Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Infallibility Complex

The Infallibility Complex

Ross Douthat has a wonderful piece in this Sunday’s New York Times, The Pope and the Precipice, in which he discusses, at some length, the struggle going on in the Catholic Church today impelled by Pope Francis’ apparent desire to, in Douthat’s words, “rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life—sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality.”

Douthat is a conservative, and a traditionalist, and is clearly unhappy with the less censorious direction that Francis seems to be indicating.  He is not alone in this.  A majority of the hierarchy seems to agree with Douthat, and they have apparently won an important skirmish at the recently concluded synod, where an early draft document seemed to reflect Francis’ more open views, but was materially toned down prior to release. 

I am not a Catholic and don’t pretend to understand the theological issues. They do appear to me to be strikingly similar to some of the “culture wars” going on here, with some groups hoping to be more inclusive as a way of expanding and making more relevant the faith to those who are being raised in a more permissive environment, while others see strict adherence to what Douthat calls the Church’s “historic teaching.”

Douthat wants to suppress this more liberal urge in the Church, the same way he wants to express state power to enforce his moral beliefs in the secular world.  Douthat has never suggested that the barriers between Church and State be dissolved.  Rather, he sees his religious code, at least with regard to social issues, as the correct way to govern people, regardless of their religious affiliation.  It is a position that appears to be grounded in his faith, and not mere political expediency.  To put it a different way, Douthat couldn't be a Democrat, regardless of how many tax cuts they might offer.

He writes with great precision, but there is one bit of his logic I find fascinating: How to deal with Papal Infallibility?  If the Pope is indeed Infallible, and this is the direction Francis wants to lead in, why do Douthat and the conservative hierarchy resist? Or, more accurately, how do they resist? 

Douthat reconciles this apparent contradiction by reaching the conclusion that Papal Infallibility derives from strict adherence to a Traditionalist point of view. And, in an interesting echo of modern, even Tea Party politics, he warns that unless the Traditionalist prevails, Francis will provoke a schism, presumably of the type that split the Western and Eastern Churches in 1054.  He concludes that if Francis does not move towards the conservative point of view “this Pope may be preserved from error only if the Church itself resists him.”

It would be easy for me to jump to the conclusion that Douthat was merely engaging in a solipsism, that his certainty about his faith was so great that he assumed Francis must be wrong, but the piece is so well written and so tightly reasoned it is worth reading twice, if for no other reason as to give you a glimpse into the way he would govern in the secular world, if given the opportunity.

For a different way of thinking about the centrality of traditional orthodoxy and the presumption that deviation from a conservative faith is anathema, I would also suggest you read Carly Fiorina’s Washington Post op-ed, “Companies shouldn’t cave in to the demands of climate change activists.”

Ms. Fiorina, if you recall, was CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999-2005, until she was forced out after the stock of the company had fallen by half after her highly contentious and dubious merger strategy with Compaq. In 2010 she ran against California Senator Barbara Boxer (she lost) and presently is toying with either a run for California Governor, or President. 

Her piece has less to do about climate change than it is a prolonged rant against the evils of activists daring to challenge ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group she defines as “an alliance of state legislators who advocate limited government, free markets, and individual liberty…” 

The article is a masterpiece of disingenuous garbage, wrapped up in a mock concern about  professional activists intent on chilling speech and marginalizing the voice of business and job creators in U.S. society.”

I know, it’s torture to even think about the chilled speech of the job creators.  They have been so silent in this election cycle.

Here is what ALEC does, and you can agree with it or not.  It isn’t just the alliance of state legislators that Ms. Fiorina says it is—it is an alliance of state legislators with corporate lobbyists who draft business-favorable legislation for those legislators, while offering additional support to them.  ALEC has drafted literally thousands of bills, some of which have been adopted whole, without any debate. And, it isn’t just for those who “advocate limited government, free markets, and individual liberty…” ALEC has also been funding conservative social causes, including banning gay marriage, and abortion, and it has provided model voter ID laws for 30-odd state Legislatures.  ALEC also supported the effort to expand “Stand Your Ground” after Florida’s “success” with it, and “ag-gag” bills that criminalize investigations into large-scale livestock farming and slaughter houses and classify them as “terrorism.”

