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Saturday, October 30, 2010

changing back

It goes without saying, but everyone be sure to vote. It's gonna be a bad year, but there's still a pretty big range in terms of how bad.

Now for some of this and that...

This op-ed by Steven Perlstein is still probably the best commentary on our present circumstances that I've come across. Here's the conclusion:

The simple truth is that Obama and the Democratic Congress were dealt a lousy economic hand, and they've played it about as well as anyone could. Along with their predecessors and the holdovers at the Federal Reserve, they prevented a collapse of the global financial system and a 1930s-like depression. But given the magnitude of the financial crisis and the global imbalances that gave rise to it, a prolonged period of slow growth and high unemployment was almost inevitable.

The political reality, however, is that voters are unwilling to accept that economic reality. They want to believe that government has the power to control the economy and fix it quickly when it breaks down. They are encouraged in that belief by politicians and special interest groups, by the media and by too many economists.

That said, trying to convince voters that things could have been worse was not a viable political strategy for Democrats in 2010. Against a backdrop of stagnant incomes and declining home prices and 10 percent unemployment, toting up the number of jobs saved, mortgages modified or bridges repaired was never going to be a winning argument. What voters needed was a broader vision of where the country needed to go and how we could get there, a credible story of how shared sacrifice today could lead to shared prosperity tomorrow.

The inability of President Obama and Democratic leaders to articulate such a vision and tell that story now threatens their governing majority. Republicans may soon be the beneficiaries of that failure. Their victory, however, will be similarly short-lived if they mistake their good fortune for a mandate for lower taxes, less regulation and further erosion of the economic safety net.

In politics as in many competitive arenas, sometimes you win simply because the other guy loses.

The only thing I would quibble with here, though, is the notion that the government does not have the power to fix the economy. True,politically our government is not capable of doing what would be necessary, but that's not to say it couldn't if everyone somehow got on the same page. We've seen it in our own history: after Pearl Harbor our government began deficit spending on an unprecedented scale. It was a rare moment when "deficit hawks" were silenced by the existential threat posed by the Axis powers. After the war, the economy now out of the Depression and running on all cylinders we managed to pay off the debt relatively quickly. (To be clear, I'm not for deficit spending in good times, just as a way of getting our economy in gear... in the long term we do need to get our fiscal house in order, but that's not going to happen as long as our economy is stuck in the mud)

We could act with the same seriousness now that we did after Pearl Harbor, but rather than building war ships we could spend the money on our own infrastructure and solving the energy/environmental crisis... except, of course, that we can't. But that's a political problem. Not an inherent limitation to the power of government.

Now I don't know if it could be possible to convince the public of the necessity of such drastic measures... but I can say with a degree of certainty that it's unlikely to happen without even making the argument. That's where I do believe the Obama Admin deserves some criticism.

Along those lines, Paul Krugman considers how we got here:

This is what happens when you need to leap over an economic chasm — but either can’t or won’t jump far enough, so that you only get part of the way across.

If Democrats do as badly as expected in next week’s elections, pundits will rush to interpret the results as a referendum on ideology. President Obama moved too far to the left, most will say, even though his actual program — a health care plan very similar to past Republican proposals, a fiscal stimulus that consisted mainly of tax cuts, help for the unemployed and aid to hard-pressed states — was more conservative than his election platform.

A few commentators will point out, with much more justice, that Mr. Obama never made a full-throated case for progressive policies, that he consistently stepped on his own message, that he was so worried about making bankers nervous that he ended up ceding populist anger to the right.

But the truth is that if the economic situation were better — if unemployment had fallen substantially over the past year — we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We would, instead, be talking about modest Democratic losses, no more than is usual in midterm elections.

The real story of this election, then, is that of an economic policy that failed to deliver. Why? Because it was greatly inadequate to the task.

Krugman makes the crucial point that the stimulus was barely enough to counter-act cuts at the State and local levels, meaning, in effect, there was no stimulus.

David Leonhardt thinks he knows the moment the Obama Administration took their eye off the ball:

On the evening of Dec. 3 last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics sent an advance copy of the next morning’s jobs report to the White House. It’s standard procedure for top White House and Federal Reserve officials to get an early look at the numbers, but there was nothing standard about this particular report.

It showed that job losses had all but stopped in November, after nearly two years of big declines. White House aides exulted. Christina Romer, a top economist, brought a copy of the numbers to the Oval Office, and President Obama embraced her. A photograph of the moment, with a Christmas tree off to the side, was hung in the office of the Council of Economic Advisers. The good news — and the optimism — would continue for the next few months.

Today, that brief period of optimism looks like one of the worst things that could have happened to the White House, other Democrats and, above all, the economy. The nascent recovery removed the urgency that the Obama administration and Democratic senators felt in early 2009. They still favored more action, like aid to states and tax cuts, but it was no longer their top priority.

They assumed a recovery was under way.

We now know, of course, that the recovery has stalled. From November of last year — the month whose job report brought cheer to the White House — to May, the economy added almost one million jobs, thanks partly to census hiring. Since May, almost 400,000 jobs have disappeared.

More than anything else, that change explains the midterm losses that Democrats are bracing for next week.

Tim Dickinson argues in Rolling Stone that Obama deserves more credit than he's getting:

During his campaign, skeptics warned that Barack Obama was nothing but a "beautiful loser," a progressive purist whose uncompromising idealism would derail his program for change. But as president, Obama has proved to be just the opposite — an ugly winner. Over and over, he has shown himself willing to strike unpalatable political bargains to secure progress, even at the cost of alienating his core supporters. Single-payer health care? For Obama, it was a nonstarter. The public option? A praiseworthy bargaining chip in the push for reform.

This bloodless, if effective, approach to governance has created a perilous disconnect: By any rational measure, Obama is the most accomplished and progressive president in decades, yet the only Americans fired up by the changes he has delivered are Republicans and Tea Partiers hellbent on reversing them. Heading into the November elections, Obama's approval ratings are mired in the mid-40s, and polls reflect a stark enthusiasm gap: Half of all Republicans are "very" excited about voting this fall, compared to just a quarter of Democrats. "Republicans have succeeded in making even the president's victories look distasteful, messy — and seem like bad policy steps or defeats," says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Many on the left have expressed nothing but anger, frustration and disappointment."

