finem respice

This is Too Easy

Submitted by ep on Wed, 01/20/2010 - 21:45
just reactive enough (for a while)

Of late my (admittedly limited) experience suggests that Americans like their politics like they like their '40s era fission experiments: reactionary, but not too reactionary and- even then- placed directly under a large bank of retarding control rods besides. This last week in particular drives the point home quite nicely. But, then, election years always have these days.

Both republicans and democrats are in entangled particle mode, with republicans in spin up angular momentum (read: the Massachusetts election is a firm display that Americans hate everything about the utter failure of a president that is Barack Obama and his legions of cloned fiscal storm troopers, their energy policy, their elitism, their handling of the nation's economy, a degradation of national morals manifest in the inability of The Bachelor to consummate even a single enduring marriage after fourteen seasons, and, oh yeah, the health care bill) and democrats in spin down angular momentum (read: the Massachusetts election is a firm display that Americans hate everything about Martha Coakley and the pack of shiftless, good-for-nothing vagabonds she apparently pulled in from the homeless shelter to clandestinely staff her campaign with such ninja-like invisibility and silence that neither the White House or the Democratic National Committee was able to detect the abyssall depth of their deficiency until late yesterday afternoon after it was too late... and plus we are just going to pass health care anyhow even if we have to change the Senate rules, you'll see).

If nothing else (and, believe me, there's actually a lot else) the last several days have been a literal government printing press of written and spoken folly of such volume that I quite earnestly fear that even the likes of Lewis Black may suffer a cerebral embolism in the days to come and expire in a fashion as physically analogous to having one's head explode as is possible without the assistance of an ATF license and a detonator. True, democrats seem to have out-stupided republicans by about 6 to 1 on the unfortunate quotables board, but this is only because a revision to the rules in 2009 excluded the mass media in official scoring.

For pure, unadulterated idiocy, however, the prize simply has to go to Chris Van Hollen, Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It takes a political operative of simply scintillating wit and craft to both refute the possibility that the political climate had undergone such significant global cooling that Coakley might actually lose the seat held for so long by the Senate fraternity's legacied-in brother Edward Moore Kennedy, and somehow still manage to weave this apt analogy in with the same breath:

Why would you hand the keys to the car back to the same guys whose policies drove the economy into the ditch and then walked away from the scene of the accident?1

But if the democrats were caught off guard enough to actually use a Chappaquiddick reference (one hopes unwittingly) to commend the bright legacy of Ted Kennedy to the voters, it is somewhat hard to blame them. Even given recent upsets in Virginia and New Jersey, the most optimistic of conservatives never dreamed things had gone so far. And the Kennedys are... well... Kennedys.

Given the sudden change in the winds, observers might even be tempted to point out that between Edward, Joseph II and John Jr., Kennedy bucks operating heavy machinery have managed to kill three woman and paralyze a fourth in just three short decades. (That's three easy installments of one fatality and .33 spinal injuries every ten years, but Marilyn doesn't count, obviously). But then, recollections that tend to upset the reality distortion field that surrounds and protects the Kennedys are not generally spoken of in polite company.

Notice how even reading these facts about the Kennedys in print on this very blog tends to make you uncomfortable with respect to a topic that normally glides easily under the eye and out of mind when found instead in the daily crime blotter. The brain has been conditioned somehow to reject the co-existence of the two spheres [Kennedy|Negligent Homicide] in the same paragraph. This is an absolutely astounding bit of marketing. This is an amazing bit of politics. This may actually go a long way to explaining the habit Massachusetts voters seem to have adopted for repeatedly and mindlessly checking boxes next to Kennedy names over the last several decades.

In fact, when wading through the lionizing even deifying miasma of Edward's ongoing and seemingly never ending eulogy, it is easy to forget that Massachusetts elected to office nine times, and thereby granted a forty six year tenure in the United States Senate, a reckless driving, alcoholic, womanizing, Harvard expellee who couldn't muster the energy to best the dauntless political juggernaut that was Jimmy Carter's campaign in a 1980 primary challenge.

No matter how many apparently innocent defendants Martha Coakley may have endeavored to keep in the slammy-slam-slam in order to avoid the humility of moving another chalk mark into her prosecutorial loss column, she couldn't possibly have come up wanting when hooked up to the Massachusetts E-Meter if Ted Kennedy kept passing somehow for all those years. Right?

There is no question that Coakley had already taken the deepest solace in her anointed destiny this way. Even as the walls were crumbling, you could easily detect a bit of poor old Teddy in Coakley. Christopher Hitchens put his finger on it recently with the usual perfection:

One of the many dreadful aspects of the Kennedy "legacy" is the now-unbreakable grip of celebrity politics, image-doctoring, stage management, and "torch passing" rhetoric in general. One of the film-archive obits showed an early moment when this began to happen. In 1962, despite having been all but fixed up by his family for the Massachusetts Senate seat, Edward Kennedy (as I feel I must call him since I didn't know the man) ran into a tough and articulate primary opponent named Edward J. McCormack, the state's attorney general. The old footage shows McCormack getting some mileage with his charge of family coat-tailing and carpet-bagging—and then a sort of light coming on in Kennedy's eyes as he bluffs away and says that the election is nothing to do with his ability to peddle influence in Washington but instead concerns "the destiny" of the people of Massachusetts. As the cheap applause starts to rise and it hits McCormack that times have changed, you can almost see the hereditary senator-to-be thinking aloud: This is too easy. 2

Asked if she might be acting just a little passive in the face of a tighter than expected race what else would you expect from a Kennedy heir other than:

As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?

