Paul Waldman

How Liberals Should Feel about the Shutdown/Default Agreement

Don't go too wild with the celebrations. (Flickr/Susana Fernandez)

We have a deal. At this writing no votes have been taken, but by the time you read this, the agreement brokered between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell may well have passed one or both houses. So how should liberals feel about it? Let's break it down.

Eight Things about the Shutdown/Default Crisis that Are Still True

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

As we approach default, it seems like every hour brings a new development in our crisis, and you'll be forgiven if you aren't able (or can't bear) to follow every new proposal, abortive vote, and angry denunciation. So it's a good time to remind ourselves of some things that were true yesterday and last week, and are still true today. These are the things we need to keep in mind as this horrid affair tumbles forward.

Old Conservatives Can't Learn New Tricks

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

If President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats wanted to maximize the political advantage they're getting from the shutdown/default crisis, they'd agree to at least one part of the short-term deals Republicans have offered, raising the debt ceiling for only six weeks at a time. Then we'd have one default crisis after another, and the standing of the GOP would keep on its downward trajectory until—let's just pick a date at random here—November 2014. But Republicans won't do that; they're now insisting (and good for them) that the deal has to extend at least a year into the future so we don't have to keep going through this. If they get that deal, though, the issue will fade and voters could start to forget how reckless Republicans have been.

They could forget, but I'm guessing Republicans won't let them.

Coverage of 2012 Campaign Disappointingly Unbiased

Fox News shows its blatant pro-Obama bias.

Everybody thinks the media are biased against their side, and conservatives are particularly likely to believe it. They themselves would say "That's because it's true!", but the real reason is that the complaint of liberal bias is one that conservatives hear all the time from all of their media sources. That isn't to say there aren't some issues on which the conservative side doesn't get equally favorable coverage, because there may well be a few, just as there are issues on which liberals get the short end of the media stick. But on some you can make a case that there are legitimate reasons. For instance, I wouldn't be surprised if a systematic analysis revealed that coverage of the gay marriage issue was friendlier to the pro side. That might be because one side is arguing for equality and the other side is arguing for discrimination, and portraying the two as equally morally valid is itself problematic.

Anyhow, if there's ever a topic about which coverage should be emphatically even-handed, it's an electoral campaign. You've got two sides trying to achieve the same objective, both of whom represent large portions of the public. Aha, conservatives would say—but coverage of elections is totally biased against Republicans! And when you ask them to support this claim, their evidence usually comes in two forms. One is, "Here's an example of a story that was totally mean to our candidate!"—in other words, an anecdote. The other is, "If you can't see it, then you're hopeless." Which of course is no evidence at all.

But what happens when you actually try to analyze news coverage of campaigns in a systematic way? The results usually look like these, which come from John Sides and Lynn Vavreck's new book about the 2012 election, The Gamble:

The GOP Craziness You Missed over the Weekend

It's only a flesh wound!

We're at kind of a weird point in the shutdown/default crisis. Everyone knows Republicans have lost; it's really just a matter of working out the details of how we get out of this. The sane ones are trying to come up with some sort of agreement that will end the crisis before any further damage is done to their party while providing something they can call a concession from the Democrats, thereby allowing them to save face, to the extent that John Boehner can hold the damn vote and claim that it isn't an abject failure.

But alas, sanity seems to be in short supply on the right side of the aisle, even at this late hour.

John Boehner Is Adrift

Flickr/Donkey Hotey

At this point, I'm starting to get the feeling that John Boehner spends a good portion of each day sitting around in his office with a bunch of aides as they all stare at the ceiling. "Anybody got any ideas yet?" he says periodically. "No?" Heavy sigh.

Every couple of days they come up with something, float it to reporters, and find that it only serves to confuse things, to the point that nobody really knows what they're demanding anymore. First they'd only open the government and raise the debt ceiling if the Affordable Care Act were defunded. When that didn't fly, they suggested they'd release the hostages if the ACA were delayed for a year. No go on that, so they suggested that they'd accept some kind of "grand bargain" as long as it included "entitlement reform," which is Republican code for cutting Social Security and Medicare. Nope. Then they said they'd take some package of unnamed budget cuts and tax cuts. They aren't getting that either, and now it seems they've finally come to terms with the fact that when President Obama says he isn't going to pay any ransom, he actually means it.