But if the passions of Obama's base have been deflated by the compromises he made to secure historic gains like the Recovery Act, health care reform and Wall Street regulation, that gloom cannot obscure the essential point: This president has delivered more sweeping, progressive change in 20 months than the previous two Democratic administrations did in 12 years. "When you look at what will last in history," historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells Rolling Stone, "Obama has more notches on the presidential belt."

In fact, when the history of this administration is written, Obama's opening act is likely to be judged as more impressive than any president's — Democrat or Republican — since the mid-1960s. "If you're looking at the first-two-year legislative record," says Ornstein, "you really don't have any rivals since Lyndon Johnson — and that includes Ronald Reagan."

Less than halfway through his first term, Obama has compiled a remarkable track record. As president, he has rewritten America's social contract to make health care accessible for all citizens. He has brought 100,000 troops home from war and forged a once-unthinkable consensus around the endgame for the Bush administration's $3 trillion blunder in Iraq. He has secured sweeping financial reforms that elevate the rights of consumers over Wall Street bankers and give regulators powerful new tools to prevent another collapse. And most important of all, he has achieved all of this while moving boldly to ward off another Great Depression and put the country back on a halting path to recovery.

Along the way, Obama delivered record tax cuts to the middle class and slashed nearly $200 billion in corporate welfare — reinvesting that money to make college more accessible and Medicare more solvent. He single-handedly prevented the collapse of the Big Three automakers — saving more than 1 million jobs — and brought Big Tobacco, at last, under the yoke of federal regulation. Even in the face of congressional intransigence on climate change, he has fought to constrain carbon pollution by executive fiat and to invest $200 billion in clean energy — an initiative bigger than John F. Kennedy's moonshot and one that's on track to double America's capacity to generate renewable energy by the end of Obama's first term.

On the social front, he has improved pay parity for women and hate-crime protections for gays and lesbians. He has brought a measure of sanity to the drug war, reducing the sentencing disparity for crack cocaine while granting states wide latitude to experiment with marijuana laws. And he has installed two young, female justices on the Supreme Court, creating what Brinkley calls "an Obama imprint on the court for generations."

What's even more impressive about Obama's accomplishments, historians say, is the fractious political coalition he had to marshal to victory. "He didn't have the majority that LBJ had," says Goodwin. Indeed, Johnson could count on 68 Democratic senators to pass Medicare, Medicaid and the Voting Rights Act. For his part, Franklin Roosevelt had the backing of 69 Senate Democrats when he passed Social Security in 1935. At its zenith, Obama's governing coalition in the Senate comprised 57 Democrats, a socialist, a Republican turncoat — and Joe Lieberman.

In his quest for progress, Obama has also had to maneuver against an unrelenting head wind from the "Party of No" and its billionaire backers. "Obama is harassed as well as opposed," says Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. "The crazy Republican right is now unfettered. You've got a Senate with no adult leadership. And Obama's up against Rupert Murdoch, Dick Armey, the Koch brothers and the rest of the professional right." Compared to the opposition faced by the most transformative Democratic presidents, adds Wilentz, "it's a wholly different scale."

Despite such obstacles, Obama has succeeded in forging a progressive legacy that, anchored by health care reform, puts him "into the same conversation with FDR and LBJ," says Brinkley, "though those two accomplished more." Goodwin, herself a former Johnson aide, likens the thrust of Obama's social agenda to LBJ's historic package of measures known as the Great Society. "What is comparable," she says, "is the idea of using government to expand social and economic justice. That's what the health care bill is about. That's what Obama tried to do with the financial reforms. That's what he's doing with education. The Great Society was about using the collective energies of the nation to make life better for more people — and that's what Obama has tried to do."

Unfortunately though, most people don't see things that way (Bloomberg):

The Obama administration cut taxes for middle-class Americans, expects to make a profit on the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to rescue Wall Street banks and has overseen an economy that has grown for the past five quarters.

Most voters don’t believe it.

A Bloomberg National Poll conducted Oct. 24-26 finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters in the Nov. 2 midterm elections think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered.

“The public view of the economy is at odds with the facts, and the blame has to go to the Democrats,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm that conducted the nationwide survey. “It does not matter much if you make change, if you do not communicate change.”

Paul Krugman on the kind of politics we can look forward to:

In the late-1990s, Republicans and Democrats were able to work together on some issues. President Obama seems to believe that the same thing can happen again today. In a recent interview with National Journal, he sounded a conciliatory note, saying that Democrats need to have an “appropriate sense of humility,” and that he would “spend more time building consensus.” Good luck with that.

After all, that era of partial cooperation in the 1990s came only after Republicans had tried all-out confrontation, actually shutting down the federal government in an effort to force President Bill Clinton to give in to their demands for big cuts in Medicare.

Now, the government shutdown ended up hurting Republicans politically, and some observers seem to assume that memories of that experience will deter the G.O.P. from being too confrontational this time around. But the lesson current Republicans seem to have drawn from 1995 isn’t that they were too confrontational, it’s that they weren’t confrontational enough.

Another recent interview by National Journal, this one with Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has received a lot of attention thanks to a headline-grabbing quote: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

If you read the full interview, what Mr. McConnell was saying was that, in 1995, Republicans erred by focusing too much on their policy agenda and not enough on destroying the president: “We suffered from some degree of hubris and acted as if the president was irrelevant and we would roll over him. By the summer of 1995, he was already on the way to being re-elected, and we were hanging on for our lives.” So this time around, he implied, they’ll stay focused on bringing down Mr. Obama.

True, Mr. McConnell did say that he might be willing to work with Mr. Obama in certain circumstances — namely, if he’s willing to do a “Clintonian back flip,” taking positions that would find more support among Republicans than in his own party. Of course, this would actually hurt Mr. Obama’s chances of re-election — but that’s the point.

get ready for it!

This Vanity Fair profile of John Boehner gave me some perspective on the guy. He comes less as a zealot and more as a political creature responding to the demands of his increasingly crazy constituents. This doesn't make him any less dangerous, but still interesting nonetheless. Here's a key excerpt:

He is not ashamed to acknowledge that he raises a glass, or two or three, when day is done. “He smokes and he drinks, and God bless him,” says John Feehery, who was press secretary to the last Republican Speaker, Dennis Hastert, and who has been on the receiving end of some of Boehner’s sartorial tips and injunctions to lose weight. “The thing that’s most important about Boehner is he’s very even-keeled. He’s not mercurial. Unless he’s giving a speech on the floor, he’s not going to get overly excited. From a leadership perspective, he’s been there before. I don’t think he’s necessarily out to prove anything.”

