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Hypermodern Hypocrites
August 27, 2003
By Raul Groom

"Senator, we are a part of the same hypocrisy." - Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part II

I'm sitting on my front porch drinking and watching the commuters walk by on their way home from the bus stop. Only tapwater today; I have to travel to my hometown tonight to take care of some wedding arrangements, an occupation which is quickly beginning to dwarf every aspect of what I once thought of as my life. Sophia and I have given up the nightmare of the "mixing bowl" for good and have taken to returning home by an alternate route in the dead of night rather than bob upon the sweltering sea of honking and mediocre pop music that passes for a major national highway in the southern suburbs of this weird poor little rich town on the Potomac.

It always rejuvenates me to go home, where I can hide in the well-polished personality I constructed for myself in my teenage years, without all of the pesky dread and shame that characterized my usual condition as the young son of generations-ago Northern immigrants growing up in the capital of the Confederacy. There is something comforting about the mythology that springs up around you after you leave home for another city, running fine sandpaper over the rough edges of history and leaving behind a broad caricature of a man, easy to inhabit and immune to the dilemmas that face the actor in his normal existence.

My mind is troubled, though, by the events unfolding in these hazy days of late August. Like a wave of heat and humidity that lingers even after a good rain, the uneasiness and macabre anticipation in the air has not been blown away even by bombs or blackouts or the growing tide of popular dissatisfaction with the nationwide Republican government. There is trouble brewing, but beyond that there is no clear indication of what will happen next.

The players have positioned their pieces, with the GOP staking out their most aggressive political pawn structure since the Nixon machine steamrolled their hapless hand-picked Democratic opponent in 1972. The plan, as it appears now, is to shore up the social conservatives and the religious right with ridiculous judicial appointments and outrageous demagoguery over Democratic filibusters of manifestly horrible jurists who call to mind the Nixon-era Republican appeals that the courts should not be made up solely of qualified people, since "there are a lot of mediocre judges out there, and shouldn't they be represented?"

Once Pat and Jerry's kids are all fired up and sending in the $100 checks, the Congressional Republicans can turn their attention to the big money. This is where things get a little tricky. Bush himself won't have any problem with that part of the equation, of course – any Commander-in-Chief shameless enough to hold huge fundraisers while vacationing during two major wars will certainly dwarf the cash-grabbing ability of any opponent, no matter how well-connected or Internet savvy - but Republicans in Congress may be between a rock and hard place if the economy is still in shambles come next August.

Bush's recklessness has placed the federal budget in a classic bind. With interest rates low, the government is able to make the long-run deficit look smaller by financing the debt in the short term and assuming that interest rates will stay the same in future years. This is the trick Clinton used to make his success in balancing the budget look greater than it truly was. For the most part, it worked, though it created the imaginary long-term surplus that was used to sell the nation on the first round of enormous GOP tax cuts. Bush, on the other hand, is trying to use the same trick to make his moronic missteps look a little less heinous, a strategy that can only be pushed so far.

The effect of this White House's lamebrained and dishonest fiscal policy, in contrast with the generally harmless puffery of the Clinton administration, is that eventually the bottom is going to fall out. As Greenspan has argued in deriding Bush's most recent tax slashes (call it April the 15th, Part III), interest rates cannot remain low in times of large deficits, and we are already experiencing the largest real-dollar deficits in history, despite right-wing propaganda to the contrary.

This is fine for Bush, whose family connections are all he has ever needed or ever will need. For lowlier politicians with redder blood, an impending economic collapse is bound to make the backers a little jittery. Old men in dark suits do not like major socioeconomic upheaval, which tends to get the rabble roused.

The good news for the rank and file of the GOP is that they are in a position, controlling every branch of government, to provide the money men with an immediate return on their investment, but given the new scrutiny that will be on campaign funds with new finance laws in place, the line between good old-fashioned money politics and dangerous scandal territory is likely to be a thin and blurry one, and there are enough Republicans tired of being bullied by bling-blingin' Connecticut cowboys that this may be one time when the Democrats find some allies in their pursuit of the Big One.

