Dear Reader (including updog)*,
Today’s gotta be a short G-File.
I say that for several reasons. First, every time I begin one of these “news”letters by saying I have to make it quick, it’s usually because I have no grand idea to write about and it gives me the psychological excuse to not care as I continue typing. With one or two exceptions I never start these things until the morning they’re due, and as a result even the whiff of writer’s block can be intimidating. The whiff of rhino scat can be intimidating too (like Sex Panther by Odeon, it stings the nostrils), but that’s not relevant to this situation. What I’m trying to say is “concupiscible.” Not for any particular reason, mind you, it’s just a difficult word to say, particularly with a lot of crackers in your mouth.
But since you bring it up (“Uh . . . we did what now?” – The Couch), it means to be worthy of desire. Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure refers to a man’s “concupiscible intemperate lust.” The noun concupiscence means eager or intense desire. So I am overflowing with concupiscence to achieve the concuspicible goal of starting this “news”letter in a satisfactory manner. And that’s the trick with all writing. As with successfully wooing women, never mind satisfying one’s concupiscible and intemperate lust, the starting is always harder than the finishing.
You might have guessed that I’m wanted in Peru for aggravated mopery. But you would be wrong. However, if you guessed that I’m going for some concinnity here – which means the skillful and harmonious fitting together of parts – and not merely sesquipedalian desipience, you’d be closer to the truth.
It Would Be . . .
Before we were so rudely interrupted last week by my exhaustion of things to say, I was explaining why and how I am in a funk. I’m still in a funk, one might even say that if I were a legislative body I would be parliament funkadelic, save for the fact that that would be really stupid.
One of the ongoing drivers of my funk is all the chatter over the fiscal cliff. There’s a scene in A Mighty Wind I’ve always loved because it reminded me of my days as a TV producer when my boss would make impossible requests at the last second. That wasn’t the infuriating part, however. What drove me nuts was the way he would passive-aggressively float his ideas as if they were just suggestions, forcing me to be the unimaginative naysayer.
In the movie, Ed Begley Jr. walks into the TV control room and starts making “suggestions” to the director.
Begley: “Another great thing would be one of those shots where you pull back to see the enormity of the event and the venue would be a crane. Do we have a crane standing by?”
Director: “No, we don’t have a crane.”
Begley: “Wow! You know those swooping shots where it goes over the audience and hammers in on a shot of one of the musicians playing?”
Director: “Uh huh”
Begley: “That would be great.”
Director: “It would be.”
Begley: “Or when they pull back, kind of like a California Adventure ride . . . where you see the whole thing, that would be nice too.”
Director: “It would be.”
Well, you know what would be great? If we had a way to make Barack Obama accept sweeping spending cuts, entitlement reforms, and tax simplification in these budget negotiations. But – and here’s the hard part for some people to understand – we don’t!
Look, maybe John Boehner stinks as speaker. That’s not my opinion, but I’m certainly open to that argument. But what I’m increasingly exhausted with is the easy argument that any failure on the part of Republicans is the result of insufficient loyalty to conservative ideology.
I think my record defending conservative ideology – and conservative ideologues – is pretty solid. But the simple fact is that not every Republican problem can be solved by being more conservative and not every conservative failure can be attributed to a betrayal of our principles. Sure, some problems are caused by sausage-spined infidelity to principle. But incompetence, bad luck, and crappy circumstances sometimes play a role, too.
We don’t automatically assume that commanding officers who lost a battle lost because they were insufficiently patriotic. Custer didn’t lose because he was un-American, he lost because he chose his ground poorly, he was outnumbered, and he picked the wrong day to start out playing quarters with a bottle of peppermint schnapps (Note to readers: This is not an invitation to send me 6,000 word e-mails on why Custer really lost).
But to listen to some people on the right, the only reason the House GOP isn’t crushing Obama in these negotiations is that Boehner’s not a “real conservative.”
Such thinking is a real problem because it assumes that every conflict can be won with the better argument or the stronger appeal to principle. If ideological purity was the only important variable, Phil Gramm would have ridden from one political triumph after another. I would love to live in that world almost as much as I would like to live in the world where eating five pounds of buffalo wings in one sitting will give me six-pack abs. But that is not the world we are living in.
Or as Boehner himself says, “ifs, ands, and buts are like candy and nuts. If that were the case, every day would be Christmas.”
Not everything is a purity test. Just look at Michigan (literally, if you’re close enough; figuratively, if not).
