Monthly Archives: October 2015

In which I save the Republican Party

All of the sudden, my newsfeed is full of stories about the disintegration of the Republican party, about how that party has become ungovernable. The immediate emergency is the inability of the majority party in the House to choose a new Speaker, which has, as its proximate cause, the decision by current Speaker John Boehner to quit. And I’m not sure who was happier about him quitting–the ultra-right conservatives in the House and elsewhere, or Boehner himself. Let’s face it; when people hate each other this much, it’s time for a divorce. Irreconcilable differences indeed.

Only once before in its history has the House been in this much turmoil over choosing a new Speaker. That was the Speakership contest that took place from December 5, 1859 to February 1, 1860. Essentially, Republicans wanted John Sherman, of Ohio, and Democrats wanted absolutely anyone except John Sherman, of Ohio. The splendidly named Garusha Grow, R-Pa, was also in the fight, as was a Virginia Democrat, John Bocock. The crucial issue, it turned out, was when, and under what circumstances, various men had read a particular book. A poorly written, poorly researched rant called The Impending Crisis in the South, by one Hinton R. Helper, it had the one dubious virtue of being a book with something in it to offend absolutely everyone. In fact, as Bruce Catton has noted, it’s unclear who Helper despised more: slave-owners, or black people. For two months everyone in the House stood and screamed at each other about it. (Sherman, it seems, had endorsed it, without reading it first).

Eventually, one William Pennington, R-NJ was elected, in part on the theory that he was elderly and in poor health, and probably wouldn’t last all that long. As it turned out, he lived until 1862, at which point the whole nation was on fire, and boys were killing each other in very large numbers indeed. And John Sherman, of Ohio, is known today, if at all, as the brother of one William Tecumseh Sherman, of the burning of Atlanta and March to the Sea fame.

I raise all that history to point out that any time you’re involved in an American political dispute, and the closest parallel anyone can point to is one that led directly to the Civil War, that’s probably not a good thing.

For a political party,or really any organization, to function, someone has to be in charge, and that person has to be able to impose discipline. Who is the current head of the Democratic party, right now, 2015? Easy: it’s Barack Obama, right? Who is the current head of the Republican party? Well, honestly, it should be the Speaker, since Republicans control the House. So is John Boehner in charge? Of anything? No.

Think of the greatest Speakers in American History. Henry Clay, Thomas Brackett Reed, Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill. They ruled by persuasion, certainly, by the conferring of favors, and through subtle threats, but they did rule. They wielded power. Reed is probably the name you haven’t heard of, but he was one tough cookie. In his day (1895-1899), the minority could block votes by refusing to answer a quorum call. If there weren’t enough people ‘present’, nothing could be done. So Reed called for a quorum vote, and then when members didn’t answer, he’d call them present anyway. And had the doors locked, so they couldn’t just run off. It turned into an entertaining spectacle, let me tell you. The House continues today to operate under the ‘Reed rules.’

To save the Republican party, John Boehner needs to wield power. The problem is that he has a substantial minority of Tea Party conservatives in his party that have made it clear that they do not want to govern, who believe that they were elected to the House specifically to obstruct the work of the federal government. And he has no effective way to impose party discipline. And he’s quit. And the people who want the job, and there are a lot of them, don’t want to govern either.

I have a plan, a workable plan, that will save the Republican party, save Boehner’s historical legacy, and move the country forward. It does require that Boehner stay in office until January 2017, when the newly elected Congress convenes. He may not be willing to do that. But he’s the only person who can save the Republican party right now.

Here’s the plan. John Boehner needs to expel the Freedom Caucus from the Republican party.

The Freedom Caucus, or HFC, is approximately 40 Tea Party Republicans who vote as a bloc, and who seem determined to disrupt anything approximating regular order in the House. The reason that I say ‘approximately’ is because they’re pretty secretive; nobody knows quite who belongs and who doesn’t.