Yet the reality of the modern Republican Party is that Boehner has to prove himself every day to his truculent colleagues, which is part of the reason he has offered such consistently unyielding opposition to Obama. It’s impossible to imagine a Speaker Sam Rayburn adopting a “Hell, no!” strategy with Dwight D. Eisenhower, or a Tip O’Neill adopting it with Ronald Reagan, whatever their real policy differences or partisan electoral objectives might have been. Were he to be left to his own devices, it would be easy enough to imagine that Boehner might like to close the sale for a change, instead of just closing the door. But he can’t—it would cost him his job. It was Boehner himself who shouted “Hell, no!” on the House floor just before the final vote on the health-care bill. Although he likes to say that Obama has refused to listen to G.O.P. ideas or bargain in good faith, the truth is the other way around. Boehner was among the architects of the strategy by Republicans in both houses to resist the president at every turn, regardless of whether they thought his proposals made sense or might be good for the country. Led by Boehner in the House, the Republicans voted down measures they had previously agreed with, even been the first to propose. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, has openly acknowledged that this approach was a deliberate effort to build the party’s political fortunes at the expense of the president’s.

Boehner has vowed that, if the House were to come under his management as Speaker, he would run the place differently. Even if he tried, it is not clear how much difference it would make. “Boehner does understand the legislative process, he values the legislative process,” says Don Wolfensberger, a former top Republican staffer on the House rules committee and now director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington. But legislating has become “more and more difficult, because things have become so much more partisan.” If the modern Senate has been twisted into knots by the ever present threat of filibusters to prolong debate, the House has seen the reverse: a precipitous decline of substantive debate among members on the floor, through the use of restrictive procedural rules that bar, or severely limit, amendments to pre-cooked bills that emerge from the powerful Rules Committee. The use of so-called “closed” rules began to increase about 30 years ago, after Reagan’s election, when House Republicans staged rearguard warfare against the Democratic majority by seeking to attach rafts of amendments, and Democrats clamored for relief. As part of the original Contract with America, Republicans pledged more open debate, but the best they were able to do was to have open rules on 58 percent of legislation reaching the floor, according to Wolfensberger’s calculations. Since then, that percentage has declined steadily. In the first two years of renewed Democratic control, in 2007–9, only 14 percent of bills reached the floor in a form that allowed unlimited amendments. In the current Congress, not even one such bill has reached the floor.

Boehner routinely deplores this state of affairs, but he would have a tough time changing it. It is also hard to see just where and how he might be able to work with Obama, though they agree on several broad fronts of foreign policy, including the war in Afghanistan. Boehner has been deliberately opaque about what his own priorities would be as Speaker, in part lest he rank too low on his own agenda some item that is high on the agenda of the Young Guns. (He is anti-abortion, for example, but he has never shown much interest in the culture wars.) But Boehner holds out some hope, and cites the messy passage of Obama’s health-care bill as proof, that big and complex things cannot be done effectively on pure partisan votes. “This is one of the reasons why I believe that beginning to break down the scar tissue that’s been built up by both political parties is critically important for the future of the institution that I’m seeking to lead,” he said recently to a group of journalists in Washington. “And both parties have built up a lot of scar tissue that prevents members from working together again. But I’m going to tell you what: we’re not going to be able to solve the big problems in our country until members begin to work with each other again and trust each other once again. Ain’t gonna happen overnight.”

That’s an understatement, and Boehner is, in the end, a most unlikely candidate to lead any kind of revolution. He is a traditionalist, and an institutionalist, and, Lord knows, he is anything but a fresh face. He is the captive of forces more powerful than himself, and he has evidenced a form of Stockholm syndrome, which his captors may or may not find convincing. The pitiful reality of contemporary Washington is that institutional perspective is in such short supply that anyone with even a smidgen of it might pass for having qualities of statesmanship. If John Boehner is a statesman, he’s one who starts from an unenviable position: neither the leader his party may really want nor the kind his country most needs.

Here are a few other random things I found interesting:

Jonathan Chait reviews the most popular conservative book of the year, The Battle by Arthur Brooks, calling it a notable signpost on the road to idiocy.

Sean Wilentz traces the Tea Party's roots back to Cold War fringe groups like the John Birch Society. He notes that many of the books being promoted by Glenn Beck and gaining currency among Republicans lately are by people who were shunned in their day by the likes of William F. Buckley.

Tom Junod on the "sore winners"

The Stewart/Colbert rally is starting soon. Have a great weekend people!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

(insert tea related pun here)

The "Tea Party" has always struck me as more of a media creation than a real political force. I do see the occasional bumper sticker, so there is something real there, but at this point we should all be well aware of how the media fixates on the sensational, and how that gives a distorted view of reality.

Nevertheless I happened to read two really interesting articles on the phenomenon recently, so I'm going to provide my "condensed" versions here. The first takes a relatively scholarly approach, the second is on the irreverent side... this will be worth your time I promise.

First off, this is from the New York Review of Books:

Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink…the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense.

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

Since the Seventies, distrust of politics has been the underlying theme of our politics, and every presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter has been obliged to run against Washington, knowing full well that the large forces making the government less effective and less representative were beyond his control. Voters pretend to rebel and politicians pretend to listen: this is our political theater. What’s happening behind the scenes is something quite different. As the libertarian spirit drifted into American life, first from the left, then from the right, many began disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals.

Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead15; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.

This, I think, is the deepest reason why public reaction to the crash of 2008 and the election of Barack Obama took a populist turn and the Tea Party movement caught on. The crash not only devastated people’s finances and shook their confidence in their and their children’s future. It also broke through the moats we have been building around ourselves and our families, reminding us that certain problems require a collective response through political institutions. What’s more, it was a catastrophe whose causes no one yet fully understands, not even specialists who know exactly what derivatives, discount rates, and multiplier effects are. The measures the federal government took to control the damage were complex and controversial, but there was general agreement that at some point it would have to intervene to prevent a worldwide financial collapse, and that without some sort of stimulus a real depression loomed. That, though, is not at all what people who distrust elites, who want to “make up their own minds,” and who have fantasies of self-sufficiency want to be told. Apparently they find it more satisfying to hear that these emergency measures were concocted to tighten government’s grip on their lives even more. It all connects.