And if that just wasn't quite enough to drive the point home, Coakley follows with the coup de grâce:

This is a special election. And I know that I have the support of Kim Driscoll. And I now know the members of the [Salem] School Committee, who know far more people than I could ever meet.

Just your run of the mill special election. Not like this is the major leagues or anything. It's going spinningly. You know....

Just then, Irony knocks...

In the hallway, a delivery man taps a reporter on the shoulder.

“Hey, what’s going on here? Why are there all these cameras?’’ he asks. He is told that the Kennedys have announced their support of Martha Coakley for Senate.

This is too easy.

One wonders if the Boston Globe's David Filipov was even embarrassed to find the apologetic headline "In Short Race, Coakley Picks Targets Carefully," above his article.

One old Boston political hand, and friend of finem respice, mused that the speed with which Coakley imploded on the tail end of what was expected to be a cakewalk race may have precluded the full deployment what she euphemistically referred to as the "Massachusetts get out the vote machine" (meaning the base instrumentalities of election fraud). I'm not certain that even these formidable adversaries of free elections could cause over 100,000 manufactured votes to materialize, even in Boston, but I'll stop just short of wagering on the matter and instead muse that it is probably a good thing that the special election wasn't in Illinois. Inventing one liners referencing the phrase "votes saved or created" is left as an exercise for the student.

Of course a lot of after-action analysis is already flying around, but it seems clear at least to the cynic-optimist in me that much of it misses the mark. Four observations close the square:

A large part of George W. Bush's failure is related to the fact that W was a bit out of his depth as his last term drew to a close. Things had gone swimmingly for quite some time and no one dared even a dirty look at an America stung so painfully in those months. You could almost read it embroidered on a shoulder flight-suit patch:

This is too easy.

A large part of Obama's electoral success is related to the fact that he is not George W. Bush. Without a doubt "43 backlash" contributed significantly in the process of ushering Obama into office. Even today the fact that this is a deeply internalized worldview for the present administration stands out almost daily as Robert Gibbs is forced to sheepishly and retroactively cast his gaze and point an accusing finger back towards 2007 to remind everyone of those earlier days when it was so clear that they were who they had been waiting for. Even back then, as he expertly crafted a platform composed entirely of George W. Bush antimatter, one could hear a low, smug muttering, still muted, under the breath of the aides who saw fit to erect the plaster and plastic Greek temple that would platform his democratic nomination acceptance speech:

This is too easy.

At least part of Obama's electoral success is related to the fact that he is not Hillary Rodham Clinton. It is actually almost possible to feel sorry for the former First Lady when one imagines a few of those scarce private moments away from the Obama appointed aide/babysitter and in front of her Observatory Circle dressing room mirror (so convenient to the British Ambassador's residence). Bill's snores are, thankfully, long since a memory. (Given that it is only around 5,000 square feet, you didn't think he'd actually be permitted in the D.C. residence long-term, did you?) You can about feel the tension warping the fabric of space-time around the deep stare she bores into her own mirror image as she absorbs the ignominy that is the title of "Secretary of State." How can it sit with her that she'd have to off, not just the President, but also Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Robert Byrd to fully ascend the presidential line of succession? Hell, what does it mean when Robert Born-At-The-Close-Of-The-Fucking-First-World-War Byrd outranks you?

It is easy to drift with her back to January 2007, to the mentality that produced the 3am White House Phone call clip. Even farther back to the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt reincarnated, with more wit, charm and looks, handling (for a time) all Congress had to throw at her on health care. Or maybe to a time before yet another fucking, philandering politician with a career suicide wish (this time it was John Edwards) threw cold water on the burning-hot passion for power that only a Clinton can radiate. Just before people began to wonder if she might be taking the nomination just a little too lightly. Back when you could smell the acceptance speech on her breath, a musky, Crown Royal sour as she hissed between her teeth to herself:

This is too easy.

At least part of Obama's electoral success is related to the fact that organized labor realized he was not Hillary Rodham Clinton. Only New York would have provided a candidate with a wider labor mound from which to pitch than Chicago and where Labor endured NAFTA under the great Clinton moderation, here was a champion who would not shrink from bold promises made early on. It was almost possible to hear the sneering as the likes of Rattner and Emanuel breezily reordered creditor priority under the nose of a Federal Bankruptcy Judge. If sneers could speak, you could be forgiven for thinking you heard:

This is too easy.

But, suddenly, the dynamic has changed. The Bush, Clinton, and now Coakley examples are starting to look awfully familiar. Obama exceptionalism may be enduring a jarring halt.

