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Tilting at Windmills

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July 6, 2010

WHEN CYNICISM WORKS.... I was watching a local public affairs show the other day when the host, a neutral reporter with no obvious ideological leanings, noted how upset many voters are that "Congress left town last week without extending unemployment benefits." The other panelists on program nodded their heads. Not a word was spoken, however, about who, specifically, was responsible for the developments.

Kevin Drum noted a similar situation he saw over the weekend.

Last night we had some friends over for the 4th and I got to talking with one of them about politics. He's a conservative-leaning guy, but he was pretty upset about the unemployment situation. "Congress just took off for the holidays leaving this mess behind," he stewed. We went on to agree that everyone hates Congress. Its approval rating is somewhere between that of pedophile priests and Osama bin Laden.

But that's as far as it went: Congress. Not Republicans. Just "Congress." And that's why obstructionism works so well for them. Partisans are partisans and are going to hate the other party no matter what. But then there's the vast middle ground of people who lean one way or the other but don't spend all day reading blogs or listening to talk radio. And as long as they view the problem as "Congress," that's bad news for whoever's in charge at the moment.

Ben Nelson aside, there's not much question which party is holding up unemployment benefits. You know it, I know it, reporters know it, and political junkies of all stripes know it. But lots of people don't. They see a headline that says "Congress Adjourns Without Acting on Unemployment" and they don't read much further. Every time that happens, it's a big win for the GOP. And it happens a lot.

Greg Sargent writes about this dynamic fairly often, and it's a persuasive, albeit frustrating, observation. Republicans deliberately create government dysfunction ... which makes voters, who hate the dysfunction, angry ... which leads them to vote for more Republicans since Democrats are the majority party and get blamed when the status quo breaks down.

Indeed, this goes further than just public perceptions about gridlock -- the consequences fuel more public outrage. As Josh Marshall noted yesterday, "Republicans block any measures to buoy or resuscitate economy, call sputtering economy evidence of superiority of Republican policies, reap political benefit. Rinse. Restart."

When it comes to exploiting public anxieties and frustrations, it's about the most cynical scam imaginable, isn't it? The goal is to get the public to throw up its arms in disgust and think, "To hell with the whole bunch." Once that happens, Republicans are thrilled, creating an incentive for the GOP to do whatever it takes to make Washington even worse.

Best of all, there's not a whole lot to be done since, institutionally, we have a system that gives the majority power and gives the minority the ability to stop the majority from exercising that power. Bringing majority-rule back to the Senate would no doubt help, but that's not even on the table. An engaged, informed electorate, coupled with better political reporting from major media outlets, would make a huge difference, but that's nowhere in sight, either. A more moderate, pragmatic Republican Party would transform Washington, but so long as the GOP is rewarded for its extremism, that's a fanciful dream.

We're left with a political landscape in which voters punish Democrats for Republicans' actions.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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Comments

Put another way, we get the government we deserve when most of the populace doesn't give enough of a damn to inform themselves of what's actually happening in the country.

Posted by: K in VA on July 6, 2010 at 10:18 AM | PERMALINK

The media will compulsively play this game since the False Equivalency is now conventional wisdom when it comes to partisan politics. A mainsteram party is the same thing as a bunch of right-wing nihilists. Obama will not correct this misapprehension. The DNC will pass up the opportunity to correct as well. Who's left?

Posted by: walt on July 6, 2010 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

Yeah, pretty much everyone on this site and other progressive bloggers have been commenting on and predicting this dynamic for about a year now.

So what do we do about it? What can we do about it? Those who have been commenting and predicting have been wondering all along why the WH and Dems aren't on the offensive, calling out Republicans and educating the public as to why things aren't getting done. This dynamic touches on all things, not just unemployment, but also on anything that makes government function and allows it to do what it is supposed to do.

As Atrios writes "...whether or not President Snowe agrees, they should make the case. Loudly. Continuously." But we're not seeing anyone making the case loudly or continuously. Why?

Posted by: terraformer on July 6, 2010 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

"An engaged, informed electorate, coupled with better political reporting from major media outlets, would make a huge difference, but that's nowhere in sight, either."

In a recent poll:

30% of Texans think humans walked with dinosaurs. 30 percent didn't know how to answer the question.

An engaged, informed electorate? Dream on.....

Posted by: Zarbi on July 6, 2010 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

We're left with a political landscape in which voters to punish Democrats for Republicans' actions.