The conservative media did not create the Tea Party movement and do not direct it; nobody does. But the movement’s rapid growth and popularity are unthinkable without the demagogues’ new ability to tell isolated individuals worried about their futures what they want to hear and put them in direct contact with one another, bypassing the parties and other mediating institutions our democracy depends on. When the new Jacobins turn on their televisions they do not tune in to the PBS News Hour or C-Span to hear economists and congressmen debate the effectiveness of financial regulations or health care reform. They look for shows that laud their common sense, then recite to them the libertarian credo that Fox emblazons on its home page nearly every day: YOU DECIDE.

the Jacobin spirit could shape our politics for some time, given how well it dovetails with the spirits of Woodstock and Wall Street, and given the continuing influence of Fox News and talk radio. (Rush Limbaugh alone has millions of daily listeners.) It is already transforming American conservatism. A wise man once summed up the history of colonialism in a phrase: the colonized eventually colonize the colonizer. This is exactly what is happening on the right today: the more it tries to exploit the energy of the Tea Party rebellion, the cruder the conservative movement becomes in its thinking and rhetoric. Ronald Reagan was a master of populist rhetoric, but he governed using the policy ideas of intellectuals he knew and admired (Milton Friedman, Irving Kristol, George Gilder, and Charles Murray among them).

Today’s conservatives prefer the company of anti-intellectuals who know how to exploit nonintellectuals, as Sarah Palin does so masterfully.16 The dumbing-down they have long lamented in our schools they are now bringing to our politics, and they will drag everyone and everything along with them. As David Frum, one of the remaining lucid conservatives, has written to his wayward comrades, “When you argue stupid, you campaign stupid. When you campaign stupid, you win stupid. And when you win stupid, you govern stupid.” (Unsurprisingly, Frum was recently eased out of his position at the American Enterprise Institute after expressing criticism of Republican tactics in the health care debate.)

For half a century now Americans have been rebelling in the name of individual freedom. Some wanted a more tolerant society with greater private autonomy, and now we have it, which is a good thing—though it also brought us more out-of-wedlock births, a soft pornographic popular culture, and a drug trade that serves casual users while destroying poor American neighborhoods and destabilizing foreign nations. Others wanted to be free from taxes and regulations so they could get rich fast, and they have—and it’s left the more vulnerable among us in financial ruin, holding precarious jobs, and scrambling to find health care for their children. We wanted our two revolutions. Well, we have had them.

Now an angry group of Americans wants to be freer still—free from government agencies that protect their health, wealth, and well-being; free from problems and policies too difficult to understand; free from parties and coalitions; free from experts who think they know better than they do; free from politicians who don’t talk or look like they do (and Barack Obama certainly doesn’t). They want to say what they have to say without fear of contradiction, and then hear someone on television tell them they’re right. They don’t want the rule of the people, though that’s what they say. They want to be people without rules—and, who knows, they may succeed. This is America, where wishes come true. And where no one remembers the adage “Beware what you wish for.”


And now here is the inimitable Matt Taibbi, from the new Rolling Stone:
Vast forests have already been sacrificed to the public debate about the Tea Party: what it is, what it means, where it's going. But after lengthy study of the phenomenon, I've concluded that the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They're full of shit. All of them. At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry's medals and Barack Obama's Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them.

In the Tea Party narrative, victory at the polls means a new American revolution, one that will "take our country back" from everyone they disapprove of. But what they don't realize is, there's a catch: This is America, and we have an entrenched oligarchical system in place that insulates us all from any meaningful political change. The Tea Party today is being pitched in the media as this great threat to the GOP; in reality, the Tea Party is the GOP. What few elements of the movement aren't yet under the control of the Republican Party soon will be, and even if a few genuine Tea Party candidates sneak through, it's only a matter of time before the uprising as a whole gets castrated, just like every grass-roots movement does in this country. Its leaders will be bought off and sucked into the two-party bureaucracy, where its platform will be whittled down until the only things left are those that the GOP's campaign contributors want anyway: top-bracket tax breaks, free trade and financial deregulation.

The rest of it — the sweeping cuts to federal spending, the clampdown on bailouts, the rollback of Roe v. Wade — will die on the vine as one Tea Party leader after another gets seduced by the Republican Party and retrained for the revolutionary cause of voting down taxes for Goldman Sachs executives.

So how does a group of billionaire businessmen and corporations get a bunch of broke Middle American white people to lobby for lower taxes for the rich and deregulation of Wall Street? That turns out to be easy. Beneath the surface, the Tea Party is little more than a weird and disorderly mob, a federation of distinct and often competing strains of conservatism that have been unable to coalesce around a leader of their own choosing. Its rallies include not only hardcore libertarians left over from the original Ron Paul "Tea Parties," but gun-rights advocates, fundamentalist Christians, pseudomilitia types like the Oath Keepers (a group of law- enforcement and military professionals who have vowed to disobey "unconstitutional" orders) and mainstream Republicans who have simply lost faith in their party. It's a mistake to cast the Tea Party as anything like a unified, cohesive movement — which makes them easy prey for the very people they should be aiming their pitchforks at. A loose definition of the Tea Party might be millions of pissed-off white people sent chasing after Mexicans on Medicaid by the handful of banks and investment firms who advertise on Fox and CNBC.

It would be inaccurate to say the Tea Partiers are racists. What they are, in truth, are narcissists. They're completely blind to how offensive the very nature of their rhetoric is to the rest of the country. I'm an ordinary middle-aged guy who pays taxes and lives in the suburbs with his wife and dog — and I'm a radical communist? I don't love my country? I'm a redcoat? Fuck you! These are the kinds of thoughts that go through your head as you listen to Tea Partiers expound at awesome length upon their cultural victimhood, surrounded as they are by America-haters like you and me or, in the case of foreign-born president Barack Obama, people who are literally not Americans in the way they are.

It's not like the Tea Partiers hate black people. It's just that they're shockingly willing to believe the appalling horseshit fantasy about how white people in the age of Obama are some kind of oppressed minority. That may not be racism, but it is incredibly, earth-shatteringly stupid. I hear this theme over and over — as I do on a recent trip to northern Kentucky, where I decide to stick on a Rand Paul button and sit in on a Tea Party event at a local amusement park. Before long, a group of about a half-dozen Tea Partiers begin speculating about how Obamacare will force emergency-room doctors to consult "death panels" that will evaluate your worth as a human being before deciding to treat you.

