Using Bees To Effect Vengeance

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Friday, September 16, 2005
I had to excerpt a large chunk of Mark Schmitt's recent post because it's such a clear-eyed analysis of how the Republicans work their magic -- and by extension, what those who oppose their agenda need to do to counter them. There is no one better at explaining how politics works (the Robert Caro of the bloggers? -- and yes, I invoke the Holy One's name, blessed be He).

The Decembrist: Accountabilty Moment:

I think their attitude, and tactically it's a brilliant insight, is that only a few things count: winning presidential elections, keeping absolute control of Congress -- which means not just a Republican majority but a malleable one -- and winning on the few things that matter to their cash constituents -- tax cuts, tort reform, tax cuts, energy bill subsidies, tax cuts, bankruptcy changes, and eliminating Social Security. The war was also important, for a lot of reasons, but not least because it established the president's authority to act without any check, domestic or external and gave Bush the advantages of a "wartime president." Everything else is means to those ends. The president's popularity dipped into the low 40s, and they passed the energy bill anyway -- what more proof do you need that the president's poll numbers hardly matter, if you control the instutions? Before Katrina, they were on the verge of permanent repeal of the estate tax plus another tax cut in reconciliation, even with Bush's numbers in the toilet!

That's why I didn't fully accept Garance's argument last week that they aren't really PR geniuses because of the poll numbers -- they don't need the poll numbers until they need the poll numbers, and when they need them, they figure they can find a way to push them up a bit and/or push the relevant Democrats down. (Or, another way to put it, is that they may not be PR geniuses, but they actually know that the exercise of power does not depend entirely on PR.)

I think of Rove as looking at past presidencies and seeing them as weakened because they worried too much about consequences that didn't really matter, such as the judgment of history or short-term popularity. Bush 41 thought that he had to do something about the deficit, or there would be consequences. So he got drawn into the Andrews Air Force Base budget summit, which earned him a fight within his own party. But Rove recognizes that there's a lot you can get away with if you just act like you can get away with it, especially if you raise the stakes, and as a result he moves with much greater freedom. It seems to me that part of their genius is they've gotten rid of much of the "you just can't do that" mentality of politics, and stripped everything down to the bare essence of what they can get away with.

One of my biggest worries is that that's a genie that will be very hard to put back in the bottle. Politics, like much of civilization, depends on the existence of some unquestioned, "it just isn't done" customs. An example that I've mentioned a couple times is the explicity theory, proven once again in the CAFTA vote, that you want to pass a bill with as narrow a margin as possible, because every vote over 218 in the House is wasted and might represent a compromise. That's not something that legislative strategists ever thought before -- they wanted to go into votes with the most comfortable margin, and to win with enough to have a clear endorsement against future challenges. And I'm convinced that Bush/Rove brought that same mindset to the presidential campaign. Most incumbents would want to have a nice Reagan-in-1984-type landslide in order to feel a clear mandate. But Rove/Bush thought that of every vote above 51% as a wasted concession; they knew that all Bush had to do was win, and he could declare the mandate.

So "accountability" means understanding one of the two or three things that they do care about, and beating them on those things. We must start beating tax cuts, ideally with Republican votes. Win back the House or Senate this fall, if only so that Democrats have subpoena power somewhere, something they can't tolerate. But if it's not one of the things that they care about -- if it's just one of their means, not their ends -- then while it may give us some satisfaction, it doesn't fundamentally break down their racket. (Bad poll #s, indictment on Plame, exposure of Medicare scam, etc.)


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