It might seem that an argument about whether Santa Claus and Jesus are "really" white is nothing more than an opportunity for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to make fun of people on Fox News, and not a matter with actual political consequences. After all, Santa is a fictional character whose current visual representations here in America have their origins in early 20th Century newspaper and magazine illustrations, but he's portrayed in different ways around the world. But before you dismiss this as just silliness, let me suggest that it does have important political effects.
Lots of things happened in 2013. President Obama was sworn in for a second term. We got a new pope and a new royal baby. Two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon and frightened a nation. The Supreme Court stripped power from the Defense of Marriage Act and the Voting Rights Act. But these are all stories we've heard before, and if you haven't, you certainly will in the millions of "Year in Review" pieces set to be posted between now and New Year's. Over the next two weeks, our writers will instead preview the year ahead on their beats, letting you know far in advance what the next big story about the environmental movement—or immigration reform, reproductive rights, you get the picture—will be.
Paul Ryan, still a conservative in good standing. (Flickr/House GOP)
Have we finally reached a point where the perpetual anger of Washington conservatives is no longer a threat to the republic? The budget deal announced yesterday suggests that it may well be, at least for the moment. It isn't that conservatives aren't raising a stink about it—they're displeased that it doesn't repeal the Affordable Care Act, slash Social Security and Medicare, and do more to punish food stamp recipients, among other things—because they certainly are. Indeed, they were decrying it even before it was announced, which tells you how concerned they are about the details. But they seem to be just going through the motions. Send the press releases, say you'll vote against it, tell Fox News why it doesn't get to the real problems...and then we'll all move on. The budget will pass, mostly because it averts the possibility of a government shutdown (at least over the budget, though not over the debt ceiling) for two more years. And even the most conservative Republican knows that's a good thing for their party.
Behold my terrible rage! I will drink your blood and feast on your entrails! (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
So now the Democrats have exercised the "nuclear option," which is really not particularly nuclear. They've changed existing Senate rules so that judicial nominations can not be filibustered, but can pass with a majority vote. Over the next couple of days you'll hear Republicans say that this is the most horrifying power grab since the February Revolution of 1917. They will weep and beat their breasts, lamenting the death of fairness and democracy, predicting all manner of horrors, perhaps culminating in a zombie apocalypse, now that a judge nominated by the president can be confirmed with a vote of a majority of senators. But then, their grief will turn to steely determination. "You shall rue this day!", they will cry. "Revenge shall be ours!"
And that might sound like a reasonable argument for why this rule change was ill-advised. After all, as Iowa senator Chuck Grassley recently threatened, "So if the Democrats are bent on changing the rules, then I say go ahead. There are a lot more Scalias and Thomases that we'd love to put on the bench." In other words, without the restraint of the filibuster, the next time Republicans have the White House and the Senate, which will happen eventually, they'll go hog-wild, appointing the most radical conservatives they can find. But there's one big reason that argument fails: They would have done it anyway.
The argument for the national government administering things over the states has always been summed up, I thought, by an old James Carville joke: I’ll race you from Disneyland to DisneyWorld. I get to take the federal roads.
That joke, however, has been turned upside down by implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The whole sequence has been weird. After all, the law—as a concession to moderate Democrats who feared Republican attacks about a federal-government takeover—wound up asking the states, and not the federal government, to run the exchanges. But Republican-led states refused to do so. When the federal-run Healthcare.gov crashed, the odd result is that the current winners of the federalism battle—which is often waged, at least rhetorically, by Republicans dead set on keeping the feds out of their local government—are Democratic states such as California and New York where things are running reasonably smoothly. Or at least far better than the federally-run exchanges.
It's sometimes said that you can stimulate the economy by burying a bunch of money, then paying people to go dig it up. It may not be all that productive or useful in the long run, but it'll get the job done. You might think that's what the conservative billionaires who funded the outside campaigns to defeat Barack Obama and other Democrats in 2012 were up to when they poured millions upon millions of dollars into an ultimately futile campaign. And now we're finally getting an idea of just how much money there was.
If someone is looking for the week that proved a perfect example of how the 113th Congress functions, it doesn’t get much better than last week. The Senate beat back a filibuster to pass a popular bill, with every Democrat joined by a handful of Republicans.
