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Ok, GOP, Let’s Talk About Compromise November 3, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Politics.
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I made the mistake of turning on the TV this morning.  Ms. Generic Correspondent was interviewing triumphant supporters from John Boehner’s district in Ohio about what their win means for America.  What I heard floored me.  This was live and I was too stunned to think to record it, so I’m paraphrasing:

OHIO RESIDENT:  “For the last 2 years, it’s been Obama’s way or the highway.  Finally we’ll get some compromise in this country.”

REPORTER: “You really think this election will result in more compromise?”

OHIO RESIDENT: “Yup.  That’s what this election said to Congress.  It’s time for Democrats to actually work with Republicans now.”

For starters, we really need to set the record straight on the alleged liberalism of Obama’s first two years.  He embraced tax cuts and offshore drilling and punted on much of the liberal agenda.  There’s a reason the base didn’t come out to support Democrats yesterday, and it’s not because we went too far.  More on this later.

Back to Boehner’s band of merry [white] men, this was not an isolated incident.  Most of the guys that were interviewed in this segment spoke about compromise.  What’s wrong with a conciliatory post-victory tone?  It’s a disingenuous 180-degree reversal.  Sure, one district’s Kool-Aid could go bad, but Boehner’s?  That’s bizarre.

Just last week, in Boehner’s own words:

“Now is not a time for compromise, and I can tell you we will not compromise on our principles.”

And you want to tell Democrats about misinterpreting a mandate?  Please.

I know conservative activists only listen to their Fox News echo chamber, but surely they must at least listen to their candidate when he’s on Fox News! Especially when that man is now a glowing beacon in the House of Representatives, piercing the darkness to guide them through.… ok, I don’t have an end to this metaphor – the man is orange.

The point is, the next two years will be nothing but gridlock.  Congressional Republicans have come right out and said that their single highest legislative priority is making sure Obama doesn’t get reelected.

That means the only “compromise” they will propose or accept is the kind that makes Obama less appealing to his base.  They will advance nothing that doesn’t detract from Obama’s re-electability.  House Republicanswill reach across the aisle, but they will extend a sword, not their empty hands; they will allow Obama to move forward only by pulling himself up their blade towards the hilt.

With this strategy in place, let me assure you, compromise is dead.  Conservatives hijacked the contemporary narrative, but in retrospect we will see that Obama briefly attempted centrist bipartisanship – and it failed.  Liberals were unsatisfied and conservatives either feigned or successfully deluded themselves into their trusty partisan outrage.

Obama’s attempt at compromise was unilateral disarmament, and the GOP hit with everything it had the moment he let down his shield.  Clearly, that was good short-term electoral strategy.  Obama had hoped that Americans would appreciate this effort to transcend partisan politics.  That did not happen.

So yesterday, the GOP won big.  But conservatives, don’t you dare for a second claim to have the moral high ground and make false overtures of cooperation.  That’s not what’s going to happen and it’s not even what you want.  You wanted gridlock and now you’ve got it.  Congratulations.

Now own it.  Or as your mercifully endangered Mama Grizzlies would say, “Man Up.”

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President Obama Killed Bipartisanship September 20, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
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President Obama campaigned on bipartisanship.  We wanted a change, so he chose not to investigate the partisan excesses and likely transgressions of the Bush administration; he unhinged the pendulum and just laid it on the ground.  Instead of overcorrecting in the other direction, he tried to start anew as a united nation.  America was ready to move forward.  The Republican Party was not.

Ideally, in our two party system, each governing party has a different plan to move America forward.  When problems arise, Democrats propose to move forward slanting to the left, Republicans propose to move forward slanting to the right, and when they finally come together and compromise on necessary legislation, we as a country end up simply moving forward and addressing the problem (see graphic below).