As some of ALEC’s role in more controversial issues has become public, some companies (including Pepsi, Coke, McDonald’s, GE, GM, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and even HP and Wal-Mart) have withdrawn their support, and this is what seems to enrage Ms. Fiorina. She blames climate change activists, but in fact, only Google gave ALEC’s position on climate change as a reason.  The real motivation that these huge companies have been distancing themselves is pure and simple.  It’s bad for business.  They know that the public expects them to lobby for greater profits and more favorable legislation.  But they also know that their customers might be much less willing to purchase their products if they found out that those companies were backing legislation that was personally anathema to them. 

Money has talked, and bigger money has walked, and Ms. Fiorina can’t stand it.

Both Douthat and Fiorina share an appreciation for implacable certainty, and leave little doubt of where they would go if they were King (or Pope.)  But read the two pieces, and you can see the difference between two approaches.   Ms. Fiorina oozes angered contempt, Mr. Douthat is the velvet glove of reasoned explanation (albeit shielding the closed fist of schism.)

The GOP is going to romp next Tuesday, and might very well take it all in 2016.  Fiorina and Douthat are faces of a coalition of conservatives who could rule, a merger of anything-goes-capitalism with an ascetic social vision.  The question for the country will be one both of policy, and temperament.

Or, maybe it’s just a question of infallibility?  I am a person who is suspicious of the concept.  How about you?

October 26th, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Numbers Game: Turnout or Turn Away?

Numbers Game: Turnout or Turn Away?

With the election looming, it is time for all people who are secret quants to turn to numbers.  I am going to start with two: 24 and 31. 24 is the number of people fatally stricken by lightening since January 1 of this year.  31 is the number of documented voter identification fraud cases—since the year 2000.

What does this tell us, besides being sure we get under cover when we hear thunder?  Let me add another 24.  24 is also the number of states that have enacted more restrictive voting rules in the last three years, presumably to combat a dread of those (civic) lightening strikes.  Then there is the number One.  That’s the number that Wisconsin Governor and 2016 GOP Presidential aspirant Scott Walker says keeps him awake at night.  One shattering moment of voting fraud—just one moment--would destroy a virtuous Walker supporter rights to choose his or her man at the ballot box. 

I am not the kind of person who wants even Scott Walker to reach for the Ambien bottle.  I feel his pain.  I understand the anxiety he must be experiencing in actually having to accept the judgment of an electorate that is anything other than handpicked.

So, what does an ambitious pol do, especially one with a ruthless streak?  How can you make all those numbers sing?

There is always the tried and true.  When you are pulling all the strings, it’s not all that hard impede people who want to pull the wrong lever: fewer voting machines, in fewer polling places, staffed by fewer number of hopefully hostile poll workers, lead to longer and longer lines.  And, when time’s up, it’s up.  If that’s not good enough, there’s always the dump-the-ballot box in the swamp technique.  There is virtually no limit to the type of low cunning a person or party on the make won’t demonstrate, and we have a rich and bipartisan history to demonstrate that.

Still, in this world of infinite media coverage, a little more sophistication might also be called for.  That is where data mining comes in.  Once you have identified who is likely to vote and when, you can tailor things to reduce the probability that “wrong-minded” voters will actually cast those “low information” ballots. Let’s say your numbers show that a disproportionate number of the “wrong” voters are shift, hourly, or per diem workers.  If they don’t show up for work, or work fewer hours, they don’t get paid.  Cutting back on early and weekend voting is the perfect way to discourage them. Or, you find that church communities pray together and then vote, as a congregation, after services.  Eliminate or restrict Sunday voting, and gain the added bonus of disenfranchising parishioners who are otherwise too elderly to drive. Concerned about college students voting in the states they attend school in?  Tighten residency requirements and threaten them with prosecution.  

Of course, while all those techniques bear fruit, the ripest and most delectable are the voter identification rules. These allow you to feel virtuous (“if I have to show ID to buy a beer, why shouldn’t I have to show one to vote”) while knowing very well that there are a surprising number of people who don’t necessarily have the government-issued ID required.  Are all those folk evil ballot stuffers and fraudsters?  Not exactly.  Only about a third of us have passports.  In rural areas, older folk were often born at home and don’t have a hospital-administered birth certificate, even if they have been voting for decades.  In urban areas, a surprising number don’t have driver’s licenses, because cities with good mass-transit infrastructure don’t demand it.

