Friday, April 29, 2005

Reality's revenge

Another thought – this administration has, famously, rejected the nostrums of the “reality-based community,” often with spectacular political success. As the Iraq war approached it was amazing to watch Bush trample the foreign policy consensus, not knowing whether he would emerge victorious (either politically or on the battlefield) or crash and burn and take us all with him. Social Security was Bush's next big counter-intuitive attempt to impose his own vision on reality and prove the consensus wrong. But this time reality is encroaching on the Bush enclave, not the other way round. Coming to terms with that may be proving difficult. Giving up on Social Security would make Iraq look like a fluke - a one-time roll of the dice that, in political terms, came up lucky.

Bush's head

What is Bush trying to do? There must be some reason the White House political strategy is so screwed up. The linchpin of its entire agenda, Social Security, is looking like a failure. People don’t want what Bush is selling. But for some reason Bush is not changing course. He’s still tinkering, trying out different things, etc. You wouldn’t expect him to simply give up, but to cleverly pivot onto something – anything – else in his issue toolbox: changing the tax system, for instance. This has been the Bush MO since his days in Texas. But it hasn’t happened, and there are rising poltical costs to the White House and Republicans in Congress.

What has changed since the old, compromise-friendly Bush was running things? Two events – Iraq and reelection. The chief reason for plowing ahead on a sure loser may be because changing Social Security is at the heart of Bush’s self-image – and self-regard – as president: that he is a world-historical figure doing bold and unexpected things that will resonate in future generations. That includes promoting democracy and remaking the American political system. Maybe Social Security is not just a political issue for Bush. For whatever reason – his place in history, permanent GOP hegemony, or he stayed up late running the numbers and envisioned the looming specter of old people in the streets once the trust fund runs dry (uh) – he believes that pressing on is the only option, and will somehow redound to his favor. He has migrated to a place in his thinking where the kind of backhanded compromise necessary in this situation is not worth it.

The White House appears to have gone into the SS issue believing it could do something similar to what it did with the American public and the Iraq war. If there were additional difficulties, then the clout garnered from winning reelection could overcome them. But the political terrain is completely different. Put in the broadest, crudest sense, Iraq did address a kind of gut-level yearning a lot of people had to strike back – at someone, something, anything – in the wake of 911. And the costs, though high, have yet to be felt by most people except military families. To the degree that people have doubts or yearnings over Social Security, it’s that it still be there in some kind of recognizable form. After he rendered Iraq unrecognizable, why would the public let Bush loose on Social Security?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Frist agonistes

Bill Frist today comes out and says “No deals!” on judges after the Dems float a compromise. There’s only one way to read this: the Dems are setting him up. They know he can’t compromise w/o reeaaalllly teeing off Dobson & Co. So by forcing him to loudly reject a compromise, the Dems aim to appear reasonable to the public at large, and make the look GOP trigger-happy. Which will probably work, given the current state of public skepticism towards the whole project. Frist, ever maladroit, has allowed himself to be maneuvered into an untenable position and will end up taking damage one way or the other. I don't know what Karl Rove sees in the guy.

Of course, it's possible that Frist is making this calculation: He will go to the mat for the religious right, doing his party some short-term damage, but in three years the only people who will remember this are the people pushing him now, who will reward him with the nomination. This is indeed possible. However, this hypothesis assumes that the political conditions in 2008 will be substantially similar to 2004 - and the ground already appears to be shifting.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Et tu, Broder?

The liberal blogosphere is chattering today over David Broder’s column suggesting the Dems compromise on judicial nominations. Josh Marshall has been teasing out the various subtexts all day. Of course he is correct – Broder’s point of view represents the reflexive subservience of Washington’s pundit class to power, political muscle, and “change” as sure-fire formula for popularity, no matter how bone-headed the content of the change.

I was skeptical at first – I always thought the conventional wisdom of the David Gergen stripe was, if trite, often correct. But over the past year or so I have come around to the idea that the MSM can't grapple honestly with the right-wing media machine. In the process, it is slowly eroding its already weakened position as an honest broker.

Conservatives have political power, organization, message discipline, money, and – this is the real problem – ratings. They put on a good show. Watching Sean Hannity, jowls puffed out, self-righteously flay a guest, or Bill O’Reilly dismiss his detractors, clicking off topics one-by-one – is pure entertainment for some, and even for me provokes a kind of weird fascination that Larry King could never match. To get a little Freudian, it’s the id of the nation bubbling up to the surface – a mixture of anger, paranoia, triumphalism and hormones. Basically, the perspective of an adolescent. It's the OC for ideologues!

There is nothing else out there to compare with it – certainly not earnestness or irony, the liberals' stock in trade. This is why everyone from CNN to Tim Russert to David Broder is drifting righwards, and the TV pundit ratios skew so heavily conservative. They see where the public’s attention and the drama lies and that’s where they are headed. It's basic market economics. In a fragmenting media environment, the market is what matters most.


Hello. Just getting started here. Not quite live yet. My hope is to make this a good read - a mixture of political commentary, personal and family misadventures, and the existential quandaries of bourgeois midlife. Yes, I know it is territory amply covered by others. But I may have something new to add. We'll see.

The title of this blog comes from a Zen koan: A monk comes to Joshu, an eighth-century Zen master, and says "please teach me!" Joshu says, "have you eaten your rice gruel?" "Yes," the monk says. Joshu replies: "Wash your bowl." The monk is enlightened. There are various ways to interpret this, but for me it has a great economy of wisdom - the monk is expecting some great, esoteric truth to be revealed, but Joshu brings him back to the reality in front of his face. Which is the best way to understanding, in my book.