Here’s what Boehner needs to do. First, announce that he’s not quitting after all. Second, meet with Nancy Pelosi and cut a deal with her. If she’ll promise to provide sufficient votes for him to stay Speaker, then he will agree to allow votes on a certain number of crucial pieces of legislation. My guess is, at a minimum, she’ll ask for a clean budget agreement, a debt ceiling increase, and a highway bill, to rebuild infrastructure. Offer her this too: he’ll call for a vote to rescind the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy, with all revenues targeted towards deficit reduction.

Third, he calls a meeting of the Republican caucus. In that meeting, he says this: I have called a vote to raise the debt ceiling for tomorrow. If you vote for the bill, good, because it’s going to pass.

If you vote against it, though, then we have a problem. Vote against it, and you are expelled from the Republican caucus. You will lose your committee memberships and chairmanships. You will not be allowed to caucus with Republicans, speak on the floor, introduce legislation, introduce amendments. I will send notice to your constituents that you are no longer considered members of the Republican party. And you’ll be assisted in moving from your current offices on Capital Hill, which will be reassigned; currently, your new office spaces are being used for janitorial supplies.

There will be an uproar. I suspect that we’ll see an immediate vote of no confidence in Boehner’s leadership, a vote to remove him as Speaker. But with the solid bloc of Democratic votes behind him, he’ll weather that. I suspect that this action will hasten the creation of a third party, the Tea Party. That’s great too; it’s been inevitable for a long time, and a healthy third party will only enhance our national political conversation.

The result, however, will be a new Republican party, smaller perhaps, but more focused on governing, a disciplined party, a party that stands for something positive. It brings back the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, and yes, even the party of Ronald Reagan.  I think it’s the only way to move forward. And we’ll be able to include John Boehner’s name among the great Speakers of history.


The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees: 2016

By request from a fan. Plus, I love this stuff.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced its candidates for 2016 induction, and unlike most years, there really aren’t a lot of hard calls here. I suspect that my choices won’t all win, but they should. ‘Cause I said so, that’s why. As always, I’m following the RRHOF’s lead by listing the bands alphabetically. And I’d love your feedback.

The Cars: Six pretty good albums, in a long career. Then, when they broke up, Ric Ocasek became an important producer. Nirvana and Weezer both cite them as influences. I’d put it this way: the Cars were a very good band that never quite managed to be great. Considering, this year, their competition, they’ve got to be a no.

Chic: Their tenth (10th!) nomination, which puts them in Susan Lucci territory. I think they have a pretty good shot at finally getting in, someday. And my no vote isn’t anti-disco prejudice; I think their career is a little short, and their impact a little too slight for me to vote for them. Essentially, they mark a bridge between the last days of disco and the beginnings of rap. That’s not insignificant, but sorry, Susan; no this time too.

Chicago: Rock critics have massively disrespected them over the years, and this is their first nomination, despite being Hall-eligible since 1994. But they’re far more musically sophisticated than anyone realizes, and their greatest hits resume is amply loaded. I’m more a fan of the early Terry Kath Chicago than its mid-80s Peter Cetera soft rock incarnation; I think maybe their longevity hurts them. And, yes, I know, your high school prom theme was Color My World. Get over it. Chicago is an easy yes for the HOF.

Cheap Trick: Just a good, consistent, hard playin’ rock and roll band. They were punk influenced without ever quite being a pure punk band, and a metal band that was just that tiny bit too idiosyncratic to quite count as metal. Plus, I don’t know about you guys, but to me they’re a lot like the Ramones; great sound, but is it possible that they’re . . . kidding? Unserious? But that lack of pretension is part of their appeal. Love their music, but no.

Deep Purple: Most people know Deep Purple for one song: Smoke on the Water. They’re way more important than that. Incredibly important hard rock band, featuring guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, and their brilliant keyboardist Jon Lord. The one possible knock on DP is longevity; they kept changing their lineup, and the sound changed with each incarnation. My Lady from Tokyo is one of the great rock songs, too, and I love this band, but they’re up against powerhouse competition this year. So: no.