Before my conservative readers jump all over me and assume I am against voter identification laws, I am not.  But it’s not so simple, regardless of whether you like the result.  Is there any serious argument that one could make against the proposition that when government choses to put in place a series of new rules that have a chilling effect on such a seminal right as voting, it also has a duty to show wide latitude in accepting valid forms of identification, and in enabling those who do not have documentation to obtain it at no cost?

Sadly, those in the rule-making game don't see it that way. And, ever since the Supreme Court decision in "Shelby" eviscerated the Voting Right Act of 1965, it's been open season for legislation that is clearly targeted at certain groups, hiding behind a veneer of facially non-discriminatory language.  That has led to a lot of litigation, and the forces of voter suppression seem to have built a strong early lead.  SCOTUS is back in the middle of critical and highly controversial cases in three states: North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Texas. 

In North Carolina, SCOTUS permitted, pending their final rulings, the imposition of voter ID laws, and also the ending of same-day registration and out of precinct voting.  Minorities complained that the laws were aimed at them, since they often used same day registration.  And, who votes out of precinct? North Carolina State residents who just happen to college students at one of the sixteen state-sponsored universities, including Chapel Hill, or some of the illustrious private ones, such as  Duke and Wake Forest.  Think about that for a moment.  A North Carolina resident cannot vote in statewide elections because he or she is taking classes in a different precinct—in North Carolina.   

In Wisconsin, “Act 23” not only introduced demands for specific types of voter ID, but also included a provision that disallowed any otherwise proper form of government issued identification if there were any variant spellings (such as a missing “Jr.” a middle name or a maiden name.) The Federal District Judge assigned to the case overturned it on the grounds it showed pervasive discriminatory intent, but he was reversed at the Circuit level.  SCOTUS, interestingly enough, vacated the appeals court ruling in large part because the reversal came so close to the election and might lead to confusion.  Among other reasons, Wisconsin had neglected to mention to absentee ballot users that their vote would be rejected unless they included a copy of their ID when they returned the ballot. fascinating omission, wouldn't you say?

Texas, as always, is the big kahuna, and here SCOTUS permitted their new voting law to take effect, even though the trial court found that it could disenfranchise as many as 600,000 (mostly minority) voters.  The ruling is seen as a huge win for Texas’ Attorney General, Greg Abbott, who, purely by coincidence, happens to be running for Governor this year.

So, what’s next? Short term, we are going to have an election in which new rules will be in effect in many states. I would expect that even in this likely Republican wave year, there could be several elections that might be close, and it would not shock if the new rules were decisive in some.  Then, in this term, the Supreme Court will hear the arguments on the voter’s rights cases.  They should render their decisions by next June. 

Resent the idea that your vote is fraudulent simply because you picked the boys and girls in the wrong uniforms? Here is my suggestion to those organizations who believe their right to vote was taken from them. Document every last bit of it—every voter who was denied access as a result of the new rules.  Then, take that evidence, if you have it, and get it before the Supreme Court.

Why?  Because we need certitude.  If SCOTUS legitimizes these little tricks of the trade, then the losers are just going to have to be better and smarter for 2016.  That means a better ground game, more early registration, and help with obtaining necessary documents.

Will they?  There are a lot people who believe that going to SCOTUS has become just another place for partisanship, regardless of the law.  I acknowledge that there are Justices who have clear ideological preferences and want to pick winners and losers.  But, as an institution, I don’t buy it.  The legitimacy of the Court rests on its reputation for calling them as it sees them, with balance and fairness.  The ultimate disposition of the North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Texas cases are a profound test of that. 

One last number for you: Four.  Four Constitutional Amendments that include the words “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged…”

Let’s find out if SCOTUS is in favor of turnout….or turn-away.

October 23, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dislikeable Virtues and Admirable Vices

Dislikeable Virtues and Admirable Vices

Winston Churchill once said of political opponent, Sir Richard Stafford Cripps, “He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”

How can you not like Churchill?  I was reminded of this choice bon mot when reading Thomas Donlan’s two editorials, “Taken for a Ride,” and “Energy Begins at Home” in this week’s Barron’s.  In “Taken for a Ride” Donlan reviews the history of gambling in Atlantic City, notes its boom and bust (mostly bust) over the last 36 years, and its abject failure to revitalize most of community outside of the casinos. “Energy Begins at Home” is a slap at California’s environmental regulations, particular when it comes to drilling and fracking.

