Poverty is all the rage among conservatives this week, and will be for, oh, another few days at least. My guess is that this is happening largely because Democrats have made clear that income inequality is the issue they'll be pressing from now until the November midterm elections, and Republicans are concerned that it might work. So they're going to head it off by showing voters that they care about people who are struggling, too. The question is, how do you do that when you're fighting against extending unemployment benefits, trying to cut food stamps, preventing poor people from getting health insurance through Medicaid, and arguing against increasing the minimum wage?
During the Lewinsky scandal, our nation's brave pundits spent a good amount of time fluttering their hands in front of their faces and expressing dismay that they had to spend so much time talking about something so lurid. The truth was that they loved it like a labrador loves liverwurst, but some scandals are just more fun than others. Does it concern a lot of dull policy arcana, or something a little more human? Is there room for lots of speculation about people's motivations? Are there interesting characters—your Gordon Liddys, your Linda Tripps—to liven up the proceedings? These are the things that make a scandal.
We haven't yet met the people at the heart of the Chris Christie George Washington Bridge scandal, but since they're people in New Jersey politics, I'm guessing that if we ever get them in front of the cameras, a new media star or two would be born. And what I find glorious about this story is that the action in question had no practical purpose whatsoever. It didn't enrich anyone or give anyone an unfair political advantage. It was just for spite.
Washington loves few things more than a tell-all memoir, and even if a memoir doesn't actually tell very much, the media will do their best to characterize it as scandalous and shocking. So it is with the book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates which will soon be appearing in airport bookstores everywhere. From the excerpts that have been released, it actually sounds like Gates has plenty of praise for President Obama, and some criticisms that are not particularly biting. Sure, there's plenty of bureaucratic sniping and the settling of a few scores, but his criticisms (the Obama White House is too controlling, politics sometimes intrudes on national security) sound pretty familiar.
Gates' thoughts on Afghanistan, however, do offer us an opportunity to reflect on where we've come in that long war. The quote from his book that has been repeated the most concerns a meeting in March 2011 in which Obama expressed his frustration with how things were going in Afghanistan. "As I sat there," Gates writes, "I thought: the president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out." Well let's see. Should Obama have trusted David Petraeus? I can't really say. Hamid Karzai is corrupt, incompetent, and possibly mentally unstable. As to whether he believed in his own strategy (the "surge" of extra troops), by then there were plenty of reasons to doubt that it would work. The war wasn't his—it had been going on for over seven years before he even took office. And "it's all about getting out"? Well wasn't that the whole point? The reason the administration undertook the "surge" in the first place was to create the conditions where we could get out.
Another thing Gates writes is, "I never doubted Obama's support for the troops, only his support for their mission," and that that is a problem for the troops in the field. I'm sure it can be, to a degree, and morale can be undermined if you think the president doesn't believe you're going to succeed. I would also imagine that if you were a soldier in Iraq in 2005 or so and you saw George Bush on TV all the time talking about how great everything was going, you'd think your Commander in Chief was an idiot, and that might not be so good for morale either. But the real point is that in neither case was the president's confidence going to make much of a difference. The problem was never the president's disposition, or the particular decisions made in one year or one month. It was launching the war in the first place.
I've long held that what William Goldman said about Hollywood—"Nobody knows anything"—is equally true of Washington. At the same time though, people in politics are particularly adept at finding those who know even less than they do, and scamming them into giving over their political support or their money, or both.
I thought of this when reading the long investigation the Washington Post published the other day on the byzantine network of organizations the Koch brothers have established or funded to funnel their ample resources into politics.
The FDR memorial's depiction of Depression-era moochers. (Wikimedia Commons/Stefan Fussan)
The Senate is working its way toward (possibly) overcoming a Republican filibuster of an extension of long-term unemployment insurance, after which the measure will die when John Boehner refuses to bring it up for a vote in the House. Or perhaps not; Boehner's current position is that he's "open" to allowing a vote if the cost of the benefits is offset, presumably by taking money from some other program that helps the less fortunate. Boehner might also allow a vote in exchange for a fun-filled afternoon in which a bunch of orphans and widows are brought to the Capitol building so Republicans can lecture them about their lack of initiative, then force them to watch while members of the Banking Committee and a carefully selected group of lobbyists eat mouth-watering steaks flown in from an exclusive ranch in Kobe, Japan.
I kid. But there is a particular kind of moral clash at play in these negotiations, one that we don't think about very often. It has to do with the question of what makes liberals and conservatives distressed and angry.