Wednesday, October 16, 2013

New Right-Leaning Hacks Needed: Must Have Life Experience

There is a term for a family that pretends away terrible and self-destructive behavior, and it's not "healthy." It's time to confront some hard truths about our own, even if we often agree with them, especially if we do.

The Right's political chattering class is exactly as useless as that on the Left and the ... well, the rest of the Left.

Now, I need to clarify what I mean by "useless." I'm sure they're largely capable of tying their own shoes, and most of them can tie their one-to-two children's shoes quite well. I'm reasonably positive they can operate microwaves without emptying the utensil basket from the dishwasher inside first. Many of them show fluency with English somewhere between recent monolingual arrivals from Mongolia and people who graduated with journalism degrees; some are even functionally literate. At least a quarter have read the Constitution in toto. Some have met elected officials in a situation other than a very, very large dinner party, and a handful have met a range of successful and unsuccessful politicians during the candidate stage.

In fact, because most political coverage is not hard, as the subject is not hard, they are capable of writing more-or-less sensical things about politics with some regularity. In the sense that one uses their commentary to inform oneself about whether continued quantitative easing is a good idea or bad idea (without getting into the channels by which the liquidity enters the system), whether certain kinds of stem cell research are good or bad (without discussing at length the science that goes into this), and whether Harry Reid is a vicious partisan, they are generally useful.

In specialized situations, that is, when politics becomes hard, they are basically useless.

This is because they are essentially English or journalism or political science or sociology or psychology or some equally useless kind of major who have never worked a political campaign, run a business, done hard policy in an elected office, handled any sort of negotiations more complicated than demanding a raise from their parents, or indeed, had life experience of any significant sort other than bill-paying on compensation not quite as low as they'd have you believe.

If that sounds like Barack Obama's resume, you said it, not I.

Unfortunately for them and for us, right now, national politics is hard because there are no clear lines.

To frame this from a certain perspective:

We have been in a situation in which the House was refusing to fund the government because the majority has decided not to without certain conditions; a majority in the Senate wouldn't agree to any spending plan put forward by the House unless they meet yet more conditions; the White House wouldn't agree to anything unless its own conditions (similar to but not identical to the Senate's conditions) are met; and none of these groups have (quite) yet found a compromise.

So the object of these events is the funding of the government. It is the largest part of the leverage each side has with the other (because each side is, in the aggregate, seeing a negative reaction from the voters). However, what each side is negotiating over is not the government's re-opening, but rather over the terms on which the government will-reopen (or more accurately, the 17% of the government plus property under the control of the Park Service will re-open).

It is of course more complicated than that.

John Boehner was expected by his caucus to take a hard stand with a Senate Majority Leader who hates Boehner's caucus (and Boehner) and who does not want to negotiate and a President who hates Boehner's caucus (and Boehner) and who does not want to negotiate, while also trying to pacify or at least serve his caucus (who mistrust him and almost tossed him from his position earlier this year), while in turn not wanting to take a hard stand at all, but rather preferring to pretend to take a hard stand in an impossible position so he could yield quickly and claim the stakes were too high.

Basically, he was a man in an impossible position from which he cannot easily escape and who wanted nothing to do with this fight at all, yet has no choice but to be in it.

Yet Boehner is not the only actor on his side. He has a caucus of over two hundred individual Congressmen who do not particularly care about generic ballots, and indeed, really only care about the ones with their names on it. A huge portion came into office in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012; which is to say, they either swam against Democratic tides or came in response to anger at Democrats in general and Obamacare in particular. Many if not most of them either believe they were sent to defeat Obamacare, believe they will be primaried out of office if they don't make the attempt, or both.

Now, you'll note that I did not mention Ted Cruz here. That is because Ted Cruz has very little to do with this except in the sense that he is very popular with the people who could toss them in primaries.

You'll also note that I did not say these men and women are idiots, though many of them are. That's because their intelligence is not actually at issue in the way national pundits assume, because national pundits come from a group of people who are not only likely to have an IQ slightly higher than 100, but they assume everyone outside of their class and Nobel laureates is kinda stupid. What matters is whether these men and women have an instinct for political survival, and by and large, the evidence suggests they do.

From this complicated morass of conflicting interests and negotiating figures, someone with experience closing hard deals, mediating or negotiating between principals who hate each other and with conflicting desires, or indeed, someone who did something more complicated than writing a really kick-ass paper on political choice theory after college can understand that statements like "the Republicans are being stupid" or "the GOP is being stubborn" or "this is all Ted Cruz's fault" or even "Boehner is making the best of a bad situation" are remarkably simplistic and, let us not thread the needle too carefully, dumb.

Let me take an easy example here: Ross Douthat. (An easier example would be Conor Friedersdorf, but it's not fair to single out people suffering from actual mental retardation.) Not to pick on him; Douthat is an incredibly sharp fellow, and I don't say this just because he once worked somewhere besides the New York Times. But he rather clearly never worked anywhere in which negotiations happen before, because, as we see here, he apparently believes that Boehner agreeing to re-open the government would be a concession in terms by itself.