I admire Donlan’s writing.  He is usually precise in reporting the facts, acute in his observations and applies a real intellectual rigor to his analysis.  This time, I found myself oddly estranged, agreeing with his some of his conclusions while being alienated by the way he reached them. 

Let’s start with Atlantic City. He says, “The only reasonable argument for legal casinos is the argument for legal drinking, legal smoking, legal prostitution, and legal drug-taking: Personal liberty is more important than the consequences to those who can’t handle it.  We find that freedom-loving philosophy appealing, but we remain free to judge the people in the casino business and the politicians who enable it. They are morally defective. It’s one thing to tolerate your neighbor’s unattractive habits; it’s a nastier thing to run a business that provides the satisfaction of his cravings.”  When the last gambler leaves Atlantic City, we will cheer, even if all the lights do go out.

I am not a fan of gambling, but you don’t have to be a morally defective politician to understand why even a non-corrupt one might support the development of casinos.  All you need to have is an understanding of the yearning of families in an economically stricken area for any type of revitalization.  As morally dicey as gambling is, would we even be having these discussions if the economic model succeeded?  Outside of a few fringe groups (on both sides of the political spectrum) I don't think so.

The fact is that, savory business or not, we have casinos, like we have a lot of disruptive or morally iffy businesses, for one primary reason—money.   In an ideal world, they would do as their promoters promised—provide profitable business activity, short and long term employment, and tax revenues.  Might not be the prettiest way to economic growth, but there are many industries I can think of you wouldn’t want to have next door. We live in a capitalist society that not only tolerates craps tables, but also distilling, cigarette manufacturing, rendering plants, large-scale hog farming, strip-mining, clear-cutting, and an entertainment industry that thrives on sex and violence, just to name a few.  Every one of those industries contributes heavily to political campaigns, and I don’t see anyone, left or right, rushing to return that nasty, messy, sordidly obtained money. 

Perhaps we should care more and refuse to enable them, but, as Donlan would surely agree, too much regulation is a bad thing.  Shouldn’t markets be the primary determiners of allocation of capital?  Yes, within certain limits, and in the gambling market, historically, capital rushed in. It isn’t a bad business to be in: The combined market capitalization of Wynn Resorts, MGM, and Las Vegas Sands is close to $50 Billion, which I think we would all admit, is more than a pretty fair grubstake. Done in the right location, there’s gold in them thar hills. 

Still, Donlan roots for its demise, because an industry that caters to someone’s “unattractive habits” is an immoral one.  But, even if we agree, even if we have some sort of duty to shield the souls of our population from the morally defective casino operators, don’t we also have a duty to shield their bodies from other types of activity that could cause them harm?

Not, certainly, in California. In “Energy Begins at Home,” when it comes to extracting energy at whatever cost to the land or the people, apparently the moral model disappears.

California has oil in several places, many of which have been off-limits because of environmental concerns, and some because they weren’t economically viable.  Donlan wants the oil, apparently because Californians drive a lot and should eat, or drink, what they grow.  He isn’t sure how much oil there is, or where it is, or whether it can be extracted safely and economically.  But he wants it.  Donlan might be absolutely correct on the numbers—more energy development would allow in-state refiners to operate more profitably and drivers to commute more economically.  And, to his credit, he at least acknowledges the occurrence of the great Santa Barbara Spill of 1969.  He also allows that fracking uses lots of water and might encourage earthquakes, perhaps somewhat important to a drought-stricken state that is in an earthquake zone.  But those concerns he gives no real weight.  More and cheaper energy, and greater profits for the extractors and refiners are apparently far more important than issues like potable water for growing things (and presumably bathing and drinking.)

I don’t mean to be too harsh, because what Donlan is doing is traditionally what the political process does—it weighs competing interests, and allocates burdens and benefits.  But, politics being politics, it doesn’t do that in a particularly rational or consistent way.  Instead, it is driven by the passion and profits of the people we put in charge. Of course, humans being humans, they just can’t admit that to themselves, so they, as Donlan does, cloak their preferences in the language of morality. 

There is real danger in that, because finding someone or something conveniently immoral is often the gateway to excusing one’s own indifference to the needs and sacrifices of others.  When Donlan says, “When the last gambler leaves Atlantic City, we will cheer, even if all the lights do go out.” you, and the 39,000 plus people who live there, should take him at his word, all of it, and be prepared with a stockpile of candles.

