Friday, January 25, 2013

Bobby Jindal's advice for his party

According to James Hohmann's article about Bobby Jindal's remarks at the Republican National Committee's meeting in Charlotte on Thursday, Jindal said:
"Washington has spent a generation trying to bribe our citizens and extort our states."
Yet he also said:
"If it’s worth doing, block grant it to the states."
If you believe Washington has been "extorting" money from states and "bribing" citizens, why would you want it to issue block grants? Why wouldn't you want Washington not to take the money in the first place?

The answer is, of course you wouldn't want Washington to have the money in the first place, so of course you wouldn't suggest block grants. You wouldn't suggest grants at all. But this flies in the face of Republican priorities, which are all about state-level power because they've spent a generation building up Republican majorities in a majority of the state houses. If, in order to fund Republican priorities at the state level, they have to get the federal government to extract the money for them from taxpayers nationwide, I guess that's just the cost of doing business.

By the way, Governor, your state receives more federal aid than it pays in federal taxes, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. If the feds have been extorting the states, you'd better break the news gently to your constituents before you derail the gravy train.

Also, whatever Washington has been doing, it has been doing it a lot longer than a generation, and Republicans have been complicit — or they've been equally responsible stewards, if you like. At least, until lately. Like, say, the last generation.

The foregoing statements are just the tip of the iceberg. The Times-Picayune provided Jindal's full prepared remarks. They fascinate me because ... well, read on.

A debate about which party can better manage the federal government is a very small and shortsighted debate.
I suspect that argument was a difficult sell to your audience, Governor, considering how heavily invested — emotionally and financially — Republicans were in the most recent election for the presidency and Congressional seats.
In addition to Washington, there are a bunch of outlying areas we call states, but they are pretty much just adjuncts of the federal government.

This is not the idea of America. But...this is what America will become if we do not reorient our way of thinking right away.

I know it is deeply disconcerting for you, as a governor, Governor, to feel that so much of your own fate rests with politicians who don't live in your state. I mean that without sarcasm. However, much of what is wrong with our country cannot be fixed at the state level. A state's jurisdiction ends at its borders, but many things don't: natural resources like water and fossil fuels; commerce; criminal activity — just to name a few.

The federal government is not the be-all and end-all, I agree. However, it has a role to play in our society. Perhaps (now here's the sarcasm) if your party hadn't been so unbelievably bad at administering it whenever you've had the chance in the last thirty years, your party's ideas for Washington's role would have found broader support. As it is, Republicans are like drivers agitating to take the wheel while loudly proclaiming their hatred for cars. You can't blame us if we're skeptical of your driving skills and your interest in proper maintenance — not to mention your concern for the well-being of your passengers.

Government and government power are the leading lady and the leading man.
Today's conservatism is in love with zeroes.

We think if we can just unite behind a proposal to cut the deficit and debt...if we can just put together a spreadsheet and a power point and a TV ad....all will be well.

This obsession with zeroes has everyone in our party focused on what? Government.

Well, uh, on what exactly do you expect a political party to focus if not government?

For that matter, if you aren't interested in government, Governor, why are you — um — a governor?

Jindal's remarks suggest that when he uses the word "government" he is talking only about the federal government. If so, that's a misuse of the term. Government exists at the state level, too (and at the county and city and town level as well), so it's exceedingly disingenuous to imply that "government" is a bad thing but that whatever he's doing as governor isn't.

Capping federal growth by tying it to private sector economic growth is deemed 'not-serious' in Washington.
That's right, Governor, because if you were intellectually honest you'd admit that government is often needed most when the private sector isn't doing too well. You know, for things like unemployment benefits.

Intellectually dishonest arguments are indeed considered "not-serious", and not just in Washington.

