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Freddie deBoer’s post on Rand Paul’s filibuster has inspired three thoughts – one about why he’s mostly right, one about where he goes wrong, and one about how this all implicates our national institutional design.

Firstly, Freddie is generally speaking on-the-nose – there is nothing about Rand Paul’s positions on other issues or political ambitions that should prevent anyone who cares about restraining executive power and preserving civil rights and rule of law from cheerfully supporting his endeavors. Anything that brings more attention to these issues is good, anything that puts more pressure on the executive branch is good. This filibuster is a distinct act (though not wholly separable) from his other political stances, and thus can and should be supported in good faith and conscience.

However, I think Freddie has somewhat blinkered himself in not broadening his view. Forget about Rand Paul’s mostly-despicable views on almost every other class of public policy issues; on this particular issue, Paul is definitively in the minority amongst his own party. That, though, is what made this filibuster so politically clever for him. The Republican Party is split between those who are (mostly) consistent in favoring reduced government power and those who simply support low taxes on rich people and bombing undesireables, and the weight is largely towards the latter. However, the GOP is very much unified on the subject of hating Barack Obama. So by spontaneously creating a dynamic by which a question that leaves Paul in an intra-party minority into a referendum on spiting the President, he managed to frame himself as a leader on the issue and bring along most of his party with him since they were motivated by not wanting to look weak on the key GOP issue of sandbagging Obama. Especially when you look at the list of key GOP contenders for 2016 – in addition to Paul, you have Rubio, Christie, Jindal, Bush, Ryan, Hunstman, Santorum, McDonnell, Walker, Daniels, Portman, Cruz…any big ones I might be forgetting? – almost every other candidate is either explicitly or implicitly on the other side of this issue. What Paul did yesterday gained him a lot of exposure while simultaneously turning a weakness that isolated him into an instance of combative, Capra-esque leadership.

This is not to say that Paul’s motivations (or his internal ranking of those motivations) are the key factors for us as citizens – to the extend Rand Paul made supporting unchecked state power to do violence more costly, it was unambiguously a Good Thing. But the dynamics also expose a serious flaw in our Constitutional institutions. Namely, it really does seem as though many of the Framers bought their own hype and believed the major points of conflict in the state they designed would be a) inter-state and b) intra-federal-governmental. But political partisanship, as in retrospect seems inevtable, ended up playing a major role in political organization in the United States and totally threw a wrench into those dynamics, especially b). The expectation that "Congress," as a body, would check "the Executive" is perhaps-fatally compromised during high periods of partisan polarization, when the Executive is unified but Congress is deeply divided, and members of Congress may prioritize supporting their party over their institutional prerogatives. So you could have a dynamic whereby, say, one party is more inclined than the other to oppose state violence, but when that party has control of the executive branch they suddenly find state violence is really useful and their co-partisans in Congress prioritize winning partisan battles. This, of course, means that these kinds of issues can quickly become corrosive to the body politic and result in the kind of self-perpetuating cynicism that further empowers state violence. I’m not sure what to do about that, per se, but I am certain that this is the correct way to understand yesterday’s events and why I am cheered but still quite wary by the Paul filibuster.

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Went back to listen to old "The Incidental Economist" podcasts this morning, and listening to this one about raising the Medicare eligibility age, (not a transcript but points summarized here and here) I realized just how ingenious the ACA was.

During the debate on ACA, many progressives tried to bolster the case for the public option by pointing to massive budgetary savings. Didn’t work. C’est le vie. There’s no law or rule saying Congress has to pass good ideas.

However, there is a law prohibiting Congress from impletementing deficit-exploding ideas. Which means that if you, say, wanted to raise the Medicare eligibility age, well, that used to just push the costs of the government’s books. A net loss to society but a win for deficit hawks who think most people’s social value is limited to being beads in their abaci.

But with ACA in place, those people get scooped up by the exchanges, which means the government is still spending money on them. And since they are old, they will drive up premiums for everybody. Which means that shrinking Medicare doesn’t reduce the deficit anymore.

I think a "bwa ha ha" is in order.

From Lords of Finance:

To make matters even worse, Congress had decided to get into the act.

I feel like you’d have trouble pointing to an instance where the opposite was the case.

Hopefully this, my first substantive post, will add some clarity to my perspective on things.

As the President prepares to make a big statement on the issue of the national debt this evening, it’s worth taking a look back to review where we’ve come on this issue. I want to put aside a lot of the more substantive issues here and focus specifically on the politics of where we are.

