A much more attractive ceiling. (Flick/Richard Carter)
Kevin Drum has written a very helpful explainer on everything you'd want to know about the fiscal cliff/curb/staircase/trap, and near the end he reminds us that the debt ceiling is going to come up again early next year. "However, an agreement to raise the debt ceiling will almost certainly be part of the negotiations surrounding the fiscal cliff." Which is good, but I'd like to suggest that Congress go a step further. Instead of raising the debt ceiling, meaning we'd have to revisit the issue again in a year, why don't they go ahead and eliminate it once and for all?
There now appears to be a healthy debate going on in Republican circles about the problems created by the information cocoon in which conservatives have embedded themselves in recent years (I wrote about this last week). That's good for them, but I doubt it's going to work. My guess is that a couple of years from now, the conservative media's rhetoric will be just the same as it is now—just as angry, just as prone to race-baiting, just as unwilling to acknowledge reality when it conflicts with their beliefs. Jonathan Martin of Politico took the time to interview a bunch of younger Repbublican operatives and thinkers, and they all seem to be in agreement that something has to change. But the right has a real generational problem, and it isn't about their leaders. It's about their audience.
Conservative media is a political force, but first and foremost it's a business. And that business' primary customers have grown used to a particular product. Those customers are, above all, older white men, and the product is that particular combination of anger, resentment, and contempt for people outside your tribe that has characterized conservative media for so long. Fox News has the oldest audience of any of the cable channels, and they like what Hannity, O'Reilly and the rest have been giving them just fine. They like hearing that Barack Obama is a socialist America-hater destroying our country. They like the culture war. It keeps them coming back. So if you were Sean Hannity, and you understood that perfectly well, what incentive would you have to change?
If you want to explain why your party lost a presidential election, there are a number of places to look. You can blame your candidate and his campaign (which usually means, "If only they had listened to me!"). You can blame your party and ask if it should examine its ideology or its rhetoric. You can blame the media. Or you can blame the voters. As the old political saw says, "The people have spoken—the bastards." And that is what one conservative after another has been saying over the last week.
New York, where not many Republicans live. (Flickr/iPhil Photos)
There are a lot of ways to parse a loss like the one the GOP suffered on Tuesday, but what ought to be increasingly clear to smart Republicans is that there's something fundamentally problematic in how they've gone about assembling their electoral coalitions. Conservatives are complaining a lot in the last couple of days that Obama ran a "divisive" campaign, I guess because he once called rich people "fat cats" or something, but the truth is that Republicans have been experts at division for a long time. Much of their appeal, at one level or another, has been "We don't like those kind of people." Sometimes it's welfare recipients, sometimes it's undocumented immigrants, sometimes it's people who come from big cities or have too much education or enjoy a coffee drink made with espresso and steamed milk. They've been very good for a very long time at telling voters, "We're just like you, because we both hate those people over there."
As a political strategy, this can be very effective, so long as the "them" at whom you're directing your contempt isn't too large a group. But once "them" grows too big, you've dug yourself an electoral hole. That's the problem they now have with Latinos. Their anti-immigrant rhetoric sent two simultaneous messages, one about policy and one about identity. The first message was that we don't support policies you do support, like the DREAM Act. The second message, which Latinos heard loud and clear, was this: We don't like people like you.
Forty years ago, the campaign of Senator Ed Muskie, until then the presumed nominee of the Democratic party, effectively ended on a snowy day in Manchester, New Hampshire. Angered by the attacks on him and his wife by the conservative Manchester Union-Leader, Muskie held a press conference outside the paper's offices to denounce them. Reporters at the scene thought that Muskie was crying, though he later said the wetness on his face was only melting snow. But David Broder's story in the Washington Post about the press conference began, "With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion..." He was obviously not presidential material.
Eight years later, a different kind of president was elected, one who understood intimately how to convey emotions through television. Ronald Reagan wasn't afraid to get choked up at appropriate moments — when lauding the heroism of an ordinary person called to do something extraordinary, or just when speaking about how great America is. Reagan made it possible, even uncontroversial, for a male politician to cry (though it's still extremely dangerous for a female politician to cry, lest she reveal herself as unstable and weak).
Which brings us to this remarkable video of Barack Obama thanking his campaign staff for all their hard work.
Now that the election is over, the next big item on the government's agenda is dealing with two sets of changes that are scheduled to begin at the start of 2013. The first is changes to the tax code: the Bush income tax cuts will expire, bringing rates back to where they were during the Clinton years, and so will the payroll tax cuts enacted as part of the 2009 stimulus package and later extended. The second set of changes is the "sequester," under which a series of rather dramatic cuts to government spending will take place. Collectively, these events are being referred to by everybody as the "fiscal cliff," a term that is both misleading and dangerous. Which got me wondering: Where did it come from? And whose fault is it?
Liberals like me have spent a lot of time in recent years mocking conservatives for the silliness of their media, wherein Steve Doocy is a star, Sean Hannity is an insightful analyst, and Rush Limbaugh is a brave crusader for truth. Beyond the jokes, we've talked a lot about the pathologies produced by the self-reinforcing worldviews propagated in those media. One of the key features of those media, and what differentiates them from partisan left media, is the way they talk about the rest of the media. Liberals may like to watch MSNBC, but if you watch MSNBC you won't be reminded ten times an hour that everything you see in your newspaper or on another television station is a vicious lie concocted by conservatives to deceive you as part of their plan to destroy the country you love.