Janet Jackson: She has certainly sold a great number of records over the years. She’s a household name, and she did manage to fight her way clear of her older brother’s shadow. She’s a big star. I’m not going to vote for her, but she’s a lock for the Hall this time around.

The J.B.’s: James Brown’s back-up band. And yes, they were important figures in the development of funk. They’re still just an important guy’s back-up band. No.

Chaka Khan: She’s just an extraordinary singer, mostly doing R&B, but with roots in jazz, and a constant willingness to experiment and innovate. I think her problem is that she gets lost in the shuffle a bit, because she’s an R&B singer well past the golden age of R&B. I’m not going to vote for her, but I would be delighted if she somehow made it in.

Los Lobos: “Oh, yeah, those guys who played La Bamba in that one movie that one time.” Well, no. Incredibly important band, fusing various Hispanic musical forms with good old-fashioned American rock and roll. I wish I could say yes to them, but there are other bands that to my mind are even more significant.

Steve Miller: It’s incredible to me that Steve Miller, and of course, the Steve Miller band has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It seems to me that every time I get in my car and tune it to a classic rock station, I’m hearing The Joker, or Fly Like an Eagle, or Abracadabra. And, pretty much inevitably, I start singing along. But no, he still isn’t in. And I’m okay with him staying out one more year. And I’ll keep singing along.

Nine Inch Nails: Brooding, nihilistic, transgressive, alienating; Trent Reznor’s music, to be honest, isn’t quite my cup of tea. But it’s brilliant music, and nobody’s been more influential. One of the greatest covers of all time is Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt. Reznor’s also David Fincher’s go-to composer. Easiest yes on the ballot.

N.W.A.: The rise of hip-hop as a major cultural force began with N. W. A. It’s unconscionable to me that they still haven’t made the HOF. I hope the new hit movie about them, Straight Outa Compton might make a difference. In any event, they’re an easy call. Yes.

The Smiths: In the past, I have argued against their inclusion. But I have had cause to reassess my views. I’ll admit, straight up, that their music just doesn’t speak to me. But they’re the voice of youthful alienation, depression, longing, exclusion. People who love their music love it with a heart-felt passion that has to be respected. And they’re incredibly influential. It’s time. Yes, to the Smiths.

The Spinners: Because it’s essential that absolutely every R&B vocal group on Atlantic Records ever be represented in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I mean, seriously, every single one. Not on my dime.

Yes: I can’t believe it. Yes has been nominated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The quintessence of progressive rock, a band that committed all sorts of aesthetic sins (musical complexity, with a classical and jazz/fusion sensibility! Concept albums! Obscure and possibly even (gasp!) pretentious lyrics!). Meanwhile, they made magnificent music for forty years. Chris Squire was, full stop, one of the greatest bass players in the history of recorded music. Steve Howe an extraordinary guitarist. Rick Wakeman, a miraculously inventive keyboardist. Bill Bruford a jazz drummer of amazing range and sensitivity. All topped by Jon Anderson’s soaring tenor. Yes, yes, a thousand times Yes! In fact, I’m going to play you off with Roundabout. (A song they got kinda tired of, to be honest, but still). And tell me that’s not a great rock and roll song!





The Speaker of the House battle, and the apocalypse

The Kevin McCarthy era will be missed. In the week–more or less– since John Boehner skipped to a press conference podium singing “zippity do-dah, zippity eh,” to announce that he’d finally had it, the speculation had been the House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy would be the new guy. He got a nice roll-out, starting, on Monday, with what was touted as a substantive address on foreign policy for the supposedly friendly audience at the John Hay Initiative, a neo-conservative policy center. It went not so good. Rachel Maddow had a lot of fun with it:

If you don’t want to bother with the link, here are some highlights:

Those who return home are being disrespected by the VA that can’t keep the simple promise to all of our heroes to the need when they need it most.

We must engage this war of radical Islam if our life depended on it. Because it does.

This “safe zone” would create a stem a flow of refugees.

Unlike during the surge in Iraq when Petreus and Crocker had an effective politically strategy to match the military strategy.

We have isolated Israel while bolding places like Iran.