So the latest proposal is that they'll allow an extension of the debt ceiling, for...six whole weeks! During which time they'll still be holding the government hostage, but will temporarily delay defaulting on the debt. The question is, to what end? What is supposed to happen in that time? Is President Obama going to change his position and decide that he'll give in to their demands after all? is the public going to decide that they're really a bunch of reasonable fellows who should be rewarded for this nightmare with a chance to govern the country? What?

I suspect the answer is this: They have no idea.

In Praise of Designer Babies

One day, I will rule this measly planet. (Flickr/paparutzi)

Imagine you knew that you carried a gene for a debilitating illness. But doctors could go into your egg (or your spouse's) and remove that gene, enabling you to have a baby who, whatever other problems they might encounter through their lifetime, wouldn't have to worry about the illness. Would you let them? Most people would say probably yes, provided they were sure the technique was safe and wouldn't produce some kind of two-headed mutant centaur baby. That, after all, is what people were worried about when the first baby conceived via in-vitro fertilization was born in 1978—although in that case, they were worried about cyclops babies (seriously). It turned out in the end that IVF is perfectly safe, and now it's a common procedure, the ethics of which is questioned only by radical anti-choice extremists.

Well we may be approaching the time when doctors can fix certain kinds of inherited diseases before an egg is even fertilized. And naturally, people are worried about "designer babies," the phrase that gets repeated whenever the subject of this kind of genetic engineering comes up.

Is the Shutdown Creating a Dystopic Political Future?

The House GOP caucus, circa 2024.

Let's cast our minds forward a few weeks, to after the shutdown/default crisis is over. At that point, the 2014 off-year elections will be only a year away. And what will the lasting effect of this episode be? Maybe not all that much. After all, the party of the sitting president almost always loses seats in off-year elections, the big exception being 1998, when the electorate turned on Republicans after the spectacle of impeachment. The shutdown/default is a very big deal, and the GOP will certainly suffer for it, but it's not that big. Even if things turn out as badly as possible for the Republicans, chances are that they'd only lose a few seats in the House—not enough to lose control—because of the way the district lines are drawn (it was Republicans' great good fortune to have an enormous win at the state level in 2010, the year before post-census redistricting took place). I could be wrong about this, of course (here's a suggestion by Sam Wang that losing the House is a real possibility for them). But I doubt it. So where does that leave us?

How the Crisis Ends

In 2010, John Boehner tells President Obama, "I'm open! Pass it over here!" The President declines. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

I know it may be a little hard to envision right now, but the crisis we're in at the moment is going to come to an end. The question is, how? It might be worthwhile to think through the major possibilities. I've added odds for each one, based on my best (and necessarily subjective) judgment.

1. President Obama caves.

He agrees to delay the Affordable Care Act for a year to restart the government and agrees to budget cuts and entitlement cuts beyond the sequester-level budget Democrats have already agreed to in order to raise the debt ceiling. Tea Partiers triumph.

Will Republican Moderates Really Allow the Government to Reopen?

The palace of intrigue. (Flickr/K.P.Tripathi)

The latest rhetorical tool the President and his allies are using on John Boehner is telling him to put his money where his mouth is, specifically on the "clean" continuing resolution passed by the Senate. Boehner claims that if he allowed a clean CR to be voted on in the House, it would fail, so he must continue to demand a pound of flesh from the administration as the price of reopening the government. Barack Obama's response is, if that's true, then why not let it come up for a vote and see what happens? In recent days, a couple of news organizations have made counts of the Republican "moderates" (not all of whom are actually moderate) who have made public comments indicating they would support a clean CR. As of now, the Washington Post's tally has 21 Republicans in favor; combine them with the 200 Democrats, all of whom are likely to vote for the clean CR, and you've got a majority. But would these moderates actually follow through if it came to a vote?

As David Karol says in an excellent post on the topic of the moderates, "In general, Congressional moderates are more closely aligned to their parties than is understood. Often their defections from party ranks occur when it is clear that their party does not need their votes to prevail on a given issue." This is sometimes accomplished with a strategy that came to be known back when Tom DeLay was running things as "catch and release." The leadership makes sure it can win the vote, then slowly releases its moderates one at a time, allowing them to vote against the party so they can tout their independence but not threatening the outcome.