Why is all this important? We are going to have elections in less than three weeks.  Tens of millions of people are going to elect other people to decide for them which virtues to dislike and which vices to admire.

Then, those newly elected people are going to put those “moral” choices into action.  

That isn’t the most comforting thought.

As Churchill added about Stafford Cripps, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

October 16, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Mitt's Masseuse-Aching For 2016

Mitt’s Masseuse—Aching For 2016

Did you hear the one about Mitt and the Masseuse?  Seriously. Mitt Romney was in a hotel room with a masseuse.  A Latina, to boot. 

I know this sounds like a bit of opposition research, but Mitt owned up to his sins on the opening episode of “With All Due Respect,” a new offering from Bloomberg News. 

It gets better (not really, if you were hoping for actual sin….) Turns out that after a hard day of campaigning in 2012, Mitt had shaken so many hands that his back was tight.  So he asked one of his advance men if a masseuse could be located to meet him at his hotel.  The Ritz-Carlton provided one and, with the advance man in the room (presumably as chaperone) with the “Hispanic-American” (Mitt’s phrase) Mitt got kneaded.  The masseuse might not have been as up on politics as you or I, because after she finished she apparently asked the chaperone if Mitt was a dancer. Mitt apparently is a man of powerful legs,

The image of Mitt’s legs lifted my spirits in an otherwise depressing week.  Why depressing?   No, it’s not because the entire country is about to take one gigantic dunk in a tureen (spittoon?) filled with crimson. I’m depressed because, in the same interview, Mitt Romney has (almost completely, almost categorically, almost absolutely, almost finally) ruled out running in 2016.

And, that puts me in a funk, because it tells me something important is going on in the GOP.  It’s not just Mitt, but Mitt Romney’s kind of Republican, the business-oriented “country-club” type, that is passing from the visible ranks of leadership. 

That is not a good thing.  Before people think I have gone all wobbly and learned to love the dark side, let me point out the obvious: Would you rather have a Ted Cruz, or a Mitt Romney in the Oval Office?   

To me the answer is self-evident. Romney is at the core of his being an experienced, competent executive.  His talents are managerial and his inclinations are to make the business bigger and more successful.  He isn’t all that sensitive or sympathetic to the sacrifices others make to insure maximum efficiency or profitability, but he’s certainly willing to roll up his sleeves and do what needs to be done.  Mitt’s is the way of the Republican leadership class of the past, both in business and in politics.  It’s the way of the first George Bush, Gerald Ford, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander, etc. People who had ambitions to lead, but a sense of duty to lead well.  The “Old Guys.”

Ted Cruz, who just won both the hearts and the votes of attendees at the Value Voters Summit with a full-throated roar, is decidedly not an Old Guy. He is undeniably highly intelligent, but he hails from the Vengeance Wing of the GOP.  Look at what Cruz says and how he says it, look at what brings them to their feet, and what you see is a man tapping into the anger of people who feel their culture and their way of life are under assault, and want a champion to do something about it, and take a few scalps along the way.  If Cruz sees any duty beyond himself, it’s only to those who agree with him.  In this, he’s strangely like Sarah Palin—he has a gift for speaking outrage at a dog-whistle frequency.  Many of us can’t hear it, but it makes a lot of people howl. Those folk are ready to march, to vote, and to carry the pitchforks and the torches.  Liberal (and moderate) America, they are coming for you.

But first, they are visiting Kansas.  In Kansas, we have two of the most fascinating races in years, one for Governor, and the other for Senate.  Kansas, by way of background, is an unusual combination of quite conservative politically but very moderate in temperament. Midwestern, traditional values, farm, faith, family, etc., but tempered by community.  Kansas likes its politics Republican, but friendly.  The state has voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1936, except for LBJ’s landslide in 1964.  For Senate, the last Democrat they elected was George McGill in 1932.

Incumbent Governor Sam Brownback hails from the Cruz wing of the party.  He’s the man who declared he was going to conduct a “conservative experiment” in the state.  And he has, cutting taxes substantially on business while raising sales taxes on working people, cutting spending (particularly to education) and spearheading a harshly conservative social agenda.  Hard-right conservatives love Brownback, particularly because he conducted a purge of Republicans who were more moderate than he was.  It should have been a great strategy for a state that has no love for President Obama.  But, Kansans value nice, and Brownback isn’t.  Some of those purged Republicans have endorsed Paul Davis, Brownback’s Democratic challenger.  Recent polls (except for Fox) showed Davis with a small lead.

