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Friday, September 19, 2014

Blocking Everything - The Lofgren Principle

(Mostly Blue, 2014)

Why do we care about midterms? What does it mean when people say we have to “hold onto the Senate?” Right now, the Democrats hold 55 of the hundred seats in the Senate. After this November, Dems may hold less than 50 seats, and that combined with the overwhelming presence of Republicans in the House, would mean Republicans would run the place. How did we get here, and why does it matter?

Showing Up Is 90 Percent Of Success
Conventional beltway wisdom tells us that when voter turnout is high, Democrats tend to do better in the exit polls. As a result, if you are an operative in the Republican Party, it would seem to be in your best interest to encourage voter turnout to be a bit lower, regardless of who your candidate is. Even before Obama's first term in office, Republicans had systematically attempted to make it more difficult to vote. Sure, we are all familiar with the basic tactics,

  • Putting notes on cars claiming the date of election day has changed
  • Defunding registration aid groups like Acorn
  • Narrowing registration periods
  • Closing formerly used polling places
  • Ending early voting days
  • Shortening the hours of service at the polls
  • Threatening to show up as gun toting militias at polling places
  • Fraudulently denying registration forms
  • Losing ballots, oops
  • Gerrymandering districts
  • Residency requirements that disenfranchise university students
  • Voter ID laws requiring birth certificates and hoop jumping

For those of you who don't understand why Voter ID Laws could be hurtful, consider this. Republicans in Wisconsin legislated the necessity of photo IDs. Simultaneously and systematically, Wisconsin planned to close down DMV offices in Democratic constituencies, and lengthen the hours of operation of DMV offices in GOP constituencies. Disconcerting, isn't it?

Even with all of that nastiness, Gallup says that voter turnout in midterm elections has ranged narrowly between 38.1% and 41.1% since 1994. For Americans, many of whom are completely unaware of what midterm elections are, that's actually a pretty high percentage of eligible voters.

If you are Karl Rove, or The Koch Brothers, however, that's too much voter participation. The question is, how do you go about getting the American public so disillusioned that they won't vote at all? How do you get the American public to think their votes don't even matter?

What needs to be understood here, is that undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy. They want us to believe that our votes don't matter, and that the whole thing's rigged.

The pesky truth remains that billions are spent in an attempt to sway the voters one way or the other, so if you follow the money, voting turns out to be awfully important.

If You Break It, You Can Buy It
In recent years, ideology, especially right-wing ideology, has become the dominant factor in congressional elections. In addition to the “government is the problem” meme that most wear like a suit of armor, the Kochs spend billions of dollars making sure that message is pounded into every brain anywhere near a TV. “Career Politicians Are Bad!! And I, only I, can save you from the idiots in Congress!!” Railing against imagined foes in Washington has become a sure fire way to get yourself a seat there. Railing against government in general, now that’s a more sinister issue, and there is more to this than meets the eye.

From GOP Congressional staffer, Mike Lofgren, author of, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, we get an insider's insight into why running on what you would repeal, instead of running on what you might get accomplished, has worked, and will continue to work for Republican candidates moving forward. We call this, The Lofgren Effect, and now we're gonna break it down.

1. Break It. ~~ In order to just keep the country moving forward, and functioning, Congress's first duty is to negotiate and pass a budget, annually. Passing a budget used to be a relatively straightforward job. Each January, the president would submit a proposed budget listing every line-item in the budget—all the specific things funded by the federal government that required an appropriation. Congress would adjust these numbers up or down as it saw fit, and the House and Senate would finish their work by July 1, when the new fiscal year began.

In 1974, Congress layered a new budget responsibility on top of the appropriations process, a process that had worked fine for almost 200 years. Now instead of getting right to work on appropriations bills after the president’s budget comes out, Congress debates the broad outlines of the budget, establishing guidelines for appropriations committees to follow, who in turn redebate the spending options. Because this is time-consuming, the beginning of the fiscal year was moved from July 1 to October 1, which as we all know is a deadline mostly ignored by Congress these days.  As it has been harder and harder for Congress to fund the government in any timely way, it has also forced a rethinking of government's priorities. To start with, when you think your job is to obstruct government, you drag your feet on everything, and even welcome government shutdowns, consequences be damned.

Each member of Congress is elected by the people to make judgment calls about what programs to fund and which ones not to, but as we all know, Congress, as a whole, hasn’t done that job properly in years. The result has been less and less oversight of federal spending, with programs that should be axed continuing indefinitely under continuing resolutions, while urgent national priorities are starved for resources. Instead of going through the budget line by line and making necessary adjustments, programs have been cut across the board via “sequestration,” which cuts vital programs, as well as those we could easily live without.