Uh, no.

We're in a situation where the majority party, the Democrats, haven't solved the problems they were sent to Washington to solve.

"60 votes" is a self made Washington rule, not something mandated by statute or the Constitution.

If the Democrats can't solve the problems that voters needs, the voter have *every* right to turf them out.

Voters are rationale.

Posted by: Observer on July 6, 2010 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

The media is stacked against them, but the Democrats seem to be afraid to use whatever voice they have to correct the situation.

Posted by: qwerty on July 6, 2010 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

What would be wrong with Obama going on TV and simply telling the country that the Republicans are responsible for this?

I know Obama supposedly "bombed" in his oil spill speech, but how else can you get through?

Posted by: Upper West on July 6, 2010 at 10:26 AM | PERMALINK

The President of the United States is constantly accompanied by a press corps. Every word the President utters is news and is reported if this crew of several hundred people hear it. If the President were a Democrat we might be hearing something about GOP obstructionism.

Posted by: rk on July 6, 2010 at 10:28 AM | PERMALINK

As someone who has spent a small-to-moderate amount of time volunteering for campaigns in the 2002 through 2008 election cycles (my congressman sent out at least two direct mail pieces in 2006 targeting me personally), I'm throwing up my hands and saying "To hell with the whole bunch" precisely because Democrats are doing such a shitty job of calling out GOP intransigence.

There's more Democrats could be doing. For basically a generation, whenever a GOP majority has had pet legislation to pass, they have taken their case to the public with messaging about how Democrats are obstructionists/traitors/soft on crime/soft on terrorism/etc. and generated public support for their agenda. The GOP has provided a playbook Democrats could follow, but Reid, Pelosi and Obama seem to either be clueless about how the game is played, or unwilling to play it.

The economy is in bad shape, and unemployment is disgracefully high. Obama/Reid/Pelosi need to significantly step up their game in making the case for additional stimulus, and must be willing to breach 'decorum' and find a way to do it with a bare majority in the Senate if need be. Bob Shrum, of all people, gave one example of how Reid might play this game to win, one which was referenced here.

If Bob Shrum can come up with a good idea about how to score political victories, the Democratic leadership should be able to do the same. As far as I'm concerned, Obama, Reid and Pelosi are fiddling while Rome burns.

Leaders lead. I ain't seeing it from the Democratic 'leadership', and that's why I'm pissed at Congress. To hell with them all.

Posted by: David Bailey on July 6, 2010 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

I don't think you can let Democratic leadership off the hook. The media bias has been a fact for a decade now, and anyone paying attention heard the GOP plan for obstruction before Obama entered the Oval Office. Yet the Democratic leadership continues to play softball with the nihilist GOP. It's disgusting.

Posted by: biggerbox on July 6, 2010 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

@ Zarbi and 23% could not identify who we fought the revolutionary war against. Mexicans? Spanish?
Brawndo for Everybody . Idiocracy, The Documentary

Posted by: john R on July 6, 2010 at 10:34 AM | PERMALINK

...creating an incentive for the GOP to do whatever it takes to make Washington even worse.

Creating? The party of "government is the problem" has always had the incentive to disrupt the smooth functioning of government.

Posted by: Grumpy on July 6, 2010 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

I guess my question is why does Harry Reid dismiss the senate for the holiday. Doesn't he have the power to keep the Senate going? Wouldn't the threat at least bring attention to the media?

Posted by: Clifton on July 6, 2010 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK

"If the Democrats can't solve the problems that voters needs, the voter have *every* right to turf them out.

Voters are rationale."

Yes. If the re-election of GWB and the institutionalization of discrimination in nearly every state constitution are any indicators, the voters are very rational... Yes indeedy!

Somewhere between a fundamentalist preacher and a meth addict.

Posted by: Zarbi on July 6, 2010 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK

Democrats in the Senate let the Senate adjourn without dealing with the "fiscal responsibility" ploy the Republicans have engaged in. Democrats are responsible for letting the GOP Senators do whatever they want without any consequences.

Harry Reid needs to learn one concept in game theory -- tit for tat works ("I will be nice to you as long as you are nice. I won't start it, but every time you are a jerk to me, I will be an equally obnoxious jerk to you.").

Republicans have seen that Democrats will not stand up to them. They know that the Democrats will not do anything to break their abuse of Senate rules. Democrats have seen Republicans do this for almost four years, they have no excuse for allowing the rules to be set up for such abuse.

