While running for President in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously quipped, “I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
As funny — and as effective — as these lines were in 1980, they have come to define the profound divide the exists in American politics today. Lots of people — call them conservatives, or tea partiers, or even skeptical pragmatists — think Reagan got it absolutely right. It isn’t hard, after all, to come up with a long list of government abuses and failures ranging from Iraq to Solyndra to No Child Left Behind to pepper-spraying students at the University of California-Davis … and many, many more.
For such people, the prospect of Obamacare is a sincere nightmare: now, the same people who brought you the debacle in Vietnam and the poverty barns of mega-housing projects like Chicago’s (now destroyed) Cabrini Green, want to “help you stay healthy” — and all for just a few dollars, too.
Others — call them liberals, or progressives, or hopeful pragmatists — find Reagan’s comments absurd. After all, it’s not like other institutions of social and political life have covered themselves in glory when it comes to matters of human freedom: corporations regularly cheat, steal and lie, often with deadly effects for the people who use their products; likewise, many private businesses reflected and reinforced the racial, gender, sexual orientation and other biases of their times. Such bias was buttressed by state governments that were particularly vicious towards the civil rights of many of their (minority) residents.
Those people who see the failures of the private sector and/or state governments to defend or expand freedom and liberty look to the federal government to do what no other agency of social and political life can: counter the power of the corporate, local and state-level actors who promote and practice discrimination, exclusion and the manipulation of power against the dignity of the individual.
Which story one tells defines one’s politics. Obamacare, economic stimulus, regulation of Wall Street, whatever: do you think the federal government helps or hurts? The answer to that question matters.
Welcome to the divide that cleaves contemporary American politics.
Our system, as any historian will tell you, was built by men who hated parties and anticipated their absence from American politics. That didn’t quite work out. But for much of American history, and particularly for much of the 20th century, our political parties have been unusually diffuse and unable to act as organized, ideological units. That left them well-suited to a system that, for reasons ranging from the division of powers to the filibuster, required an unusual level of consensus to function.
But as the two parties have polarized, we’ve learned that a system built for consensus is not able to properly function amid constant partisan competition. The filibuster has gone from a rarity to a constant. Compromise has become rare. Crises of gridlock, such as the recent showdown over the debt ceiling, have become common. And no one can say that this is what the American people want: The approval ratings of Congress have been on a downward slide for decades, and they have never been lower than they are today.
Polarization is with us now and will be with us for the foreseeable future. The question is whether we will permit it to paralyze our political system and undermine our country or whether we will accept it and make the necessary accommodations.
Doing so would require taking on cherished, consensus-promoting features of the old system, like the filibuster. But in today’s girdlocked world, those features no longer promote consensus. They simply promote gridlock.
Ezra Klein, discussing Olympia Snowe and Ben Nelson’s retirement. Read it.
I’ve never discussed this much here, but I am actually a big believer in the Parliamentary system of representative democracy. I think our Constitutional Republic has certain fatal flaws that either must be reformed to address political reality, or scrapped entirely (Klein addresses a few of them above). Even Britain has a vibrant 3rd party that was recently instrumental in forming a ruling coalition government with the Tories. That coalition was able to pass an austerity program, reflecting their policy preferences, relatively quickly.
Meanwhile, who can reasonably question that ideological partisanship, combined with procedural abuse, has prevented policymakers from implementing their solutions in America? Britain’s austerity package did not face nearly the political hurdles that the Stimulus or Affordable Care Act did. The latter was passed in the midst of what was possibly one of the most bitter political battles in recent memory. It’s legitimacy continues to be contested to this day, even. Yet Britain’s Tory-Lib Dem coalition was able to implement an austerity program quickly and with little trouble, at least when compared to what happened in America as we debated economic stimulus and healthcare reform.
Parliamentary systems have the advantage of allowing elected officials a certain degree of procedural leeway to act on their platform. Under our system, an intransigent minority can essentially prevent the other side from achieving any of its policy goals; and quite often, the policies that do come through are half-measures and patch-work compromises that are incapable of completely addressing the problems they purport to solve because they don’t contain the full range of resources or legal instruments that are needed to facilitate the policies themselves. The Affordable Care Act is a perfect example: you can bet that we would have a Public Option right now if Congress ran more like a Parliament.
It also warrants mention that those who like the idea of a government that acts less are simply fooling themselves: grid-locked government more often just results in bad legislation squeaking through than it does in bad legislation being stopped. Politicians who want to be re-elected need something to show for their constituents. Often, that means passing a healthcare bill without a public option, or caving to tax cut extensions that are bankrupting the U.S. treasury. For everything else, there’s always the filibuster. The end result is that we’ve flirted with a completely avoidable economic disaster during the debt ceiling debate; we have a healthcare bill that is hopelessly flawed despite its good provisions; and we have a judiciary that is literally suffocating under Congressional obstruction of judicial nominees.
We can take the easy way out and blame one of the major parties. Lord knows I’ve done plenty of that myself. But the real problem is the system that allows all this to happen. Perhaps adopting a European Parliamentary model isn’t necessarily the best course for America. But we need, at minimum, procedural reforms in how our Constitutional Republic works. Without them, our government will continue to be divided, impotent, and institutionally incapable of addressing our nation’s problems.