(Ignore Joseph Weisenthal. The Left is allowed to be stupid. They and their fellow-travelers in the media excuse each other all the time, so when they say dumb things, they get away with it. We have to be smart, or at least not stupid.)

Now, as I've laid out above, this is exactly wrong. By Douthat's reasoning, the plaintiff mediating in a lawsuit is conceding on the lawsuit itself, when really, he's conceding on how much money he will accept and the terms of the release in order to dismiss the lawsuit.

The concession will be over what terms Boehner accepts and includes in a spending bill (and in turn that his caucus accepts). Boehner is absolutely horrible at this sort of thing, as the 2011 debt ceiling showed, and as this year's tax hike also showed, and only part of his being awful at it is because he contrives to place himself in situations where he will lose by design.

It is the terms Boehner extracted during the debt ceiling fight in 2011 that so rankled his caucus, not the fact that he agreed to extend the debt ceiling per se. (Assuredly, some of his caucus were upset about that, but they're a minority of a minority and not wholly relevant here.) The terms he accepted -- and that his leadership team backed -- are part of why his caucus (and Ted Cruz!) and more importantly, his caucus's primary voters, don't trust him to make hard decisions and to take hard stands. This is because the terms were themselves concessions that satisfied virtually no one in his caucus.

It's why it's entirely reasonable to expect Boehner to try to sell something weak that by its nature would be a concession in terms to his caucus as the condition for funding the 17 percent of the government currently not technically funded. (This is, apparently, what happened.)

Again, I'm not picking on Douthat. He really is a very bright and persuasive fellow, and he has a knack for constructing conservative arguments in a way that is very hard for men and women of good faith to treat as ridiculous regardless of their place in the political spectrum. His last few years of work in particular have been incredibly good.

But he, and so many others like him, walked into punditry without understanding from their own life experience how hard things in human interaction work. This means they're very, very good (or sometimes terrible or mediocre) at making the philosophical argument for this policy or that policy; but they don't understand what really motivates most political actors, they don't understand so much of what those actors do, and so they fall back on easy, cheap, and ultimately stupid simplifications that do a disservice to their readership.

What this means is that right-of-center readers (and people who read right-of-center writers to understand the motivations and cross-currents in the conservative movement and Republican party) are being profoundly cheated.

The problem is that most of the people with life experience to explain these things have other things to do with their lives. Hell, this took two billable hours from my day, and I've only done the working-a-campaign part briefly and I do the negotiating-with-people-who-hate part every day of my life. The group of people who have all of the qualifications, or most, needed to do this have better things to do with their lives.

So here's my quick and easy solution: Every, single pundit on the right who draws a paycheck for these things needs to actually get some political experience first. Lefties get to do it, you should too. A state-level campaign is fine, but really, anything will do. Try to spend a term or so in office with real demands and real negotiations and real fights.

Then come out and tell us how the GOP is being stupid. You'll be right both on the substance, and on the particulars.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Why the Immigration Bill is Doomed to Succeed

Vidalia, Georgia, is actually a pleasant place. Most Yankees would think it a blip on the road as they drive through (do Yankees drive?), but it's actually in many ways a very pleasant Georgia town with nice people, a certain kind of picturesque landscape, and a subtly bustling work ethic.

Vidalia is (unfairly) famous for one thing and one thing only: its sweet onions. The soil in the Vidalia area produces a special kind of onion that is actually palatable raw, unlike most onions which require cooking or disguise inside of some other food. As with most agricultural producers, the farmers who produce those onions have historically relied on migrant day labor to harvest the crops. In pre-2013 PC-speak, of course, "migrant day labor" means "illegal aliens." (Now, it apparently means "undocumented already-Americans whom racists won't admit are already Americans.")

The onion crop is harvested by undocumented-already-Americans in the spring, and so in 1998, after the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the precursor to the lightning-quick and efficient Immigration and Customs Enforcement) spent over a year warning the farmers that they were cheating the wage and hour laws and the immigration laws and that this was, you know, illegal, INS decided to launch raids on the farms when the illegals, pardon, undocumenteds would be present.

That's harvest time.

The farmers squawked. Congressman Jack Kingston and the late Senator Paul Coverdell, both Republicans, took time out of failing to do anything in particular about the Clinton Administration and thundered at INS. INS knew who wrote their checks and who was President at the time and so backed down. The "compromise" the parties reached would be utterly unsurprising to anyone who has watched American immigration policy in execution for the last three decades: INS would agree not to deport any illegals, the farmers would pinky swear not to do this again, and the Republican Congressmen, one of whom had spent a decade thundering about illegal immigration, praised this humane solution.

Coverdell, absolutely immune to situational irony, implied that INS was duty-bound to ignore the immigration laws because the laws had been flouted and largely ignored for years by that point.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. It is basically the way in which Republicans have approached immigration for nearly three decades: when the rubes are listening it's secure the border and our laws must be obeyed. When money talks, it's the rules are for suckers.

