Note: unlike many guest pieces on Et tu, Mr. Destructo? today's article comes from a real, live person: the mysterious Mr. Awesome, who is not a pundit and fears nothing. Since he last wrote, about the actual contents of the Health Care Reform bills and the gutlessness of Robert Samuelson, he has graduated law school and embarked on a career of doing whatever he wants, all the time.
Mitch McConnell Fails the Willful Suspension of Disbelief
by MR. AWESOME
I wrote words about the debt ceiling fracas. Then, Mitch McConnell (R-Mme. Tussaud) changed the game. He raised his New Deal on the debt ceiling. He washed my words away. He made a proposal that was so deficient, so profoundly crap, that people can't even take it seriously.
Look at this stupidity. He would surrender the debt ceiling power to the President, entirely, until the coming election. He would retain to Congress the power to raise a series of utterly irrelevant sideshow votes running up to the election. Finally, the President would have to establish "hypothetical cuts" he "would" make, when the debt ceiling is raised.
Hypothetical cuts someone "would" make have the approximate force in law as a really strong, good-faith belief in the virtue of hugs. And it's "when," the debt ceiling is raised, not "if," because Congress would need a veto majority to stop him. Mitch's budget reduction caveats and retained Congressional authorities are obviously and transparently meaningless, at law.
This deal forfeits to the President the entirety of actual government power over this issue, but it reserves to Congress the ability to have extra-special whingeing jam sessions all along, until the election. Then the deal ends, and Congress resumes its Art. I sec. 8 authorities, and we trundle along to the next political maneuver.
That is literally the breadth and extent of Mitch's debt ceiling resolution. Congress will leave the room, but glance back inside peevishly, muttering and stamping their little feet and clenching their fists into big fat pearly balls. Mitch would have Congress officially reserve to itself the right and obligation to be useless and loud. And that's all he has to say.
People at large bemoan the lack of standards in contemporary American politics. People can say anything. Apart from a Florida journalism institute that ombudsmen treat like a dotty old college don — nodding affirmatively before returning to the business of ignoring his every injunction — there is no fact-checking. The political press is composed of the world's emptiest suits. They are great howling textile voids. David Gregory.
But Mitch McConnell reminds us there is at least one standard in American politics — the willful suspension of disbelief. Any proposal or platform or complaint or talking point must have at least some iota of credibility, some wrapping of plausibility.
Politicians must project consistently the drama and vitriol and emotion of their little storylines. They can lie, cheat and steal, but they must respect the fourth wall. We respect the con man who puts a lot of flair and conviction into Three-Card Monte.
That is all we ask. You can pimp torture in America. You can actually stand before real human beings and tell them that Medicaid worsens the medical outcomes of its users. You can be Paul Ryan. You can sell nonsense, but only if you can sell your genuine belief in that nonsense. You can tell stories, but only if they're stories.
It's like passing off a terrible or thoughtless Christmas present. You can give America a five-dollar gift card to Chili's. That is well within acceptable norms of American metaphor Christmas present political speech gift-giving. But you have to wrap it. You have to put the To/From label on it. You cannot just ring America's doorbell, put a Chili's gift card in America's hand and mutter, "Holiday gift." We want our damn wrapping. We demand theater from our theater.
Mitch failed at even that. His naked political calculation was too naked. His package was unwrapped. He lacked adequate shiny foil. He made a sales pitch without the pitch and in so doing exposed himself in the worst possible way.
Here I was poised to write serious words on the Republican response to the debt ceiling nonsense — serious, hard-nosed words. I had language ready, like describing a shady riverboat poker tournament with grizzled players and deadly stakes and sweat that dripped down shiny foreheads in singular, discrete little beads. But then Mitch, with all the cunning of a dumb, farting robot, went and jammed his cards into his mouth and spat them back down on the table. Now everyone can see his cards, and they're covered in Mitch spittle.
Certainly, Mitch's scheme is efficient. He cut right to the chase, past all the verbiage and ideological pap. There is nothing in that deal about adult conversations and dangerous entitlements and future generations and small businesses. There are no extraneous characters, concepts, and conceits. He wrote a ballet where every dancer walks slowly and carefully in comfortable, heel-less shoes from one end of the stage to the other. He choreographed the shortest distance between two points.
That's just bizarre; Mitch's scheme is just inexplicably incomplete. He has the rough outline there. We know what he wanted and how he wanted to get there. He provided his political calculation. But then he just somehow forgot to put the magic words and phrases. His plan isn't substantively inadequate, by political standards, it's procedurally inadequate. His scheme reads like something he might write to his legislative affairs people, or to his public relations people. And then those people would gussy it up with the proper conceits to make it read like something a man who believes in anything might say or do. Somehow, this never happened.