The Senate race has its own arc.  There, the incumbent, Pat Roberts, who was first elected in 1996, has had a comfortable last three terms enjoying the temptations of Washington.  So comfortable that he may not have any place to actually live in Kansas.  This became a serious issue in his primary campaign, where he staved off Milton Wolf, a Tea Party endorsed challenger. That made him the overwhelming favorite to win reelection.  From that point forward, the very weird began to occur. The Democrats had a sacrificial lamb, Chad Taylor, who was preparing himself to get less than 30% of the vote. Then, a wealthy independent, Greg Orman, jumped into the race and began to poll at numbers that indicated that his and Taylor’s votes, combined, could have challenged Roberts.  Taylor decided to withdraw; Secretary of State Kurt Kobach, a co-chair of Robert’s campaign, resisted him, with taxpayer funds, of course. The Kansas Supreme Court sided with Taylor (who had apparently followed the directions given to him by Kobach’s office and added “in accordance with the statute.”) Kobach angrily denounced activist judges, but the ruling stands.  This created a free-for-all, with recent polls showing the race a toss-up, but leaning Roberts.

Still, with control of the Senate looking good for the Republicans, no stone can be left unturned.   Mitt (you knew I would come back to him) has endorsed Roberts, as has Bob Dole and virtually every other member of the Republican establishment in Kansas, which makes complete sense.  Surprisingly enough so have both Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, who is personally flying in to give Roberts his blessing.

So, Bob, Mitt, Ted, and Sarah, all singing from the same hymnal.

It’s hard to know which one is more disorienting—Mitt and the Old Guys hanging out with the Vengeance Wing, or Mitt (and chaperone) hanging out with the masseuse. 

My hunch is all this hugger-mugger will last about 28 days.  Then, with 2014 in the bank, the lions and the lambs will go back to their usual postures. 

Maybe it’s a good thing that Mitt has strong legs…

October 9, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Crossing the Rubicon?

Crossing the Rubicon

I had a horrible moment this morning. 

I briskly walked a dozen blocks to the subway. Fluidly clambered down a set of stairs, only to see the car doors to the local close as I swiped my card.  Dashed across a subway platform the length of a city block.  Swiftly but agilely navigated a rather long second set of steps.  Turned on my heel and quickly perambulated the same city block length, suit, umbrella, and briefcase in tow, and all with the grace of Fred Astaire, as the express arrived.  The car doors opened, I walked in, and the Rubicon arrived along with the unwelcomed blast of heat from a faulty air-conditioner.

A very attractive woman, perhaps in her early thirties, offered me her seat.  There is a first time for everything, and some premiers are more notable than others, but I had crossed the Rubicon.  As the stock analysts say, October is the cruelest month.   

“Crossing the Rubicon” is one of those wonderful antique phrases, appropriate to someone of my (apparently too apparent) vintage.   In 49 BC, the mighty Julius Caesar, once Consul of Rome, then Governor of Gaul, was getting a little restless.  Caesar had done a remarkable job in Gaul, dividing it into three parts, routing the opposition, growing wealthy, etc. etc.  But, let’s face it, Rome was Rome and Gaul, was, well, Gaul. 

Caesar’s vast popularity did not go unnoticed back home, where the Roman Senate, when not speechifying and indulging themselves, also kept a keen eye on the polls. As incumbents, they grew concerned about possible primary challenges, and so they directed Caesar to resign his command and disband his army. Caesar had his friends in the capital, and also sent tribunes to discuss things and negotiate, but they were spurned, and the Senate charged their leader, Pompey, to enforce the edit, with arms, if necessary.