What they are working on this year is Government that prohibits you from using contraception, that forcibly collects your urine, hair and blood, and that puts you in prison or deports you if it does not like the speeches you attend. This stuff is happening all over, all the time now. This is what Conservative Government is like this year. It sort of seems to me that this ought to be a bigger National Story.”
~ Rachel Maddow
MSNBC and Fox News are both hammering home that out of all the candidates in the GOP primary in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich’s support was the highest among people who said the most important factor in their selection was a candidate who could defeat Barack Obama. Coincidentally, beating Obama was the most important factor in candidate choice to nearly 50% of voters. Fox News is also pointing out his strong performances in debates with his zingers at the media and fellow candidates and his stubborn refusal to go gently into that good night as factors in his rise in the polls, and his overall victory in South Carolina.
You know that after January 20, 2013, the president-elect is now the president. That means said president has to actually do shit. Things will not be magically fixed just because you voted out Barack Obama. In fact, much of what Gingrich wants to do in office could make things worse.
I imagine the thought process of many voters when considering Gingrich goes like this:
- Doughy white guy says shit I like. He sounds smart. He says he’s going to beat Obama. He sounds confident, unlike that sputtering asshat with tax problems. Plus, he’ll end Obama’s war on
- Fuck the lazy-ass poor people. Get jobs, douchebags. He’ll even put kids to work, too.
- Open marriage? Shit, at least he could beat Obama.
- Vote Newt Gingrich.
- *POOF* Teatopia, y’all!
This is remarkably similar to liberal pals of mine who are pissed Obama didn’t unbreak everything in four years and bring about the opposite of Teatopia. If you listened to Obama and examined his voting record, you’d see he’s fairly moderate. In fact, compared to past Republicans, i.e. Richard Nixon, he’s more to the right.
But in the 2012 Electoral Race to the Bottom, sponsored by Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the facts don’t matter and Barack Obama must be defeated. Even if it means nominating a man with absolutely no character or ability to lead. Why is it so tough to wrap my brain around voters supporting Newt Gingrich?
- Speaking of the Citizens United decision, Gingrich Productions has “produced three films on religion and one each on energy, Ronald Reagan and the threat of radical Islam.” These films are little more than GOP talking point advertisements. Gingrich’s funding partner? As The Wall Street Journal points out, these were “all done as joint projects with the conservative activist group, Citizens United. The latest project: A film on American exceptionalism, another likely campaign theme.”
- He’s admitted to multiple affairs, while attacking others on “family values” and holding himself up as a moral paragon. His personal life is irrelevant until he begins throwing stones in his obviously glass house.
- He doesn’t use a racism dog-whistle so much as a racism air-raid siren. Gingrich defended his diatribe from the Jan. 16th GOP debate, which he launched into when Juan Williams asked him about the racial overtones of his comments regarding poor children lacking “work habits”, employing children as janitors in poor, urban neighborhoods, and the black community needing to demand food stamps versus paychecks. And how did he choose to defend this?
Newt Gingrich decided to attack Juan Williams, claiming on Friday, “I had a very interesting dialogue Monday night in Myrtle Beach with Juan Williams about the idea of work, which seemed to Juan Williams to be a strange, distant concept.” So in order to defend himself against charges of racism, he essentially states Williams is lazy. Williams was the African-American man who had the audacity to ask him a tough question, and that does not seem to sit well with Newt several days later.
- As a US House Representative, he kited twenty-two personal checks using the now-defunct House Bank, charges uncovered during the “Rubbergate” scandal - including a check for over $9,000 to the IRS. One of the whistleblowers on this scandal? Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn.
- He blasted colleagues for ties to lobbyists and corruption, yet Gingrich accepted a check from Employment Policies Institute lobbyist Richard B. Berman for $25,000. This particular check, supposedly given to Gingrich as a donation for a college course he was teaching, led former Rep. Ben Jones (D-Ga.) to demand an ethics investigation by the US House because the note attached to the contribution raised questions of possible criminal wrongdoing by suggesting Gingrich used his influence on behalf of the lobbyist at a 1993 congressional hearing.
The note stated in a postscript: “Newt - Thanks again for the help on today’s committee hearing.” The subsequent investigation into this charge, shady book deals, and other fundraising activity lead to over 80 ethics charges against Gingrich and a plea deal with an unprecedented $300,000 fine. Gingrich resigned as well.
A side note from Esquire on the ethics investigation: [Emphasis mine]
The House Ethics Committee started investigating GOPAC’s donations to his college class and caught him trying to hide his tracks by raising money through a charity for inner-city kids called the Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation. Another charity of his called Earning by Learning actually spent half its money supporting a former Gingrich staffer who was writing his biography… The Ethics Committee found him guilty of laundering donations through charities, submitting “inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable” testimony, and making “an effort to have the material appear to be nonpartisan on its face, yet serve as a partisan, political message for the purpose of building the Republican party.”