The tactical outlook for the Republicans is, as always, quite good. They will test their Keep-in-the-Vote initiatives during the increasingly foolish-looking California recall gambit (I am still snapping up every bet I can get against Schwarzenegger, who among sane oddsmakers is still a monster long shot) and make the necessary adjustments to the scheme to avoid any embarrassing photofinishes like the one in Florida that almost exposed the Bush/Cheney campaign as the colossal criminal sham that it really was. The Freeper armies are ready to suit up and begin their "Vote Fraud Prevention" campaigns, which operate on the premise that anyone who is not going to vote for a Republican is probably not allowed to vote at all. The fliers to be placed in black communities explaining that the vote is on Wednesday, or that anyone showing up to vote will have to pay back taxes before casting a ballot, have already been printed up. The intimidation squads, replete with the requisite uniformed members, are assembled and waiting.

On the main stage, the issues being "discussed" at the Sunday talking-head parties are all the ones the Republicans are supposed to want – the Bible Belt politicians are heroically shoring the nation up against the horde of queers and heathens who have shaken our once-proud Christian nation to its very core by crazily asserting that people ought to be free to assemble for the peaceful purpose of marrying two adults, and that judges can't post their religion's doctrine in an attempt to establish their courthouses as sites of divine worship. For once, the zealots have a compelling argument - if the Founding Fathers had meant for us to have rules like that they surely would have said something about it in the Bill of Rights. And after all, it says very clearly in the 10th commandment that "Thou shalt have a big-ass rock with all this stuff written on it displayed in a government building" so the devout jurists in our nation's bread basket really have no choice in the matter.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are sitting around picking their noses. Howard Dean is pushing hard for a real campaign to begin, but the rest of the field seems content to sit back and let the incumbent Republicans control the terms of debate. Until recently, I had been suffering from a brain condition related to the onset of the football season and considered this to be a terrible strategy. This judgment was the main reason I supported Dean in the early going – it seemed as if Kerry and Lieberman and Gephart were all acting like Cleveland Browns linebackers, standing around as the play developed, waiting to get blocked.

But politics really isn't analogous to football 15 months ahead of an election. Next summer is the time to talk about who is flying to the ball, and whether the frontrunner has that workhorse running back on his team that can grind down the clock and fend off his opponent's fourth-quarter charge. For off-year strategizing, we have to turn to some thing a little more beautiful and a lot more boring. No, not baseball. Chess.

Until the 20th century, chess strategy was pretty straightforward – white stormed forward to occupy the center, and black tried to stop him. Over time, though, players at the highest levels began to find that for black, this strategy had its drawbacks, chief among them being that it didn't work. White's one-move advantage, which theoretically should not be enough to produce a win in a high percentage of games, tilted the struggle for the center squares, which White can occupy immediately, too heavily in the fairer player's favor.

The resulting competitive imbalance was no laughing matter. Chess itself, an institution stretching back at least to the Sufi classical period in Persia over 1000 years ago, was threatened with irrelevance and extinction. It was then that a group of young chess mavericks – I can only imagine the wild bacchanal feast that must have given rise to this maniacal innovation – realized that for black to equalize, she was often better off waiting for White to establish his position in the center before committing to a specific line of counterattack.

I won't stretch this tortured, overly optimistic analogy any further in the general case, as I trust the reader to connect the dots on her own. However, there is at least one area of the Four T's of electoral politics (Treasure, Talent, Treachery, and Taxes) where the metaphor deserves closer attention.

With his series of enormous tax cuts, Bush appears to have staked his presidency on the patently laughable idea that the federal government can continue indefinitely to finance its affairs under the current tax structure, thus spending about 150% as much money as it takes in. Of course, Bush's people aren't that stupid – they are really only betting that they can hold the nation's finances together until the 2004 election, like a bunch of half-wits frantically stuffing candy back into a battered piρata, and Bush, like his idol Reagan, will clearly be forced to raise taxes very soon after the votes are counted (or whatever.)

The Bush machine may have miscalculated here, though. The last month has seen a glaring spike in interest rates, as anyone looking at buying a home in this crazily inflated housing market already knows. The wheels are starting to come off the gravy train, and Dubya may be running out of chips to cash in. The moon will inflate and melt away fifteen more times before the votes are cast in November 2004, and that's a long time for Bush to be standing around without protection like a king awaiting checkmate, whose pieces have all been gobbled up.

