Monday, May 23, 2011

A Head On Collision With Reality

One of the irrefutable measures of the viability of a political movement is whether it falls within the political and economic belief system of the constituency in question.  We judge a movement as "radical" when its support is limited to those most committed to that ideology, while the vast majority of less politically invested voters are not merely disinterested, but openly hostile to that movement.  This is the primary reason that even opposing political movements have traditionally had narrow, technical differences, and while goals can vary widely, implementation tends to follow a well-rutted path.   When a movement seeks to implement its agenda in a manner that falls outside of the regular experiences and expectations of the vast majority of voters, it is by definition a fringe or radical movement, and will seldom register in the national political conversation.

It would be an exception, of course, if that radical or fringe program were to become the primary plank of one of the two mainstream American political parties, one that they explicitly supported and, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, insisted that it was the only reasonable response to an existential threat.  Which brings us to Paul Ryan, and the special congressional election in New York's 26th district.

As I'm sure you've read by now, NY26 is a longstanding safe Republican congressional district in upstate New York.  The seat became prematurely vacant when Republican incumbent Chris Lee succumbed to the overpowering horniness of his own unique mid-life crisis, was exposed on Gawker, and resigned.  A special election was scheduled for May 24th.  Now, this was going to be just another pro-forma exercise in safe/gerrymandered district politics, but two things happened.  First, the Republican candidate, Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, expected to be a shoo-in for the Congressional seat, was challenged on the right by Tea Party Wackadoodle Jack Davis, along with the duly expected Democratic cannon fodder Kathy Hochul.  And even as Davis pulled the far right votes away from Corwin, the campaigns were running pretty much as expected - until Paul Ryan forced the US House of Representatives to vote on a budget that eliminated Medicare for Americans under 55 years old.  Support for that budget became a Republican litmus test, and Jane Corwin embraced it with open arms.  And lost significant amounts of support.  Today, on the eve of the election, polling shows both Corwin and Davis losing support to Hochul, who appears poised to win an historic victory.

Of course, anything can happen tomorrow, and Jane Corwin could still win the election.  But even so, we can at this point take away two key lessons, lessons that will provide the framework for the debates around the 2012 General election.  The first, and truly obvious lesson, is that a political agenda that is unpopular among it's constituency is doomed to fail.  Sure, this seems obvious, but the young lunatics of the far right fringe that has taken control of the Republican Party were congenitally unable to discern the difference between votes for them and votes for their agenda.  They repeatedly operated from the assumption that their election to the House of Representatives represented a mandate to implement their entire agenda, regardless of popular political risks associated with its more plutocratic policies.  So they attacked labor, working people and their unions, in an attempt to help businesses become more profitable.  And it was genuinely hard for them to understand that some of their strongest supporters would react negatively to a policy that hurt them and their families.   Then came the Ryan budget plan.  As the press worshiped it for being "courageous" and "serious", the House Republicans grew emboldened, as the plan was highly popular in the hermetically sealed environment in which they lived and worked.  So they convinced themselves that the popularity of Medicare among seniors was strictly a matter of narrow self-interest, and all but six of them voted for a budget that preserved Medicare for those over 55, and privatized it for all others.  Now, of course, the Republican Party, from Jane Corwin to Newt Gingrich, has realized that Medicare is a third rail that is politically suicidal to touch - a lesson, oddly, they understood clearly in their fight against Obama's health care reform legislation.  Of course, as the Republicans frantically try to walk back their support for the elimination of Medicare, they struggle with the fact that no less than 235 of them voted for the Ryan budget when it passed the House.

The second lesson is more nuanced, and will take longer to have an effect, but it may turn out to be critically important in American politics in the future.  This lesson has less to do with a political or ideological agenda and more to do with its implementation.  You see, the Republican agenda is straightforward - Lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations, less regulation on businesses, higher profits through lower wages, fewer benefits and fewer government services - but when expressed in unambiguous terms is unpopular.  So for the last few decades, Republican politicians have addressed this rather significant shortcoming by lying.  The thing that made this tactic successful was their broad success at co-opting the media, so that there was no credible or respected outlet that would challenge their narrative, no matter how absurd it became.

So here, for the first time, we see this approach fail.  Certainly the Republicans became so collectively delusional that they massively over-reached, but however it came to pass, the lies they told about the implementation and effects of their agenda are exposed, and they are being forced to walk back the inarguably untrue statements they made in the budget debate.  Now, much of their distasteful agenda remains concealed behind their claims that the US budget deficit is an immediate and existential threat to everything we love and believe, and that everything - short of raising revenue, which would, they say, also destroy the economy - and anything must be done to reduce that deficit NOW!  This position falls apart whenever it is examined, but a lot of Americans have been willing to believe it without question.  Which allowed the Republicans to move their real agenda forward.  But now their lies have been exposed on a budget matter.  Now we are seeing cracks in the dam - if it is ok to question their honesty and credibility on budget matters, it becomes that much more acceptable to hold their other claims up to genuine examination.

This may be the key lesson going into the political silly season leading up to November 2012.  It may be that the parties, and their candidates, will be held to some kind of standard of truth telling.  It may be that reporters, pundits and even moderators challenge the most bald faced of lies, demand evidence to support claims and ask for examples of actual events in response to generalized smears.  It may not only be bits of our meager social safety net that are preserved, but some important parts of our political system also.


  1. It may not only be bits of our meager social safety net that are preserved, but some important parts of our political system also.

    It may be that the plutocrats who are steadily making themselves richer and everyone else poorer own a fast party (Republicans) and the other party (Democrats) and they win no matter what happens. Month after month, year after year.


    Nation’s Lawmakers and Budget Experts to Convene at Fiscal Summit in Washington on May 25 to Discuss Elements of Potential Fiscal Bargain

    Participants in Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s 2nd Annual Fiscal Summit to Include President Bill Clinton, Members of Congress, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, Governor Mitch Daniels, National Fiscal Commission Co-Chair Alan Simpson and Member David Cote, New York Times Columnist David Brooks and The Atlantic Business and Economics Editor Megan McArdle


  2. To try and explain myself a bit, I agree that the Republicans are making fools of themselves in their attempt to come up with a credible presidential candidate.

    But at the same time, you have all the 'serious' Democrats (including Obama and his Administration) adopting the Republican framing about the debt and deficits. They ought to be worried about jobs!

  3. A party other than the Democratic Party could beat the Republicans to a pulp over Medicare. In other countries there are parties that are virtually wiped out over idiocy. I wonder what's in the water there?

  4. "Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it."

  5. I wonder what's in the water there?

    Atlantic Economics Editor Megan McArdle

    Whatever it is, it's obviously terminal.