The best part of Mitch's plan is the inevitable DC politico journalist response. They'll crow over this scheme as though it were cunning. "Aha!" the Chris Matthews-es and David Gregori will crow, "This plan lets Mitch et al complain at regular intervals without incurring responsibility or being forced to govern! Genius!"
There are reasons for their delusion. First, political journalists have an enormous obsession with the mechanics of news coverage. People at large are worried generally about the economy, but the political journalist worries about the economy immediately upon receipt of a marketable report from some economics person or other describing the bad economy. Political journalists then remain worried about the economy for the duration of the news cycle to which that report belongs. Then they stop. Then the next report comes out. Then they worry again.
They are episodic people. They view the world as infinitely repetitive episodes, and they love Mitch's plan because it's episodic. Mitch would afford himself a series of little debt ceiling events, mini-referenda spread over the months leading to the election. Each debt ceiling episode would inject the debt ceiling back into the news cycle, ensuring that, to the political class, the debt ceiling remains fresh, saleable news right up to the election.
They think Mitch's plan is cunning because they are inured to "debt" being a Republican issue. This is simply an article of the DC faith: you say "debt" on national television, and somewhere, a Republican politician gets a vote. They think each new debt ceiling webisode will provide some discrete quanta of politics points to the Republican Party.
They've conceived a mechanistic little process ignoring how politically good the debt ceiling has been for Obama. Mitch ignored how good the debt ceiling has been for Obama as well, until he started spasming and entered the dream-state responsible for his latest gambit.
Further, the DC literati simply cannot accept that the average American human being is far, far less afraid of the public debt than of most any other pressing issue. Particularly in the context of our free-fall economy, the debt ceiling, like most everything else, is an absolute triviality: people are so afraid of the economy that even the terrorism fear-mongering crowd has gone desperate. "Look at me!" cries the TSA, like a neglected middle child, doing a bomb-scare trick that was cute when it was younger and smaller. Now it's just kind of weird.
Of course, the hard-line Republican Party base really is genuinely obsessed with the public debt. Those are the people who voted for Mitch at some point, because he's the weirdest looking man in Kentucky, and damn if that doesn't earn him something. Those are the people who are the most enraged by Mitch's inept corbomite maneuver.
Those are the people he was stringing along with the promise of a final end to Medicaid. Those are the people who will respond by pushing the Republican presidential primary even farther to the right, making every candidate come out even more strongly against popular social welfare programs, and crow even more incessantly about the public debt issue, which has worked so well for Republicans over the past few weeks.
Punditry has calculated Mitch's plan. They found it cunning because they can't calculate very well. They're trying to pass off the antiquated common wisdom of "Public Debt is Good for Republicans" as though it were a universal truth and not a political accident. This is baseline for American political commentary and analysis — the blind recitation of ancient common wisdom, like medicine by folklore.
The chattering class is in general not so bright. They are blind to context and have no experience or understanding of things in general. They are by and large wealthy, well-connected people, the children of wealthy, well-connected people. They have a shallow dilettante's comprehension. They don't face eviction and expiring unemployment benefits. They don't do back-breaking labor, so they don't see a problem with raising the retirement age. They don't understand what people fear, and they don't understand why they fear it. Personal experience never informed them, and they lack the interest and intelligence to compensate.
They don't understand the overwhelming fear and anxiety that comes with a 9+% general unemployment rate, or a 20+% unemployment rate in the construction industry. They don't have the empathy or personal knowledge to really grok the former, and they don't have the understanding to grasp the implications of the latter. They don't understand why cuts to Medicaid or Medicare or Social Security sell like death, because they don't really understand that these cuts threaten people with death. They don't feel threatened, and they have no interest in learning that other people do.
Instead, everything is an equivalent Weighty Concern. Each rests upon David Gregory's granite brow with all the other Weighty Concerns. They're all filed away up there in his Library of Babel brain, little bits of interchangeable subject matter to talk about very maturely. You can swap out each for the other however you like. It's all just words and air-time with no end or beginning or purpose. Everything is moderately urgent; everything is equally serious, and everything is the same.
Without the ability to prioritize, make decisions, or understand relative value and importance, the DC literati sees only more debt ceiling words projected into the future. They think that plan works to Mitch's advantage because they don't know the past or understand the present. They think that plan has value because they don't understand value.