Richard Nixon espoused what he called “the madman theory.” It’s a negotiating approach that induces the other side to believe you are capable of dangerously irrational actions and leads it to back down to avoid the wreckage your rage might let loose.
House Republicans are pursuing their own madman theory in budget negotiations, with a clever twist: Speaker John Boehner is casting himself as the reasonable man fully prepared to reach a deal to avoid a government shutdown. But he also has to satisfy a band of “wild-eyed bomb-throwing freshmen,” as he characterized new House members in a Wall Street Journal interview last week by way of comparing them fondly to his younger self.
Thus are negotiators for President Obama and Senate Democrats forced to deal not only with Republican leaders in the room but also with a menacing specter outside its confines. As “responsible” public officials, Democrats are asked to make additional concessions just to keep the bomb-throwers at bay.
This is the perverse genius of what the House Republicans are up to: Nobody really thinks that anything like their $57 billion in remaining proposed budget cuts can pass. It’s unlikely that all of their own members are confident about all of the cuts they have voted for. But by taking such a large collection of programs hostage, the GOP can be quite certain to win many more fights than it would if each reduction were considered separately.
Begin with the outrageous $1.1 billion, 15 percent cut from Head Start, a program that offers preschool education to roughly 965,000 poor children. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, this would knock 218,000 kids out of Head Start and force 16,000 classrooms to close.
That is an excellent way to lose the future, as Obama ought to be saying. What could be a better use of public money than helping our poorest children early in life so they might achieve more in school, and later?
And for those who say that Head Start is not as good as it should be, the administration announced plans in September to require lower-performing Head Start programs to compete against other entities for continued funding. Isn’t this the sort of competition conservatives say they’re for?
Given what science has shown about the importance of a child’s first years, we need better and broader early childhood programs. Slashing them can only cause harm – to parents, to children and to the country.
Then there are the cuts at the other end of the education continuum. The House budget would reduce the maximum Pell Grant, which helps needy kids go to college, by $845, from $5,550 available now. According to Mark Kantrowitz, who publishes the FinAid Web site that gives financial-aid advice, 1.7 million low-income students would lose eligibility for Pell Grants, almost a fifth of current recipients. Is that what Americans voted for last November?
But here is where the Republicans’ strategy works so brilliantly. Let’s assume that neither the administration nor Senate Democrats – even the most timid among them – can allow the Head Start or Pell Grant cuts to go through. That still leaves a lot of other truly worthy programs to be defended. By heaping cut upon cut, Republicans get advocates of each particular cause fighting among themselves.
And with so many reductions on the table, voters who would actually oppose most of them if they knew the details don’t get to hear much about any individual item because the media concentrate almost entirely on the partisan drama of the shutdown fight, not the particulars.
You can also imagine the argument from those Democrats petrified of their own shadows. “Well,” say the scaredy-cats, “we have to save Pell Grants and Head Start, so why don’t we give House Republicans what they want on the National Endowment for the Arts – or their cuts in foreign aid, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, medical research, the Women Infants and Children program, meals-on-wheels or mine safety inspections? I mean, we have to give them something, or those crazies will shut down the government, and we might get blamed.”
Boehner can just sit back and smile benignly as Democrats battle over which concessions they should give him. When the negotiating gets tough, he can sadly warn that his freshmen need more because he can’t guarantee what they’ll do. The perpetually tanned one is a shrewd dude. Democrats who underestimate him will be playing into his hands.
By: E. J. Dionne, Op-Ed Columnist, The Washington Post, March 7, 2011
By now you’ve heard the cookie joke. You know: a CEO, a tea party member, and a union worker are all sitting at a table when a plate with a dozen cookies arrives. Before anyone else can make a move, the CEO reaches out to rake in eleven of the cookies. When the other two look at him in surprise, the CEO locks eyes with the tea party member. “You better watch him,” the executive says with a nod toward the union worker. “He wants a piece of your cookie.”
It’s funny for the same reason most good jokes are funny, because it contains a strong element of truth. This little game, pitting one group of working class voters against another, isn’t just a trick, it’s the trick. It’s what enables bankers to rob the nation blind and walk away. It’s what lets executives take an ever larger share of corporate income when they’re doing well, a larger share when they’re doing poorly, a larger share when they’re staying, and a larger share when they’re leaving. It’s what allows corporations to sit on the greatest stacks of money the world has ever seen, turn profits that dwarf those of even a few years ago, and still demand that their workers surrender a little more. A little more. A little more, please. Thanks, now get out.
Not only that, they get their workers to fight for them. Fight for surrendering their own rights, and fight to take those rights from others.