"They're going to look at your age, your vocation in life, your health, your income. . . ." says a guy active in the Northern Kentucky Tea Party.

"Your race?" I ask.

"Probably," he says.

"White males need not apply," says another Tea Partier.

"Like everything else, the best thing you can do is be an illegal alien," says a third. "Then they won't ask you any questions."

An amazing number of Tea Partiers actually believe this stuff, and in the past year or so a host of little-known politicians have scored electoral upsets riding this kind of yahoo paranoia.

At a Paul fundraiser in northern Kentucky, I strike up a conversation with one Lloyd Rogers, a retired judge in his 70s who is introducing the candidate at the event. The old man is dressed in a baseball cap and shirtsleeves. Personalitywise, he's what you might call a pistol; one of the first things he says to me is that people are always telling him to keep his mouth shut, but he just can't. I ask him what he thinks about Paul's position on the Civil Rights Act.

"Well, hell, if it's your restaurant, you're putting up the money, you should be able to do what you want," says Rogers. "I tell you, every time he says something like that, in Kentucky he goes up 20 points in the polls. With Kentucky voters, it's not a problem."

In Lexington, I pose the same question to Mica Sims, a local Tea Party organizer. "You as a private-property owner have the right to refuse service for whatever reason you feel will better your business," she says, comparing the Civil Rights Act to onerous anti-smoking laws. "If you're for small government, you're for small government."

You look into the eyes of these people when you talk to them and they genuinely don't see what the problem is. It's no use explaining that while nobody likes the idea of having to get the government to tell restaurant owners how to act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the tool Americans were forced to use to end a monstrous system of apartheid that for 100 years was the shame of the entire Western world. But all that history is not real to Tea Partiers; what's real to them is the implication in your question that they're racists, and to them that is the outrage, and it's an outrage that binds them together. They want desperately to believe in the one-size-fits-all, no-government theology of Rand Paul because it's so easy to understand. At times, their desire to withdraw from the brutally complex global economic system that is an irrevocable fact of our modern life and get back to a simpler world that no longer exists is so intense, it breaks your heart.

At a restaurant in Lexington, I sit down with a Tea Party activist named Frank Harris, with the aim of asking him what he thinks of Wall Street reform. Harris is a bit of an unusual Tea Partier; he's a pro-hemp, anti-war activist who supported Dennis Kucinich. Though he admits he doesn't know very much about the causes of the crash, he insists that financial reform isn't necessary because people like him can always choose not to use banks, take out mortgages, have pensions or even consume everyday products like gas and oil, whose prices are set by the market.

"Really?" I ask. "You can choose not to use gas and oil?" My awesomely fattening cheese-and-turkey dish called a "Hot Brown" is beginning to congeal.

"You can if you want to," Harris says. "And you don't have to take out loans. You can save money and pay for things in cash."

"So instead of regulating banks," I ask, "your solution is saving money in cash?"

He shrugs. "I'm trying to avoid banks at every turn."

My head is starting to hurt. Arguments with Tea Partiers always end up like football games in the year 1900 — everything on the ground, one yard at a time.

My problem, Frank explains, is that I think I can prevent crime by making things illegal. "You want a policeman standing over here so someone doesn't come in here and mug you?" he says. "Because you're going to have to pay for that policeman!"

"But," I say, confused, "we do pay for police."

"You're trying to make every situation 100 percent safe!" he shouts.

This, then, is the future of the Republican Party: Angry white voters hovering over their cash-stuffed mattresses with their kerosene lanterns, peering through the blinds at the oncoming hordes of suburban soccer moms they've mistaken for death-panel bureaucrats bent on exterminating anyone who isn't an illegal alien or a Kenyan anti-colonialist.

The world is changing all around the Tea Party. The country is becoming more black and more Hispanic by the day. The economy is becoming more and more complex, access to capital for ordinary individuals more and more remote, the ability to live simply and own a business without worrying about Chinese labor or the depreciating dollar vanished more or less for good. They want to pick up their ball and go home, but they can't; thus, the difficulties and the rancor with those of us who are resigned to life on this planet.

The bad news is that the Tea Party's political outrage is being appropriated, with thanks, by the Goldmans and the BPs of the world. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that those interests mostly have us by the balls anyway, no matter who wins on Election Day. That's the reality; the rest of this is just noise. It's just that it's a lot of noise, and there's no telling when it's ever going to end.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

drip, drip...

Ryan Lizza has an interesting article coming out in the new New Yorker about the negotiations behind the failed Senate bill to address carbon emissions. The House of course did pass such a bill, but it was one of many things the House passed that went to die in the Senate (which insists on acting as if it takes 60 votes to pass anything).

One thing that becomes clear is the White House really dropped the ball on this issue. For all the douchebaggery of Lieberman and Graham they worked in earnest with Kerry to get something done. You may remember Graham lamely saying that Reid's decision to put immigration reform before the energy bill meant he could no longer support the latter... (and of course neither ended up getting voted on) At the time many, including myself, just concluded he was being what the blogger Atrios would call a WATB. But he actually had a legitimate complaint, which for obvious reasons he couldn't state publicly: in order to sell this to his constituents he needed to plausibly deny that the carbon cap would in effect be a new tax. But rather than work with him on this the White House told Fox News that Graham wanted to raise peoples taxes but that they wouldn't let him. And when Graham asked Harry Reid for his support, he refused. So, if Lizza's account is accurate it would seem Graham had every right to be pissed off that after going out on a limb to get something done Democrats made no effort to be helpful, and in one instance intentionally undermined him.

Furthermore the White House made HUGE strategic errors in increasing off shore drilling and nuclear power without consulting KGL (Kerry/Graham/Lieberman). These were the incentives they had built into the bill in order to garner Republican support. Now that the White House had just given those away Graham had nothing to take to Republicans to say he had "won" for them.

Here's my condensed version of the article:

In Barack Obama’s primary-campaign victory speech, in St. Paul, Minnesota, he said that his election would be a historical turning point on two pressing issues: health care and climate change. “We will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick,” he said. “When the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” During the campaign, he often argued that climate change was an essential part of a national energy strategy. “Energy we have to deal with today,” Obama said in a debate with McCain. “Health care is priority No. 2.”