But that isn't the case here—there's a real question of which side would prevail. That means Republicans will be pressuring their moderates to stay in the fold. Karol also notes that even a Republican from a swing district could face a threat from a Tea Party challenger in a primary. Even if that challenger ends up losing the general election, if he beats you in the primary, you're still just as unemployed. So the question is whether the pressure on the moderates from within their party is greater or lesser than the pressure coming in the other direction.

The Power of No

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group of very nice people who won't be shutting anything down. (Flickr/Talk Radio News Service)

It's been noted many times that the conservative Republicans driving the shutdown/debt default crisis are insulated from political repercussions for their actions by the fact that they come from extremely conservative districts where they face little to no risk of getting beaten by a Democrat in a general election. The implicit argument is that safe seats equate to not just ideological extremism, but the kind of procedural extremism we're seeing now. Yet as Eric Boehlert observes, there are lots of Democrats who are just as safe as these Republicans—in fact, there are more Democrats with safe seats, and many of those seats are even safer than Republican safe seats. So why don't the extremely conservative Democrats engage in the same kind of gamesmanship the Tea Party Republicans do, threatening to burn the whole place down unless they get their way?

The Debt-Ceiling Crisis to End All Debt-Ceiling Crises

Don't worry--unlike what's going on in Washington now, this is only a drill. (Flickr/USAG-Humphreys)

The most important fact about the shutdown crisis, which is soon to become the shutdown/debt ceiling crisis, is that Democrats are not making any demands. The only thing they want is for the government to reopen and for the United States not to default. Since these are things Republicans also claim they want, they can't be considered demands. Republicans, on the other hand, have lots of demands, even if they keep changing. That's why the current Republican talking point—"Why won't the Democrats negotiate?"—is fundamentally misleading. One way for this whole thing to end is for Republicans to give up their demands and admit they've lost. Unsurprisingly, they're reluctant to do this. But what if Democrats started making a demand of their own?

The Myth of Obamacare's Bad Sales Job

Flickr/Brent Moore

When they went forward with their plan to shut down the government in order to undo, defund, or otherwise undermine the Affordable Care Act, conservatives convinced themselves that their plan was going to work because Americans hate Obamacare. If you look at it in an extremely narrow, context-free way, that's sort of true. If you just ask people whether they approve of the ACA, you get between 35 percent and 45 percent approval. But the closer you look, the more complicated it gets. Some people disapprove of it because they feel it didn't go far enough; add them with those who say they approve, and you'll get a majority. Furthermore, and most critical for what I'd like to discuss, the actual components of the law, like giving people subsidies to buy insurance, outlawing denials for pre-existing conditions, and so on, are all extremely popular (the one exception is the individual mandate).

One thing's for sure, though: You can't say that the ACA as an abstract entity is overwhelmingly popular. That has led a lot of liberals to blame Barack Obama for doing a bad job selling the law. I must have heard or read this from a hundred liberals over the last couple of years. If only he had sold it better! Then we wouldn't be in this mess. Sometimes, I've actually heard people say that he never really tried to sell it.

This argument is complete bunk. Here's why.

Would You Let a Robot Watch You Undress?

Serge greets a visitor.

Let's face it, we all need a break from talking about this god-awful shutdown (acknowledging, of course, that the best break of all would be to end the damn thing). In that spirit, via Technology Review, here's an interesting study out of Georgia Tech about what kind of robots young and old people are more comfortable with, and how those preferences change depending on what it is we're asking the robots to help us with. Generally, the older people preferred more human-looking robots, while the younger people preferred more, well, robot-looking robots. That would make sense if you assume that the young are more comfortable with technology. But things get interesting when you get into details about what the robots are doing:

Leave Boehner Alone!

He's a very sensitive guy. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

The government shutdown is a crisis with its roots in both policy differences and disagreements about what means are appropriate to settle those policy differences. But it's also a conflict of individual people and personalities. Not that this should be news to anyone, but the key players involved—President Obama and the four congressional leaders, but most particularly John Boehner and Harry Reid—really, really don't like each other. Nothing too surprising there, but I'm beginning to wonder whether Democrats are helping things by the way they're talking about Boehner.

Ordinarily, this kind of thing might matter only at the margins, but we're in a situation now where personal enmities and bruised egos could play a significant part in how and when this whole thing gets settled.

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