President Obama has our national debt over 16 trillion dollars and climbing...larger than our entire economy. And he's not worried about it in the least.
Actually, Obama has never said he isn't worried about it. I'm sure he is. It's just that he thinks that millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans are more important. Republicans think they're pretty important, too; I recall Mitt Romney beating Obama over the head with that issue during the campaign. The thing is, Republicans believe that cutting spending is the only acceptable way to reduce the deficit, and cutting taxes is the only acceptable way to stimulate the economy. The idea is that tax cuts are supposed to result in private investment that expands the economy, resulting in revenue from an enlarged tax base that more than offsets the original cuts. Democrats don't believe that logic works, and frankly, given the experience of the G. W. Bush years, I'd say Democrats are right. They're looking to use federal spending to stimulate the economy directly in the hope that the private sector will pick up steam and power a recovery. The increased tax base could then be used to deal with the deficit, and in the longer run, the national debt. Oh, and along the way, a lot of out-of-work people would become part of the labor force again.

It's speculative, yes — but again, Republican mismanagement at the federal level doesn't incline us to put much faith in Republican theories of the economy.

You can't hire enough government workers or give enough taxpayer money to your friends who own green energy companies to create prosperity. The facts are in, it's a disaster.
Sigh. Republicans' contempt for research and development is tiresome.

The sad fact is that alternative energy sources are necessary. Not "are going to be necessary," but are necessary. We already know fossil fuels are nonrenewable (within the lifespan of human beings). It is obvious to anyone with a functioning brain that we have to get our economy off of them. We have to get our civilization off of them. Unfortunately, it is the height of folly to expect the private energy companies making billions of dollars on fossil fuels to jeopardize those profits by exploring alternatives. Ergo, somebody else needs to do the hard research to find those alternatives and make them useful commercially. You know whom we expect to conduct basic research that benefits all of us in the long run but has no immediate return? You guessed it: government.

Basic research isn't about immediate returns on investment. It's about tackling problems the private sector won't, because the private sector needs to smell profits before it will commit resources. We the people can't always wait for the profit motive to get stuff done. Republicans, unfortunately, reject the idea that problems cannot always be solved by invoking the profit motive. There's another reason so many of us don't trust your party to be effective leaders, Governor.

We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth.
Hmm. "We must not become the party of austerity." He must be talking about austerity in terms of government spending. Okay. In that case, "We must become the party of growth" must mean Republicans must become the party that supports growth of government spending.

Huh. He wasn't kidding when he said at the beginning, "I plan to say some things that may challenge your assumptions."

If our end goal is to simply better manage the disaster that is the federal government, count me out, I'm not signing up for that.
Does that mean you're bowing out of the 2016 presidential race, Governor?
We should let the other side try to sell Washington's ability to help the economy, while we promote the entrepreneur, the risk-taker, the self-employed woman who is one sale away from hiring her first employee.
This sounds like a fine vision, until you realize that most people work for someone else. (If we were all bosses, who would be doing the work?) Governor Jindal, you can identify your party with the entrepreneurs, but you're not going to win elections if they're your only voting bloc.
We believe hiring others, far away, is the last and least effective way to meet our social responsibilities to others.
Is the governor telling the Republican Party to disavow outsourcing? That would indeed be news, especially since it would prevent businesses from seeking to lower their costs by whatever means necessary — and would fly in the face of the party's devotion to the free market.
American weakness on the world stage still does not lead to peace.
I will hazard a guess that "weakness" to Jindal is what the rest of us call "cognizance of our limits".

It's fascinating to consider the Republican Party's current perspective on foreign policy. In the past, conservatism generally was associated with isolationism, or at least a deep reluctance to enter into entanglements beyond our shores. This reluctance dovetailed nicely with a commitment to minimal government spending. Nowadays, Republicans insist on greater intervention overseas, in spite of the cost. Why? Is it a hangover from 11 September 2001? Is the party still under the spell of G. W. Bush's famous dictum that the U.S. must engage "them" "over there" to keep "them" from striking "here"? Or could there be a baser motivation: "Whatever will embarrass Obama, we'll support"?

Whatever the cause, the fact is that "American weakness ... does not lead to peace" does not imply that American strength (however you measure it) does. The United States reigned virtually unchallenged on the world stage in the 1990s, yet the world did not know peace, even under George H. W. Bush. The fact is that "peace" is as elusive (and illusory) a goal as an "end to terror" is. Republicans insist on simplistic formulations like this because they make for good sound bites. Unfortunately, they also set up terrible expectations that no politician can meet, leading to an endless cycle of recriminations and a colossal waste of time and energy. If this is the extent of your foreign policy wisdom, Governor, maybe you should leave the subject alone.

