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.