2. Block It. ~~ The same day President Obama was being sworn in, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, declared that his greatest legislative priority was – Jobs for Americans? Rescuing the financial system? Solving the housing collapse? – no, none of those things. His top priority was to ensure that Obama should be a one-term president. Evidently Senator McConnell hates Obama more than he loves his country, and a whole bunch of Republicans agree with him.

3. Destroy The Good. ~~ In the good 'ol days of a functioning Congress, voters fully expected their representatives to “bring home the bacon.” That is, to find ways of getting the federal government to fund needed construction projects, or open additional military installations that would bring jobs and income to their districts. A critical result of the abolition of pork from the budget is that the congressional leadership lost an important tool for cajoling members into making difficult votes. Loyalty could often be bought for the price of a new road, or bridge, or dam in someone’s district. Now nothing gets done, and the Republican caucus couldn't be happier.

Once the concept of a functioning US government seems out of reach to most Americans, their trips to the voting booth become less and less frequent.

Then Fill The Vacuum With Stupid
To those millions of Americans who have finally begun paying attention to politics and watch with exasperation, it may have come as a shock that the Republican Party is so full of lunatics. To be sure, the party, like any political party on earth, has always had its share of crackpots. Yes, even Democrats have their share of machine politicians, careerists, corporate bagmen, and egomaniacs. Nothing, however, quite matches the modern GOP.

The Neocon crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become regular speakers at CPAC, and the backbone of leadership in the GOP today: Steve King, Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Paul LePage, Russell Pearce, Gordon “Dr. Chaps” Klingenschmitt, Chuck Wooten, Steve Lonegan, Art Robinson, Louie Gohmert, Lenar Whitney, Jim Brown, Buck McKeon, and Allen West, to name a few. The Congressional directory now reads like a casebook of lunacy. As Rachel Maddow puts it, "They should put a bell around these guys, or something, so you can tell when they are coming."

These front line Republicans deliver misinformation daily to the eagerly awaiting news stations. And when anyone refutes any of it, the public just sees a brawl, and tunes out. Why not? After all, to a low-info fair-weather voter, when both major US political parties are pointing fingers at each other, the Dems and the GOP really do start to look alike. And that's exactly the way the Koch brothers want it.

Laying Tacks In The Road To Democracy
In his “Manual of Parliamentary Practice,” Thomas Jefferson wrote that “it is less important that every rule and custom of a legislature be absolutely justifiable in a theoretical sense, than that they should be generally acknowledged and honored by all parties. These include unwritten rules, customs and courtesies that lubricate the legislative machinery and keep governance a relatively civilized procedure.” In other words, the only thing that can keep the Congress functioning is collegiality and good faith. The norm, the absolute least thing we should expect from our members of Congress is reasonable debate, skilled negotiation and problem solving techniques, and of course, Up or Down votes.

During periods of political consensus, for instance, the World War II and early post-war eras, the Senate was a “high functioning” institution: filibusters were rare and the body was legislatively productive. It’s safe to say that these days Congress couldn’t have agreed on even our Bill of Rights.

Far from being a rarity, virtually every bill, every nominee for Senate confirmation, and every routine procedural motion, is now subject to a Republican filibuster, thus requiring a supermajority 60 person yea vote for anything to pass. Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that Washington is gridlocked. Conservative ideology insists there must always be a winner, and a loser. No more win-wins in Congress anymore. That’s a no-no. As Hannah Arendt observed while steeped in German World War II politics, “a disciplined minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government to undermine democracy itself.”

When Obama took office in 2009, senior editor at The New Republic, John P. Judis summed up the modern GOP this way:
“Over the last four decades, the Republican Party has transformed from a loyal opposition into an insurrectionary party that flouts the law when it is in the majority, and threatens disorder when it is the minority. It is the party of Watergate and Iran-Contra, but also of government shutdowns in 1995, 1996, (and 2013), as well as the impeachment trial of 1999, (and the presidential law suit of 2014). If there is an earlier American precedent for today’s Republican Party, it is the antebellum Southern Democrats of John Calhoun who threatened to nullify, or disregard, federal legislation they objected to, and who later led the fight to secede from the union over slavery.”
Today's Republicans intentionally sabotage government programs by denying them adequate resources, and then complain that the programs don’t work. By stalling budget approvals, and habitually threatening government shutdowns, each government agency never knows exactly what its budget is. In the last six years, virtually every agency of government has had to deal with wildly fluctuating estimates of how much money it will have to spend. Once establishing apparent incompetence, Republicans can then justify further reductions in resources to those programs, leading to more problems.

