Sunday, June 23, 2013

Behind the scenes with the Gang of Eight -- with a glimpse at how these folks see themselves and their jobs


Are you ready for this? Young Johnny McCranky seems to have taken it in his silly head that he is now some sort of conscience of the Senate. Ha ha!

by Ken

As some readers will recall, I'm not a great fan of The New Yorker's Washington correspondent, Ryan Lizza. I almost always feel the problem we're always aware of with reporters who depend on "inside" contacts, namely that the price of access is almost always some form of cooptation. Consequently, much of the coverage appears to me a wink-laden celebration of the status quo. And hey, I understand. The writer needs for his sources to remain sources, and they won't do that unless there's something in it for them. I sympathize, and I don't know what I would do in their position. But I'm not in their position, and I find this sort of "journalism," informative as it can sometimes be in some ways, kind of nauseating.

That said, I really and truly commend to you Lizza's exhaustive report, "Getting to Maybe: Inside the Gang of Eight's immigration deal" in the June 24 issue. Perhaps because this time out, the real story is exactly what those behind-the-scenes people think is happening -- how the legislative process looks from their various vantage points, and how this leads to who says and does what to whom.

Unfortunately, you can't get free access to the piece online. I know that this means that if I were to do a conscientious job, I would have undertaken another reading of the piece, marking it up and then conscientiously typing out the marked passages, not to mention figuring out how to string them together. And unfortunately, it's Sunday of what has been a long and I'm afraid pretty tiring week, and none of the above is going to happen, at least just now. (I know because I've been trying to rouse myself to the task for days now.)

Rather perversely, all I'm going to offer you is the opening of the piece, the part that The New Yorker itself is giving away online. Beyond that, if you're not a subscriber, well, I guess it's too late for you even to buy a copy of the magazine. By tomorrow the new issue will be on the stands, if it isn't already.

Six years ago, when John McCain, the Arizona senator, last worked on an immigration bill, his partner was Ted Kennedy, of Massachusetts. Kennedy, especially in his final decade in the Senate, was known for working closely with ideological opponents to pass major pieces of legislation. On a recent morning, McCain sat in his dimly lit office, across the street from the Senate, and said how much he missed Kennedy. The Massachusetts senator died in August, 2009, at the age of seventy-seven, after a protracted battle with brain cancer. McCain, who is known for his irascible disposition and his sarcastic ribbing of colleagues, was in a wistful mood. When asked if there was anyone like Kennedy in the Senate today, he replied, "No. I can't think of anybody." He added, "We had a lovely relationship for a number of years there. He changed, too." In his forty-six-year career, Kennedy somehow had moved past Chappaquiddick and his time as a hard-drinking bachelor to become one of the institution's best legislators. "He grew from the playboy to what I always call the Last Lion."

McCain is attempting his own political comeback, and Kennedy's redemption was instructive. Beginning with his Presidential run against Barack Obama, in 2008, McCain had aligned himself with a wing of the Republican Party he once fought, and retreated from issues he once championed, including immigration reform. "Let me show you something," McCain said. He got up and removed a framed cover of National Review from a wall of political memorabilia. It was dated July, 2007, the height of the previous immigration debate. It showed him leaning in close to Kennedy, apparently about to share a confidence. Opponents of the bill had decried it as "amnesty for illegals," and the magazine accused the two men of hiding the true nature of the legislation. "let's say it's not an amnesty," the headline said. In the bottom corner of the cover, Kennedy had scrawled, "Let's at least deny amnesty to National Review! Best, Ted." McCain laughed as he read it.

"I'll never forget the last time I saw him," he said. In March, 2009, Kennedy had returned to the Senate for an important vote. Afterward, as a few of his aides escorted him to his car, he spotted McCain. "He called me. ‘Oh, Jawn! Oh, Jawn!' " McCain said, imitating Kennedy. "I came over and he gave me a hug." . . .
To which let me add three points:

(1) The process that Lizza proceeds to document is how a group of senators, in a genuine attempt at bipartisanship, come to agreement that they really and truly want an immigration bill, and in their determination to try to make it happen they negotiate the hopefully nonnegotiable points that they would like to see included, and which they believe can be part of a bill that can attract the necessary votes.

(There's disagreement, by the way, as to what constitutes "the necessary votes." Everyone understands that it's going to require 60, for obvious filibuster-jumping reasons, but there's also sentiment that a supermajority of 70 would be required in order to have any chance of persuading House Republicans to support such a bill when it comes before them.)

From this point, we see at every step -- for example, in "auditioning" additional senators to fill out the intended Gang of Eight, taking into consideration what kinds of political profiles will be most helpful to the process of securing those necessary votes -- is measured in terms of its expectable impact on the vote count. It's a fascinating demonstration (at least I found it fascinating) of how the process that to us outsiders looks like "giving away the store" in negotiations is to the particpants a series of precisely such calculations: What do the proponents have to do to pick up support (and ideally support that might be a bridge to additional support, as when they're hoping to be able to bring some Tea Party sympathizers along) and of course to avoid losing support.

(2) The above calculations are all based on weird combinations of hard-headed (if also sometimes highly questionable) politics and often delusional views of individual legislators -- delusional with regard to their own views and also the attitudes and thought processes of fellow legislators. Especially in the case of people an individual hasn't had much direct contact with, those views sometimes appear to be cartoonlike caricatures, if Lizza's got his facts right.

(3) And speaking specifically with regard to (2), no one's follies and delusions are more fully on display than -- as you may have guessed from this opening -- those of Sen. "Young Johnny" McCranky. Young Johnny really does seem to have manufactured an image of himself in his head, a task he seems to have accomplished at numerous points in his peculiar political career, and confused it with reality. At the moment, the role he has taken on for himself is the Conscience of the Senate, the statesman who feels obliged to try to make his less conscience-driven colleagues to buck up and rise to the occasion of history.

It's not that Young Johnny is totally without a sense of irony, that in talking about the poisonous divisiveness and savagery that characterized the Republican wall of obstruction that formed in the early years of the Obama administration he is totally unaware that he himself played some small role. In fact, of course, Young Johnny was one of the most vile and violent fomenters of divison and hate -- a natural enough extension of the subhumanly loathsome presidential campaign he ran against the man he continued to revile. And he wondered why the new president didn't consult with him on matters of governance?

What does Young Johnny have to say? That he doesn't come to this "with entirely clean hands." No kidding! My point is that this is how these folks see themselves and the world. Is that kind of gem not worth attention? It might have been interesting if Lizza, in talking about the issue stances of individual senators, occasionally related them to their political contributions. But that seems a little too much to expect. And in any case, when one of these indignantly challenged pols snorts that he/she would be voting the same way regardless of whether he/she was being paid, it is probably, sadly, true.

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