could bring him down) Boehner relented, in part, by splitting the Senate bill into two parts, a smaller one which merely authorized funding the Federal Flood Insurance program already in place, and a larger one for the balance of the funds authorized by the Senate.

In Thursday, with the unanimous support of the New York and New Jersey delegations, Boehner retained his Speakership.  Twelve GOP Members did not vote for him, including one who chose Allen West, which I think, speaks for itself.

On Friday, the smaller bill passed.  Shortly before the vote, the Club For Growth demanded a “no” vote, because it believes that the Federal Government should not be in the business of providing flood insurance, and therefore no claims should be paid.  This, of course, is akin to your insurance company telling you that they have collected the premiums, but they made a philosophical decision that paying you is wrong because they plan to exit the business. So, no check.  Sixty-seven Republicans agreed, including approximately twenty from Gulf States, and all four members from the Kansas delegation, who apparently forgot that in both the summer of 2009 and September 2011, President Obama signed Disaster Declarations for the entire state of Kansas after major flooding.  Also among the objectors, Wisconsin Congressmen Tom Petri, Jim Sensenbrenner, and the estimable Paul Ryan (who previously been quite eloquent in requesting disaster aid.)  They, too, suffered some similar short-term memory loss.

The delay on Sandy, however, and the number of “no’ votes, are an embarrassment; according to The Hill, quoting an anonymous person close to Speaker,  “a bigger screw up than anything else on Boehner’s part.”  Boehner is still Speaker, but I’m not sure he’s done much for his back.  And, speaking as a New Yorker, he certainly hasn’t done much for ours.  We may never see the rest of the money.

“Always expect the worst from Washington.” 

Not exactly poetic, is it?