But that is what you'll get if you watch Fox, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or consume many other kinds of conservative media. It's not just a diet of information congenial to your beliefs; it's also a message of distrust of any other source of information that isn't explicitly conservative. Which is why it's not in the least bit surprising that many conservatives were so shocked by the results of Tuesday's election. Because if you're soaking in that rhetoric, the idea that a majority of American voters could voluntarily choose to give Barack Obama—the socialist, the foreigner, the apologist, the black nationalist—another term in office just makes no sense whatsoever. It cannot be.
An Obama rally on election eve. (Flickr/Becker1999)
Obviously, the most important thing that happened last night was President Obama's victory. But it's worth noting that this election was a victory for progressivism in so many ways. Some of the most infuriating conservative Democrats, particularly Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, are gone. And some of the new Democrats are more progressive than anyone would have wished for a few years ago. Elizabeth Warren is now a senator. So is Tammy Baldwin, the chamber's first openly gay member. And they were just two of a large group of Democratic women that won, including newly elected senators Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Maggie Hassan, the next governor of New Hampshire (in addition to Hassan, New Hampshire now has an all-female congressional delegation, counting both senators and both House members). While there are plenty of Tea Partiers left, a few of the most odious ones, including Allen West and Joe Walsh, are free to pursue their careers in talk radio. We can safely say that the Tea Party's moment has passed.
This is a hard time, I know. We've all been there—it hurts when your candidate loses, and you realize that all the people and policies you hate will be in place for the next four years. But let me suggest that while you're perfectly justified in crying, wailing, beating your breasts and rending your garments, you really should try to keep your sanity. Not only will it be good for the country, it'll be good for you too.
Many years ago, legendary psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky used experiments to demonstrate the power of "loss aversion," the fact that losing something you have is more emotionally powerful than gaining something you don't. In other words, the misery of losing $100 is far larger than the pleasure of gaining $100. Which means that Democrats ought to feel even better today than they did in 2008.
They probably don't, though. The election of 2008 was certainly the most extraordinary of my lifetime, and probably of yours as well. There were a few prescient voices at the time saying, "Don't get too excited, or you'll just be disappointed" (Paul Krugman was the most notable), but it was almost impossible not to get swept up in the moment, particularly because it came after eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. The emotion most Democrats are experiencing right now is not so much hope, or inspiration, but relief. It doesn't seem quite as likely to produce tears of joy.
I've often thought that there are few things worse than getting your party's nomination for president and then losing. To come so close to becoming the most powerful and important person on Planet Earth and then to fall short, and to boot, not only not getting a nice silver medal but being heaped with scorn, ridiculed and condemned—that must just eat you up inside. Some losers, like John McCain, have a job to go back to, but most don't, and Mitt Romney hasn't had a job since he started running for president five years ago. Let's assume for the moment that all the polls are right, and tonight is going to end with Barack Obama getting re-elected. What will Romney do with himself?
For a long time, curmudgeonly commentators lamented the decline of voter turnout in America. Fewer and fewer of us found our way to the polls, distracted as we were by the love lives of motion picture celebrities or the latest models of sporting motor car. But then about a decade ago, something strange happened. First, some political scientists realized that everyone was measuring voter turnout wrong. The accepted rates, which said that fewer than half of Americans turned out on election day, were based on census data of the voting-age population (VAP). The problem is that there are a lot of people who are of voting age but aren't eligible to vote, either because they aren't citizens, or have had their voting rights taken away because they committed a felony (you can read about that in this article by Michael McDonald and Samuel Popkin). And second, voter turnout began going up.
On Wednesday, we'll begin talking about whether whoever gets elected has a "mandate." We'll talk about it even more if Barack Obama is re-elected, because when a new president takes office we accept that he'll be doing all kinds of new things, changing course on almost every policy, replacing all the members of the other party who populate the executive branch with members of his own party, etc. With a re-elected president, on the other hand, there's a real question about where he goes from here and how much he can try to accomplish. There's a fundamental problem with the mandate idea, however, that makes it almost meaningless in today's Washington.
In the last week or so, Mitt Romney has accused Barack Obama of focusing his campaign on "small things," but let's be honest—at this point, everybody is focused on small things. And these small things are unlikely to make much of a difference with so little time left. Which is why it was so odd to see the Romney campaign stumble so badly with attack about Jeeps being built in China. How did they manage to take a criticism that would likely have just glanced off Obama anyway, and turn it into something that not only had everyone talking about Obama's best case to Ohio voters (the auto bailout), but also made Romney look cynical and dishonest?
Here's what I think happened. They heard the first, somewhat unclear report that Chrysler was going to be manufacturing Jeeps in China, without quite understanding what it meant, namely that they will be making them for the Chinese market (because of Chinese tarriffs, Chrysler would only be able to sell the Jeeps there if they make them there). By the time they figured out all the facts, Romney had already mentioned it on the stump, saying inaccurately that the company was "thinking of moving all production to China." So the campaign probably figured, we can still use this to try to discredit the bailout, we'll just be careful about the words we use.
And that's where they didn't quite grasp the implications of what they were doing...
Though it may be four days before a presidential election, I just don't feel I can let the issue of the future of Star Wars pass without comment. In case you don't pay particular attention to these things, Disney is buying the franchise from George Lucas, and plans to release more Star Wars movies. Our own Tom Carson responds without much enthusiasm, writing that though he was never particularly crazy about Star Wars, "I think one reason for the deep bond fans feel with Star Wars is the awareness that the whole stupid, nutty legend all came out of one man's head.