Only a few months ago, emboldened by how easy it all was, any number of personal interventions must have seemed, just before they were actually attempted, no more than a charisma casting, formulaic repeat of his November performance. One can almost, but not quite, register the shock of a spoiled child on receiving the first birthday that dares to produce something other than the perfect gift. What the hell is this?

Chicago Olympics? Even absent a personal trip to Copenhagen (it was just icing on the cake sending the Barack, Oprah and Michelle dream team), you could see it reflected off the faces of the anxious crowds gathered in Daley Center right before the news hit:

This is too easy.

Hitting the reset button with Russia? Get a thingy from the prop department.

This is too easy.

China? If Nixon could pull it off, what could go wrong?

This is too easy.

Copenhagen pact? Not even a moment's hesitation in returning to the battlefield that had just delivered him a shameful loss. No thought to the possibility that BRIC negotiators might just blow him off and play in their own sandbox or that China would deliver a humiliation no power would have considered inflicting on a Western diplomat since Khrushchev was banging shoes on podiums.

This is too easy.

Corzine in trouble in New Jersey after spending $25 million of his own money? We'll be right over.

This is too easy.

What must have Obama been thinking when it seemed that the Virginia governor's mansion was so sewn up that Obama could afford to hilariously prank call the incumbent, Tim Kaine's radio show appearance as "Barry from DC," a disgruntled voter.

This is too easy.

Just a small cognitive whisper might permit the always generous finem respice reader to wonder if "legacy fatigue" (Bush, Clinton, Kennedy, hand me that towel will you?) might not have played a role in seating the totally unknown, totally unproven and, in fact, somewhat mysterious Mr. Obama. Of course, this interpretation would have deleterious effects on any theory granting Obama a mandate to do... well... anything more dramatic than open a slow trickle of foreign troop withdraws.

And really, this is the trouble. Any number of circumstances and conditions have somehow conveyed the impression that, well, this is all easy stuff and you could swing for the fences with abandon. Coasting in as the Anti-Bush and relegating the heir to the Clinton political dynasty (no campaign spring chicken as it happens) to a position of general obscurity (did you give that terrorist a visa Mrs. Secretary?) may have been the entry exam, but that's all it was. Trillions of dollars of spending, major shifts in the economy, massive deficits? This was not a minor error.

What faces the Legislature, the Executive (and perhaps even the Judiciary) in the months and years to come is going to be anything but easy. The days of pouring deficit spending into housing, public employees, defined benefit plans, state subsidies and any other problem that manages to show its head above water for a sufficient interval are numbered. Someone is going to have to face the sorry task of explaining to the American people that, when you actually add it all up, the debt comes to almost $550,000 for each and every household in the United States, and that successive Comptroller Generals of the United States have been trying to get people to pay attention for five or ten years.

In an environment where even discussing shifting social security age eligibility by a few months can bring down the angry fist of voter wrath with such violence that even the CBO looks for cover, how are leaders today going to break the news that there is simply no water-boarding procedure severe enough to torture Social Security math past the point where it gives up enough money to pay for even a substantial fraction baby boomers? When something as trivial as a $1 trillion dollar health plan results in the forfeiture of god-given progressive birthrights like "The Kennedy Seat," what sort of effect might $30+ trillion in unfunded Medicare have when the bill comes due and remains unpaid?

Sure, it is nice to fantasize that the latest "republican revolution" means something in the grand scheme of things, but if American politics are "played inside of the 40 yard lines," then neither party is anywhere close to possessing the testicular fortitude to handle real fiscal reform. Balancing the budget today (which does nothing except stop the hemorrhaging for a while) would require no less than 35% across-the-board cuts in government spending- and this totally ignores the massive off-budget items that have become so fashionable to spin off. To say that Obama, who despite his Chicago machine pedigree couldn't seem to fix the Olympics RFP even with Oprah batting clean-up, isn't up to the task is stating the matter mildly.

The United States' days of finger-banging ol' Mary Jane Lowinterestrates through her pretty pink Federal Reserve panties are over. There is no Greenspan put left to exercise and while finem respice wishes him well, it is going to take a lot more than Scott Brown to undo the damage inflicted by three decades of unabashed and bipartisan "celebrity politics, image-doctoring, stage management, and 'torch passing.'" If congressional seat volatility seems awfully high just now, just wait a few seasons.

Perhaps if I reflected long enough I could see the virtue in retaining in Congressional seats the old, weathered masters of the game, those adroit manipulators like Kennedy who could yet bend the fabric of space-time and the laws of mathematics to push the day of reckoning out past even optimistic figures for my life expectancy.

Or not.

  1. 1. "Health Bill Can Pass Senate With 51 Votes, Van Hollen Says," Bloomberg (January 16, 2009).
  2. 2. Christopher Hitchens "Redemption Song," Slate (August 31, 2009).
[Art Credit: Unknown Artist "Khrushchev," Photograph (September 29, 1960), from the author's private collection. Even play-to-the-base naked ire at the United Nations probably couldn't sweep 500-600% of the GDP under the rug.]

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