And yes, it’s those same inner-city kids he wants to make janitors.
Gingrich is running what he claims to be a revolutionary campaign of ideas. Yet those ideas are little more than attacking fellow candidates, the media, and Barack Obama for issues ranging from corruption and immorality, to favoritism and anti-Americanism. Gingrich employs a set of cliches and fiery debate invective that gets voters in the booth on primary day as evidenced by South Carolina. Can he continue this into the general election?
As multiple news outlets discussed today, Gingrich’s unfavorability rating is the highest of any candidate among moderates and independents. This is a significant voting bloc the GOP will seek to court from Obama. Gingrich is not stupid. He is effective in debates. He calls other candidates “Washington elites” (when he spent significantly more time in Washington than any other candidate running) and the crowd goes wild.
Mitt Romney, the ostensible front-runner, is a terrible candidate in debates. He is easily rattled and incapable of answering a direct question. The GOP field is in disarray and looking for unity. The former Speaker of the House is an experienced politician - though divisive - and may be the one to watch going into Super Tuesday in the next several weeks. Perhaps a theory posited by Gingrich in 1988 explains his success: “In every election in American history, both parties have their cliches. The party that has the cliches that ring true wins.”
The 2012 primary season promises to be a dog and pony show until the bitter end - or until the money runs out. This election cycle reinforces the idea that American politics is little more than contemporary bread and circuses, only less bread and more circuses. Elections are ideally about issues and governance. This year, the only stated mission of the GOP is to rid the White House of Obama, and Gingrich is the candidate best at smearing Obama as somewhere between Benedict Arnold and Benito Mussolini.
Voters are responding well in the primary to this kind of messaging, but the GOP will hopefully discover it’s difficult to run on a platform of needing to do nothing besides regain control of the presidency. To run on a platform that consists of “beat the other guy and BAM! TEATOPIA!” is simply intellectually dishonest. But if it’s intellectually (and morally) dishonest they want, the GOP has their man in Gingrich. If it’s beat Obama they want, they may get it. However, January 21, 2013 and every day after is another day Obama will no longer be available as the executive target, and another day when the new president will be expected to lead. The GOP may be content to run a cliche-machine, powered by egomaniacal bile, but it is my belief that the American voters deserve more than just some guy nominated to beat Obama.
Case in point.
The largest banks are larger than they were when Obama took office and are nearing the level of profits they were making before the depths of the financial crisis in 2008, according to government data.
Wall Street firms — independent companies and the securities-trading arms of banks — are doing even better. They earned more in the first 2 1/2 years of the Obama administration than they did during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration…
Behind this turnaround, in significant measure, are government policies that helped the financial sector avert collapse and then gave financial firms huge benefits on the path to recovery…
Some of Wall Street’s success has moderated in recent months, with bank stock prices down and layoffs on the rise. This mostly has reflected the renewed slowdown in the U.S. economy this year and the European debt crisis buffeting global markets.
Representatives of the financial industry say regulations in last year’s Dodd-Frank legislation, which Obama pushed for and signed, also have crimped bank profits. But many analysts think the law will make the financial system more stable…
One of the main reasons Wall Street rebounded so quickly from its lows is government support.
Emphasis added above those right-wingers who believe government can do no right and that Obama is a Kenyan-born anti-capitalist trying to destroy America’s economy.
…In recent weeks, leading Republicans have made plain they don’t believe in government-run health care (lo, even unto death). They don’t believe in inoculating children again HPV (lo, even unto death). They don’t believe in government-run disaster relief (ditto, re death), the minimum wage, Social Security, or the Federal Reserve. There is nothing, it seems—from protecting civil rights to safeguarding the environment—that big government bureaucracies can’t foul up.
But there is one exception: killing people. These same Republicans who are dubious of government’s ability to do anything right have an apparently bottomless faith in the capital-justice system. Everything is broken in America, they claim—except the machinery of death.
[W]hen you hear Republicans moan about the bureaucratic burdens and failures of government-run education, health care, and disaster-relief systems, doesn’t any part of you wonder why they have such boundless confidence in the capital justice system that stands poised to execute Troy Davis […] in Georgia? […] Troy Davis has a claim of actual innocence in the death of off-duty policeman Mark MacPhail. Since his conviction, more than 20 years ago, seven of the nine nonpolice witnesses against Davis have recanted their testimony, claiming they were coerced or intimidated by the police. There is no physical evidence tying Davis to the crime.
So grievous are the doubts about Davis’ guilt in this murder that William Sessions, the FBI director under Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton, wrote an editorial today arguing that Davis should not be executed next week because “serious questions about Davis’ guilt, highlighted by witness recantations, allegations of police coercion, and a lack of relevant physical evidence, continue to plague his conviction.” Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr has similarly written that “even for death penalty supporters such as myself, the level of doubt inherent in this case is troubling.”
If you believe, as do the GOP presidential frontrunners, that government bureaucracies lead inexorably to error, cover-up, and waste, then there is no better place to start looking than the capital punishment system, which sentences and executes defendants in ways that are sloppy, racist, and corrupt….