The absence of leadership over the past six years has had a horrific consequences all across the globe.

In the past few years alone, I have visited Poland, Hungria, Estonia, Russian and Georgia.

It defies belief that the President would allow the ban on Iranian oil exports to be lifted, and also stands by a Russia blackmails an entire continent–all the while keeping the place of the band on America.

Hungria. Create a stem a flow. The place of the band on America. Stirring words indeed.

So, okay, the presumptive new Speaker of the House, it turned out, can’t speak. That would seem to be a fairly essential requirement of the position. However, the next day, it turns out, talking to Sean Hannity, McCarthy was quite coherent.

Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee, what are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping, why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened.

Everyone knew this, of course, that the House select committee on Benghazi wasn’t interested in Benghazi per se, but mostly in doing as much damage as conceivable to Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. But you don’t say it.  So, of course: outrage. From the left and right, as it happens, Democrats feigning anger (while secretly delighted) over this revealed unconscionable politicization of the House’s investigative role, and Republicans genuinely furious that the big doofus was dumb enough to spill the beans.

Who knows? He still might have survived. Thursday morning, at an 8:00 caucus meeting, it looked like he might still become Speaker. By noon, he was announcing that he was withdrawing from the Speakership race. What? Why? Well, there are these titillating rumors, see. . . .

The news outlets that broke the possibility of an affair between McCarthy and a fellow House member are not reputable sources. Probably, McCarthy is as pure as the driven snow. After all, both McCarthy and the Congresswoman in question are Family Values Republicans! It does appear, though, that certain scurrilous emails circulating to House Republicans about that oh-so-unlikely affair were a factor in McCarthy’s withdrawal. Especially given that those emails would not have had much impact in the absence of actual hanky-panky. Anyway, Kevin McCarthy’s staying on as Majority Leader, and the search is on for someone, anyone, willing to take on the oh-my-gosh-so-absolutely-thankless job of Speaker of the House.

(Meanwhile Mark Takano, D-Ca, trolled Republicans by running a Craigslist ad for a new Speaker. It was very funny, especially when the fake ad insisted “Babysitting experience STRONGLY PREFERRED”)

Various conservative luminaries have modestly offered their own poor services to a grateful nation in need. One is Darrell Issa, whose last name always sounds, to me, like Jar-Jar Binks trying out a new contraction for ‘I am.’ Issa was on Morning Joe this morning, trying to sound like Michael Corleone giving orders to Luca Brasi: “we need someone who will go to the mattresses.” He also dissed a rival Speaker wannabe, Utah’s own Jason Chaffetz, essentially because, Issa suggested, Chaffetz isn’t conservative enough. Seriously. Chaffetz has, he darkly intimated, treasonously floated, on occasion, the possibility of (gasp) compromising with Democrats. Another Congressman, the splendidly named Florida Congressman Daniel Webster has also thrown his nickle into the fountain, leading a waggish friend of mine to call a potential Chaffetz/Webster showdown ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster.’

(Full Disclosure: Jason Chaffetz is my Congressman. I live in his district. If elected Speaker, he would certainly be the best kicker ever to serve in the role; he handled field goals and PATs for BYU football team in days gone by. Personal aside: I have never voted for the man, and wouldn’t if the alternative meant facing a firing squad.)

So what happens now? Rachel Maddow laid out the four possibilities. And there really are only four.

1) Paul Ryan. It doesn’t have to be Paul Ryan, but someone like him; a respected national figure serving in the House who could bring the tattered shreds of the House Republican caucus together. Basically, realistically, that means Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, smart, young, a policy wonk. Who really, seriously, desperately does NOT want the job. And I don’t blame him. Ryan’s ambitious; he wants to be President. The House is in such disarray, serving as an interim Speaker would almost certainly damage those aspirations.