The first half of the President’s term in office was primarily consumed by a single major legislative item, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), which after a hard-fought year-long battle was finally voted into law. As scored by the CBO, the bill would reduce the deficit, by a moderate amount in the first ten years following its enactment and by an enormous amount in the decade after. These estimates were challenged by Republicans as well as deemed too conservative by Democrats, but the CBO is a neutral and trusted entity and therefore I think it’s fair to take their estimate of a baseline.

And how does ACA reduce the deficit? Primarily by focusing on health care costs, and a big part of that was reducing Medicare expenditures. Mostly this was targeted as spending identified as wasteful and ineffective, not at actual reductions in benefits, but all the same it added up to a large amount of money not being spend on Medicaire. And how did this play out politically? The administration and Congressional supporters were brutally savaged over these cuts in the midterm elections, where ads like this were common:

And Republican “wonks” like Paul Ryan (R-WI) claimed those cuts were unsustainable and damaging, and therefore would never really be enacted. And it seems in retrospect that those Medicare cuts were a major issue that Republicans were able leverage into their major gains in the 2010 elections.

So now that they have reclaimed the House and have the chance to set the conversation on the budget, are they restoring those cuts as well as protecting Medicare from any further cuts? Far from it – the Republican Budget Chairman, the very same Paul Ryan, released a plan that not only retains every dollar of those cuts but proposes further cuts in Medicare that are far more drastic and draconian. In fact, his proposal amounts to essentially abolishing Medicare and replacing it with a new program that would allot government spending on health care purely on the basis of a fixed cost – exactly the type of rationing Republicans campaigned against.

On the broader issue of the deficit, have the Republicans proven themselves any more credible as negotiating partners? Well, no. Certainly their dogmatic allergy to even the most minor or benign of tax increases is well documented. But even beyond that Republicans have proven that their approach to negotiations consists of repeated hostage taking, first on the tax cuts for the middle class the President wanted to preserve, then on continued funding for FY 2011, and now again as we approach the debate on the debt ceiling. The Republicans seem quite willing to play with fire and risk catastrophic consequences in order to see their priorities enacted, and those priorities don’t seem to be “lowering the deficit” as much as it is doing away with spending items they disfavor, mostly, it seems, social safety net programs, environmental protections, public health regulation, and infrastructure investment.

So forget all the substantive issues – whether we truly face a debt crisis, whether it needs to be addressed in immediate spending cuts, whether debt-fueled spending is necessary to sustain economic recovery, and even whether Paul Ryan’s budget plan is credible or just snake-oil – and look at the politics: the Republicans have repeatedly proven themselves to lack any credibility as partners in governance. If this were tit-for-tat the game would have been abandoned long ago.

During the first two years of his Presidency, the President seemed less focus on engaging in overt politics – the constituent and strategic applying of pressure to powerful actors – in order to avoid polarization of Congress. He avoided criticizing Republicans in strong terms, and even protected some supposedly-moderate Republican Senators by appointing their strongest challengers into his administration. With strong majorities in both houses this strategy seems to have paid off – the President was able to secure landmark legislation such as ARRA, ACA, Dodd-Frank, and a host of other progressive legislation, even as the dysfunctional nature of the Senate left a lot of good bills passed by the House (most notably ACES) untouched.

But the President is now in a very different situation, and has yet to demonstrate that he fully understands this shift and adjusted to it. He will be able to accomplish very little over the next two years in terms of passing good legislation through Congress. But what he can do is successfully engage in politics – he can define the terms of the public debate, use the veto threat, and take strong negotiating positions. This seems uncomfortable for the President, who seems naturally inclined towards compromise and conciliatory behavior. However, this approach may very well backfire against a polarized and radical opposition that seems to have as their primary aim the political destruction of the President.

And so my advice for tonight is this – start a fight. The Democratic Party’s biggest weakness over my lifetime has been their studied unwillingness to pick a fight and stick it out and win it. The Republicans are very successful at winning the framing debate in the elite media, which Democratic officeholders have unfortunately confused with public opinion (a confusion the Obama Campaign notably did not suffer from). But if the President is to not merely be re-elected but to accomplish substantive, positive change, he needs to show that he can engage in a political fight and win. And the natural advantage is on his side – public opinion is not inclined to support Republican proposals, and the President is trusted and well-liked.

There is an iron law of politics – change means movement; movement means friction; friction means heat; heat means controversy. For the last six months the President appears to have been trapped in an unwinnable game of endless compromising with hostage-takers. The way to win this game is not to play. Tonight the President should stake out a strong position, and justify it not with numbers but with principles. And he should make clear that certain things are non-negotiable. For that’s how negotiations are won.

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