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

05 November 2014

Midterms 2014


[Note to readers: I’ve taken the liberty of reversing the order of the two essays previously posted on this page. How and why the Dems lost is much more important than speculation how bad Mitch might be.]

After a short night’s sleep, it’s possible to discern some hard lessons of Midterms 2014. They are not encouraging, but they are real:

1. Propaganda works. First and foremost, the American public is susceptible to propaganda, exceptionally susceptible. We must throw away any notion that our “exceptional” democracy or Yankee skepticism makes us resistant after yesterday’s results. In any medium-term view, those results were absolutely extraordinary.

President Obama’s predecessor was, by far, the worst president of my 69 years. He is probably among a handful of the worst presidents in American history. Among many other sad and bad things, he started two wholly unnecessary wars, which have killed far more Americans directly (in combat) than the terrorists killed on 9/11, while killing hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis and Afghans and displacing millions. He put his Torquemada Cheney in a position to give our supposedly benevolent nation the face of rendition, torture, and secret dungeons. And although his administration didn’t cause the Crash of 2008 (his party’s longstanding laissez-faire policies did), it made it worse by setting the precedent of banker bailouts and impunity, which Obama only followed as president.

President Obama has done much better. Here's a short list of what he has accomplished in six years, with his job still only three-quarters done:
  • 1. Passed national health-insurance reform where others had failed for a century
  • 2. Wound down the two unnecessary wars that Dubya and Cheney started
  • 3. Killed the perpetrator of 9/11 and, with intelligence (in both senses of the term), ninjas and drones, made sure nothing similar happened again
  • 4. Started phasing out coal—by far the most nasty, dangerous and polluting fossil fuel—as Germany and France have done and as even China and India (with their solar programs) are trying to do
  • 5. By voluntary agreement with auto makers, doubled our national standard for gas mileage
  • 6. Made a stab (Dodd-Frank) at reducing the depredations and impunity of rogue bankers
  • 7. By fighting IS with air power, coalitions and military cooperation with locals, stopped IS’ advances and begun to reverse them without (so far) a single American combat casualty
  • 8. Avoided a new war and entanglement in Ukraine, which pols like John McCain and Lindsey Graham would love to see bogging us down
  • 9. Tried to ameliorate our national immigration fiasco and circumvent legislative gridlock by prosecuting and deporting the worst illegals with a vengeance, while saving the youngest, best and brightest for us by executive action
  • 10. Despite the consistently mindless opposition of Congress and the GOP, brought our economy roughly back to its level before the Crash, with the promise of GDP gains not seen in a decade
  • 11. Saved our major banks and auto makers from bankruptcy, with massive benefits for their workers; and
  • 12. Put in place policies, including Atlantic Coast drilling, that have made us Yanks more energy independent than we have been in decades
But no good deed goes unpunished. The President is a thoughtful, modest, understated man—an ex-professor. He hasn’t tooted his own horn as much as he should have, and his party has failed ignominiously to do it for him.

As so many commentators rightly said last night, the Midterms 2014 were “mood” elections. With a constant drumbeat of negative “spin,” the GOP’s brilliant propagandists, with Fox in the lead, painted this skillfully effective leader as a feckless, fearful, hesitating wimp, with a penchant for aggrandizing hated government for its own sake.

The false mood and the false labels stuck, and so we have Redneck Mitch. Political-science doctoral students will write theses about how this brilliant propaganda campaign turned day into night, a thoughtful, effective leader into a wimp, and an incremental but effective progressive movement into a right-wing sweep.

2. Stand by your man. An important cause of that sweep was the Dems’ self-evident failure to stand by their man. Instead, they fell into the clever GOP trap, went along with the propaganda and “spin”, and so reinforced the manufactured negative mood. Alison Lundergan Grimes went tso far as to refuse to admit that she even voted for her nation’s president and her party’s titular head.

You might say it’s poetic justice that virtually all the most egregious Democratic turncoats lost. But if so, it’s painful, depressing poetic justice. Several of the losers were both good candidates and women, whom we sorely need more of in our dysfunctional Old Boys’ Club. And Grimes herself was and is a good candidate; instead of her we have Mitch.

No, the wimp is not the President. The wimps are the Dems who failed to stand with a good, thoughtful and effective leader, instead allowing relentless GOP propaganda to generate a sour mood and take the Senate away from them. (For a short but highly cogent comment to this effect, with a dose of Midwestern common sense, by former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, click here and scroll to near bottom of the political page.)

Perhaps the GOP and Fox brainwashers were just too good at what they do. Perhaps a concerted attempt to explain how good a leader the President has been—let alone in comparison with his predecessor—would have failed, too. But isn’t it better to lose fighting for principles that you believe in than to wimp out, abandon your principles, and lose nevertheless? The job of good pols is not to go along with a fabricated “mood,” but to explain why the mood is false and inappropriate and how their policies have been making ordinary people’s lives better and will continue to do so.

3. Women matter, but they are not cows. Looking at yesterday’s results, a casual observer might be tempted to sing along with Mozart, “La donna e mobile” (women are fickle). The gender gap that twice put Barack Obama in the White House seemed to evaporate.

But the Dems should have seen this one coming a mile away. Last cycle, the GOP lost big because it pushed the macho culture war on women much too far, in a clumsy attempt to consolidate its lead among old white guys. It nominated abysmal candidates who went out of their ways to diss and offend women and their legitimate concerns with family planning, reproductive freedom, and insecurity regarding unequal pay, rape and sexual harassment. These candidates were extreme and obnoxious even by Tea-Party standards. So naturally they lost.