After the election, Obama decided to work on both issues simultaneously. Representative Henry Waxman moved climate change through the House, while Max Baucus, of Montana, moved health care in the Senate. “The plan was to throw two things against the wall, and see which one looks more promising,” a senior Administration official said. Obama, in a February, 2009, address to Congress, said, “To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution.”

In March of 2009, a senior White House official outlined a strategy for a “grand bargain,” in which Democrats would capitulate to Republicans on some long-cherished environmental beliefs in exchange for a cap on carbon emissions. “You need to have something like T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore holding hands,” the White House official told me. In exchange for setting a cap on emissions, Democrats would agree to an increase in the production of natural gas (the only thing that Pickens, the Texas oil-and-gas billionaire, cared about), nuclear power, and offshore oil. If Republicans didn’t respond to the proposed deals, the White House could push them to the table by making a threat through the Environmental Protection Agency, which had recently been granted power to regulate carbon, just as it regulates many other air pollutants.

Fast forward to KGL deciding to try to negotiate something between the three of them that could get 60 votes...

Graham warned Lieberman and Kerry that they needed to get as far as they could in negotiating the bill “before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process,” one of the people involved in the negotiations said. “He would say, ‘The second they focus on us, it’s gonna be all cap-and-tax all the time, and it’s gonna become just a disaster for me on the airwaves. We have to move this along as quickly as possible.’ ”

In early December of 2009, Lieberman’s office approached Jay Heimbach, the White House official in charge of monitoring the Senate climate debate. For Obama, health care had become the legislation that stuck to the wall. As a consequence of the long debate over that issue, climate change became, according to a senior White House official, Obama’s “stepchild.” Carol Browner had just three aides working directly for her. “Hey, change the entire economy, and here are three staffers to do it!” a former Lieberman adviser noted bitterly. “It’s a bit of a joke.” Heimbach attended meetings with the K.G.L. staffers but almost never expressed a policy preference or revealed White House thinking. “It’s a drum circle,” one Senate aide lamented. “They come by, ‘How are you feeling? Where do you think the votes are? What do you think we should do?’ It’s never ‘Here’s the plan, here’s what we’re doing.’”

Lieberman’s office proposed to Heimbach that the first element of the bill to negotiate was the language about oil drilling. Lieberman and Graham believed it would send a clear message to Republicans and moderate Democrats that there were parts of the bill they would support. Heimbach favored doing anything to attract Republicans, and, though he wouldn’t take any specific actions, he generally supported the strategy.

Graham asked Senator Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, to write the drilling language. Murkowski was up for reëlection and would soon be facing a primary against a Sarah Palin-backed Tea Party candidate. Her price for considering a climate-change bill with John Kerry’s name attached to it was high: she handed over a set of ideas for drastically expanding drilling, which included a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil companies. Democrats had spent decades protecting ANWR, and even Graham didn’t support drilling there. But he passed the Murkowski language on to his colleagues to see how they would react.

The K.G.L. coalition had two theories about how to win over Republicans and moderate Democrats. One was to negotiate directly with them and offer them something specific for their support. After a year of that method, the coalition had one Republican, and its next most likely target wanted to drill in ANWR. Other Republicans were slipping away.

The article recounts their ultimately futile attempts to get other Republicans on board. Eventually they moved to another strategy...

The second theory about how to win the Republicans’ support was to go straight to their industry backers. If the oil companies and the nuclear industry and the utilities could be persuaded to support the legislation, then they would lobby Republicans. Rosengarten called the strategy “If you build it, they will come.” This was the strategy Obama used to pass health care. He sent his toughest political operatives—like Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina—to cut deals with the pharmaceutical industry and hospitals, which at key points refrained from attacking the bill. (The pharmaceutical industry actually ran ads thanking Harry Reid for passing the bill.) In early 2010, K.G.L. shifted its focus from the Senate to industry.

And here is where the supposed "tax increase" idea comes into play. The "cap and trade" idea is (sshhhhh... this is just between us) actually just another way of requiring energy companies to pay extra money (aka 'taxes') for emitting carbon into the atmosphere. The real reason for having carbon emission permits that can be bought and sold is to avoid the term "tax," because everybody hates that word.

Perhaps ironically it was the oil industry that asked for a more straight forward tax system (known as a 'linked fee') instead of cap and trade. They said it would reduce uncertainty (although I can't help but wonder if their real motivation was the knowledge that such language would be a harder sell politically, making the legislation less likely to pass).

Here's what happened:

The hardest choices involved the oil industry, which, by powering our transportation, is responsible for almost a third of all carbon emissions in the U.S. Under Waxman-Markey, oil companies would have to buy government permission slips, known as allowances, to cover all the greenhouse gases emitted by cars, trucks, and other vehicles. The oil companies argued that having to buy permits on the carbon market, where the price fluctuated daily, would wreck America’s fragile domestic refining industry. Instead, three major oil refiners—Shell, B.P., and ConocoPhillips—proposed that they pay a fee based on the total number of gallons of gasoline they sold linked to the average price of carbon over the previous three months. The oil companies called the idea “a linked fee.”

On March 23rd, the three senators met to discuss the linked fee, which they had been arguing about for weeks. The environmental community and the White House, which rarely weighed in on its policy preferences, thought the linked fee was disastrous because it would inevitably be labelled a “gas tax.” At one meeting, Joe Aldy, a staffer on Obama’s National Economic Council, advised Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman’s staffers to kill it. According to a person involved in the negotiations, Kerry told his colleagues that the Democrats might lose their congressional majority over the issue. But Lieberman, who had first proposed the linked fee, and Graham supported it.

Kerry, despite his hesitations, wanted the oil companies, which had already spent millions attacking Waxman-Markey, to support his bill. So the senators proposed a deal: the oil companies would get the policy they desired if they agreed to a ceasefire. According to someone present, Kerry told his colleagues at the March meeting, “Shell, B.P., and Conoco are going to need to silence the rest of the industry.” The deal was specific. The ceasefire would last from the day of the bill’s introduction until the E.P.A. released its economic analysis of the legislation, approximately six weeks later. Afterward, the industry could say whatever it wanted. “This was the grand bargain that we struck with the refiners,” one of the people involved said. “We would work with them to engineer this separate mechanism in exchange for the American Petroleum Institute being quiet. They would not run ads, they would not lobby members of Congress, and they would not refer to our bill as a carbon tax.” At another meeting, the three senators and the heads of the three oil companies discussed a phrase they could all use to market the policy: a “fee on polluters.”