Liberals have seldom felt lower than they did after the 2004 election, when a president they despised—and whom they believed had already proven himself to be a complete failure—was re-elected by a nation that somehow didn't grasp who and what Bush was. One of the most pointed post-election analyses was a long editorial in the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger. Titled "The Urban Archipelago," the piece was an unapologetic cry of anger that captured the way a lot of people on the left felt. "It's time to state something that we've felt for a long time but have been too polite to say out loud," the editors wrote. "Liberals, progressives, and Democrats do not live in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America. We live on islands of sanity, liberalism, and compassion--New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and on and on….Citizens of the Urban Archipelago reject heartland "values" like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the more intolerant strains of Christianity that have taken root in this country. And we are the real Americans."
Last week, I had a co-authored piece in The Atlantic about using a universal basic income to cut the official poverty rate in half. The short of it is–as I pointed out last month here at Policy Shop–providing an annual $2920 cash grant to every American would cut official poverty in half overnight. Although completely viable as a real-life policy that you could implement successfully, such a plan is generally dismissed as out of the question in our current political state.
The government has re-opened, the debt limit disaster was avoided, and something resembling peace has broken out in Washington. The cynics, however, have been quick to note that all of this is only temporary, with the next shutdown deadline falling on January 15. This round of budget squabbling resolved basically … nothing, so another debacle is likely. Ted Cruz is already threatening a repeat of what he just put the nation through.
Don’t count on a sequel to the 16-day hell we just witnessed, though.
The National Review's Robert Costa. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Back in 2009, Tucker Carlson gave a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, in which he told the crowd that what the right needed was more real journalism. He even pointed out that, as much as they hate the New York Times, that paper has people who do actual reporting and care about accurately relaying facts, and conservatives ought to try the same thing. He was booed resoundingly. Then Carlson founded the Daily Caller, which is kind of like giving a speech to a group of overweight people about the importance of cooking moderately sized meals filled with vegetables at home, then saying, "Let's go to McDonald's—Big Macs are on me!"
Conservatives aren't wrong when they say most journalists are liberals. That isn't because of a conspiracy to keep out conservatives, any more than the fact that most stock brokers are conservatives is a result of a Wall Street conspiracy to keep out liberals. It's primarily because of the kind of people who are attracted to that kind of work. Journalists tend to be comfortable with ambiguity, suspicious of powerful institutions, and many other things conservatives aren't. Acknowledging that most reporters are liberals isn't the same thing as saying the news has a liberal bias, however. In any case, it's unusual to see a conservative reporter win universal praise for his reporting, if for no other reason than that there aren't that many conservatives who do straight journalism. Which brings us to Robert Costa, the National Review reporter who became the undisputed media star of the government shutdown. Everyone who's anyone found themselves following Costa on Twitter, reading his blog posts, and using him to figure out what was really going on. People started writing profiles of him. He got invited to an off-the-record session with the President. How did Costa do it?
Two days ago, it looked like moderates in the House of Representatives, led by John Boehner, had finally concocted a plan to avert a default and end the government shutdown. Then the plan went down in flames.
The deal, the result of weeks of haggling, removed proposals to defund Obamacare and left in its place a provision stripping healthcare from Congressional staffers. It was an cruel deal, but a deal nontheless, with the support of a majority in the House. And it looked like it was going to pass until this:
The despair that comes from knowing poor people are going to get health insurance. (Flickr/Jerry Furguson Photography)
Yesterday, John Boehner told a Cincinnati radio station, "We fought the good fight. We just didn't win." That's one way to look at what happened; another is that frightened Republicans allowed their most unhinged members to pull them into a political disaster that any rational person could have foreseen (and many certainly did). That Republicans would never get what they wanted—the destruction of the Affordable Care Act—was obvious. That they'd come out of it with almost nothing at all was nearly as predictable. So now that the battle is over, how are conservatives reacting? Let's take a look around...
Between his 21-hour non-filibuster to halt Obamacare, his impassioned, hard-line speech at the right-wing Values Voters Summit, and his meeting with House Republicans at the mediocre Mexican joint, Tortilla Coast, it’s clear Ted Cruz is still conducting the shutdown train, even as the country heads into default and his party heads over a cliff. Just about every write-up of the man portrays a smart and opportunistic political mind, eager to be, as The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith puts it, “the Tea Party’s one true standard-bearer.” But is his strategy just crazy?