Posted by: freelunch on July 6, 2010 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

Democrats need to make the case that Republicans are doing this. But they don't want to seem as "bickering" or whatever, so they prefer to let the Republciants pwn them.

Posted by: Andy Olsen on July 6, 2010 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

The democrats control Congress. If voters are unhappy they will blame democrats for Congress's inaction, and rightfully so,

Posted by: Al on July 6, 2010 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

I had to complain about this to NPR again yesterday. In the intro to Cokie Roberts segment the announcer said the Dems were "unable to pass" the employment legislation. No mention of a Republican filibuster or a majority of the Senate being in favor, or the bill wasn't even voted upon because of the filibuster.

The MSM seems to be institutionally incapable of reporting the facts of the story when a Republican filibuster is involved.

Posted by: martin on July 6, 2010 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

If Bob Shrum can come up with a good idea about how to score political victories

Let me know if that happens.

Posted by: Danp on July 6, 2010 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

A Democratic party that were unified about this issue should be willing to give up the July 4 holiday to force the showdown with the GOP. But my guess is that Democrats don't feel the politics are good enough for them to do it. Voters are mad at them for "leaving town." Tey are also mad at them for "out of control spending." And constituents are expecting to see them at home for the patriotic festivities. Skipping those constituency events to keep the Senate in session would also anger voters. T

There is no way to make folks happy when the economy is this bad.

Posted by: Frannie on July 6, 2010 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

Zarbi,

In Nov 2004, less than a handful of people knew that Wall Street was scamming homeowners and would crash the world economy in 4 years time.

The voters had a choice between a sitting president who was fighting the bad guys versus a dweeby fellow who wouldn't even stick up for himself.

given the circumstances, they made the rational choice.

That it turned out bad is a different story.

Posted by: Observer on July 6, 2010 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

OK, so I'm mad as hell about Republicans wrecking the country for their own political benefit. What do you expect me to do about it?

Maybe OFA needs to set up phone banks in swing districts for the sole purpose of engaging people in a three-minute conversation about this reality. Maybe we need some sort of viral face-to-face effort where we all inform our friends who are supposed to go inform their friends etc. etc. ad infinitum.

Please, somebody, suggest a practical step. I'm tired of reading PA and throwing up my hands in disgust.

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on July 6, 2010 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

Shrum's idea was for Obama to force Congress to stay in session until they pass an employment bill. But Obama would never do that because it might upset President Snowe.

If the Democrats played the game like the Republicans they would pass their agenda in a budget reconciliation bill, which needs only 51 Senate votes, and let the Republicans howl. Wake me up when the Democrats find enough fight to play hardball.

Posted by: Steve on July 6, 2010 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

And constituents are expecting to see them at home for the patriotic festivities. Skipping those constituency events to keep the Senate in session would also anger voters.

Seriously? You think voters are going to be upset when their reps claim to be working hard on the crises at hand?

If a photo op with fireworks is desired, Washington can provide that.

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on July 6, 2010 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

I've said it before and I'll say it again:

Republicans believe that government is the problem. And they prove it every time they get elected.

Posted by: chrenson on July 6, 2010 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

Shrum's idea was for Obama to force Congress to stay in session until they pass an employment bill.

Obama isn't part of the legislative branch. How do you propose that he carry out this coercion? The bully pulpit?

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on July 6, 2010 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

@Danp: Did you follow the link I provided? Yes, it is difficult to believe that Shrum had a good idea, but as my father always says: "Even a blind sow finds an acorn now and then".

Anyway, I liked Kevin Drum's discussion of it, so here's another link you might consider clicking on:

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2010_07/024553.php

Posted by: David Bailey on July 6, 2010 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

If the Prez wants a democratic congress to work with, he better get off his ass and start kicking some. Time to support the party and get out the base, as well as forcefully educating the independents that the congress is stalled because of the GOP. If he doesn't spend every bit of capital he's got, he'll be pulling a Clinton in his first term.

Posted by: rbe1 on July 6, 2010 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

At risk of spamming, I don't want to bury my essential question.

We're all mad as hell about what the Republicans are doing. What can we do about it?

I'm tired of posting blog comments instead of changing things.

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on July 6, 2010 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

Majority rule in Congress will be established as soon as the Republicans have majorities and a President. It will then be used to get rid of majority rule by voters.