President Barack Obama and the Democrats can continue trying to divide America into groups of warring communities with competing interests, but we will have none of it. We are going after every vote as we work to unite all Americans.
Oh for goodness' sake, Governor, the American public has always been divided along a host of fault lines. If there were no divisions within the body politic, we'd have no need for parties! Nobody is going to buy this nonsense of one party being responsible for divisiveness and the other being the great uniter.

If you must peddle horseshit, you will have to do a much, much better job of dressing it up.

We must focus on real people outside of Washington, not the lobbyists and government inside Washington. We must stop competing with Democrats for the job of "Government Manager," and lay out ideas that can unleash the dynamic abilities of the American people. We need an equal opportunity society, one in which government does not see its job as picking winners and losers. Where do you go if you want special favors? Government. Where do you go if you want a tax break? Government. Where do you go if you want a handout? Government. This must stop. Our government must pursue a level playing field. At present, government is the un-leveler of the playing field.
Demonize Washington, which Republicans have done so much to make deeply dysfunctional — check.

"Stop competing with Democrats for the job of 'Government Manager' " — sure sounds like the governor is telling Republicans to stop running for President or Congress. "Lay out ideas that can unleash the dynamic abilities of the American people" — not inconsistent with getting out of the governing business, since Governor Jindal thinks nothing good can come out of Washington anyway.

Government should not "see its job as picking winners and losers": I honestly don't know to what this oft-repeated jibe by Republicans refers. Are they talking about bailouts of private companies like GM and AIG? Or Solyndra (again)? Or something else?

"Where do you go if you want a tax break? Government." Well where else would you go for a tax break — Walmart?

"Where do you go if you want a handout? Government." Do you hide the contempt in your voice when you discuss charitable handouts by religious orders, Governor, or do you stick to your guns?

In my experience, what a "level playing field" implies is an end to affirmative action and any other government support for historically underprivileged parties. Yes, that's liberal rhetoric but I don't have a better term. In any case, the result is a very, very light hand on the market — which works out just fine for established players for the most part. This is a defensible philosophical stance, but the defense often sounds like "we don't care about little guys", and that aspect of laissez-faire doesn't sit well with most people.

In the last few years it has become fashionable to talk about American Exceptionalism - the idea that this country is better and different than any other on the planet.

As Republicans we have criticized President Obama for not believing in American exceptionalism.

And many who aren't Republicans have criticized the party and its leaders for using this term. It is hubristic and narcissistic and deeply offensive to many around the world. The expression reeks of arrogance and makes Americans look like consummate assholes.

For crying out loud, is it entirely unheard of in Republican circles for pride to be expressed quietly, through deeds and comportment? Whom do you respect more, the man who constantly proclaims his own superiority or the man who says little but does much? Which of them is the superior role model? Which of them inspires others to follow his example?

If you think the U.S. can only hold the respect of other nations by beating its chest and bellowing, get yourself to a therapist because you have an inferiority complex you're projecting onto the country. We can't afford this kind of childish, insipid jingoism any longer. It's ruinously expensive in blood and treasure, two resources Republicans supposedly hold dear.

Even as we must never take for granted the peaceful transition of power, America is not great because of the design of our government.
Really? You're really going to hold up the Constitution and say, "It's just a piece of paper" after your party has wrapped itself in it for the last thirty years?
But free individuals...taking risks...building businesses...inventing things from thin air...and passing immutable values from one generation to the next...that is the root of America's greatness.
This is the heart of your message, Governor? That the United States is defined by Facebook and the Chia Pet and opposition to gay marriage?

I kid — in part. Honestly, though, Governor, are we nothing more than a nation of business and religious interests to you?

There is so much more to life and living than money, gadgets and religion. Even I, as misanthropic as they come, like to think of my fellow Americans as more than their pocketbooks, possessions and pews. We are human beings. We can feel joy and love and pain and sorrow. We can imagine better futures for our children. We have room in our hearts for helping others. We can read and write, we can educate ourselves and others. Is there no room in your vision for the Republican Party for these things? Are Republicans unwilling or unable to inspire anyone but businesses?

