Two Thoughts and a Question Answered

We have three thoughts today, actually two because one is a question.

The question: if the Supreme Court is so leery of ruling on same-sex marriage, why did they take the two cases they’re hearing? Reporters hear reluctance and ambivalence in the justice’s questions yesterday to the lawyers standing before them. I thought the high court decides to hear cases on which they believe their rulings and finding may be constitutionally clarifying. I cannot find the answer to my question in all the coverage this morning and hope a reporter will see this and tell us the answer.

(Ah. My editor, James Taranto, has given me the answer. It takes four justices to agree to hear a case, which could leave as many as five who’d rather not hear it. I didn’t know that. I thought a majority of the court had to agree on what cases to take.)

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Politico has a story on whether the Democrats waited too long after Newtown to move forward on gun-control legislation. The subject also came up on the panel on “This Week” on Sunday.

In my view Congress did, and their misjudgment was based on a very human flaw, conceit. In Congress’s case it is chronic and mindless.

Nobody trusts Congress. We all know this. Approval of Congress is at 13% in the polls. Part of this is the general decline in respect that Americans feel for their institutions. But part of it also is that Congress the past few years has taken to passing 1,000- or 2,000-page bills that nobody has read, and nobody knows what’s in them, and, as Nancy Pelosi famously said, we have to pass it to find out what’s in it. Administrators and bureaucrats get to define the meaning of page 873, paragraph 8, subsection 5, line 12. Their definitions often agitate the public. Everyone winds up feeling jerked around.

Nobody trusts what Congress does. And it is the job of Congress to know it isn’t trusted, and to work to develop trust, to try to build up faith in their institution. They can do this in part by developing, bringing to the floor and passing small, discrete, specific bills that everybody can understand. Those who are interested can read them online and feel satisfied they know the answer to what has become the great question of our day: “What just happened?”

In the case of Newtown, I feared in the days after that Congress would not move quickly but instead take time to create a more “comprehensive” approach, not understanding that the minute voters see the word comprehensive they think, “Uh oh, they’re hiding things again on page 873, paragraph 8, subsection 5, line 12!” And opposition would build. And nothing good would happen.

I urged a quick, short, simple bill that would ban the use of big ugly monstrous high-capacity magazines. Make people reload after seven or eight shots. It won’t hurt hunters, it won’t leave your house less safe, and in the cases of crazy people attacking children and mallgoers it will force them to reload, in which time someone might be able to knock them down or get the gun from their hands.

A quick bill like that would in my view have had a high chance of passing. Gun-control proponents would then have been able to go before the cameras, announce a victory, claim momentum, and vow to move forward next on reasonable background checks.

Instead they dithered, allowed it to drag on, put together various items antigun activists have long wanted, and now Congress is on vacation and those who don’t trust it are fully mobilized and it doesn’t look like anything good is going to happen.

Congressional overreach? No, sheer idiotic conceit.

An important part of being a good public servant is having a strong sense of the reality all around you. It is important if you’re in Congress to understand that you work for and within an institution no one trusts. When people don’t trust you, you should try to build trust. The word comprehensive is not, now, a trust builder. It is experienced as a four-syllable threat. So don’t be comprehensive if you don’t absolutely have to. Be simple, straight, quick and clear.

Why do senators and representatives forget they are not trusted? Some of them forget because they’ve been there a long time: When they arrived, Congress was respected. They can’t quite absorb the fact that it isn’t anymore.

Another reason is that congressmen have a tendency to think voters hate the institution but don’t hate them; in fact, they think, voters like them, which is why they got elected. And a third reason they don’t see how distrusted they are is that we taxpayers give them really nice lives with great offices and big staffs and people who take care of them. They get wonderful pensions and benefits. This may not make them rich but it does make them secure, which most of their countrymen are not. And all this destabilizes a lot of them and affects their ability to see clearly. They’re always treated with respect: “Yes, Congressman, this way.” Children from back home come to Washington on spring break and sing to them on the steps of the Capitol. Everyone loves them. Congress couldn’t really be disliked. If it were, the children wouldn’t sing.

But children will always sing.