Republicans may have poor goals, pandering to business, banking and the rich and powerful in order to keep the campaign contributions flowing. But they are far from stupid. They have always understood that pandering to sexist and anti-feminist sentiment, just like pandering to racism, is a tactic, not a goal or strategy.

Having lost so abysmally in 2012, the GOP made a mid-course correction. The Chamber of Commerce, the rich backers, and the business lobby—the so-called “establishment”—geared up to take their party back from the Tea-Party yahoos whose movement they had created and encouraged. That movement was no longer useful, so the establishment crushed it quickly with iron heels.

The Dems’ strategists were snookered. They failed to understand that no real power in the GOP cares about any of the so-called “cultural” issues. These issues are just a means of manipulating simple and gullible minds to get what they want, which is money and power. When extreme stands on cultural issues fail to work, the GOP’s real leaders drop them like the political hot potatoes they are.

That’s precisely what the GOP did this cycle. It left the Dems holding the bag of cultural issues, treating women as a bloc of single-issue voters, and taking them for granted. And we men all know how women love to be taken for granted.

Worst of all, the Dems’ strategists apparently didn’t even see it coming, probably because most of them are men. Their giving up the gender gap was an abject failure of intelligent strategy.

4. Politics is not a game. If the truth be told, the GOP is generally better at politics than the Dems. Why? Because the GOP’s movers and shakers know exactly what they want. Their core belief is that evolution and history favor the rich, the smart, and the powerful. They have money and power and want more.

Social issues mean nothing to them except as a way to get what they want. They exploit those issues relentlessly, but only when exploiting them works. Apart from a few oddballs, they don’t otherwise give a damn about abortion, gay marriage, letting citizens carry concealed weapons, or religion. They are quintessentially practical people, ever pragmatic in pursuing their own interests.

Think the average billionaire is a racist? Probably not. But he (nearly all are men) will exploit racism (or any other peripheral thing) shamelessly and relentlessly to prevent someone like Obama from pursuing an egalitarian agenda that cuts his income or power. Just recall how the insurance executives used relentless propaganda to turn the first real health-insurance reform since Medicare into a cause of the President’s low popularity and the Dems’ losses yesterday.

We humans are approaching an inflection point in our social evolution. We have a vital question to answer. Britain will have remained a viable democracy for eight centuries next year. That’s the longest lived in human history. But this achievement came at the cost of giving up empire. Ancient Rome remained an empire but degenerated into oligarchy long before that.

Our Yankee enterprise—so-called “America”—poses a new question. Can a nation keep the world-striding power of ancient Rome and, at the same time, stay a democracy, without degenerating into oligarchy?

The GOP, in essence, says no. It welcomes the oligarchy, while denying that gross inequality exists. It welcomes the Koch Brothers controlling national politics with their money because it believes, deep down, that their doing so is the natural order of things. Putin would understand and approve.

The Dems diagree. They answer yes, we certainly hope so, but so far without much conviction.

This is not a game. This is a Manichean struggle between two diametrically opposed views of human nature, human society and human social evolution. In mistaking tactics for strategy, abandoning their leader, and treating women as pawns, the Dems treated it like a game and lost big. How quickly they get their eyes back on the ball and resume the struggle will determine the near future of our nation, if not our species.

Who is Mitch McConnell?

It won’t happen until January. But after the newly elected senators take their seats, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, will be Majority Leader of our Senate.

Who is he, and what will he do? It’s hard to tell.

For most of his career his personality has seemed nonexistent. He recalls nothing so much as Valium.

But this week, in the heat of his survival campaign, his voice had real fire. “These people,” he said, “have run this country in the ground, and they need to be stopped.” He said it with a clear Kentucky twang, which you never hear him use in the Senate.

Translated from the Redneck, what he probably meant was this: “These black boys and college boys have taken away our coal mines, and we aren’t going to stand for it.”

Yet there’s another side to Mitch. He got, and survived, a Tea-Party challenge from his right, after making a debt-ceiling deal with the President and Democrats to avoid a third consecutive Republican government shutdown.

Did he do it just to avoid the public blame that surely would have followed a third try at GOP extortion? Or did he do it for the good of the people?

Has he learned that extortion doesn’t pay? Probably not. Just days ago, he promised his constituents that he would use apportionment bills to extract concessions from the President and Democrats. Precisely what those concessions might be, he didn’t say.

For years he’s been one of the loudest bangers of the debt-and-spending drum. But the deficit is now down well over 60% from what it was when the President took office.

Mitch has also been among the foremost bashers of “Obamacare.” But after last night’s GOP wave—and even during the campaign—it became clear that serious Republicans want to “fix” Obamacare, not repeal it, albeit without ever saying how.

Having turned the President’s success where others had failed for a century into a badge of infamy, the GOP had what they wanted. So-called “establishment” members of the party did not need to actually do something stupid, although they had tried enthusiastically to do it over fifty times before.

So will Mitch beat one or both of two dead horses, debt and Obamacare? Or will he do something else?

Does he have a plan? Does any pol whose greatest skill is pushing people’s buttons?

And if Mitch has a plan, is it just to put his state’s coal miners back to work, pollution and global warming be damned? Is it to follow the GOP mantra for any problem, no matter what it is: lower taxes, less regulation, and making sure the rich campaign donors get richer?

Mitch is hardly presidential material. Senate Majority Leader is as high as he can go. Now that he has reached the crowning achievement of his long career of pushing people’s buttons successfully, does he have any idea of what to do with the power he will have?

Does he really believe in the simplistic dogma that he spouts to get money and votes, or is he more intelligent than he seems? Is his only goal to put “his” coal miners back to work?

A lot rides on the answers, and optimistic ones are always possible. But Mitch does that redneck hate thing so well and so convincingly. It’s the only thing I ever heard him say with real conviction.

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