It's great that the party says it wants to make this truly the land of opportunity. That's a big deal. Seriously. But besides the opportunity, what makes the U.S. worth the allegiance of those who live here? Why is it — or why should it be — a good thing to be one of us?

Your grand message, Governor, is that this nation is composed of businessfolk and inventors who are morally inflexible. (It's a good thing our values aren't truly immutable, or we'd still have slavery and women still wouldn't be allowed to vote.) Forgive me, but I don't find that a terribly inspiring vision.

A commenter with the handle "hope3637" summed up Jindal's speech thusly:

Make no mistake: there is nothing conservative about Bobby's message. He doesn't argue for incremental change and confronting issues on a case-by-case basis. He wants to undo 80 years of American progress and dismantle government in the service of a high-minded anti-goverment [sic] ideology. His speech was not conservative; it was actually the speech of a radical.
Yup. And this kind of radicalism is nothing new. His message was no about-face from existing Republican dogma: it was a reaffirmation of that dogma, coupled with the advice, "stop saying indefensibly stupid stuff". Really:
We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We've had enough of that.
(Except it wasn't just this year. Remember "You lie!"? Remember "macaca"? Remember birtherism? I could go on.)

In the wake of the election, Republicans have contended that the small number of their candidates who made egregiously stupid and offensive remarks damaged their "brand". They also contend that there's nothing wrong with their core principles; they just need to present them more appealingly. They need to find better candidates who will refrain from making, well, egregiously stupid and offensive remarks.

Any party can be undone by just a couple of loose cannons. However, when it happens in multiple elections — Chris Moody of Yahoo! News' The Ticket blog reminds us of a couple from 2010 — that should serve as a warning. The ones who embarrassed the GOP might be a lot more representative of what the party is and what it stands for than some would like to believe.

I have yet to see a consensus as to why the party fared so much worse than it expected in the election. If I were a Republican I would be demanding a thorough study of exactly why swing voters (and maybe even some members of my own party) turned away from my candidates. Was it because voters were repelled by the insensitive boors whose idiotic remarks got so much unwanted attention? Was it because the party was seen as insufficiently conservative? Was it because the party was seen as too conservative? Was it the message, the messengers, the phase of the moon, what?

Nobody knows — yet party leaders have already declared that the GOP's identity is just fine, thank you very much; all it needs is better makeup. Here I detect a shortcoming endemic to the party, one that manifests itself again and again: its unwillingness to seek out unbiased, credible information, especially if the information might not conform to its preconceptions.

What if it turns out voters rejected the message, not just the messengers? You can't change too much of who you are without losing your identity altogether, of course. Yet if your business is getting people to like you — and that is a political party's business — you should be willing to look at yourself to see if maybe one or two personality traits that seem to repel others might be changed.

Perhaps the GOP's leaders understand better than the rest of us how difficult it will be to make changes to its identity. The far right's message hasn't changed much since it emerged as a potent political force with Barry Goldwater. As Richard Hofstadter's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" explained, this extreme brand of "conservatism" didn't leave much room for compromise even then.

... the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.
(Hofstadter, by the way, was of the same mind as "hope3637" in not considering the far right to be conservative in the classic sense; he preferred to dub the movement "pseudo-conservatism".)

For the far right the message is not just urgent, it's a matter of survival. To change it is to court disaster not just for the movement, but for the country. That kind of dire consequence makes meaningful self-criticism by the GOP highly unlikely — as long as the far right constitutes the whole of the party's identity, anyway.

In his defense, Jindal tried to articulate a hopeful message. He wants the Republican Party to support growth of the economy. He wants the party to be the natural home for those who aspire to success, who want to make themselves better and by so doing, to make the country better. That's a nice vision, if vague (and it's not fair to expect a detailed policy statement in this context). If Jindal or somebody else could distill the aspirational bits from his speech, the Republicans might have a good starting point for reinventing their public face. Maybe. [UPDATE: I wordsmithed here and there.]

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