Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Embracing The Suck: Practical Pols and Purity Police

Embracing The Suck-Practical Pols and Purity Police

It was a week where crude worked. 

John Boehner, the chain-smoking, dark-liquor sipping, Tea-coddling Speaker of the House, decided to come out of his defensive crouch and throw a haymaker or two.  He weighed in on the Paul Ryan-Patty Murray budget compromise and told his fellow Republican House-mates to hold their nose and act like adults. 

His counterpart, House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, whipped her troops into line with the immortal phrase,  “Embrace the Suck.”

The Ryan-Murray “suck” isn’t a great one.  It is mostly small-bore deficit reduction, with no new real revenues and no new serious spending cuts. All agree it is no “Grand Bargain” especially since the pair had an agreement going in that neither would have to give up their “core principles.”

So, what’s in the gift box handed to the Congress for ratification?  Its most prominent features are replacing the sequester with more specific cuts and ending extended unemployment benefits.  Not a lot of sizzle there.

Like any compromise, a lot of people are very unhappy.  The more progressive side of the Democratic caucus hates the unemployment insurance part (and the Christmas shopping season allows plenty of Scrooge references.)  And, of course, because it doesn’t immediately eliminate all government spending except for aid to parochial schools and the military, it doesn’t sufficiently feed the TP-dragon.

But it’s a deal, in the sense that it funds the government through the 2015 fiscal year, and, by doing so, gives more flexibility to deal with the meat-cleaver impact of sequester.  It’s a budget, and spares us the comedic tragedy of another shutdown.

Or not.  There are several things the agreement doesn’t do, and perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t deal with the debt-ceiling limit.  Ryan himself said on Sunday that the GOP will be looking to extract more concessions in January.  If the GOP does play default games again, we will have a budget (possibly, more on that later) without any money, and yet another round of extortion.  They figure (perhaps correctly, this time) that maybe the public will support them in killing Obamacare and anything else on their wish list. 

The problem for the GOP is that it places two things in motion that may have unintended consequences.  The first is that with the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, the President is in the doghouse and his party is seeing shadows behind every shadow. That creates a wonderful electoral landscape for 2014 for Republicans—if they don’t overplay their hand and remind people of exactly what they didn’t like about the GOPs in the first place.

The second is a little more complex, and involves a serious intra-party battle for control, complicated by nominating politics that may spill out into public view in a way that is distinctly unflattering.

To oversimplify, think of the GOP being dominated by two wings, the Practical Pols and the Purity Police.

Practical or Pure, with a very few exceptions, they are all conservative.  It’s just a matter of how many times they have been distilled. And, they all want power.  The difference is that the Practical Pols understand that imposing one’s will on the electorate first requires convincing them to put you in office.  The Purity folk dream the same dreams, only without the inconvenient electoral nuance.  For them, the real enemy is the impure among them. Hence, well-funded primary challenges.

One would think that a lesson might have been learned this last Fall, when the Purity Police had the upper hand.  They mounted a coordinated assault by special interest groups such as Heritage Action, Club for Growth, the Koch Brother’s Americans for Prosperity, Ted Cruz’s (supposedly unaffiliated) Senate Conservatives Fund and the calculated outrage and goading by affiliated media outlets.  For weeks, everything froze.

But, to paraphrase Sarah Palin, that “closey-defaulty thing” didn’t work out as well as they all expected.  People found that while everyone hates the government, it’s a very selective hate—they only hate those parts they don’t want to use.  And the public at large knew whom to blame.  They didn’t much like Obamacare, but this one was on the GOP.  Faced with mounting anxiety and disgust, the GOP turned to shrewd, dour old Mitch McConnell.  The deal he cut in October allowed enough people to retain their principles by flinging their hands up in the air in dismay while voting “aye” at the same time.  Several needed to call for emergency chiropractic help.

Part of that McConnell-Reid deal was the Ryan/Murray-led committee, and what Paul Ryan presented is what he was able to extract from that set of negotiations.  Not enough, screamed the Purity Police.  Marco Rubio, desperately trying to regain his reputation after his immigration apostasy, denounced it even before it released, earning a sharp rebuke from Ryan himself.

Armed with Ryan’s credibility, and his own growing piqué, Boehner finally took a stand.  He lashed out at the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, Club for Growth and FreedomWorks for "misleading their followers” and said they lost all credibility.  He might very well have been aided by Pelosi’s “suck” because what Nancy hates couldn’t have been all that bad.

Amazingly enough, it worked.  The House approved the bill, 332 to 94, with both parties delivering more than 160 votes. The “nays” were the oddest collection of votes imaginable, with 32 liberal Democrats joining 62 of the most radical-right Republicans.  If I had to guess, that much proximity will cause many of those to send their clothes out to the dry-cleaner for fumigation.

The Senate proved to be a harder nut, for a reason that wasn’t necessarily intuitive. There, the primary threats from the Purity Police need to be taken seriously because Senate seats are more highly prized.  To that end, John Cornyn (Texas) is being challenged by the lunatic fringe Congressman Steve Stockman, and Pat Roberts of Kansas by businessman Milton Wolf.  Senators Cornyn and Roberts are, respectively, the 2nd and 5th most conservative in their chamber, which you might think would be enough. Other flaming liberal GOP Senators being “primaried” include Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Mitch McConnell.  That makes all those gentlemen sensitive to their right flank, whatever microscopic area that may occupy.  The same outside groups who orchestrated the first fiasco doubled down on the pressure, directly calling out the incumbents.  That created a real quandary in the minds of the Practicals.  The Senate didn’t want to not pass the bill, and take immediate responsibility for another shutdown, but there was risk in supporting this one, even though the GOP didn’t really give up anything they cared about.  

Fortunately, Ryan had provided a Deus es machina.  One of the few actual deficit reducers in the agreement was a (previously GOP supported) provision that will slow the growth of pension benefits to military retirees under the age of 62.  Veterans and affiliated groups were furious, and this allowed the proper amount of outrage to be emitted from the aggrieved defenders of our brave men and women.  On cue, they took to every open mike they could find and then headed for the hills, stopping only long enough to agree to cloture on a possible filibuster.  Then, comfortable knowing that it would pass while they railed against it, all but nine of them voted no. 

The bill now goes to Mr. Obama, who will sign it.  A two-year bill, can kicked down the road, crisis averted?  Not quite.  While the deal sets parameters of spending, it doesn’t actually say what each agency gets.  That gets resolved in committee, so there is still the possibility of another government shut down if it can’t be resolved there.  And there is still the little matter of the Ryan’s threat on the debt ceiling.  But that’s well down the road—close to month from today.  Plenty of time, nothing to worry about.

Leads one to search for the proper slogan.  A new era of cooperation! Responsible government at its very finest! Lacks a certain frisson, I think we would all agree.  

Embrace the suck?  Now, that has resonance.

Michael Liss (MM)

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