Perfidy is the permanent state of disloyalty, of pretending you care about the future of the country, and then tripping over yourself trying to block any functioning processes from running at all. That’s the GOP. Pretending to care most of all about America, and then doing whatever they can to destroy any continuity of government, with the express goal of pointing at all of it, and saying it failed.

After a while, the luster involved with voting for people who say government is the problem wears off. Congress’s approval rating is down to around 15%. But in the hallowed halls of Congress, the guys with the red ties couldn’t be happier. ‘Cause maybe you might not show up to vote, and they’ll have a better chance of winning. Insane.

The Lofgren Principle
To put it simply, one side – or a sizable faction of one side – has deliberately attempted to damage the reputation of Congress to achieve its political objectives.

Lofgren cautions,
“Don’t let all this obstruction for the sake of obstruction fool you. The GOP knows what it’s doing. As Republicans succeed in obstructing Congress from doing its job, it further lowers Congress’s favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner."
congress chart lofgren
"The media are also complicit in this phenomenon. Ever since rabidly ideological talk radio and cable TV political propaganda has taken over the national discussion, the “respectable” media have been terrified of any criticism for perceived bias. Hence, our once trusted news sources now hew to the practice of false evenhandedness. Paul Krugman has skewered this tactic as being the “centrist cop-out.” “I joked long ago,” he says, “that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read ‘Views Differ on Shape of Planet.’”
The constant murmur coming from main stream news of “there the two parties go again!”, combined with the hazy confusion of low-information voters, means that the long-term Republican strategy of undermining confidence in our democratic institutions has reaped electoral dividends.

Although we are quite proud of our less than 50% voter turnout, the United States has nearly the lowest voter participation among Western democracies; this, again, is a consequence of the decline of trust in government institutions – if government is a racket, and both parties are the same, why vote? And if the uninvolved middle class declines to vote, it increases the electoral clout of a minority that is constantly being whipped into a lather by three hours daily of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News. There were only 44 million Republican voters in the 2010 mid-term elections, 25 million less than voted in Obama in 2008. But those 44 million midterm voters effectively canceled the political results of the 2008 election of President Obama, giving the Republicans control of the House. Will it even be worse come this November election? Are we also going to lose the Senate? As we mentioned, the GOP only needs to gain 6 seats more than they have now to get that accomplished. According to all sources, it's going to be close.

This Lofgren tactic of inducing public distrust of government is not only cynical, it is schizophrenic. For people who profess to revere the Constitution (i.e. the rabid Tea Party flag clingers), it is strange that they so caustically denigrate the very federal government that is the material expression of the principles embodied in that document. Most Republican office holders, and office seekers, seem strangely uninterested in the effect of Citizens United. They never mention the repeal of Fourth Amendment protections by the Patriot Act, the weakening of habeas corpus and self-incrimination protections in the public hysteria following 9/11, or the unpalatable fact that the United States has the largest incarcerated population of any country on earth. If anything, they opt for more incarcerated persons, as imprisonment is a profit center for the prison privatization industry, which is itself a growth center for political contributions to these same politicians.

Conservatives prefer to rail against those government programs that actually help people. And when a program is too popular to attack directly, like Medicare or Social Security, they prefer to undermine it by feigning an agonized concern about the deficit. Or they refer to Obama as the Food Stamp president, complaining that if you feed someone, they won’t learn to feed themselves. That concern is largely fictitious.

Fiction is the stuff of Conservative daydreams, and Republicans continually play on the public’s ignorance of this fact. According to a September 26 Bloomberg poll, 59 percent of people incorrectly believe the deficit is rising versus just 10 percent who know that it is actually falling.

The basics are straightforward and unambiguous: The Congressional Budget Office reported that the federal budget deficit will fall to 2.8 percent of GDP this year, almost one-third below what it was in 2013. As a percent of GDP, not only will that be the lowest deficit since 2007, the drop from 9.8 percent in 2009 to 2.8 percent in 2014 is the largest five-year reduction in federal red ink since the end of World War 2, that is, in almost 70 years. Nonetheless, the perception that the deficit is still growing has been fed by Republicans, including on his way out House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who recently said the deficit is growing, and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who said last month that we have trillion-dollar deficits.

They can’t win on facts, so they make up their own,. And their constituents who believe in the “government takeover” show up to vote, while the ones who can’t believe what they are hearing throw up their hands, and give up, thinking, "How could my one vote possibly help fix this mess?"
Voting Doesn’t Matter And Other Myths
This legislative assault is moving in a diametrically opposed direction to 200 years of American history, when the arrow of progress pointed toward more political participation by more citizens.

