Opinion

The Great Debate

The real IRS scandal

The office for the Internal Revenue Service near Times Square in New York May 16, 2011.  REUTERS/Chip East

We just had five congressional hearings about the Internal Revenue Service, full of sound and fury, but, we now know, signifying nothing.

Despite all the hoopla and headlines about IRS personnel targeting conservative tax-exempt organizations, there is no real scandal here. IRS staffers acted not only legally but, given their impossible task, quite rationally.

They forgot, however, that they not only work in a political fishbowl, they swim in a sea of politics. Faced with internally contradictory regulations laid out in vague terms, and with little guidance from higher-ups, they botched it. Republicans may now finally get the chance to pour unlimited amounts of secret money into elections.

The Internal Revenue Code provides a tax exemption under section 501(c)(4) for nonprofit groups “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare” (emphasis added). In classic oxymoronic bureaucratic doublespeak, however, a 1959 regulation decided “exclusively” really meant “primarily.”

Can Christie tackle the partisan divide?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in Asbury Park in New Jersey, May 28, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

How often these days do we see a political figure liked by both Republicans and Democrats? Not so often that we should fail to notice.

But there was the evidence last week in two different polls. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie drew a 58 percent favorable rating from his fellow Republicans around the country and 52 percent from Democrats in a recent Gallup Poll. Forty percent of Republicans in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, and 43 percent of Democrats, said they like Christie. (The NBC-Journal numbers are a bit lower because the poll offered a “neutral” option.)

Seeking a smarter approach to the budget

Capitol Building in Washington, February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Sequestration grew out of a political impasse: Republicans refused to raise the government’s borrowing limit in 2011 without starting to bring spending under control, but Democrats refused to make choices about where to cut spending.

So the president devised sequestration, on the theory that cutting spending in such a painful and dumb way would force Republicans to raise taxes. Spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare was mostly spared, but other programs, particularly defense, got across-the-board cuts.

As a result, thousands of federal workers, including border security and FBI agents, are being told to expect unpaid furloughs in the coming weeks and months. And that is only the beginning. If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans in Washington can now agree on, it is this: The sequester must be replaced.

Party opinion usurps public opinion

We are witnessing the slow death of public opinion in this country.  It’s being displaced by party opinion.

These days, more and more Americans are inclined to judge issues from a partisan viewpoint.  In March, according to a Pew Research Center survey, twice as many Republicans (53 percent) as Democrats (27 percent) said the economy was poor.  Yet, from everything we know, Republicans are not suffering more economic deprivation than Democrats.

Elections today are less and less about persuasion and more and more about mobilization: You rally your supporters in order to beat back your opponents.  Republicans did that in 2004, when President George W. Bush got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote. Democrats did that in 2012, when President Barack Obama got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote.

Right-wing talk shows turned White House blue

Talk isn’t cheap, as Republicans have learned. The conservative talk show culture is proving expensive for GOP presidential hopefuls.

Since Rush Limbaugh’s 1992 bestseller “The Way Things Ought to Be,” his conservative talk show politics have dominated GOP presidential discourse – and the Republicans’ White House fortunes have plummeted. But when the mainstream media reigned supreme, between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won seven out of the 10 presidential elections.

Conservative talk show hosts and Fox News blame the “lamestream” national media’s “liberal bias” for the GOP’s poor showing since 1992. Yet the rise of the conservative-dominated media defines the era when the fortunes of GOP presidential hopefuls dropped to the worst levels since the party’s founding in 1856.

Obama’s budget bid for a ‘grand bargain’

President Barack Obama’s budget, released Wednesday, is getting a lot of criticism from ideologues on the right and left. That is one of the most encouraging things about it.

Though the president’s budget falls short in several important ways, it demonstrates his willingness to compromise — something most Democratic and Republican legislators have resisted. Now comes the critical stage in any real effort to achieve a “grand bargain,” when the president can show true leadership by bridging the divide between the parties and using the bully pulpit to address the American people in a constructive fashion that can lead to a deal.

The most helpful thing about the Obama budget is that, for the first time, the president has publicly proposed reforms to two key social insurance programs. By adopting a GOP-backed change in the inflation calculator — the so-called chained CPI — the president is accepting adjustments in the cost of living payments for those receiving Social Security.