It’s a little messier in practice.  Because one party controls the White House at a time and Congress is rarely evenly split, final legislation generally skews towards the ruling party rather than perfectly straddling the center.  It must also be mentioned that sometimes there is a right and a wrong answer.  And on a related note, a political compromise that pleases both parties is not ipso facto good policy: for example, the stimulus package contained both Democratic spending projects and tax breaks that Republicans would normally support, but it was not enough to promote a strong recovery.

Bipartisanship is not always the solution, but it is an important concept in a democratic republic like ours.  And President Obama bears some responsibility for its contemporary demise.  Although he acted with good intentions, his transcendent quest to achieve bipartisanship ironically doomed itself with partisan politics.

Had Republicans shared this bipartisan vision, Obama’s plan could well have succeeded.  Alas, insert two-way street aphorism here.

At the most basic level, in a two party political system, one party’s success is the other party’s failure.  The converse is equally true.  Again, ideally, a shared desire to address a crisis creates some middle ground for bipartisan compromise.  Yet a hyperpartisan mindset obliterates that middle ground.  Under current Senate rules that allow what should really be called a 41-member “superminority” to obstruct Congressional action, lawmaking grinds to a halt.  Problems progress, but legislation languishes.

Compromise Graphic

When both parties want to address a problem facing America, there is often (but not always) a middle path. When at least one party chooses to pursue political advantage at the expense of our nation’s well-being, compromise becomes impossible.

With surging unemployment and an anemic recovery, Republicans concluded that the painful status quo benefitted them.  They did not want to move forward.  Indeed, they were rooting against America because both America’s failures would be blamed upon the Democratic majority and administration and pay political dividends.  Sadly, in our toxic political climate, you do not earn points for bipartisan assists; all that matters is the score, Republicans vs. Democrats.

Yet Republicans initiated this confrontational scenario, so that much cannot be blamed on President Obama.  There is another variable that can.

Because Obama campaigned on bipartisanship, that middle compromise space between a Democratic policy and a Republican policy turned blue.  In that binary hyperpartisan world, cooperation became a win for Democrats and a loss for Republicans.  So via obstructionism, the GOP could now play legislative defense and political offense simultaneously.

Compromise Graphic2

Because Obama ran on bipartisanship, it had the effect of making bipartisanship a victory for him, and thus Democrats.  Therefore, it dragged the middle ground of what would be a “win” for both parties further to the right.

Of course this tactic held our country hostage and prolonged American suffering in the process.   Unfortunately, overly balanced media coverage combined with admittedly effective GOP spin (having your own network helps) enabled conservatives to pull off this maneuver without being called out for it.

So Republicans holed up.  Elected lawmakers became fulltime law-stoppers, particularly in the Senate.  They voted against a stimulus package that was watered down on their behalf and full of conservative tax breaks.  They opposed an oil spill/clean energy jobs bill that contained entire sections unanimously approved by bipartisan committees and even cosponsored by Republicans.  The conservative caucus is united in lockstep against anything the Democrats attempt to accomplish, no matter how reasonable or nonpartisan the measure may be.

Even though Obama appears to have been sincere in his hope to work together in moderation (as demonstrated by his history of making compromises that please nobody), his plan for bipartisanship backfired because Republicans continued to operate from a hyperpartisan perspective.  Obama said he would end the mud-slinging; conservatives have defeated him simply by continuing to wallow.

In the meantime, the Democratic Party has wasted two years.

Republicans have triumphed at America’s expense.  Unless current electoral indicators are drastically mistaken, they will benefit handsomely from this strategy in November.  I am concerned about that outcome, but far more displeased with the precedent this could set for our country.

The Political Climate is now on Twitter!  Follow @PoliticalClimat for updates as well as daily tweets linking to important and under-reported environmental news.

There is No Common Ground between Different Realities August 27, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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To call Republicans “the Party of No” is not quite fair – they say a lot of things besides ‘no.’ But that is the full extent of their political output: speech. Currently, Republicans are more accurately the Party of Rhetoric.

