Sunday, January 06, 2013

Not so stupid Republican tricks

Congratulations, John Boehner. You broke it, you bought it, I guess.
Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) was successfully re-elected as Speaker of the House for another two-year term on Thursday, receiving 220 votes to Rep. Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) 192 votes. Pelosi will continue on as House Minority Leader. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) received 3 votes.
Also go fuck yourself.

The list of Representatives also receiving votes is an amusing read as well.  I'm assuming Paul Labrador (R-ID), Justin Amash (R-MI), Jim Jordan (R-OH), John Dingell (D-MI) and others all voted for themselves. Unless other members were just being nice to them. 

There was also a vote for Speaker "Present" who is never as popular as one would think. And then there are the head-scratcher votes for people who aren't even eligible. For example, former Florida Representative (and famously crazy person) Allen West received 2 votes.  Had he won, we could have called him Speaker "Absent."

But despite these protest votes, and some meaningless headfakery, the Republican caucus still voted for John Boehner to be Speaker in overwhelming numbers. The fact is, despite their made-for-TV protestations, the Republicans are just fine with Boehner as their figurehead.  After all, having Boehner at the helm worked pretty well for them strategically during the "Fiscal Cliff" negotiations. Why mess that up now?

Despite its presentation as a political win for the President, the cliff settlement actually represents a major victory for conservatives on tax policy. Timothy Noah runs through a concise explanation here in this New Republic post
As numerous commentators are pointing out, a lot of folks who’ve been told their taxes aren’t going up will be awfully surprised when they receive their first paychecks for 2013 and see that their taxes, ahem, actually did go up. For nearly half the country—the “47 percent” (actually, 46) Romney famously spoke of during the campaign—the payroll tax is the income tax. OASDI taxes the first dollar of income up to $113,700, and it’s regressive in two ways. Everybody earning between $1 per year and $113,700 is taxed at the same rate; and everybody earning more than $113,700 is taxed at a gradually-declining rate, because no income in excess of the $113,700 ceiling is subject to the tax. 
What's particularly disappointing about the payroll tax bump is that it wasn't even part of the negotiation.   This regressive tax hike on the precise portion of the population who can least afford to bear it was considered fait-accompli. The only "tax increase" that was under such heated discussion all December was whether to allow the impending expiration of the Bush tax cuts to proceed as scheduled for people earning between $250,000 and $400,000. Obama ended up conceding on this point, a concession which, amazingly, was spun largely as a Republican cave-in. More on that in a minute.

But first I cannot stress enough just what a horrendous contractionary tax policy this inaction on the payroll tax is.  Despite the  headlines about Republican concessions on income taxes in the $400,000 and above stratosphere, we have come out of the cliff negotiation with a less progressive and more backwards overall system of taxation than we had going in.  Worse, in addition to being grossly unfair the backwards policy takes money out of the pockets of the people most likely to spend it while granting a break to an upper income level where the tendency goes more toward saving. In other words, it is an anti-stimulus enacted during a stagnant economy.  It is, in every respect, a major conservative policy victory.

But it's also a major conservative strategic political victory. This is because it almost certainly sets the stage for a second round of argument over the very cuts to Social Security and Medicare Obama's "cliff victory" was supposed to have averted. And the Republicans are likely to win in that confrontation, mainly because they've been so successful at pretending to have "lost" the last round.
According to The Hill, Speaker Boehner has told members of his caucus that he’s done negotiating with President Obama. From the perspective of Boehner and House Republicans this process has amounted to nothing more than Boehner and the members he represents being taken again and again to the cleaners.
This is actually pretty brilliant. But not at all surprising once you understand  the GOP governing imperative.