Though the incident got only a moderate amount of press, the recent congressional Deep-Sixing of Michael Powell's Big Media Bonanza was a very big deal, suggesting that Bush's power to lead the legislative branch around by the nose may finally be waning, and if there is a precedent for winning reelection after alienating both houses of Congress and your own State Department, CIA, and FBI, I am not aware of it.

The game here is like buying a car – whoever mentions a tax increase first loses. With Bush blaming congress for the horrifying fiscal outlook, the GOP majority may have no choice but to bite back with a plan to roll back some of Bush's cuts, threatening to undermine what is essentially George's only selling point that is based at all in reality. That tax plan is likely – if I may engage in a little stereotyping – to be heavily tilted toward increasing taxes on the poor and middle class while mostly exempting the rich. If the Democratic challengers in the 2004 congressional races can wait for this development, they can introduce their own plans as an alternative to the Republican one rather than as a bona fide tax increase. At that point, the Democratic nominee can latch on to the debate in earnest without looking like a Tax Increaser.

This would be a death blow to the Rove/Cheney political machine, since aside from the unsustainable tax cuts, the current executive branch hasn't delivered much in the way of marketable achievements. Bush is losing two wars and doesn't even know it – less than a week ago the Boy King mistakenly asserted that the war in Afghanistan was being de-escalated, but the Pentagon announced over the weekend that they will be forcing U.S. soldiers to start serving back-to-back tours of duty not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq and South Korea. The reason is that given the recent escalation of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are simply running out of guys with rifles and are going to have to start recycling them. Someone eventually ought to tell the President about this, hopefully as soon as he gets back from vacation.

Meanwhile, the economy is in shambles, the state books are a mess, the federal deficit is about to spiral out of control, and it is hard to believe, even for a cynical mob-watcher like myself, that anybody is going to buy another round of tax cuts as the solution to our budget problems.

Bush will try to defend his vulnerable center pawns with Reagan's Trap – waiting for his opponent to say "Tax Increase" and then screaming loudly about how he will NEVER, EVER raise taxes on the American people during a time of economic crisis. All the while, of course, his policy people will be drawing up plans to do exactly that, but the guy who says "Tax Increase" tends to lose to the guy who says "No Tax Increase," and everyone knows it's better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.

The problem with Bush's strategy is that his position is not at all analogous to that of Reagan in 1984, whose party did not have the monopoly on federal power today's GOP enjoys. Indeed, the modern Republican party is so overwhelmingly dominant that their positioning for 2004 is starting to look a bit like the Austrian Attack, where the White player storms forward madly with everything she has, disregarding the defensive vulnerabilities inherent in such a mobilization and playing to win quickly and brutally at all costs. The prickly Pirc Defense, which is the counterpart to the Austrian, is predicated on allowing White to slide everything out into the open and selecting just the right moment to slice the opposing army to ribbons, leaving White's bishops and knights limping and stumbling about like Tom Delay in the depths of a Naked Lunch-style bug poison trip.

Which is a very rosy way of looking at the Dems' situation. Unfortunately, this plan – if it even exists outside my fevered imagination – has a couple of problems. One, despite the apparently passive nature of hypermodern systems, Black does eventually have to produce some testosterone, come out of her cave, and launch a counterattack. If Kerry doesn't start his charge soon, he'll have squandered his advantages over Howard Dean, and we will all get to find out if Karl Rove was right when he said Dean was his dream opponent. Though Howard's dazzling, Sicilian Defense fireworks got him a lot of attention, they don't mesh that well with the "Hurry Up and Wait" strategies of the Democratic leadership, and it still remains to be seen if Dean's got the talent to make it as a national candidate.

The other much more upsetting problem is that while the DNC is busy fianchettoing its king's bishop and taking care of that weak pawn on c6, the Republicans are destroying the country. For the vast majority of Americans, who have to get up and go to work, save money to go back to school, and otherwise try to make our way, the situation is dire, and it would be nice to see the Democrats rise above the petty games of electoral politics and actually try to fix things.

Unfortunately, having neglected the strategic aspect of the game for too long in favor of failed centrist tactical gambits, the Democrats are on the outside looking in, and the only thing left is for them to engage the Republicans in this grand game of hypermodern hypocrisy. We spectators can only hope that the plan is a sound one, and that we can spend 2005 picking up the pieces of our once-great nation instead of applying for unemployment and registering with John Ashcroft's newly created "Office of Freedom Fingerprinting."

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