Monday, April 8, 2013

Codgers, Cooties, and Legacies

Codgers, Cooties, and Legacies

As every good baseball fan will tell you, time doesn’t start until Opening Day.

Politics, on the other hand, is a different sport.  It never stops.  Whether it was the ancient Romans scheming away in their Senate, or Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid scheming in ours, it is a game best played by people who don’t faint at the sight of blood.

Opening Day came and went for my beloved Yankees.  It is a 162 games season, but things don’t look all that good.  Time and injuries have taken a brutal toll, and they now field a roster that has so many retreads, has-beens, and never-weres that it’s hard to look.  A parade of the old and infirm marches to the plate and flails haplessly.  

They are back in Washington as well. The Nationals look great, but with everyone else, it is pretty much the same roster; old and infirm politicians with old and infirm ideas.  To the extent they are able to flail, they flail at each other.  There have been a flurry of articles about all this flailing: in the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza’s “The Senate Has Lost Its Luster” and Dan Balz’s “Can Washington Govern?” and Jackie Calmes in The New York Times,  “Obama Walks Fine Line As Congress Takes Up his Agenda.”

All three are well worth reading, albeit pretty grim.  But nothing caught my eye more than a little post in The Hill this morning; “Obama running short of time to burnish legacy.”

Gee, I thought the season had just begun?  I know the Yankees are done, but Obama is barely ten weeks into his second term.  Legacy?  Whatever happened to 162 games and four years? I read the Cillizza, Balz and Calmes articles a second time.

Balz and Cillizza get into the governance weeds: Washington doesn’t work because it’s too partisan, because too many people lack institutional respect and memory, because short-term political gain is more important than doing good for the country.  All true, and unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Calmes, however, goes to a place that should make us all a little uncomfortable.  Republicans don’t like the President, and it is not merely policy, it is deeply personal.  From the codgers to the rookies, the contempt runs deep.  Barack Obama has cooties, and they don’t want to play with him.

So, how do you build a “legacy” when your opponents would rather have you fail, regardless of the cost to the country?  Well, we can start with the two big issues that have enormous symbolism: gun control and immigration reform.

The gun control debate is all but over, and the NRA has won.  The best that can be done is a compromise being brokered by West Virginia’s Democratic Senator Joe Manchin with the possible cooperation of Pat Toomey, Republican Senator from Pennsylvania. It is a watered-down and toothless version of universal background checks. Nothing substantive beyond that.  The fruits of Newtown will be yet another notch in the NRA’s belt, as they have already managed to insert pro-gun riders into funding bills that carry far more weight with far less symbolism.  What this whole incident shows, in excruciating detail, is that gun control is a loser for both Mr. Obama in particular, and the Democrats in general.  I would be willing to bet that there are any number of Democrats who secretly hope that the Manchin compromise either gets 75 votes or is filibustered by the hard Right. 75 votes gives them bipartisan cover while not enraging gun owners, and the filibuster is even better, since nothing happens and they can go back to their more moderate and liberal supporters and say, in effect, “we tried, we just couldn’t get there.”  The fact is, and we all know it, that the NRA runs Congress with an iron hand. The Democrats aren’t just sending up the white flag, they are handing out chocolates and candy corn to the scary monsters at their doors.  

Immigration is worth watching, because a bipartisan Gang of Eight  (Republicans McCain, Graham, Jeff Flake, and Marco Rubio, and Democrats Schumer, Menendez, Dick Durban and Michael Bennett) is working to come up with compromise legislation that can pass both the Senate and House.  It’s an interesting and eclectic group.  Menendez (New Jersey) and Rubio (Florida) are both children of Cuban immigrants, McCain and Flake both from Jan Brewer and Sherriff Joe’s Arizona.  Bennett is from key swing state of Colorado, Schumer from New York, and Durban (Illinois) is an author of the Dream Act.  Those cover the states that have 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th largest percentage of Hispanic voters.  Notably, but understandably, missing is Texas (the radical Ted Cruz and the deeply conservative-but-worried-about-his-right-flank John Coryn.)

It is easy to cast stones here, but this is a very tough issue. As the grandchild of immigrants, I am extremely sympathetic to a system that is welcoming to those who want to come here.  But if guns are a landmine for the Democrats, immigration is an electoral math nightmare for Republicans.  Latinos (and Asians) were hugely importantly in Mr. Obama’s electoral success in 2012, and, even if you put an electrified fence on every inch of the border, stocked a moat with crocodiles, and lined it wall to wall with armed militia, the Latino population already legally here in the United States would continue to grow in size and influence, most notably, and alarmingly for the Republicans, could soon turn Texas Blue. The GOP and the Tea Party ran hard anti-Latino in the 2012 campaign (there isn’t a similar analogy to such an overtly personal and negative campaign since George Wallace’s 1968 third party candidacy) and they simply cannot do it again. Is there a racial component to this?  Of course there is, but it’s also unfair to characterize everyone who opposes the Dream Act, or anything that approximates amnesty for illegals, as racially motivated.  This is a very complicated issue that has generational overtones, a serious business/labor component, and economic aspects (such as when immigrants would qualify for social programs) and in different times would be the subject of careful lawmaking.  But, right now, it cuts against the Republicans. They need a way to defuse things, but they are afraid to approach the explosive device.  Mostly, they are afraid of being fragged.

At the very center of this web is the personal ambition of one man, Marco Rubio.  In Rubio’s hands probably lay the success or failure of the Gang of Eight.  The other three Republicans, even McCain, would be hard-pressed to sign on to anything he didn’t bless.  Rubio has to thread the needle.  He is smart enough to know that there is no compromise possible that would satisfy the most rabid anti-immigration folk from his side of the aisle. They can’t be coopted, so they have to be given lip service while ultimately being ignored. What he has to calibrate is the percentage they are of primary voters.  If it’s 25-30% he looks like a statesman.  If it’s 40% or above, he may likely will be committing short-term electoral suicide. 

So, what should we expect an ambitious young conservative do?  It depends on how Machiavellian we think he is.  Paul Ryan, in an analogous situation on a budget committee considering a Simpson-Bowles-like compromise, walked away to enhance his conservative street cred.  Can Rubio do the same thing?  He may be trying right now to do just that, under the guise  of calling for a calm, measured approach.  He’s slowing down the process, calling for more hearings, looking for opportunities to throw things back to the Senate where the virulently anti-immigrant Ted Cruz and Alabama’s Jeff Sessions excel at obstruction.  But, if he chooses not to go down that road, and really wants a compromise, a great many people will be hanging on his every word, pause, and gesture.  Rubio can take his party towards a less confrontational approach with Latinos, and become a true national leader at the same time.  It’s a power that he has openly sought, but it’s a little reminiscent of the Indiana Jones movie where everyone searches for the Holy Grail.  Should he choose poorly, he may also scream, shrivel, and turn to dust. 

Depressing?  Chances are, it’s going to be a bleh baseball season for the Bronx Bombers and a bleh political season for Mr. Obama. They might both be struggling to break .500.

.500 doesn’t get you in the playoffs, much less win the World Series.  It definitely doesn’t build a legacy.

Still, it is only Spring.  Stranger things have happened.


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