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Political Animal

Train Wreck, Part Two

In late December 1995, I was on the other side of the world, visiting in-laws in New Zealand while the U.S. government was shut down due to the standoff between President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress. During that time, like pretty much any American overseas, I had to serve as an unofficial ambassador without portfolio, explaining what in the hell was going on in Washington to any and every curious native.

I fear we are going to see this scenario again, likely within the next 365 days.

During the early part of the shutdown back in November ’95, Clinton faced down then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his chief lieutenant Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas). The fight came down to the president’s efforts to protect Medicare, Medicaid, and money for education and the environment. As Clinton wrote in his autobiography, “Armey replied gruffly that if I didn’t give in to them, they would shut the government down and my presidency would be over. I shot back, saying I would never allow their budget to become law, ‘even if I drop to 5 percent in the polls. If you want your budget, you’ll have to get someone else to sit in this chair!’ Not surprisingly, we didn’t make a deal.”

Later in 1996, when I joined the Clinton administration as spokesperson for the White House drug policy office during the height of the election season, it was drilled into any person who had any dealings with the press that we should find any way to remind reporters that it came down to “M2-E2”—Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. It didn’t matter that none of those topics was anywhere near my bailiwick. Find a way to get it in there, we were ordered.

This is called “message discipline,” and it is how Clinton triumphed over a newly empowered and radical (for the time) Republican congress feeling its oats. Sadly, I have the feeling the Obama administration may not fare as well.

Already, new members of the House of Representatives are making noises about not reauthorizing a hike in the debt limit, most likely the first place the new Congress could shut the government down. Semi-conservative gadfly Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic magazine has already argued that the conservatives are committing “as close to organized vandalism as one can imagine.” The president has spent the last six months attempting to bring Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona on board for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (known as START) but no matter what compromises are offered or how many senior Republican statesmen are brought forward—Dick Lugar, Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz, Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein, Reagan Chief of Staff Howard Baker, and Colin Powell all endorse ratification—Kyl refuses to bend.

 The fight over the START treaty encapsulates everything about where the GOP stands with President Obama in the next two years. Financial Times reporter Edward Luce noted on ABC’s This Week that embarrassing the president has trumped any issue on the agenda. “Pick two countries that would like to see a failure of ratification: It would be North Korea and Iran. . . . I think if that argument doesn’t work with the Republicans, that sort of basic, elemental national security argument doesn’t work, nothing is [going to]. There is a greater hatred of Obama than there is a love of American national security.”

The other way it’s obvious the GOP doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of a Democratic president is via its obstruction of judicial nominees. A president’s judicial choices can affect the country for decades to come, and the culture warriors of the Right would rather see no new judges than the possibility of any judges who may be more liberal than the status quo after eight years of George W. Bush.

Due to obstructionism and “secret holds,” the Republican minority in the Senate has brought the confirmation process to a grinding halt. As of this past September, Obama has had only 41 of his judicial nominees confirmed. At the same point in their presidencies, Jimmy Carter had 60 confirmations and Bill Clinton had 98 (a number that would also grind to a halt before the start of his second term). Meanwhile, George H.W. Bush had 65, his son George W. had 77, and Ronald Reagan had 80 judges confirmed by the mid-point of their first terms.

Why am I so dour about the Obama administration’s prospects? Message discipline—this time from the Republicans.

There is more willingness to lie, and for conservative media outlets to uncritically transmit a lie, than there ever was during the Clinton administration. Sure, Clinton had to deal with Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. But since the Bush years, the mainstream media has been more than willing to acquiesce to conservative talking points—recall the run-up to the Iraq War—than ever before, not to mention the 24-hour presence of Fox News. As Jon Stewart pointed out, who else repeatedly trumpeted the blatant falsehood of the supposed $200 million-a-day Obama trip to India?

There’s a train wreck a’coming. Brace yourselves.

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