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?