Posted by: JMG on July 6, 2010 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

Equal Opportunity Cynic:

We're all mad as hell about what the Republicans are doing. What can we do about it?

Um, nothing? The problem is, Obama, Reid and Pelosi are doing a shitty job fighting the battle for public opinion, much less winning it. I don't see anything the average liberal can do to get them to fight it more effectively.

We can write our own blog posts, write/call our elected congresscritters (if they're Dems), write letters to the editor. If MoveOn or some similar organization passes around a petition or organizes some rallies, we can participate.

But as far as what we can do to actually influence the behavior of our so-called 'leaders', I got nuthin'.

Posted by: David Bailey on July 6, 2010 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

At the risk of spamming, here's the link to Kevin Drum I meant to include in my earlier comment:

http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2010/07/democratic-unity-possible.

Posted by: David Bailey on July 6, 2010 at 11:18 AM | PERMALINK

The key quote here is "Ben Nelson aside ...." You simply cannot ignore the fact that Republican obstructionism is successful ONLY because it has the support of Blue Dog Democratic enablers like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln. So why does the White House continue to support these closet Republicans who oppose the Democratic agenda at every turn?

Posted by: fradiavolo on July 6, 2010 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Making the other side actually fucking filibuster would be a good start! This only have to threaten to filibuster has been the problem all along, if the democrats think it is to hard then fucking quit and let someone else do the job.

Posted by: Fed Up and Tired on July 6, 2010 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

The Constitution gives the president the power to call the Congress into session whenever s/he wants. Obama has the authority to force Congress to remain in session if he wanted.

Posted by: Steve on July 6, 2010 at 11:56 AM | PERMALINK

These people knew about the unemployment benefits not being extended, so they must have been exposed to some "news." Again, the GOP knows that most people don't sit around reading blogs, so they create a simple message, repeat it often and loudly, and then let it seep into the electorate. The Democrats would be wise to do the same. Every Democrat, particularly in the Senate (except Ben Nelson), should be stumping and bellyaching in every venue about the GOP blocking the extension of unemployment benefits and how that failure to extend benefits derails the economic recovery. If the Dems continue to rely on the media to "cover the story," rather than create the story themselves, they will continue on the path of failure and defeat. The Democrats have never learned how to seize the message, which is why they win only when the GOP has full control and screws up spectacularly (e.g., Bush). It's actually painful to watch the GOP, which is made up of halfwits, deranged conspiracy theorists, and aging racists, run circles around the Democrats, who treat politics like debate club in high school. It's just sad.

Posted by: ameshall on July 6, 2010 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

The Democrats started the most recent Congress by approving the fillibuster rule, making it nearly impossible to pass any legislation. They had 60 votes and refused to pass an adequate stimulus bill or a cost-cutting health care bill. They will go into next year without having passed a budget, making it impossible to pass anything through reconciliation. At some point, the party that controls the White House and has huge majorities in both houses of congress has to take responsibility for its failures.

Posted by: Alan in SF on July 6, 2010 at 12:22 PM | PERMALINK

I'm um, happy (?) to report that at the cook-out I went to this past weekend, we all blamed our new senator, Scott Brown. There was only one Republican attending, who weakly bleated, "Brown's just trying to make sure things are paid for..." before we all agreed that we shouldn't talk politics.
I apologize to the entire rest of the country on behalf of Massachusetts. It's our fault.

Posted by: gifgrrl on July 6, 2010 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

"Bringing majority-rule back to the Senate would no doubt help, but that's not even on the table."

And who's not putting it on the table, Steve?

Look, the Republicans are the other team. It's not their job to help Democrats put points on the board. The Democrats need to recognize that and quit whining about it.

End. The. Damn. Filibuster.

Posted by: somethingblue on July 6, 2010 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

The filibuster is a necessary part of the senate to stop bad legislation. The bastardization of the filibuster which we have now is just pure laziness, which is one of the biggest problems with Washington today. Getting rid of the filibuster would surely come back to bite future senators and give the republicans fodder for bashing current Democrats and any bills that may be passed with out it in place.

Making them actually do it would bring press coverage to who is doing it and it would stop the abuse that is currently going on.