Now this is partly because they are in the legislative minority, but I can’t think of any other period in our history during which the minority party decided to so fully abstain from policymaking.  You can count on one hand the number of GOP senators willing to substantively work with the Democratic majority.  It makes you wonder what the rest of them are doing with their time.

In the past, when our country faced a problem, our two political parties fought about which policy was better to address it.  That is how our legislature is supposed to function.

You may have noticed that this occurs less today.  Increasingly, the political debate has devolved into an argument not of HOW to act but rather IF any action is even warranted.  Instead of debating solutions, we find ourselves arguing about whether or not a problem exists at all:

  • This is true of climate change: conservatives don’t have their own solution, they simply deny that the problem exists.
  • This is true of healthcare: how many times during the last year were we told that “America has the best healthcare in the world”?
  • This is true of any policy that involves regulation (finance, pollution, offshore drilling etc.), because a push for deregulation instead of better regulation contains the implicit assertion that no problems exist (or that regulations somehow cause what problems there are).

Republicans deny that these problems exist altogether, and that is problematic because they are quite real.

Historically, even policies supporting inaction were not based on denial.  Consider America’s now defunct isolationism.  Advocates of non-intervention did not dispute the existence of foreign wars, they simply determined that staying out of them was a better course of action.  At least everybody was still operating in the same reality – they debated the merits of different solutions.

In 2006, Stephen Colbert told President Bush that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”  So conservatives simply left.  Today, Republicans occupy their own reality.  They get their own news tailored to that reality, and anything that contradicts this fictitious worldview is simply denounced as biased, even empirical science.  No policy debate can occur because the conservative reality has its own facts and they distrust “ours.”  Experts are just elitists anyways.

But this planet and this country face real challenges, even if conservatives refuse to believe them.  Unfortunately, by the time they become full, immediate crises, it will be too late to act.  Think of America as riding in an SUV speeding towards a cliff: everyone in that car is in trouble – even the kid in the backseat with his eyes shut tight, plugging his ears and singing loudly to himself (presumably Mellencamp’s “[This Is] Our Country”).  But once the wheels leave the pavement, and likely well before then, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.  That kid is only forced to finally acknowledge the outside world upon impact.

So how we can bridge this inter-reality chasm?  It may not even be possible.  But there is one way we can try (and the Daily Show has been attempting this valiantly).

The Party of Rhetoric, especially now that it has started drinking Tea, has begun to make some wild claims.  Conservatives won’t listen to our words, so we must hope that they still believe theirs.

As Republican politicians increasingly resort to fear-mongering, they make ridiculous extrapolations and predict devastating futures that result from liberal policies.  So when these disasters do not occur, we must repeat their words back to them.

It will be a while before we can utilize this strategy for most issues, but we can start small with offshore drilling now.  Conservatives and the oil industry railed against the Obama administration for its perfectly justified temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling.  They insisted that this most minimal safeguard against another massive oil spill would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and more economic devastation than the BP spill itself.

As the New York Times reported this week, that simply has not happened.  Even the administration’s estimates were overly pessimistic (to a much lesser extent).  Instead of hundreds of thousands of laid off oil workers, unemployment claims attributable to the moratorium are currently just in the hundreds.

I’m sure that the conservative reality has an explanation for this development or simply rejects it altogether.  But if we can’t even look over our shoulder and agree about what just happened, how can we possibly look ahead and safely navigate the future?

The Spam We Need February 10, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election.
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For at least the next two years, the impotent Republican minority in the House of Representatives will produce nothing but drama and headlines.  And the theme of this show will be partisanship.  President Obama promised us a new era of bipartisanship, so whenever he supports a Democratic policy, Republicans are crying foul.  Disregarding the fact that liberals got “partisan-ed” pretty hard during Bush II years, let’s examine what bipartisanship really means today.

First, “partisan” does not deserve such a negative connotation; it describes how our legislature functions.  Two parties with widely differing ideologies will obviously support the solutions they believe will work, as they have for centuries.