The price of defying your base

Defying your base is always risky. It can either bring you down — or it can make you look stronger.

Right now, politicians in both parties are trying to pull it off.  Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) – a likely contender for the 2016 Republican nomination – is preparing to challenge conservatives on immigration reform. President Barack Obama is defying liberals on entitlement reform. What are they thinking?

Your base is people who are with you when you’re wrong.  Sooner or later, every politician gets in trouble. He needs people to stick up for him — people who say, “He was there for us and we’ll be there for him.” President Ronald Reagan’s base, for example, stuck with him during the Iran-contra scandal. So did President Bill Clinton’s base during impeachment.

A politics of ‘unreliable narrators’

An unreliable narrator cannot be trusted.

He comes in many guises. There is the delusional unreliable narrator, like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, unaware of how the reader and the other characters perceive him. There is the mad narrator, as in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There are the unreliable narrators who lie to themselves to make the unreality appear real. Middle-aged professor Humbert Humbert in Lolita famously lies to the jury and to himself,  believing his sexual affair with the drastically under-aged Lolita is not criminal. Yet Vladimir Nabokov, the author, gives a wink to  the reader: We know the protagonist is not being honest with himself.

These characters are coming undone — the reader slowly notices fissures in their thinking, which clue us in that  these narrators  are  living in an alternative universe. Then there is the more subtle unreliable. Nick Carraway, who narrates The Great Gatsby, is not to be trusted because of the way he chooses to tell his story. From the first word he is hiding the real story from the reader.

As with most linear storylines, the narrator knows far more than the reader, and Carraway’s is no different.  From the first word, he is hiding the story of Jay Gatsby, a notorious unreliable, from the reader — the way Gatsby holds his identity from Nick.

Republicans won’t embrace same-sex marriage anytime soon

In the wake of Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s  announcement that his son is gay, and his son’s coming out prompting  the senator to support gay marriage, it has become  commonplace to assert that Republicans are about to flip-flop on the gay marriage issue. Activists on both sides seem to agree. The Log Cabin Republicans triumphantly declared: “If there was any doubt that the conservative logjam on the issue of civil marriage for committed gay and lesbian couples has broken, Senator Portman’s support for the freedom to marry has erased it.” On Sunday, Karl Rove appeared to take leave of his senses when he said he could imagine the 2016 Republican presidential nominee supporting legal same-sex marriage. And with the Supreme Court set to hear a challenge to gay marriage bans this week, many observers are predicting that one or more conservative justices will join with the Court’s liberal wing to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, and possibly California’s Proposition 8 as well.

On the other side, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins has warned that, “If the RNC abandons marriage, evangelicals will either sit the elections out completely – or move to create a third party. Either option puts Republicans on the path to a permanent minority.”

Both sides are getting way ahead of events. I can’t predict the Court’s ruling, but I can predict the Republican Party’s stance on gay rights for the foreseeable future: hostile opposition. Many observers lump gay rights with immigration – an issue on which the GOP has begun to shift leftward – as social issues on which the Republicans must modernize or die. Presumably, the logic follows, they will choose accommodation over death.

Jindal’s model for tax reform

With dueling budgets being introduced on Capitol Hill this week, the possibility of tax reform is the talk of Washington. As we predicted before last November’s elections, tax reform will be on the agenda in 2013 – but has its best chances in the states. We are seeing that demonstrated Thursday by Louisiana’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal.

Jindal unveiled what could be, if approved by the legislature, the boldest, most pro-growth state tax reform in U.S. history. His plan, outlined in Baton Rouge this morning during a joint meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, calls for the elimination of all state personal and corporate income taxes, as well as the state franchise tax on capital stock. This would be replaced by an increase in the state sales tax rate to 5.88 percent, up from 4 percent. The sales tax would also apply to a broader base of goods and a number of services previously untaxed.

Many governors around the country have proposed rate-reducing tax reform, but Jindal’s plan sets a gold standard for pro-growth reform. His proposal could mean more disposable income for families while increasing the job-creating capacity of employers across the Pelican State.

  •