Opinion

The Great Debate

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.

President George H. W. Bush lost his base when he abandoned his “No new taxes” pledge in 1990. President George W. Bush tried, and failed, to bring conservatives along on immigration reform in 2007. Clinton defied liberals on the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and on welfare reform in 1996 – and got away with it. Clinton, of course, had a special talent for political high-wire acts.

How can you defy your base and not turn into a double-crosser? You need four things to bring it off.

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.

from Judgement Call:

The fiscal crisis nears – or not

Few economists preach spending cuts as a cure for high unemployment. Yet that’s exactly what Congress decided when it imposed, starting March 1, across-the-board spending cuts (the “sequester”). Despite Friday’s mildly upbeat jobs numbers, the economy remains limp, with 15 million or so unemployed individuals who want to work. Federal spending cuts won’t make their plight any better.

Congress has known for quite some time that the federal budget will turn sour in 10 to 15 years, with expected outlays far outstripping expected revenue. For complicated, if not odd, reasons, Congress now feels compelled to do what it ordinarily shuns: cut federal programs and raise taxes. That might seem politically brave and responsible. But brushed up against facts, the case for Congress taking swift action wobbles, hitting wrong targets at the wrong time.

Of the many reasons politicians offer for cutting federal spending during economically straitened times, two cry out for attention. First, many liberals and conservatives say, Congress needs to stanch soaring federal spending. Second, conservatives say, federal programs are growing ever more intrusive, ever more threatening to private initiative.

Obama’s political options

Fiscal crisis? What fiscal crisis? The stock market is up, unemployment is down and the deficit is shrinking.

The fiscal crisis is in Washington, and it’s a crisis of Washington’s own devising. All those deadlines! January 1: the fiscal cliff. March 1: sequesters. March 27: a possible government shutdown. Sometime in August:  the debt ceiling, again.

The unending fiscal crisis could take up the entire year. President Barack Obama desperately wants to end it. For one thing, more spending cuts could bring on a recession. For another, an unending fiscal crisis would monopolize the agenda. No time for Congress to take up immigration reform or gun control or the minimum wage or preschool education.

California v. Texas in fight for the future

It is not a national election year, but the “red state versus blue state” wars continue. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s recent foray into California, to lure away businesses and jobs, signals more than a rivalry between these two mega-states. The Texas-California competition represents the political, economic and cultural differences driving American politics today – and for the foreseeable future.

Texas and California are robust political and economic competitors. We don’t know which will be the template for the future. As California emerges from its economic and fiscal doldrums and some of Texas’ vulnerabilities become evident, it is now far from certain that Texas will emerge the victor.

California is a global hub for trade, tourism, culture and the manufacture of ideas and intellectual property. From high tech and biotech to entertainment, travel and logistics, the state’s brand transcends national boundaries. The Golden State tops the nation in agriculture. It also sets the pace on green energy development, which could lead to a dramatic increase in the state’s energy production.

A sequestration solution for the Pentagon

The sequestration drama in Washington is less severe and intractable than you have heard. A partial solution: Block the across-the-board cut of $42.5 billion in military funds this year — the Pentagon’s portion of $85 billion due March 1 — and spread the savings over several years by tweaking military spending caps already on the books.

Because this option preserves deficit reduction without raising taxes and lets the military drawdown intelligently, a congressional majority might support it.

Pentagon leaders are sounding the alarm — warning about the impending sequester and the additional $500 billion reduction in spending over a decade. Furloughed civilian employees, extended deployments, reduced naval patrols and procurement delays, they say, will leave the military unable to perform its job and deter U.S. enemies.

Obama’s Two Choices: Good and Better

President Barack Obama must like the view from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue right now. Politically speaking, the sky is clear, and the few clouds on the horizon have silver linings.

Because where things now stand with Congress, if he wins – he wins. And if he loses – he wins.

Getting Republicans to bend to his will on any of the banner issues this year – whether immigration reform, gun control or deficit reduction – will help enshrine him as a president of real achievement. If he fails, however, these same issues can be used as bludgeons to pound Republicans as heartless, even racist, knuckle-draggers who only want to service their rich masters.

Rubio rewrites GOP media playbook

Comprehensive immigration reform still looks uncertain on Capitol Hill as the principles laid out by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and the other members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” slowly evolve into legislative text. But Rubio’s lead role in this has been crucial. Equally important, was the template Rubio provided by engaging with media of all stripes – conservative, mainstream and online – to sell the idea, and his party, to audiences outside the usual Republican comfort zone.

Diagnosing what ails the Republican Party has become a favorite Beltway pastime. But it’s clear that rebuilding the brand among Latino voters tops the “to-do” list. President Barack Obama defeated GOP nominee Mitt Romney by more than 20 points among Latino voters, according to many exit polls. The GOP has a small amount of time until this trend is set in stone.

Enter Rubio, who tackled an historically difficult issue – particularly for the GOP’s conservative wing, with whom he is identified. His immigration principles had to withstand scrutiny on the right and address the White House’s moving goalposts on the left. The first-term senator faced the challenge of dealing with both ends of the political spectrum without losing his balance.

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