"House of Cards" Politics
John Boehner decided a while ago to stand pat. He scheduled a minimum number of days for Congress to meet. He got the budget deal passed and, a few days ago, the raise in the debt ceiling, with Democratic votes, because he did not want to make a fuss about either issue. He passed on an immigration bill this session, not that he had much choice given Tea Party objections to an immigration bill of any sort, but deferring action on immigration also played into his plan to engage in a prevent defense: nothing to give the opposition an issue when he has the issue for the Congressional Midterms that he wants: Obamacare. Everything else is a distraction and so Republican Congressional primary candidates who seem obsessed with foetuses and women’s libidos are being culled from the pack.
Now, the prevent defense is just as unreliable in politics as it is in football. You never know what new issue will intrude before November. Maybe a deal with Iran or one about a two state solution for Israel and Palestine might go to show just how successful has been Obama’s foreign policy. The talking heads are very fickle; if they wake up to this fact, voters uncertain of Obama’s leadership might gain confidence in him, and give the benefit of the doubt to Obamacare, which by the time of the Midterms, will have multiple millions of people who are dependant on it and no one wanting to go back to the previous situation where pre-existing conditions barred coverage and people now under insurance could not get any. The Republican fear that once people have Obamacare they will be dependant on it may have become fact by election time.
Whether that happens or not is a test of a deep-seated claim about the American electoral system: that most of the public can be fooled most of the time for long enough to allow the election of a Congress or a President who does not represent their interests. That Bush got elected to a second term is an affront to the notion that the voters are substantively rational even if they cannot provide ready or plausible explanations for why they vote for the way they do. There is no end to the litany of issues where the electorate contradicts itself. They vote social issues because they are offended at “too much” social progress, never mind that the social progress includes the right of their own gay relatives to marry; they are against big government even though the biggest government programs, Medicare and Social Security, are thought of as their birthrights and so not to be included when “small government” has its day, if it ever does; they vote for foreign policy hawks because they do like to go to war even though they claim they don’t like to go to war, especially when it is someone else’s son who is doing the fighting, wars the extension of Olympic-like competitions by other means.
This time around, the test of rationality will be whether Americans will have caught up with the fact that they actually do like Obamacare and don’t want to give it up. The President’s legacy and the future of the Republican Party are riding on that. The President thinks the facts on the ground will prevail and the Republicans are counting on all the negative publicity and their own vitriolic comments on Obamacare to have so poisoned the well that just invoking the term is enough to get people to vote Republican.
There is, I think, an even larger cultural context than the long running debate over Obamacare that will influence how people vote. It is the general cynicism about politics. Put aside the low standing of Congress in public opinion. That is the result of the public misunderstanding the role of Congress. It is gridlocked because different sections of the country send representatives with very different views, not because it can’t get its act together. Also put aside the cynicism of talking heads who, among other things, are obsessed with Chris Christie for having used strong arm tactics in New Jersey. So do most governors, though not this crudely, and all it does is bring out the vulnerabilities that would plague a Christie candidacy anyway: he had nothing going for him other than a belligerent manner that could occasionally rise to sounding humane, which was so out of touch with Republican politics that it seemed refreshing, given that most Republicans shed what are clearly only crocodile tears about the poor while they shuttle money from their contributors to their reelection campaign coffers. Is Jeb Bush the next candidate to rise in the Republican firmament simply because he sometimes sounds decent? Is he, in fact, any less far to the Right on economic issues than, let us say, Sen. Portman, who sounds bland but determined to take away money from the poor? When Republicans claim that they just have a different way to help the poor, show me a program of theirs that would accomplish that.
Use, instead, as the primary evidence for public cynicism about politics the popularity among the cognoscenti of “House of Cards”, so exaggeratedly cynical a television series about politics that a viewer can just indulge in the comedy of it without having to own up to a sense, as old as was also the case with “Dallas”, that politicians are just a bunch of scoundrels and that the bigger dogs eat up the smaller dogs. Everyone says we have come a long way from “The West Wing” in that we no longer think of politicians as being noble or at least attentive to the intricacies of their jobs. Everything, instead, is out of “Richard III”: people out to advance themselves and willing to do anything to service that end, never mind public service or into what grotesques politicians make themselves. That is the “mature” way to think about politics and so we ought to hold politicians in contempt, even those like Obama who was elected because they thought his race and his manner meant he was beyond pettiness, which indeed has proven to be the case, however petty his opponents remain. He is the Jimmy Smits character in the last season of
The West Wing”: the person of color who gets elected President so as to get things done.
Actually, there is not much in “House of Cards” that is repellent to a fan of “The West Wing” other than the ways in which it dresses up its story with film noir techniques, cynical looks, and push up bras. That the series is at least in part a homage to “The West Wing” is clear from giving the name “Zoe” to one of the female protagonists. She is an opportunistic journalist with a taste for older men, very different from the President’s daughter who was a college student and had a hankering for a black man when that was still controversial. How quickly times move on! The first couple of “House of Cards” are unlike Jed and Abbey Bartlet: they are only true to one another in their fashion, even as she worries about her husband’s health every much a bit as Abby did. Both programs have political nerds as the engines who actually craft legislation but need the politicians to knock heads together so that ideas become law.
“House of Cards” sets a group of the nerds loose on creating an education bill that is more centrist than the one that got leaked to the press and was shown as much too leftish. The nerds debate, ever so briefly, charter schools and how to manage the unions. Our Richard III like Francis Underwood, played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey, talks to the camera just the way Shakespeare’s Richard III spoke to his audience, but he also offers the nerds the wisdom that Nelson Rockefeller offered the young Henry Kissinger: tell me the right thing to do and I’ll worry about the politics. There are real educational issues that are rolled forward for brief discussion. Underwood the Democrat wants to support the teachers’ unions, but on the other hand educational reform requires teacher accountability and charter schools. The Spacey character says you can’t have it both ways, and he is right, at least as far as the present educational debate is concerned, which is until teacher accountability and charter schools are no longer the make and break issues, which could happen any day, depending on the fashions that prevail in the way of educational panaceas.
It is not unseemly for a Congressman to craft an education bill that might actually get passed so as to ingratiate himself with the public and to flank the President. None of that is sinister even if Francis Underwood announces his plans with a sneer. Nor is jockeying for position by turning a weak Congressman to your way of seeing things. Nor is sleeping around a sign of anything but lust. They did that all the time on “The West Wing”, even if the people were more appealing. Sure, throwing bricks through your own window and getting a political opponent to slug you is a bit over the top, but so was Bartlet’s range of knowledge, as if he were one of the Glass children in “Franny and Zooey”. Never you mind, what is pleasant about “House of Cards” is that someone actually manages to get things done, never mind the slight of hand tactics worthy of LBJ, the President, by the way, many a talking head looks back on fondly, while heaping disdain on Obama, “The West Wing” President. I prefer the latter. We will see this November whether the American people prefer one or the other. The Midterms will be a referendum on Obama.