2) Mitt Romney. While Speaker is a Constitutional office, there’s no requirement that the Speaker actually be a House member. They could pick someone who is not in Congress to serve on an interim basis. Mitt Romney is not very liked by hard-core conservatives, but he is, again, a respected national figure. made a strong case for him.  Personally, in the unlikely event that Romney’s offered the job, I would hope he doesn’t take it; I like the man personally, and would spare him that misery. Other, similar choices include Newt Gingrich (boo!), and Senator Ted Cruz. He’d have to quit running for President (yay), and he’d have to leave the Senate (yay). Otherwise boooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

3) Nobody. It’s certainly possible that the House is so dysfunctional that they never, ever, are able to elect a Speaker. If they can’t, then the House shuts down. The Constitution is clear enough; without a Speaker, they can’t vote on bills, they can’t hold committee meetings, they can’t debate. They can’t do anything. It would shut down the government. For some Republicans, that may not be such a bad outcome.

4) John Boehner. Rachel Maddow thought this was by far the most likely outcome; that Boehner will not be allowed to quit. That his own patriotism would prevent option 3, and that he would end up being forced to finish the next 18 months as Speaker. Let the new Congress pick one, in 2017, after the election. Boehner was joking recently with reporters about a nightmare he’d had in which precisely this is what happened.

The fact is, the next eighteen months are going to be horrible for whoever is in that job. There’s a budget that has to pass. There is a debt ceiling that absolutely, positively has to be raised, a task that the Tea Party Right, amazingly, opposes. The Highway Trust fund is broke, and desperately needs more funding. Collapsing bridges and undriveable highways beckon. And those are only three of the really tough calls.

And the simple fact is, there are members of the House who are–and I say this with the deepest respect–crazy. By crazy, I mean that they have focused all their attention on a few frankly tangential issues to the exclusion of essentially everything else.

First, they are obsessed with the supposed leadership failures of Barack Obama, and describe the current state of America in the most apocalyptic terms. And the fact that the country is doing pretty well right now hasn’t really penetrated their consciousness. Any cooperation with this President is tantamount to treason. That’s why they hate Boehner; he hasn’t obstructed Obama at absolutely every turn. Just most.

Second, they are obsessed with the national deficit and debt. They are convinced that a financial cataclysm is right around the corner, with hyperinflation, the collapse of financial institutions and resultant violent anarchy. That’s why they so oppose any budgetary process that doesn’t radically cut discretionary spending, and why they are so violently against raising the debt ceiling (an absolutely routine bookkeeping task, something most countries don’t even bother with, that’s also completely necessary). In fact, of course, no such economic collapse beckons, though the debt is certainly something we’re going to need to deal with at some point, as a reasonably low priority. Doing so probably involving a tax hike (which the Tea Party also opposes) and cuts in defense spending (ditto).

Third, though, is something trickier. To some people on the Right, the country has seriously gone off track. The wrong people seem to be in charge, and a bad culture is emerging. That’s why Donald Trump’s ridiculous call to deport 11 million undocumented workers has resonance, or why Ben Carson’s comments on why Muslims shouldn’t be eligible for the Presidency struck a chord. It’s just a discomfort with . . . I don’t know what to call it. Post-racial post-modernity? The way things are? To call it racism is perhaps too strong; most Republicans aren’t cross-burners. But they’ve been made to feel . . . unwelcome. It’s hard to combat, because it’s more a feeling than anything else. But as the Republican base gets older and whiter, it also gets crankier. And the House Speakership fight is only a minor skirmish in a larger war.

Look at McCarthy’s speech above, quoted with such glee by Rachel Maddow. Yes, it’s certainly incoherent. But it’s not entirely gibberish. Unpack it carefully (keeping snarkiness to a minimum), and what he’s saying is something Yeats said much more eloquently.

Turning, turning in the widening gyre; the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. . . and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? (W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming)

Obama? All the while, keeping the place of the band? On America?  No wonder the Speaker fight is being so fiercely waged.