On March 31st, Obama announced that large portions of U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic Ocean, and off the East Coast—from the mid-Atlantic to central Florida—would be newly available for oil and gas drilling. Two days later, he said, “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn’t come from the oil rigs, they came from the refineries onshore.” From the outside, it looked as if the Obama Administration were coördinating closely with Democrats in the Senate. Republicans and the oil industry wanted more domestic drilling, and Obama had just given it to them. He seemed to be delivering on the grand bargain that his aides had talked about at the start of the Administration.

But there had been no communication with the senators actually writing the bill, and they felt betrayed. When Graham’s energy staffer learned of the announcement, the night before, he was “apoplectic,” according to a colleague. The group had dispensed with the idea of drilling in ANWR, but it was prepared to open up vast portions of the Gulf and the East Coast. Obama had now given away what the senators were planning to trade.

This was the third time that the White House had blundered. In February, the President’s budget proposal included $54.5 billion in new nuclear loan guarantees. Graham was also trying to use the promise of more loan guarantees to lure Republicans to the bill, but now the White House had simply handed the money over. Later that month, a group of eight moderate Democrats sent the E.P.A. a letter asking the agency to slow down its plans to regulate carbon, and the agency promised to delay any implementation until 2011. Again, that was a promise Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman wanted to negotiate with their colleagues. Obama had served the dessert before the children even promised to eat their spinach. Graham was the only Republican negotiating on the climate bill, and now he had virtually nothing left to take to his Republican colleagues.

But the Administration had grown wary of cutting the kind of deals that the senators needed to pass cap-and-trade. The long and brutal health-care fight had caused a rift in the White House over legislative strategy. One camp, led by Phil Schiliro, Obama’s top congressional liaison, was composed of former congressional aides who argued that Obama needed to insert himself in the legislative process if he was going to pass the ambitious agenda that he had campaigned on. The other group, led by David Axelrod, believed that being closely associated with the messiness of congressional horse-trading was destroying Obama’s reputation.

“We ran as an outsider and then decided to be an insider to get things done,” a senior White House official said. According to the official, Schiliro and the insiders argued, “You’ve got to own Congress,” while Axelrod and the outsiders argued, “Fuck whatever Congress wants, we’re not for them.” The official added, “We probably did lose part of our brand. Obama turned into exactly what we promised ourselves he wasn’t going to be, which is the leader of parliament. We became the majority leader of both houses, and we ceded the Presidency.” Schiliro’s side won the debate over how the White House should approach health care, but in 2010, when the Senate took up cap-and-trade, Axelrod’s side was ascendant. Emanuel, for example, called Reid’s office in March and suggested that the Senate abandon cap-and-trade in favor of a modest bill that would simply require utilities to generate more electricity from clean sources.

In early April, according to two K.G.L. aides, someone at the Congressional Budget Office told Kerry that its economists, when analyzing the bill, would describe the linked fee as a tax. After learning that, the three senators met with lobbyists for the big oil firms, and Kerry offered a new proposal: the refiners would have to buy permits, but the government would sell them at a stable price outside the regular trading system. This arrangement would make no economic difference to consumers: the oil companies would pass the costs on to drivers whether they paid a linked fee or bought special permits. But Kerry thought that the phraseology could determine whether the bill survived or died. The refiners surprised everyone by readily agreeing to the new terms. The linked fee was dead, and so, it seemed, was the threat of Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman’s bill being brought down by opponents attacking it as a gas tax.

Two days later, on April 15th, Emanuel and Browner hosted a group of prominent environmentalists at the White House for an 11 A.M. meeting. For weeks, the linked fee had been a hot topic among Washington climate-change geeks. Now the two groups that hated the policy the most were in the same room. According to people at the meeting, the White House aides and some of the environmentalists, including Carl Pope, the chairman of the Sierra Club, expressed their contempt for the linked fee: even if it was a fine idea on the merits, it was political poison. The White House aides and the environmentalists either didn’t know that the fee had been dropped from the bill or didn’t think the change was significant. The meeting lasted about thirty minutes.

Just after noon, Rimkunas, Graham’s climate-policy adviser, sent Rosengarten an e-mail. The subject was “Go to Fox website and look at gas tax article asap.” She clicked on “WH Opposes Higher Gas Taxes Floated by S.C. GOP Sen. Graham in Emerging Senate Energy Bill.” The White House double-crossed us, she thought. The report, by Major Garrett, then the Fox News White House correspondent, cited “senior administration sources” and said that the “Obama White House opposes a move in the Senate, led by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, to raise federal gasoline taxes within still-developing legislation to reduce green house gas emissions.” Including two updates to his original story, Garrett used the word “tax” thirty-four times.

“This is horrific,” Rosengarten e-mailed Rimkunas.

“It needs to be fixed,” he responded. “Never seen lg this pissed.”

“We’re calling Schiliro and getting the WH to publicly correct.”

Graham was “screaming profanities,” one of the K.G.L. staffers said. In addition to climate change, he was working with Democrats on immigration and on resolving the status of the prison at Guantánamo Bay. He was one of only nine Republicans to vote for Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor. Now Obama aides were accusing him of backing a gas tax, which wasn’t his idea and wasn’t even in the draft bill. Worst of all, the leakers went to Fox News, a move which they knew would cause Graham the most damage. He called one of his policy advisers that day and asked, “Did you see what they just did to me?” The adviser said, “It made him question, ‘Do they really want to get this done or are they just posturing here? Because why would they do something like this if they wanted to get it done?’ It was more than an attempt to kill the idea. It was also an attempt to tag him with the idea, and, if you want him to be an ally on the issue, why would you do that?” Graham’s legislative director, Jennifer Olson, argued that he should withdraw from K.G.L. that day.

Kerry called Browner and yelled, “It wasn’t his idea!” He added, “It’s not a gas tax. You’ve got to defend our guy. We’ve been negotiating in good faith, and how can you go and turn on him like this?” After talking to Graham, Lieberman walked into the office of his legislative director, Todd Stein. “If we don’t fix this,” the Senator said, “this could be the death of the bill.”