Posted by: Fed Up and Tired on July 6, 2010 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

"Bringing majority-rule back to the Senate would no doubt help, but that's not even on the table." Since that's not on the table, how is it not the Democrats' fault that the GOP minority can obstruct the majority? I know that the press will paint any attempt to reform the Senate so that majority rule would become the norm, but the Democrats seem more afraid of being criticized by the villagers for doing that than they do of losing their majority because the voters perceive them (rightly) as being ineffective. Meanwhile, unemployment goes unaddressed.

Posted by: mrgumby2u on July 6, 2010 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

Why the hell is "Bringing majority-rule back to the Senate would no doubt help, but that's not even on the table" then? Someone had better at least put in on the table. And if we don't end the filibuster, it can at least be harder to do than just pushing buttons. Regardless of potential future dangers, it is not acceptable as is.

Posted by: neil b on July 6, 2010 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

About 85% of you don't know what you are talking about. Every time Obama goes stumping or fundraising he brings up republican obstruction.

There are a handful of Dems who back him up and the rest just sit silent or they go write a post on The Huffington Post or they go talk to Rachel or Keith. Liberal bloggers do the same thing. Supporters do the same thing.

HERE'S A TIP FOR THOSE WHO ARE FRUSTRATED:

Stop. Preaching. To. The. Choir. Get the message out beyond the usual Liberal audience and talk to people who don't follow the news. Get on the morning talk shows and complain about republican obstructionism, write a Letter to the Editor of your local paper (ya'll have so much to say here), contact your reps and let them know your frustrations regarding this issue, contact the DNC and give them some ideas. I know some Liberals don't want to support Dems, but you sure as hell can hammer the GOP. Aren't you tired of the MSM only mentioning the Left when they are mad at Obama?

Posted by: Alli on July 6, 2010 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, I stand corrected. I should read that pocket Constitution I have lying around from when I was Libertarian.

===

Alli: I agree, and I try to do this (e.g. by posting links on social networking sites). Problem is, if I do this too much then people filter me out. The "pox on both their houses" mindset is very entrenched right now, very cool, very hip.

Someone commented on the deficit chart I posted, "I don't believe this kind of finger-pointing is helpful." I actually believe it's very helpful. It helps us deconstruct Republican demagoguery and understand that they don't care a flying damn about the deficit.

But I don't know how to sell those ideas to people predisposed to believe that all politicians are equally corrupt.

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on July 6, 2010 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

"The voters had a choice between a sitting president who was fighting the bad guys versus a dweeby fellow who wouldn't even stick up for himself.

given the circumstances, they made the rational choice."

Wrong! They made a choice based on emotion and rampant anti-intellectualism. Believe me. I lived in Texas during that election. Republicans conveniently got same-sex initiatives on many ballots. They knew the knuckle-draggers would turn out en masse, independent of the REAL issues.

Rationalism is far remote planet in relationship to this country.

Posted by: Zarbi on July 6, 2010 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

If the Republican strategy of preventing government from working so that voters will vote against the majority party works when Republicans are in the minority, then what happens if the logical result puts the Democrats into the minority? Can Democrats use the same strategy against the Republicans?

If Democratic leaders won't use that strategy against Republicans then the Democrats need new leaders.

Posted by: Rick B on July 6, 2010 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

Excuse me. It is usually Ben Nelson and Blue dog Democrats who refuse to follow the party line and the president as well. That makes the "Congress refused to vote " line true. The Democrats should read the riduculous rules of Senat and house and come up with something to combat the rules the Republicans are using. Will Democrats use these rules if Republicans are in the majority? Hell NO!

Posted by: MLJohnston on July 6, 2010 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

RickB: If the Republican strategy of preventing government from working so that voters will vote against the majority party works when Republicans are in the minority, then what happens if the logical result puts the Democrats into the minority?

Then Democrats roll over and vote as Republicans tell them to, terrified that they'll be portrayed as soft on security or pro-taxes (which is how the Republicans portray them anyway).

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on July 6, 2010 at 6:35 PM | PERMALINK

To Rick B:

The problem is the republican strategy is built on not making changes, Bush II years aside, while the democrats need to have action and make changes. Basically the republicans can be successful even at 40, and would have a very hard time much above 51, while the democrats have a hard time being successful even at 60. The system is beyond antiquated, and is now actively working against our own interests and really needs to be updated for a 21st century world and beyond, rather than trying to force an 18th century government on us.

Posted by: corwin on July 7, 2010 at 9:52 AM | PERMALINK

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