Monday, November 26, 2012

This election and its consequences

ELECTIONS HAVE consequences. That was the conservative mantra that went up loudly and relentlessly in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections, and the climb of the obstructionist Tea Party faction of the Republican Party.

That sentence was used by the GOP and its supporters as a kind of verdict, a shibboleth intended to settle all economic policy disputes between the Republican-led House and the Obama administration — and to justify the outright rejection of various measures proposed by the administration for the purpose of resetting a deeply troubled consumer economy.

Well, that was then, and this is now. If midterm elections have consequences, presidential elections have bigger ones.

For the Obama White House, the outcome of the vote on Nov. 6 means that the intermittent on-offense attitude recently displayed by the president over impasses with the Tea-infused Republican-led House over the looming “fiscal cliff” and related economic issues will be more consistently (and more pointedly) applied from here on in. Winning in a landslide’ll do that.

For the Republicans, the results mean accepting the failure of a nation-view that tried desperately to be its own reality; renunciation of some of the GOP’s more strident hierophants; and at least a temporary attempt by some in the party to re-craft a message that isn’t working like it used to — and like it may never work again.

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Ohio Rep. John Boehner gets this like nobody else. The Speaker of the House has for some time been what amounts to the adult in the room, realizing his precarious position between the members of the House moderate (or at least practical) enough to understand the need for negotiation with the Obama White House, and the ideological hysterics who’ve done what they could to hold the House as a hostage to their economic demands.

That all changed on Nov. 6.

“With President Obama re-elected and Democrats cementing control of the Senate, Mr. Boehner will need to capitalize on the chastened faction of the House G.O.P. that wants to cut a deal to avert sudden tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts in January that could send the economy back into recession,” The New York Times reported.

“After spending two years marooned between the will of his loud and fractious members and the Democratic Senate majority, the speaker is trying to assert control, and many members seem to be offering support. ...”

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“Even so, some Republicans have issued a stern warning to Mr. Boehner that he cannot expect their votes if he makes a deal with Democrats before seeking their consent,” The Times reported.

“What we’ve seen in the past is the speaker goes, negotiates with the president, and just before we vote, he tells us what the deal is and attempts to persuade us to vote for it,” said GOP Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, to The Times. “We’re just not very happy with deals being baked, then we’re asked to stay with the team and support the speaker.”

The operative words there are “in the past.” As Fleming certainly knows, it’s possible, maybe even necessary, to draw a sharp dividing line between pre-election and post-election. The legislative landscapes are different; the leverage now is more decidedly with the president — the beneficiary of a landslide re-election victory, and a fortified Democratic presence on both sides of Congress.

Then was then, and now is now. Fleming knows that. So does the Speaker of the House.

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KARL ROVE knows it. The Republican strategist was at the helm of two GOP fundraising groups (American Crossroads and its sister group, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, aka Crossroads GPS), which, between them, raised about $325 million for the defeat of President Obama. For Rove and his supporters, the consequences of the election reflect a textbook display of cognitive dissonance (“as bad as things were, it could have been worse”) at work.

Just after the deal went down on Election Night, Rove (in his analyst’s guise on Fox News), was asked by host Chris Wallace about the value — the return on investment, if you will — of the vast sums from megadonors into his two groups.

“We spent billions of dollars,” Wallace said. “Crossroads, which you helped found, spent, what, $325 million, and we’ve ended up with the same president, the same Democratic majority in the Senate and the same Republican majority in the House. Was it worth it?”

“Yeah,” responded Rove. “Look, if groups like Crossroads were not active, this race would have been over a long time ago.”

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Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who helped Rove’s fundraising efforts, said much the same thing to The New York Times, when he told reporters Nicholas Confessore and Jess Bidgood that Romney’s campaign wouldn’t have been as competitive as it was without the millions burned on anti-Obama ads during the summer months.

“I believe that some of that money actually kept Romney from getting beat down by the carpet-bombing he underwent from the Obama forces,” Barbour told The Times. “I did look at it more as us trying to keep our candidates from getting swamped, like what happened to McCain.”

Translation in both cases: “As bad as things were, it could have been worse.”