Sicario: Movie Review

Sicario is one of those movies that come with a lot of hype that it doesn’t quite live up to, while remaining an awfully good movie anyway. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI agent specializing in kidnapping cases. She leads a SWAT team into a very nice home in Chandler Arizona, a Phoenix suburb, only to discover a horror show; dozens of bodies sheetrocked into the walls. Her handling of the case brings her to the attention of Matt (Josh Brolin), who recruits her into an anti-drug task force he heads up. She soon meets Matt’s partner, Alejandro, (Benicio Del Toro), who, she’s told vaguely, is a DEA asset. She’s never quite sure of Matt either–what agency he works for, what his authority might be, though her superiors make it clear that questioning any of that is way beyond her pay grade. And so begins her slow descent into the moral quagmire of America’s (and Mexico’s) war on drugs. Kate’s a cop’s cop; she wants to bust bad guys, build cases that can be prosecuted in a court of law; she wants clear-cut rules and procedures, and she want her work to be by the book. Matt and Alejandro make clear what they think of her naivete. That’s not remotely what they do, though what they do does seem to have been approved by someone. By someone ‘elected,’ she’s condescendingly informed.

I’ve heard this movie described as shocking and profoundly disturbing and a revelation. I didn’t find it to be any of those things. These are movie tropes of an ancient lineage; morally ambiguous cops who stray outside normal procedures to disrupt and disturb the heads of big drug cartels? We haven’t seen that before? Like in every episode of The Wire? Or the deeply troubled cop seeking revenge for the dreadful things some bad guys did to his family? Seen it all before.

A ‘sicario’ is, as an early title informs us, an assassin. I suppose part of the mystery of the piece is to figure out which of these characters is, in fact, not a cop, but an assassin, a sicario. Except that I figured that out twenty minutes in. Not to spoil things by spilling those particular frijoles, but it’s not all that difficult; I’ll bet you figure it out too, just as quickly.

So it’s really a pretty conventional example of the ‘nihilist cop revenge narrative.’ Like, say, The Departed, The French Connection, Chinatown, all the Dirty Harry movies, Heat, Traffic, Bullitt, Training Day, all the Lethal Weapons, End of Watch, Donnie Brasco, LA Confidential, or The Untouchables? It’s still stylishly made, and exceptionally well acted.

Del Toro is particularly magnificent. He looks ravaged, and all the more dangerous for it. Near the end of the movie, he explains to Kate why she could never fight the war that consumes him. “You’re not a wolf,” he says. “And this is the time for wolves.” And later, when she’s given the chance to shoot him, she can’t bring herself to do it, in part because he had earlier saved her life. His Alejandro is haunted, compassionate, and utterly ruthless. It’s a brilliant creation. Brolin is equally terrific, playing a cheerful cynicism, perhaps even a trifle gleeful in his nihilism.

It’s Emily Blunt, though, who the movie is built around, and she’s fine. For me, though, she seemed just a trifle too naive. A woman with her history dealing with criminals wouldn’t seem quite so surprised (or appalled) at Matt and Alejandro’s antics.

And, thank heavens, the movie does finally place the blame for the destruction and death and mayhem of the drug wars where the blame belongs; squarely on the shoulders of the American people. In the film, Brolin casually mentions the 20% of Americans who regularly use illegal drugs. In fact, the number is nowhere near that high; it’s more like 7.5%, and most of that is marijuana; only about two million Americans regularly abuse cocaine and meth. That’s still a sizeable market. Add to that the tendency of American voters to prefer anti-drug hysteria for sensible drug policy, and our usual casually Trumpian racism towards Mexico, and we have all the necessary elements for a first-rate drug war. Cocaine is a commercial product, and its price is controlled by the immutable laws of supply and demand. Treat drug abuse (and addiction) as a public health problem and not a criminal problem, and demand would drop, leading to a drop in prices, and, presumably, lucrative criminality. This is a stylish and fashionably hopeless (and to be honest, a fashionably sentimental) movie. But it describes a problem that could be solved.

And not by running around shooting the poor soldiers and mules and corrupt (but soccer-playing) cops of the Mexican drug cartels.  No matter how mean they were to your poor lost daughter. We need sensible policy, working in concert with Mexican officials and authorities. Not an army of American Dirty Harrys.