Senators Ayotte and Rubio are of course the most recent examples of this; they are hardly alone.
The problem is of course larger than immigration. It extends to the pro-life cause (Republicans are not nearly in danger of taking federal funds from Planned Parenthood, and abortion will be unsafe, legal, and common into the twenty-second century in no small parts thanks to the party), spending (John McCain is not the only Senator to rail against prolific spending in general and demand it for his home state), and indeed, almost everything else. (I could also take shots at former Presidents Bush and Reagan, but you get the idea.)

Yet today, the issue is immigration, so let's discuss that.

We Will Have Comprehensive Immigration Reform Precisely Because It's A Bad Idea

I feel I should put my cards on the table. My views on immigration have liberalized over the last eight years, spurred in part by my realization at the time that world birth rates are plummeting, and by the realization that Republicans dare not actually do anything to fix the mess they've created over the last three decades. I favor legalization of those here (blah blah exceptions) and a path to citizenship, albeit one significantly more arduous than legal immigrants face. (We should not, after all, reward lawbreaking, even if we must stomach it.) We don't make new people at home, so we need more of them, and as business interests just want a helot class, I want to deny them that.

I feel we also need to liberalize our unskilled and skilled immigration laws to allow more of both into the country.

But I also feel that it is important to be honest. An honest description of what I am describing, regardless of any soon-to-be-waived taxes or fines on which legalization and citizenship are predicated, is an amnesty. The immigration bill before the Senate now, with due respect to Congressman Ryan, is an amnesty, in the same way that the militia will be absolved of its crimes if it disarms is an amnesty. No one thinks the latter isn't an amnesty; merely because conditions are attached to legal forgiveness of lawbreaking does not change the nature of the forgiveness.

I say all of this because I feel we also need to know what elected Republicans have said for three decades. They say we must secure the border and our laws must be respected when facing the electorate. But what they are really saying by their actions is this:
We think you're too stupid to get this, so here it is. We don't care about being a permanent minority party under Democrat rule. We don't care about depressing and at the same time burdening the labor market in weird ways. We don't care about a political shift to the left because frankly that's where we live anyway. We don't care about enforcing the law, and that after what we've done for three decades you think we do, is a persuasive argument about ending elections permanently. We think you're all a bunch of dumb racists, you were too stupid to know not to elect us, and so we are going to have a big amnesty and make the next wave of this easier because our big money backers think you're dumb racists and half of them want a helot class. Dig? What are you gonna do, vote for the Democrats?
Now as I said, this is hardly limited to immigration. If you took the Republican Party at its word, you would expect to see men and women dedicated to cutting spending, balancing the budget, ending the slaughter of the unborn, enforcing our laws, beefing up our national security, and slowly easing down the welfare state. If you take them on their actions, you would expect to hear them talk about growing government, running deficits, keeping abortion legal, tossing our laws out the window, spending a lot on defense systems while shuddering at using them, and expanding entitlements.

The problem for Republicans is that on none of these things have they been honest. Ayotte and Rubio campaigned against comprehensive immigration reform and are now staking their credibility on it. The House leadership is a reminder that the House leadership is pretty awful and worse, hasn't really changed since the 2006 drubbing.

So when Rubio or Cornyn (haha!) or any other Republican other than John McCain promises there will be border security, no one believes them because no one is that stupid any longer. When they promise that there will be hurdles to jump before the people whose first act on entering our country was to break our laws can become citizens, no one believes them because those hurdles are already being horse-traded away, and again, three decades is too long for even Republican voters to remain stupid.

But the bill will pass anyway. Elected Republicans will calculate that the opponents of the bill are racists, because the fellow members of their class will say so, and will ignore the fact that it merely fossilizes decades of broken promises, burdens the labor market, dragoons employers into being federal agents, does nothing to alleviate labor shortages, depresses prevailing wages, expands entitlement spending, and incidentally treats our laws as dreck.

Because, and this is important, they don't care about those things either.

But the Party Will Suffer

The problem in the short term is not the anti-immigration-reform folks (as opposed to anti-immigrant folks, who are a fraction of a fraction of a minority, or the racists, who are less). Republicans know they'll just stupidly vote for Republicans, because the Democrats are at least honest about what they're doing.

The short term problem is that the upset people, racist or not, anti-immigrant or not, will jump like scalded cats, and media folks desperate to protect the Precious will latch onto this to prove Republicans are racist. Good-bye independent votes, hello President Clinton, Redux. That Marco Rubio cannot see this, and cannot see what he is creating, should permanently disqualify him from the Presidency.

The long run problem is that those same people will gradually wonder why they bother. They will be like those missing Republican voters in 2000 and 2012 who looked at what was on offer and couldn't figure out why to vote. Lest you think they were wrong to make that conclusion (and they were), you aren't going to argue them out of it. And God knows we don't try, and even if we did, I'm not sure what we'd say to them.

The problem is that in the long run, Republican voters will realize that their elected officials hold them in contempt, and accelerate the path downhill. That's a bad thing, though as I get older, the relative badness of it seems less with each passing day.

But don't worry. There will always be a few rubes left who believe Republicans.