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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