When Rick Snyder ran for governor in Michigan, many on the right complained that he was too moderate. And, against the Golden Yardstick of Ultimate Conservative Perfection®, that’s undoubtedly true. But you know what else he was? Electable. That’s a nice quality in a politician, too. And thanks to a whole slew of factors (off the top of my head: a lousy economy, a changing global marketplace, the hard work of grassroots conservatives and the state GOP, the invaluable wonkish-activism of the Mackinac Center, and the gobsmacking greediness of the Democrats and labor unions), he was able to deliver a monumental conservative victory that has shaken the Left to its core and, more important, made things better for Michigan.
Not every moment is ripe for concinnity.
Declare Victory, Move On
I think one of the problems facing the Right these days is that we feel the tide moving against us and that’s causing an unhealthy panic to seep into our thinking. Every place our feet land we think we must fight here or die utterly. “This far and no farther!” is the rallying cry. I’m sympathetic with the sentiment, but not the strategy.
One of the nice things about Ronald Reagan is that he had sufficient confidence that things were moving in his direction and that allowed him to cut bait and pull up anchor when he needed to. Sure, sometimes, particularly with the benefit of hindsight, he made some tactical mistakes. But the brilliant part was that even when he suffered a tactical loss, he made it seem like it was a victory. This in turn created a climate that was riper for future victories. In politics, success builds on success. So the more you can make even your failures seem like successes the more real victories you’ll have.
The understandable but counterproductive Republican disarray these days makes it impossible for Boehner – or any Republican – to plausibly spin anything as a victory. Look, I don’t want taxes to go up. But the Bush tax cuts were temporary. The GOP got Obama to extend them already. Obama wants to make Bush’s middle-class tax cuts permanent and just let the cuts expire for the top rates. Again, I don’t like that. It’s bad policy. But a more confident GOP would be able to declare victory here and bide its time for a more substantial victory later. And a less professionally cannibalistic Right would let it.
A tactical retreat is not a strategic defeat. If you’re getting trounced in the valley, head to higher ground and fight there. Or, don’t fight at all, and wait for the enemy to ruin himself following you into the hills.
Again consider Michigan. The Left got greedy, over-extended its political lines in much the same way I am currently over-extending this metaphor, and created vulnerabilities all on its own. Like the native wolverine, the Republicans seized the opportunity. People often forget: The wolverine is a vicious predator. But he is also a scavenger, which means he chooses his meals when the opportunity to eat presents itself.
Obviously, this brings me to Russian literature. My favorite character in War and Peace is General Kutuzov, the commanding officer charged with expelling Napoleon from Russian soil. Kutuzov’s attitude might be described as “don’t just do something, sit there.” All of the intellectuals, nobles, and even the Czar himself want Kutuzov to go charging in and destroy Napoleon head on. Kutuzov sees things entirely differently. What the cognoscenti thinks are defeats, he sees as victories.
“The strongest of all warriors,” according to Kutuzov, “are these two: Time and Patience.” Mocking a rival general’s accomplishments, Kutuzov rails: “Kamenski would have been lost if he had not died. He stormed fortresses with thirty thousand men. It is not difficult to capture a fortress but it is difficult to win a campaign. For that, not storming and attacking but patience and time are wanted.”
Kutuzov believed, rightly, that eventually Napoleon would go too far, over-extending himself. “Everything comes in time to him who knows how to wait,” he explains to Prince Andrei. Russians would gain potency and advantages, while Napoleon’s strength bled out in the Russian snow.
Andrei impatiently demands of his General, “Well, what do you want us to do?” “I’ll tell you what to do, and what I do,” Kutuzov responds. “Dans le doute, mon cher, abstiens-toi.” Translation: When in doubt, my dear fellow, do nothing.
I’m not necessarily saying conservatives should do nothing. But doing nothing is often better than doing the wrong thing.
Various & Sundry
I’m going to an annual lunch with (some of) my reprobate friends. We call it “Holidaze” and it has a long tradition of existence. One of the yearly rites of Holidaze is our annual debate over what we call the “D-Bag of the Year.” (Pardon my French, or as this translator says, excuse mon langage écorché, which means “excuse my skinned language.”)
I invite your nominations. But here’s the hitch. The D-Bag of the Year can’t be an outright villain or evil-doer. Rather, winning honorees are jerks of metaphysical proportions who meet their own comeuppance in a particularly delicious way. This tradition started in 2006 with a conversation about this guy
Herewith is one of my nominees for this year.
If you hadn’t noticed, I’m trying to offer constructive advice for the GOP these days. Herewith my column today on why federalism shows the way.
In that column I advocate getting the federal government out of the pot-policing business, a subject I will return to soon enough. In the meantime nine crazy ways kids are getting high these days.
The five most influential data visualizations of all time!
Debby’s Friday Links.
* What’s updog? You ask.
Not much, I just couldn’t think of a better “Dear Reader” gag.