The engine of this schism is always powered by the same forces: fear and envy. There’s always someone out there to be the “other,” someone whose cultural values don’t line up with yours. Someone who is getting a better deal than you. Robber barons and corporations have always been good at promoting factionalism, and of course it helps when you have the media and politicians under your thumb. No doubt nobles played the same game to keep their comfy seats throughout history. Heck, there was probably a nice “Intro for New Pharaohs” scroll that explained how to keep the stonecutters jealous of the hieroglyph carvers, just so neither group ever got around to wondering if carving Rootintootin III’s face on blocks the size of houses was really the best use of their time.
For America, the tea party movement is just an update of a very old script.
You could see the same forces at work in 1843, as factionalism split the Whig Party and produced a third party movement. The American Republican Party first appeared on local election ballots in New York. This wasn’t the Republican Party that would emerge over a decade later, but it was one of several movements and parties that boiled up out of the Whig’s weakness. Supported by business organizations and trade unions , the party scored shocking victories in its first elections first in New York then in Philadelphia. Almost overnight, the party spread and within a year it had become a national movement challenging the established parties in almost every state. Both major parties quickly adjusted their policies to try and accommodate this new entity, but the new party had a focus and energy that delivered surprising wins in Boston, in Chicago, and in several other cities.
What powered the movement? Most of the energy came from a source that’s still highly potent today: demonization of immigrants. The leaders of the movement (which soon changed its name to the American Nativist Party and then just the American Party) warned that the uncontrolled wave of immigration was destroying what made America great. The new immigrants lacked both education and culture. They were insular, odd, and dangerous; unwilling to adopt American customs and values. They were shiftless, without the productive and creative spark of Americans, but at the same time they were willing to work so cheaply that they threatened to steal jobs from American workers.
These immigrants were other. This invading army had their own language, their own music, and most threatening of all they brought with them a corrosive philosophy, one that was the enemy of both democracy and capitalism. This philosophy was out to cripple trade and destroy companies. It encouraged laziness, diminished respect for personal property, and threatened established institutions. Despite these un-American tendencies, traitorous and corrupt politicians had been elected who were beholding to these immigrants. These America-hating politicians refused to pass tough federal laws to clamp down on immigration. They even argued that state and local laws limiting immigrant’s rights were unconstitutional. They tolerated or encouraged their new philosophy. Some even embraced it. In response, the American Party platform mandated English as the official language and restricted the government from printing documents in other languages, it sharply limited immigration and raised the requirements for citizenship, and it limited all political offices (including school teachers) to native born Americans.
The wave of dangerous immigrants came from Ireland and Germany. The anti-American philosophy they propagated was Roman Catholicism.
The nativism that spurred the appearance of the American Republican Party mirrors exactly the feelings and ideas that now power anti-immigrant movements in Arizona and across the nation. If the hatred for union workers, government workers, and really anyone not part of their own small group may not be precisely the same, but it’s a close cousin. It’s not racism, but it fills that racism-shaped hole in society’s soul. For tea partiers, the lazy, fat-cat teacher taking home a big pension on the government dime has replaced the Cadillac driving welfare queen. It doesn’t matter that both are myths. Both of them are just placeholders for the other, a symbol of that person you just know is out there taking advantage of you – a focus for unfocused anger. A focus provided by people who are so, so relieved that you’re willing to keep looking enviously at other workers and never glance up to see what your betters are doing.
At America’s founding, there were dire predictions that the nation would not last out one election cycle. Then, as now, there were far more poor than rich. What was to prevent the have-nots from passing legislation that stripped wealth from the hands of the haves? Democracy was seen as utterly incompatible with capitalism. Traders and businessmen viewed it with horror, certain that they would be overrun by the mob. But it never worked that way.
Instead, those at the top have always found it easy to get people to champion their cause. There’s always a group that feels wounded, angry and neglected. This group is susceptible to being told that they’re better than some other group, that some other group is getting a better deal, that some other group deserves to be put in its place. It doesn’t matter if that group is called Irish or Italian, Black or Hispanic, Union members or government workers. Anyone can be painted as a threat with enough hot air and yellow journalism. Anyone.
In the heyday of the American Republican Party, members developed a not-so-secret phrase. Asked what they knew about party activities, they were taught to respond “I know nothing.” Because of this, members of the group soon carried the name “Know-Nothings.” Over a century and a half later, there may not be anyone eager to embrace the title of Know-Nothing. But as long as some working class voters are willing to carry the billionaire’s water by attacking other workers, there are certainly plenty of Learned Nothings around.
By: Mark Sumner, Daily Kos, March 6, 2011