Sen. John Kennedy, R-LA, wins this week’s award for most pithy summation of the state of contemporary politics: “Our country was founded by geniuses,” he said, “but it’s being run by idiots.” *
As a fully paid-up member of the ruling establishment, Kennedy is better positioned than me to evaluate the Republic’s latest wobble from democracy towards idiocracy. Given the events of the last week, though, it’s hard to disagree. Congress got itself into such a state of the partisan snits that it shut down the government. And, such is the state we’re in, pretty much nobody noticed.
Partly this was because it took place over a weekend when most of us had better things to do than pay attention to politicians doing something ill-advised. We can do that anytime. Pretty much like we can watch the Patriots win the AFC any old year. On the other hand, you only get to see the Vikings fold like a cheap accordion in the NFC championship game maybe once every decade (they’re usually pre-folded before the post-season). Bottom line: The NFL playoffs put most of us in a cheap beer and Cheetos coma, with little intellectual wattage left for dealing with the latest DC disaster. By Monday most of the populace was still glumly coming to terms with Shady Brady and his band of annoyingly brilliant Foxboro fraud flingers going back to the big dance. The only thing they could be bothered to ask about the shutdown was, “Who won?”
We political science profs usually despair over the electorate reducing politics to the equivalent of a playoff game. We really should not be treating politics with the same scoreboard mentality as sporting events, even if the metaphor is apt given that immigrants, sick children, and the paychecks of millions of federal employees were being used as political footballs. The stakes here really are more serious than a superannuated quarterback getting to hoist the Lombardi Trophy (again) and say “Thpppt!” to Roger Goodell. I know, I know. Whatever. Who got the W?
Well, the winner of this month’s Gotcha Bowl–the re-match is already scheduled–is clearly the congressional Republicans, especially Mitch McConnell. Their proposal is the one that passed, and it passed because the commitment of Senate Democrats collapsed faster than the Blake Bortles dream of Super Bowl glory. Dems wanted an immigration deal and triple-dog dared the GOP to either give them one or shutter the gummint. The thinking was that, worst case scenario, the GOP caves on immigration after the public has a j’accuse hissy when national parks start closing the bathrooms.
Didn’t happen. The Dems not only did not get what they want, their hasty capitulation has their base hopping mad, and the whole mess managed to make congressional Republicans look reasonable and moderate. Even for Democrats, that’s a jaw dropping, self-inflicted penalty. Why did the Senate Democrats do this? Why bother making immigration a red line negotiating demand if you’re going to swoon into the arms of Republican preferences at the first whiff of partisan gunpowder?
Simple. It basically came down to brutal and heartless political arithmetic. The Dems genuinely want a good deal for the Dreamers, immigrants illegally brought into the country as minors. These are roughly 800,000 people facing deportation even though the United States is the only home they’ve ever really known. You have to be pretty stone-hearted not to have sympathy with these folks and lots of people–including many GOP members of Congress–want to get them out of their appalling legal limbo. This is exactly what the Dems demanded as the price of ending the shutdown. In doing so, though, they somehow forgot that they are also defending 10 Senate seats in Red States this year (i.e. states won by Donald Trump). In those states, holding the government and children’s healthcare hostage to force a deal that benefits non-citizens is a political loser. The equation doesn’t balance in plenty of other states either, but Democratic senators from those ten states were motivated to work out the math quicker. Once they figured out voters weren’t going to pat them on the back for seeking permanent legal status for immigrants by holding up paychecks for the troops, the jig was up. Democrats being Democrats, it took them two days to realize this. Belatedly, they realized their grand gamble was a pig’s breakfast and sounded the retreat.
It required no high-level feat of cognition to see all this coming before any of it happened. Basic political sentience and a minimal dot connecting capability should have been enough to put it in the forecast, but apparently these are skill sets in short supply among the Democratic Party’s leadership ranks. Just how bad was the Dems’ performance in the Gotcha Bowl? Well, let’s just say they could teach Tom Brady a thing or two about deflated balls. You don’t necessarily need geniuses to run a republic, but it sure helps to have people whose game plan is not the political equivalent of punting on first downs and whining to the ref.
*NOTE: Kennedy said this, but it’s not original–variants of this quip have been floating around the internet for at least five years . Yet as original thinking or, heck, even just basic connect-the-dots cognition, is not exactly a hallmark of current politics, the Kennedy summation is not only an on-point observation, it does double duty in highlighting the problem addressed in this week’s post.