Rove knows the difference between then and now. Before the election, Rove was the Visionary, a SuperPAC Moses ready to lead the GOP to the promised land of the Oval Office. After the election? Not so much. Not nearly so much. Watch for news reports of Rove staggering bloody out of an alley somewhere on K Street after being accosted at night by two ... “associates” of the Koch Brothers “requesting” a refund on behalf of their employers.

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GROVER NORQUIST, the conservative anti-tax crusader and leader of Americans for Tax Reform, whose no-taxes-ever pledge (ready for signing) was all but included in the GOP congressional freshman orientation package for the last twenty years, has lately encountered spirited pushback against his authority to intimidate.

The pledge has been a litmus test, and one that Norquist has advanced both amicably and aggressively. But the tax-philosophical Kool-Aid that Capitol Hill Republicans used to knock back like martinis at a Georgetown soiree is harder to swallow these days.

Saxby Chambliss won’t touch the hard stuff anymore. “I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge,” the Georgia Republican senator said in an interview on Georgia talk radio station WMAZ. “If we do it his way, then we'll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that.”

“I care too much about my country, I care a lot more about it than I do about Grover Norquist,” he said.

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Admitting the possibility of a Gestapo-spank backlash from the Norquist cabal, Chambliss held firm. “Norquist has no plan to pay this debt down. His plan says you continue to add to the debt, and I just have a fundamental disagreement about that and I'm willing to do the right thing and let the political consequences take care of themselves.”

He’s not alone. Reuters reported on Thursday that “the new House of Representatives, which takes office in January, has 16 Republicans who so far have not signed the pledge, up from six in the outgoing Congress. One new Republican senator, Jeff Flake, also has not signed.”

And Reuters reported that the severely conservative Alan Simpson, former Wyoming Republican Senator, and co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles commission, came down hard on Republicans who stood by the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. “What can Grover do to you? He can't murder you. He can't burn your house,” Simpson said at an event last week.

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NORQUIST HAD some pushback of his own, in The Times, saying he counts “219 House members — enough for a majority — and 39 senators” as being committed to the pledge. “It's been 22 years since a Republican voted for a tax increase in this town,” he told the Times last week. “This is not my first rodeo.”

Brave words. But the pledge Norquist ginned up in 1986 was the product of a very different era, and a vastly different economy. The demands of a domestic economy rebounding from the worst and most all-consuming decline of employment and purchasing power since the Great Depression are a long way from the tame-by-comparison challenges of the Reagan administration, which raised taxes more than a few times based on what was needed, not what was politically expedient.

Today, the economy is in far more dire straits, and more of the Republicans in Congress, and outside it, are coming around to that view.

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“When the Republicans rhetorically say now, ‘Who would raise taxes in a recession?’ the answer is Ronald Reagan,” David Stockman told Bloomberg last year — and Stockman would know. He was the first budget director for … President Ronald Reagan.

 This may not be Norquist’s “first rodeo,” but the economic world of today, not a rose-colored 1986, could make it his last.

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The very fact that there’s internal dissension on this issue is a refreshing break from the feedback loop the Republican Party has trapped itself in, and one they couldn’t escape before the election.

If Romney and the Republican Party had engaged in the economics and politics of the real world; if they’d emerged from their self-reinforcing cocoon (whose strands include the Norquist pledge), the outcome on Nov. 6 might have been a different thing.

The growing resistance to doubling down on the GOP’s hold-the-line-on-taxes-at-all-costs meme is clearly a reaction to things down on the ground, to what’s happening in the real political world of America, the one of constituents’ voices and polling results — the one ratified on Election Night. The pushback suggests that some in Congress got the message sent by Mitt Romney’s seemingly stunning presidential fail: that it shouldn’t have been so stunning at all.

It seems to say that, rather than continue to be locked into a political and media ecosystem that values ideological purity above everything else —including economic practicality — some of the more pragmatically-inclined Republicans in Congress hope to chart a new course, maybe recognizing that being “loyal” and “opposition” need not be mutually exclusive.

Elections have consequences. The first of these? Nothing stays in place. Depending on the outcome, the immovable object isn’t so immovable after all.

Image credits: Obama: Lawrence Jackson/The White House. Boehner: Associated Press. Rove: Fox News. Barbour: Gage Skidmore. Saxby Chambliss: Americans for Tax Reform logo: © 2012 Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist: Gage Skidmore.

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