Republicans are among the most shrill in self-righteously lecturing other countries about the wonders of democracy, giving the world that chance to vote on the direction their future will take them; exporting democracy (albeit at the barrel of a gun) to the Middle East was the signature policy of the Bush administration, and look where that left us. But domestically, they don’t want 'those people' voting.

You can probably guess who 'those people' are. Above all, anyone not likely to vote Republican. As Sarah Palin would imply, the people who are not Real Americans. Racial minorities. Immigrants. Muslims. Gays. Intellectuals. Basically, anyone who doesn’t look, think, or talk like the GOP base. Among the GOP base, there is constant harping about somebody else, some “other,” who is deliberately, assiduously and with malice aforethought subverting the Good, the True and the Beautiful: Immigrant Children. Commies. Socialists. Ragheads. Hispanics. Atheists. Blacks. Fags. Feminazis. The list may change with the political needs of the moment, but they always seem to need a scapegoat to hate and fear.

While Democrats dismissed the fears of the white working class as racist or nativist, Republicans went to work. To be sure, the business wing of the Republican Party consists of the most energetic outsourcers, wage cutters and hirers of sub-minimum wage immigrant labor to be found anywhere on the globe. But the faux-populist wing of the party, knowing the mental compartmentalization that occurs in most low-information voters, played on the fears of that same white working class to focus their anger on scapegoats that do no damage to corporations’ bottom lines: instead of raising the minimum wage, let’s build a wall on the Southern border (then hire a defense contractor to incompetently manage it). Instead of predatory bankers, it’s evil Muslims. Or evil gays. Or evil abortionists.

Beware The Words You Use. People Will Listen
You know that Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy when even Democrats refer to them as entitlements. “Entitlement” has a negative sound in colloquial English: somebody who is “entitled” selfishly claims something he doesn’t really deserve. Why not call them “earned benefits,” which is what they are because we all contribute payroll taxes to fund them? That would never occur to the Democrats. Republicans don’t make that mistake; they are relentlessly on message: it is never the “estate tax,” it is the “death tax.” It wasn’t “affordable healthcare for all,” it was “death panels for sure.” Healthy popular rage is instead harmlessly diverted against pseudo-issues: crazy inflation, the second amendment, Planned Parenthood, birtherism, gay marriage, abortion, and so on, none of which stands to dent the corporate bottom line in the slightest. In fact, in some cases, such as the sale of gold, guns, and bullets, business is booming.

The GOP talking points machine cynically feeds the worst instincts of our fearful, and angry, low-information political base with a nod and a wink. It isn’t even clear how many GOP officeholders actually believe the stuff they spew. Red meat is their friend, and they never speak to a group without having some to throw out to the masses.

All of these half-truths and outright lies have seeped into popular culture, who now accept this misinformation as dogma. My vote doesn’t count. The tactics of the GOP are important indicators of an absolutist, authoritarian mindset that is increasingly hostile to the democratic values of reason, compromise and conciliation. This mindset feeds on polarizing division, conflict, and the crushing of opposition, and Crossroads USA has been very explicit that this is has been their principal recommended campaign strategy.

God Is In The Details
In addition to all of that extreme lunacy, there is a constant undercurrent of religious righteousness. Pandering to fundamentalism is a full-time vocation in the GOP. Beginning in the 1970s, religious cranks ceased simply to be a minor public nuisance in this country, and grew into the major element of the Republican rank and file. Pat Robertson’s strong showing in the 1988 Iowa Caucus signaled the gradual merger of politics and religion in the party. Since then, it’s seeped into ‘wars on christmas’, and ‘prayer in schools,’ and ‘America Is A Christian Nation.’ The results are all around us: if the American people poll more like neanderthals on questions of evolution versus creationism, on scriptural inerrancy, the existence of angels and demons, and so forth, that result is due to the rise of the religious right, its insertion into the public sphere by the Republican Party and the consequent normalizing of formerly reactionary, or quaint beliefs. We are, after all, only slightly more than 300 years away from our own salem witch trials.

Still, over 300 years later, all around us is a prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility towards science, evolution, and progressive growth; it is this group that defines “low-information voter” – or, perhaps, “misinformation voter.”

Some say the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism may have been the key ingredient of the takeover of the Republican Party. Politicized religion provides common use dog whistles which rationalize, in the minds of followers, the GOP’s rhetoric. End of Days is now, Obama is the anti-christ, we will all be redeemed, the rapture is upon us. This sort of thinking has led, inexorably, to such phenomena as Jerry Falwell once writing that God is Pro-War, or God is Anti-Gay, or God is Anti-Immigrant. It’s mother’s milk to the misinformed climate change deniers, and those who think President Obama is a godless Muslim. It is the apocalyptic frame of reference of fundamentalists, their belief in an imminent Armageddon, that psychologically conditions them to steer this country into conflict, not only in foreign lands, but also in the realm of domestic political controversy.

The Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy, and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult. This trend has several implications, none of them pleasant. Our country has been hijacked by terrorists who aren’t concerned about the life of the hostage they’ve seized. And these mostly men that we elect to serve, stoop awfully low in order to gain their seats of power.

Protecting The Least Of Us, WWJD
In the modern GOP; it hardly seems conceivable that a Republican could have written the following:
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things…a few other Texas oil millionaires and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.” (That was President Eisenhower, writing to his brother Edgar in 1954.)
Lofgren further warns, “If you think Paul Ryan and his Ayn Rand-worshipping colleagues aren’t after your Social Security and Medicare, I am here to disabuse you of your naiveté. They will move heaven and earth to force through tax cuts that will so starve the government of revenue that they will be “forced” to make “hard choices” – and that doesn’t mean repealing those very same tax cuts, it means cutting the benefits for which you worked.”

No Leaders For You
Of course it always helps if you can also deny the government agency administering a program a permanent leader, as Republicans in the Senate have routinely done during both terms of Obama’s presidency. This has forced agencies into a constant state of “automatic pilot,” unable to move forward and deal with issues arising within its jurisdiction, thus leading to problems that justify abolition of the agency, and the programs it administers.

“The United States continues to operate without a complete diplomatic toolbox to exert our leadership and advance our security and economic interests across the globe…” reports Secretary of State John Kerry. A Senate backlog in confirming ambassadorial candidates has left the United States without permanent ambassadors in 40 countries. And in many countries where we had existing ambassadors, those men and women have moved to their next assignments, while their replacements languish in the confirmation process. How could the Republicans constantly rail against our standing in the world, and yet not allow us vital links between our government and the rest of the world? As hard as it is to believe, our Congress has been taken over by a party that wants us to fail internationally, as well.

“Obama can’t lead.” Tell us that one again, while you refuse to deploy his emissaries? “Obama is inept in the art of government.” Explain that please, GOP, while you deny him his appointees indefinitely, and refuse to fund his initiatives.

The Lofgren Effect
American historian Bruce Bartlett shares, “Once one understands Lofgren, it is very easy to implement in a variety of situations—as long as one cares nothing about the proper functioning of government.” Make government look so corrupt that no one wants to vote. So simple in its usefulness, and so damaging to the United States.

If Republicans have perfected a new form of politics that is successful electorally at the same time that it unleashes major policy disasters, it means twilight, both for the democratic process, and America’s status as the world’s leading power. For the first time in American history, we had our national credit rating downgraded because of GOP obstructionism. Is that the path we are going to continue on? A slow degrading of the value of our country at the hands of a political party that has no intention of even attempting to make things better for its citizens.

We usually think of incompetence as being the result of ineptness, stupidity or ignorance. But in the case of this Congress, it is often intentional and deliberate, part of a long-term strategy by some Republicans to undermine government itself. Thankfully, Lofgren exposed the tactic of filibustering all legislation in the Senate, and all nominations to administration positions, regardless of merit. In Lofgren’s words:
“A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner."

"A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public, and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters’ confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn (“Government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1980)."
An ABC News/Washington Post poll confirms that the strategy has been working.

So What Are We Saying
The goal of today's Republican Party is to strangle, and ultimately abolish useful government programs on the grounds of being ineffective, just so they can continue to claim that government is ineffective. Once that perception takes place, the goal becomes establishing in the minds of Americans that their votes are useless. Why participate in a broken system? And once that wafts over the fields of America, mission accomplished. No matter how hard Democrats might work to campaign, to form platforms, to create legislation, to improve the lives of millions of Americans, none of that matters if the base stays home, forgets to vote, and the Dems lose control of Congress.

Luckily, it’s getting a little harder to keep the people ignorant. Far from our old Massachusetts colonial cousins, we have the internet, and social media, so it’s getting more and more difficult to keep the general population out of the conversation.

Whatever happens, we can be sure that Republicans will continue to operate on the plan exposed by Lofgren—at least until there is another Republican president. What can a citizen do? You can vote, and you can encourage others to vote. That's exactly what you should be doing.

Source: Mike Lungren’s Truth-Out article, Goodbye To All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left The Cult and Bruce Bartlett's Financial Times Article, Republicans and Lofgren Corollary

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