When Obama won, the phrase ‘mandate for change’ surfaced – the sense that a clear majority of Americans trusted that this Democratic president had a better platform to fix our country.  For Obama to now embrace Republican plans for a stimulus package (mainly tax breaks) would violate the trust of every person who voted for him.  Americans elected Democrats into the White House and clear majorities in the House and the Senate.  This is not a product of random chance.

2008 election results with states scaled by population.  See all the blue?

2008 election results with states scaled by population. See all the blue?

Worthy or not, Republicans successfully cast themselves as the party of “tax breaks.”  And if that is your single, shortsighted priority for our government, it seems clear you should vote Republican.  But in November, America did not.  So last month, when Obama was asked why there weren’t more Republican ideas in his stimulus plan and he replied “I won,” his response was not only delightfully honest but informative.

Bipartisanship means understanding, respecting, and listening to the opposition.  Obama is doing that.  Sometimes it means making compromises too, but not on everything.  I’m no economist, so let’s try this from a civics perspective: in a democratic republic, citizens vote for the people they think will choose what is best for their country.  Because Republican policies and leadership failed us so spectacularly during the last eight years, we voted them out of power.  We already tried pure tax breaks – they didn’t work. And there’s a reason Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  So maybe this time our government should actually govern?

But no, Republicans want to give tax breaks another whirl.  All 188 of them in the House voted against the stimulus bill (which still passed easily).  But they are quite proud of their completely ineffective yet unanimous opposition.  They even view it as a victory because Obama spent time meeting with them.  Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) explained, “if he comes and meets with us like that and it doesn’t have an impact, it begins to hurt his credibility.”  …Or alternatively, one could interpret that to mean that Republicans are equally unwilling to compromise on their core beliefs and voted with their party.  What’s that called again?  Oh yeah, “partisan.”  Bipartisanship is a two-way street, not the unilateral acquiescence of a ruling majority.

While Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) proposes a $3.1 trillion tax break “stimulus” alternative, his fellow Republicans oppose the current $838 billion plan as wastefully large.  Highlighting minor expenditures (like the efficiency measures I last wrote about), they’ve framed the bill as a giant helping of congressional pork.  But this label doesn’t quite fit.

Legislative “pork” is normally funding for projects that benefit only a small constituency, frequently within a single congressperson’s district.  Most of the “controversial” stimulus expenditures fund broader objectives, such as anti-smoking campaigns.  These seem more like “riders,” unrelated and often contentious provisions attached to a larger, important bill that is likely to pass.  But this comparison doesn’t work either, because these expenditures themselves are the bill.  That would make the stimulus package some kind of conglomeration of self-propelling riders, or maybe “meta-pork,” but that’s a little confusing.

Given the difficulty of classifying this project and our penchant for labeling legislation as meat, I propose that this bill is most like spam: nobody really knows quite what it is, it’s probably a lot of different things mashed together, and whatever it is, it’s going to be around for a while.  It’s not your first choice, but you’d certainly eat it if you were starving.

Looks...yummy, doesn't it?

...yum.

This stimulus spam is not perfect, but our economy is famished.  Barring a government-wide “kumbaya” moment, continued debate will accomplish little.  I concede that some of the proposed expenditures would not provide short-term economic stimulus and perhaps should be removed, but the Democratic agenda has long been stifled and a crisis is indeed a terrible thing to waste.  And it’s worth mentioning that many of the “jobless” investments, like the anti-smoking campaign or computerizing medical records, would surely save money in the long run.

Regardless, the performance of our economy during this administration will be attributed to, or blamed on, Democrats; if we’re shouldering all the risk, we might as well do this our way (if we can get the votes in the Senate).  Claims of partisanship are the crutch of an intellectually bankrupt Republican party that has nothing new to offer.

Last week, Sen. John McCain sent an email to his supporters with an anti-stimulus petition.  He wrote, “With so much at stake, the last thing we need is partisanship driving our attempts to turn the economy around.”  But is partisanship really worse than a prolonged, deeper recession?  I don’t think so.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.