By the way, this analysis is 100% incorrect if there is actually a higher game going on. Maybe the president and his political office thought, deep down, what most modern Democrats think, deep down: that gun control is always a killer for Democrats because Americans like guns, period. And the president doesn’t want to make a heavy lift harder for various senators up soon for re-election. So he makes nice speeches, gets credit for sincerity and engagement, and hands the issue off to the Senate, where they dither and let momentum pass. The Democrats put their bill forward and lose while achieving two goals: exciting their base with an illustration of how awful and impervious to rational argument those Republicans are, and damaging the reputation of a major institution within of the opposition, the evil NRA.

I actually don’t have enough disrespect for Congress to think that, but I may be wrong.

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Last week I argued in my column that the Iraq war and the great recession half killed the GOP, and whether it can come back is an open question. This weekend Ross Douthat in the New York Times argued that the war is responsible for liberalism’s political and cultural ascendance. Before that, Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner said the Iraq war gave us ObamaCare, and Daniel McCarthy argued in The American Conservative that the war created the conditions whereby the left could triumph in the culture wars: Republican ineptitude in one sphere encouraged a questioning of its stands in others. Noah Millman argued in the same magazine that the right forgot that war is not just another policy option, it’s a world changer.

All of these pieces, and there are more, are reflective. They are an attempt to come to grips and come to terms. They recognize the true gravity of the decisions made by the Bush White House and attempt to trace how those decisions changed the trajectory of modern American politics.

But to me the central truth is this: The Iraq war and the crash of 2008 opened the door. Two long, unwon wars plus the Great Recession yielded political catastrophe for the GOP. And when catastrophe happens for one of our great political parties—not a mere loss or series of setbacks but a true catastrophe—everything changes, everything’s suddenly up for grabs and the door opens to something new and different.

Two unwon wars plus a great recession will cause the people to throw one party out and put a new one in, period. And in that atmosphere of repudiation and ascendance the yearnings of the winning party will gather, rise, form more firmly, push forward. The winning party will recognize the views of its constituent parts to be on the ascendant. Together they will gain new territory both legislatively and in terms of the cultural mood.

And all of that is what happened. The wars were as damaging as the crash, and the crash was as damaging as the wars. After they occurred, people weren’t going to want to rehire the Republican to handle their foreign affairs and economy.

I wrote last week and then cut a section on one reason behind the calamity. I strongly feel these were the kind of things done by a White House that forget to think about the possibility of tragedy, that thinks only about opportunity. And I strongly feel this is the kind of mistake that gets made by people whose families didn’t have to worry about the rent, or the lights being turned off after the electric bill isn’t paid—people who in their formative years didn’t live close enough to the edge—happy people who assume good things tend to happen to good people especially when they want good things.

But life is more miserable than that.

When you launch a war you have to have it very much in mind that it might go bad, it might go wrong, because war from the moment it’s born takes on a life of its own, takes twists and turns you can’t imagine. So you can’t be sunny in your assumptions. You have to be dark and careful and think twice and long-term.

People with a sense of anxiety rooted in experience are not so quick to bet all on a throw of the dice.

And when you have an economy that, if you take a good look at it, is running too much on everyone’s leverage, everyone’s assumption of a rosy future, everyone’s gamble on sure things that maybe aren’t so sure—when you are the federal government and you don’t notice that, or act on it with urgency, or even warn of it, then something’s wrong. You’re assuming too much. You’re being too sunny. And you’ll pay a price: History loves to crush the sunny.

Recently at a speech someone asked me what I wanted in the next president. I said someone who’s suffered, someone who’s known protracted stress and lack of success, someone who knows what tragedy is.

The Republican Party can’t sit around and weep. It also can’t just wait for the Obama administration and the reigning Democrats to implode, or deflate, which they will. They have to continue doing an intellectual excavation of how the GOP allowed two disasters to quietly grow. And they will have to be ready to come forward with their own new, helpful and pertinent economic and foreign policy approaches.

This is where I start: allowing yourself to be seen as the party of war and Wall Street is as sure a political loser as you can possibly devise. And that’s just the politics of it.