Back in 1998, Chuck Hagel, who had been Senator from Nebraska for two years, made news by criticizing the tactics of the Republican candidate for governor, Jon Christensen, for a negative ad campaign. The biggest threat to the American political system, Hagel said, were those who “debase and degrade the political process by straight-out lies and misleading spots on television. It’s a cancer to our system.” It’s darkly ironic that Hagel himself has faced very similar attacks from hawkish neoconservatives in the weeks since he was named as a likely nominee for secretary of Defense. But while these attacks represent an extremely distasteful side of Washington, it’s worth considering what they intended to achieve, and what they say about the current era of U.S. foreign policy.
At first, it looked like 2012 would be another terrible year for immigration reform advocates. Mitt Romney won the Republican presidential primary by adopting a xenophobic, right-wing platform, advocating for policies against immigrants so terrible they led to self-deportation. Meanwhile Barack Obama continued to deport undocumented workers at an unprecedented pace—he’s sent 1.4 million people out of the country through July of this year—and failed to introduce comprehensive legislation, as he’d promised.
If you’d forgotten just how much state legislatures impact citizens’ day-to-day lives, 2012 was a year full of reminders. From unions to health care to basic civil rights, states have a tremendous amount of power in shaping public policy. That’s no secret to groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which offers model bills lawmakers can introduce and has pushed issues like voter ID and the “Stand Your Ground” bills that many believed helped pave the way for the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis shootings in Florida.
There have been few more consequential years in the history of health care in America than 2012. This year saw disasters averted, new problems identified, and hope triumphing over despair. The biggest health-care news in 2012 was the dramatic and surprising decision by the Supreme Court in late June to uphold (for the most part) the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Chief Justice John Roberts shocked his Republican admirers by siding with the liberals on the Court to affirm the constitutionality of the law's individual mandate as a tax, though he also gave Republicans a way to fight back by saying the federal government couldn't force states to accept what is arguably the law's most significant feature: its dramatic expansion of Medicaid.
The NRA wants you to think this guy is coming for your family.
It's quite salutary that Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association are getting so much attention, because the truth is that most Americans aren't familiar with their rhetoric and the reality they inhabit. If you didn't know too much about LaPierre but tuned in to see him on Meet the Press yesterday, you probably came away saying, "This guy is a lunatic" (a word we'll get to in a moment).
I'm not talking about his preferred policy prescriptions. I'm talking about his view of the world. LaPierre gets paid close to a million dollars a year, which I'm guessing allows him a comfortable lifestyle. But he seems to imagine that contemporary America is actually some kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape a la Mad Max, where psychotic villains in makeshift armor and face paint cruise through the streets looking for people to kill.
American labor can begin the new year with thanks that 2012 is over. Not that the unions didn’t win some big victories in 2012. Their political programs in key swing states played a major role in President Obama’s re-election, both by turning out minority voters in record numbers in Ohio, Nevada, and Florida and by winning Obama a higher share of white, working-class voters in the industrial Midwest than he won in other regions. Their efforts also helped liberal Democrats hold key Senate seats in Ohio (Sherrod Brown) and Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin), and pick up Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren). In California, the nation’s mega-state, unions beat back a ballot measure designed to cripple their political programs by a decisive 12.5-percent margin, turning out so many voters that they also helped a key tax-hike measure pass at the polls and enabled the Democrats to win super-majorities in the state legislature.
Eight years is a long time in politics, but you may remember that way back in 2004, Republicans considered John Kerry a wimpy, flip-flopping elitist who had faked his war injuries and betrayed America by coming back from Vietnam and criticizing the war. But today Barack Obama nominated Kerry to be secretary of State, just as one Republican after another begged him to. In contrast, the possibility that Chuck Hagel, once considered among the more conservative Republicans in the Senate (his lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union was a solid 84), might be nominated to be secretary of Defense has the GOP so outraged they have mounted a coordinated campaign to discredit Hagel as an anti-Semite who is also anti-gay (hey, whatever's handy). So what gives?
The Washington Post reports that President Obama has nominated Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to be the next Secretary of State. This doesn’t come as a surprise; he was on the short list behind Hillary Clinton, and has been a stalwart defender of the administration’s foreign policy choices over the last four years. Clinton is a hard act to follow, but there’s little doubt Kerry will perform well in the position.
The side of John Boehner we understand most is the one that offers that distant sense of comfort—the one who'll pander to the conservative movement during these fiscal cliff talks but understands a compromise must come through at the end. This is the John Boehner we dub the "dealmaker," the leader who must "stand up” to the Tea Party—and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the rival who would do him in. His “dealmaker” persona stems from the assumption he isn’t a true believer or an aggressively ideological Republican, which is correct.
The National Rifle Association has been in a tough spot since the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. As an advocacy group for gun manufactuers, and a particular set of gun enthusiasts, it has no interest in new gun control regulations. But it as a powerful political force, it has to say something—otherwise, it’s vulnerable to continued criticism.
NRA leader Wayne LaPierre at today's press conference.
The National Rifle Association finally weighed in on the gun debate today, in a news conference (albeit one in which they took no questions) setting out their feelings at this critical moment. And they gave the movement for greater restrictions on guns the biggest favor it could have hoped for. While the organization was once devoted to marksmanship and gun safety, in recent years it has increasingly become a shill for the gun manufacturers that fund it and the home of unhinged conspiracy theorists. As it showed today, the worst thing it can do for its cause is to step into the light.
So last night, John Boehner suffered a particularly humiliating defeat. Attempting to pass "Plan B," a fiscal plan that would go nowhere in the Senate, and even if it did it would get vetoed by the President, Boehner was hoping that if nothing else he'd be able to say in the face of rising criticism, "We passed a plan!" But he couldn't accomplish even that; realizing that he couldn't muster the votes within his caucus for Plan B, he cancelled the vote. Boehner is clearly the weakest Speaker in memory. I picture Nancy Pelosi, who can corral more votes before her morning coffee than Boehner can in a week of begging, smiling a wicked little smile at her opposite number's bumbling failure.
So just why is it that Boehner finds even a symbolic vote like this one so impossible to win? I don't think it's that he's ineffectual, and a more skilled dealmaker would be able to accomplish more. The problem is in his troops.
Last night witnessed the implosion of John Boehner’s efforts to pass a Republican-crafted fiscal cliff proposal, otherwise known as “Plan B.” Unlike the floated compromise, this would extend the Bush tax cuts for all income under $1 million, preserve a high estate tax cut off, and slash spending on tax credits for working-class Americans (in addition to cutting Obamacare and repealing key mechanisms of Dodd-Frank).
In the aftermath of the massacre of first-graders at Sandy Hook elementary school, right-wing defenders of unregulated guns have gravitated to a common alibi: The problem isn’t guns; it’s mental illness. If only society kept better track of crazy people and kept weapons out of their hands, we could prevent more episodes of armed mayhem.