Because House districts are so badly gerrymandered, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives is basically an illegitimate governing caucus.
David Wasserman, undisputed popular votemeister, has just updated his national House popular vote number with the certification of final results from New York State. And the Democrats now has a non-trivial lead of 1.362 million votes. 49.15% to 48.03%.
Understand this and you begin to understand why they do not govern as consensus-seeking dealmakers in the sense one would expect from a democratically representative body. Instead, as the minority delegation of a narrow interest, their behavior pursues that interest with reckless indifference to all other concerns. Unconcerned with the consequences of policy for anyone other than the narrow wealthy interest they represent, the minority governing party is encumbered only by the massive unpopularity of its goals. So, even for an illegitimate minority governing party, enacting an unpopular agenda requires some finesse.

The House Republicans do this in two ways.  First, they govern by perpetual crisis.  Fiscal cliffs, debt ceilings, government shutdowns, none of these crisis points the House GOP intentionally steers us toward every few months is anything other than a manufactured crisis of choice. They come about simply because Republicans want them to happen.  Like a spoiled child holding his breath, the Republicans force a negotiation based on their own absurd and dangerous behavior.  Of course the appropriate adult response to such foolishness is not to reward and encourage it. But, as we're all well aware, there are no adults in Washington.

The second tactic Republicans use to enact their unpopular policy agenda is affected victimhood. Which is why they are so eager to tell this story about how they were "taken to the cleaners." Most working people just saw a 2% bump in the payroll tax. Republicans know this is going to be unpopular. What better way to explain an unpopular tax increase than as the result of Obama's arm twisting? Nevermind that the payroll tax wasn't even part of the Fiscal Cliff negotiation. Neither side made it a priority.  The Republican story now is taxes are up and this is because Obama "won" the last negotiation. And since so many of us will see less money in our paychecks this month, this story is bound to resonate with the public.

All of this sets up the next round where Republicans, suddenly finding their backbone, are going to insist that Obama gives them something in return for their trouble. And what he's going to give them will just happen to be various forms of cuts to Social Security and Medicare.  For the average American that means paying more in taxes for a reduced benefit.  That's bound to be an incredibly unpopular program. But it's precisely what the narrow interests represented by the illegitimate governing minority party have wanted all along.  So they are winning.  But here's what's so brilliant about how they are winning.
Not only are Republicans closing the door on more tax revenues than they already provided Obama. And not only are they demanding unpopular spending cuts as their price for raising the debt limit. If you read between the lines, they’re actually insisting that Democrats put together the spending cuts themselves.
Remarkable.  The Republicans have forced major concessions on tax policy, pretended those concessions were actually Obama victories, and will parlay that into even more concessions on social spending policy all while painting those cuts as a Democratic initiative. And this week we were supposed to believe that a party on such a strong winning streak was really getting set to depose John Boehner? Why would they do such a thing?

Observers who focus on Boehner's weak leadership style or his supposed inability to control the Tea Party caucus are missing the point.  There's value for conservatives in victimhood.  A supposed challenger like Eric Cantor, for example, doesn't actually want to be Speaker because he doesn't want to be the guy everyone holds accountable for failures (even if they are not, in fact, failures). But he does enjoy being a guy who everyone "knows" is really on the side of those good Conservative principles which.. according to script... are always being abused.  

At the same time, there's value for Boehner in appearing too weak to control conservative recklessness.  He doesn't have to be fully accountable for the hard line agenda he seemingly has no choice but to push. And since none of the hardliners actually wants to be the sacrificial stooge, his position is never under any real threat. 

Boehner may be an idiot, I don't know. But even if he is he's a useful idiot.  He's the perfect useful idiot to pull of the remarkable trick the Republicans are currently executing anyway. And that trick isn't nearly as stupid as all the acting and posturing may make it appear.  


Clay Kirby said...

I'm reminded of this quote:



bayoustjohndavid said...

I'm certainly not going to enjoy bringing home $500 a year less than I do, but I think the (mostly valid) arguments against means testing Social Security are also arguments for ending the payroll tax holiday (or whatever they called it). Of course, there's no point in giving the Democrats a stronger position if the find their backbones in future debates if they're unlikely to ever find their backbones.

Also, it's sounds like you're saying that Obama and Boehner are basically mirror images of each other.