Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

03 November 2010

Midterm Aftermath: Diagnosis and Prognosis


The midterm results were not as bad as they might have been, nor as good as they could have been. The Party of No took the House decisively, but not the Senate.

The good news is that politics remains a semi-learned profession. Education, training, aptitude and experience matter. The chief tea crazies―Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell―went down to decisive defeat. Even Joe Miller in Alaska appears to have lost to long-time Senator Lisa Murkowski’s write-in campaign.

The very few so-called “tea baggers” who won were serious, experienced pols like Marco Rubio in Florida. He had served eight years in the Florida House, including time as majority whip, majority leader, and speaker. And Rubio was far more a creature of the unique Cuban-American community in Florida than the tea party.

The rich lost big, too, in spite of all their money and hubris. Meg Whitman lost to old-time (and aging!) pol Jerry Brown for California governor. Carly Fiorina lost to long-time Senator Barbara Boxer. It didn’t seem to matter that Whitman had built a hugely successful business (eBay) and Fiorina had nearly run a Silicon Valley icon (Hewlett-Packard) into the ground. Voters were smart enough to figure out that running a business, even successfully, is not the same as running a state or a nation.

Given these two trends, it was natural for candidates that are both rich and crazy to lose. Linda McMahon, the kick-him-in-the-balls wrestling magnate, and Carl (“take him out”) Paladino fell into this category. Despite all our angst and zaniness, we Americans are not quite ready for either Catharine the Great or Caligula.

As for “Mama Grizzly,” she wisely stayed outside the ring, racking up impressive speaking fees with her nonsense. Alaska may no longer have its Klondike gold, but it still has its gold diggers. Even its remote and unpredictable people were smart enough to recognize that brains and experience matter.

The long, embarrassing amateur hour that began when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate is now over. Voters see that “American Idol” works best as entertainment, not government. We can all be thankful for that.

So two pathological movements in American politics seems to have died aborning. The first was a fake GOP splinter “movement” that ran out of control and off the rails into nonsense, farce, and absurdity. The second was a stampede by the arrogant rich to anoint us plebes with their self-proclaimed wisdom, which ended up just losing lots of their money. It will take some time for the pundits and slow learners come around, but these two “movements” appear destined for the dustbin of history that is their rightful home.

Most of the rest of the news is bad. The party that made its goal the President’s (and the nation’s) failure, from the moment of his inauguration, gained control of the House. Flush with victory, it has now declared insuring the President’s loss in 2012 its “top priority.” Of course anyone who’s followed the GOP’s actions over the last two years knew that without it being said.

Think about that. I’m 65 years old, and I’ve followed politics closely all of my life. I can’t think of any other time, any other party, or any other public officials (except for Nixon) that made their chief and primary goal defeating the opposition at any cost. Aren’t public officials supposed to want to do something to improve the state of the nation, if not the ordinary people who inhabit it?

In modern America, apparently not. Nothing demonstrates better than the politics of vendetta how much the GOP really believes, deep down, that the best days of America are behind us and only win-lose solutions are possible. Watch what they do, not what they say. Their paeans to American strength and resilience are just a smokescreen to cover what they’re really all about: grabbing the goodies for their rich paymasters as the remarkable country that their policies have wrecked decays.

So the immediate future is not hard to predict. The entertaining zaniness and distraction will wane. Things will get serious from here on out as the stakes rise. Both sides will devote themselves to serious battle over whether we will become a plutocracy and join South America in all but language.

Now controlled by Republicans, the House will dance to the tune of their corporate masters. It will propose things like repealing health-care reform, privatizing or downsizing Social Security and Medicare, and loosening restraints on environmental pollution, unsafe workplaces, unsafe food and drugs, and financial gambling and swindling. The Senate, still controlled by Democrats, will demur. The Senate will thus preserve the presidential veto for extraordinary occasions, thereby saving the President from looking like an obstructor.

Of course nothing whatsoever will get done. No serious person will expect anything real to get done, except in the realm of foreign policy, where the President has plenary authority, or as may be possible by executive order or litigation. The 2012 presidential campaign will begin immediately. As one wag noted on TV last night, it’s only fifteen months until the next set of Iowa caucuses.

In retrospect, it’s now easy to see what really happened yesterday. Whether on the left or right, people who keep informed and have an ideological perspective won’t change without a great cataclysm, like the one in 2008. I, for example, voted two weeks early. I could have voted six months ago and my choices wouldn’t have changed.

But people who made the decisions last night weren’t like me, or like you if you’re reading this blog. They don’t follow or understand politics or economics generally. They take a quick glance only when they dimly perceive an effect on their own finances and daily lives.

They haven’t a clue whether voodoo or Keynesian economics is right or wrong, and they don’t care. They vote based on which party is in power and whether things for them and theirs are good and getting better or bad and getting worse. Since things have been bad for two years, their patience is low: they want results in months, if not yesterday.

The biggest mistake that political pundits and analysts make is attributing too much intelligence and analysis to the average voter. A voter may declaim about “big government,” deficit spending, the loss of “liberty,” too much regulation, and so forth. But the “independent” voters who decide elections in our closely divided electorate are not the kind of people who base their actions on abstractions like those. What they say when asked is really an idle cover for a simple, personal calculus: do my and my family’s immediate prospects look better or worse right now?

If you’re going to have a nation ruled by uneducated people who don’t know and don’t care about ideas, that may be the best criterion you could hope for. It’s hard to fool people about what they see, hear and feel in their own lives. In the end, that simple calculus mattered more than all the clever ads on which we spent so many billions.

The impatience is not entirely a bad thing either. It worked against the Democrats and Obama this time. The voters wanted instant change from thirty years of bad policy. But the same impatience will work against the GOP when their control of the House, which originates all spending bills, produces nothing. And you can bet that nothing significant in domestic policy will happen until 2012.

The good news is that voters are hard to fool about their own circumstances, and they have some common sense. Their rejection of the rich and crazies (and rich crazies) showed that. Maybe in another fifteen months, when the natural healing of a wounded economy has gone much further, they’ll understand that politics based on “no” and bashing the other guy is unlikely to produce forward motion.

Americans may be slow learners, but we do learn. Winston Churchill said it best: “Americans will always do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the alternatives.” We’re still working through the alternatives.

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