On April 17th, two days after the Fox story, an activist named William Gheen, speaking at a Tea Party event in Greenville, South Carolina, told the crowd, “I’m a tolerant person. I don’t care about your private life, Lindsey, but as our U.S. senator I need to figure out why you’re trying to sell out your own countrymen, and I need to make sure you being gay isn’t it.” The question, with its false assertion that Graham is gay, turned into a viral video on the Web. Then Newt Gingrich’s group, American Solutions, whose largest donors include coal and electric-utility interests, began targeting Graham with a flurry of online articles about the “Kerry-Graham-Lieberman gas tax bill.” That week, the group launched a campaign in South Carolina urging conservatives to call Graham’s office “and ask him not to introduce new gas taxes.”

Kerry and Lieberman spent hours alone with Graham, trying to placate him. They forced the White House to issue a statement, which said that “the Senators don’t support a gas tax.” Graham had talked to Emanuel and was satisfied that the chief of staff wasn’t the source of the leak. Eventually, the people involved believed that they had mollified him. By the time Graham showed up at the conference table in Emanuel’s White House office on April 20th, he had calmed down. But, if he was going to suffer a ferocious backlash back home, he needed the White House to be as committed as he was. He was not encouraged when Axelrod, speaking about Democrats in Congress, noted, “The horse has been ridden hard this year and just wants to go back to the barn.”

That evening, hours after the meeting ended, a bubble of methane gas blasted out of a well of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, in the Gulf of Mexico, setting the rig on fire and killing eleven men. At the time, it seemed like a tragic accident, far away and of little consequence.

Kerry and Lieberman were desperate to accommodate Graham’s every request. The dynamics within the group changed. Aides marvelled at how Kerry and Lieberman would walk down the hallway with their arms around each other, while Lieberman and Graham’s relationship was tested by Graham’s escalating demands.

two days later (Earth Day)...

the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig had sunk to the bottom of the Gulf. The spill began to spread; soon it would show signs of becoming one of the worst environmental disasters in history. Then, suddenly, there was a new problem: Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said that he wanted to pass immigration reform before the climate-change bill. It was a cynical ploy. Everyone in the Senate knew that there was no immigration bill. Reid was in a tough reëlection, and immigration activists, influential in his home state of Nevada, were pressuring him.

Senior aides at the White House were shocked by Reid’s statement. “We were doing well until Reid gave a speech and said it was immigration first. News to us!” a senior Administration official said. “It was kind of like, ‘Whoa, what do we do now? Where did that come from?’ ” Reid’s office seemed to be embarking on a rogue operation. In a three-day period, Reid’s office and unnamed Senate Democrats leaked to Roll Call, The Hill, the Associated Press, Politico, and the Wall Street Journal that the phantom immigration bill would be considered before the climate bill. Graham once again said that he felt betrayed. “This comes out of left field,” he told reporters. “I’m working as earnestly as I can to craft climate and energy independence, clean air and jobs, and now we’re being told that we’re going to immigration. This destroys the ability to do something on energy and climate.”

Graham didn’t tell the press that immigration was mostly just an excuse for his anger. That day, he had urged Reid to release a statement supporting the modified linked fee that Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman had used in negotiating with the refiners. Reid’s office greeted the request with suspicion. Reid and Graham didn’t trust each other. Reid’s aides thought the Republican leadership was trying to trick Reid into supporting something that sounded like a gas tax. The fact that Kerry and Lieberman were also supporters of the proposal did little to allay Reid’s fears. His aides drafted a pro-forma statement for Graham that promised simply that Reid would review the legislation. Graham dismissed the statement as meaningless. During one phone call, Graham shouted some vulgarities at Reid and the line went dead. The Majority Leader had hung up the phone.

At 10 P.M. the next day, Rimkunas sent Rosengarten an e-mail. They had worked together for seven months on the bill. Rosengarten had postponed her honeymoon—twice—to finish the project. They had travelled to Copenhagen together for the international climate conference and often teamed up to oppose Kerry’s office during internal debates. “Sorry buddy” is all the e-mail said. It was devastating. “Matt’s e-mail was a life low point,” she said. “It was actually soul-crushing.”

The next morning, a Saturday, Graham abandoned the talks. Lieberman was observing Shabbat and thus couldn’t work, use electrical devices, or talk on the phone. When his aides explained what was happening, he invoked a Talmudic exception allowing an Orthodox Jew to violate the Shabbat commandments “for the good of the community.” Kerry was in Massachusetts and immediately flew to Washington. The two men spent the morning trying to persuade Graham to stay. At about noon, Graham had a final conversation with Reid, who had nothing more to offer. Graham was out. He wrote a statement, and Olson, his legislative director, e-mailed a copy to Lieberman’s office. The public statement cited immigration as the issue, but attached was a note from Olson explaining that Graham was never going to receive the cover he needed from Reid on how they dealt with the oil refiners.

Rosengarten got the message on her BlackBerry while she was on the phone with Pickens’s policy people, who had no idea about the unfolding drama and wanted to make sure that their natural-gas goodies had survived the final draft of the bill. K.G.L., perhaps the last best chance to deal with global warming in the Obama era, was officially dead. As she read Graham’s definitive goodbye letter, tears streamed down her face.

By the end of April, about sixty thousand barrels of oil a day were flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. To many environmentalists, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe was a potential turning point, a disaster that might resurrect the climate legislation. But in Washington the oil spill had the opposite effect. Kerry and Lieberman were left sponsoring a bill with a sweeping expansion of offshore drilling at a moment when the newspapers were filled with photographs of birds soaking in oil. Even worse, the lone Republican, who had written the oil-drilling section to appeal to his Republican colleagues, was gone. The White House’s “grand bargain” of oil drilling in exchange for a cap on carbon had backfired spectacularly.

As the Senate debate expired this summer, a longtime environmental lobbyist told me that he believed the “real tragedy” surrounding the issue was that Obama understood it profoundly. “I believe Barack Obama understands that fifty years from now no one’s going to know about health care,” the lobbyist said. “Economic historians will know that we had a recession at this time. Everybody is going to be thinking about whether Barack Obama was the James Buchanan of climate change.”

The environment is my top issue, but I supported Obama's decision to pursue Health Care first because I thought that once the public saw how well that worked out Obama would have that much more momentum to tackle other issues. As it turns out some of the benefits just kicked in last week, and others won't be felt for years. It will be another four or five years before the public can really assess HCR. Meanwhile the poor economy seems to be sapping the White House's ability to address big problems. Hindsight 20/20, but in retrospect I think Energy should have come first.