Ah, opportunities lost.  Caesar didn’t get to where he was in life by taking no easily.  But beyond the logistical issues he had a symbolic one as well.  By ironclad law in the Roman Republic, no General may enter into Italy proper at the head of his army.  All that sun and fun in Gaul put Caesar on the “French” side of the line. Crossing the line, or, more accurately, crossing the shallow Rubicon River, which flowed east from the Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic, would    be an inexorable act.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Caesar and his boys crossed, he defeated Pompey and chased him to Egypt, where Pompey was killed, and Caesar had a little R&R  (and a child) with Cleopatra.  He returned to Rome to the shrieking delight of the masses (the aristocrats weren’t so sure) and, in a final blow to the Republic, was made Emperor for Life.  Which, if you are a reader of Shakespeare, you know wasn’t all that much longer.  About a year later, his once-rivals Cassius and Brutus invited him to a chinwag at the Pompey Theatre (omen, anyone?) and his Emperor-ness came to a crashing end.  As the Bard himself might have said, March is the cruelest month.

All right, you have enjoyed my subway humiliation and tolerated the pre- Ben-Hur diversion.  What has this got to do with contemporary politics?  Here is where I make another one of those awkward transitions to make a point. 

Democrats, beware, November is going to be the cruelest month.

Every non-partisan prognosticator of note seems to agree that the winds, which were already pushing the country into the fevered hands of the GOP, are beginning to approach gale-force intensity.  Boehner will almost certainly have an increased majority (that’s if he’s permitted to lead, as a rump caucus of “true” conservatives want to challenge him.)  The Democrats chances of holding on in the Senate are increasingly remote, as state after state moves rightward. The over-under is no longer about if Mitch rules the roost, it’s how many roosters he gets to rule.  Given recent polls, it is not out of the question that there will be a lot of redheaded cock-a-doodling.

There are a lot of reasons why this could, and likely, will happen.  First, there is the obvious general dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama and the sense that he is not up to the challenges.  Second, while the Republicans in the House have advanced not a single constructive substantive proposal in years, the President’s proposals have gone absolutely nowhere. Third, some of the most endangered seats are ones who rode in with Mr. Obama in his decisive 2008 election.  Fourth, the Republicans have largely avoided the pervasively dumb this year—they haven’t kicked away real opportunities by nominating people who are perpetual gaffe machines. 

There are also reasons five through ten, and perhaps even eleven through fifteen, but I try to keep to a word-count at Syncopated Politics.  Suffice to say it will be a thorough thrashing.  And suffice to say that the American electorate has every right to weigh in and decide which of two awful alternatives it’s going to punish. People like to point out that Truman won reelection by running against the “do nothing, good for nothing 80th Congress” but’s that actually a historical aberration.  A Presidential candidate can run against Congress.  But a President in his 6th year, and the party he heads?  Well, not so much.  That’s one of the peculiarities of our system.  We have an abiding, often pervasive distaste of all incumbents, but when things go bad we tend to focus blame on the High Priest.  It’s his job to look at entrails, throw some dirt and twigs into the air, and make it all go away.  A lot of evil tidings have jumped out of the box in Mr. Obama’s time in office, and perhaps a fair reading would grade him C+, but fair’s fair, and when you get the orb and scepter, a great deal is expected.

Back in July, I asked whether the GOP was ready to govern, but I defined it the wrong way.  I was asking if they had real solutions to the myriad issues that faced the country that they were willing to actually own.

Clearly, I was asking the wrong question.  It is irrelevant whether the GOP is ready to govern.  They will govern Congress.  And, they will try, through budgetary controls and blocking appointments, to govern the Executive branch as well.  

That will set up a titanic struggle, even a Constitutional one.  The GOP will make sure that Mr. Obama will get nothing that a Republican President wouldn’t ask for, and probably very little of even that.  Will Mr. Obama fight back—will there be compromises on legislation and give and take, or will Ted Cruz and his ilk be running the White House by proxy?

The balance between the Executive and Legislative branches of government has always involved some back and forth, but there is no historical precedent for Congressional dominance as policy-maker. And once it occurs, there is no turning back.  

How will we know that the Rubicon has been crossed?  The Roman historian Suetonius wrote that, as Caesar led his army across the river, he reportedly said, “The die is cast”.

That Caesar certainly knew how to turn a phrase. The die is almost certainly cast on November. Is it cast beyond that?  Keep your eyes on Obama.  He’s been looking a lot grayer and older recently, and we know he’s no Bill Clinton. For six years, the Republicans have called him an empty suit.  In the next several months, we are going to find out how accurate that really is.

By the way, “Rubicon” is derived from the Latin adjective rubeus, meaning "red."

About reading those entrails…

October 2, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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