How Dems Can End Stalemate, Revive Bipartisanship, and Marginalize Tea Party (on their own)

Whose name do you hear spoken most often from politicians decrying this week’s shutdown of the federal government? It’s not the president’s name, but John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House. This is by design.

It links the speaker, who is relatively popular, with Newt Gingrich, who is not. If this shutdown is reminiscent of the 1995 shutdown, we know how it turns out for Republicans — badly.

But Boehner is nothing like Gingrich. The Ohio Congressman is a gradualist, a northern centrist, a corporatist, a plutocrat. It’s the Tea Party populists who have dragged him into this insurrection. It might be more true that President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid goaded Tea Party members into dragging Boehner onto his hot seat.

On vote after vote, Democrats have been pressing Boehner to end the Hastert Rule, which should be understood as the “other filibuster” that has been paralyzing Congress. Illinois Rep. Denny Hastert ran the House of Representatives after Gingrich by refusing to bring any legislation for a floor vote unless and until he knew his party could pass it without the benefit of the opposition party.

Although Gingrich followed the rule, it’s named for Hastert because he talked about it. He stated his job was “to please the majority of the majority.” Lately, he has disclaimed the strategy or the rule that still bears his name.

The Hastert Rule effectively ended inter-party compromise. Committee work and conference committees ceased being relevant for legislation. The real action shifted to party caucus meetings, where intra-party deals were made, or not.

Lately, mostly not. Since nearly half his party’s caucus refused to vote for his continued speakership, he’s been on probation and he knows it.

Many of Boehner’s allies and friends in Congress fear the Tea Party activists in their own districts. They have nightmares beating back an anti-Boehner flamethrower in a low-turnout primary. As Boehner eyes the far right factions in the House, many Republicans must do the same with their supporters back home.

Floor votes on immigration, education reform, farming and transportation have all been stymied because of the Hastert Rule. Each would likely pass the House with a healthy majority once the votes of the Democrats could be counted. Boehner has refused to schedule those votes. He cannot risk the ire of his right flank. Any bipartisan legislation could end Boehner’s speakership.

The stakes keep getting higher. This week, the federal government has been shuttered because Boehner won’t allow Democrats, along with a few Republicans who don’t fear a primary challenge, to pass a clean budget bill. In less than two weeks, the pressure will ratchet further. The full faith and credit of the world’s preeminent government will be at risk.

Each news cycle shows Boehner flailing in a new direction to avert cataclysm. He claims to understand well what must be done, while also claiming he’s unable to do it alone. True enough. He’d love a deal, but making any deal risks his leadership position over the House. Any support from Democrats serves only as a footstool to hoist the Speaker onto his own petard.

Unless they pledge that it won’t.

Here’s a deal Boehner could take, if offered. The Democratic leadership in the House could circulate a letter, gathering signatories who pledge, in return for clean House votes on the budget and debt ceiling, to vote for Boehner’s continued Speakership, as long as Republicans maintain their majority in the House.

The deal would demolish the Hastert Rule, revive bipartisan solutions, marginalize the Tea Party, and put Boehner back in the business of legislating. It doesn’t produce the Grand Bargain that everyone wants to hope for, but it paves the way for it and more.

Once the House leadership does more than serve the “majority of the majority,” the abuse of the Senate’s filibuster will again draw the derision it deserves. Reid has purposely not dismissed his prerogative to alter Senate rules if necessary, though we can hope both sides lower their voices after the Tea Party extremists have been shunted off the state.

Barack Obama may yet have the transformative presidency he had hoped.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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… if only …

If only we knew how far off the future was, we might not need to know anything else.

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Hail Mariota

Regarding the Oregon Ducks and Marcus Mariota’s coming out party last night, let’s review some history. The Flyin’ Hawaiian arrived in March 2011. Shortly after, Chip Kelly closed all Duck practices to the public and the press. Eight months ago, Kelly flirted with taking his football genius to the pro ranks, but then recanted, citing “unfinished business.” A month later, Duck quarterback Darron Thomas surprised (almost) everybody by announcing he was leaving the program to go pro. Rumors swirled that Thomas asked for a guarantee that he would be the starter for this season, but was refused.

Taken together, it sure looks like Kelly and Thomas knew full well that Kelly had found the perfect quarterback for his offensive schemes, but was refusing to share that news with the rest of us, figuring we would find out soon enough. “Soon enough” was last night.

Last year, the slowest moments of Oregon offense seemed to be when Thomas’s passes were in midair. They would waft toward the receivers. Too often they would get blamed for a bobble, when the play started with a wobble. Every attempt to correct was overwrought, with bullets that were equally uncatchable. Coaches insist a good pass comes from the toes, that footwork is the key to that magic airborne combination of speed and loft that we call “touch.” Mariota’s got it. Thomas didn’t have it.

But we didn’t know. Now we do.

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Sex Sells, But Will It Also Buy?

Don’t look now, but the fairer sex is learning to fight less fair. Following a similar success in Liberia in 2003 and Greece in 411 BCE, the women of Togo are withholding sex this week to protest and pressure their country’s misogynist president.

If women want many things, but men want only one thing (sex), how long before women begin wielding this power not only by withholding legitimate relations, but by offering illegitimate ones? It’s not called the oldest profession for nothing.

Human interactions are becoming increasingly transactional, so I fear it’s only a matter of time.

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Cindy Needed Two Bucks

Each of us may have a different solution in mind, but looking directly at the problem is important in any case. This afternoon, I was ducking into my neighborhood grocery store to get some fixings for an afternoon picnic. The weather was perfect, the Eugene Celebration was winding down, and I had my picnic plan in my head.

I had stopped at my favorite meat market just moments earlier. The woman managing the checkout lines removed my basket and stacked it with the others, but my sausages were still in the basket, and I was practically attached to them. But she saw neither me nor my purchase. Middle-aged men can be invisible like this.

But then, outside Albertsons, I was not invisible. An older woman with a knit pink top saw me and asked, “Sir?”

That’s usually enough for me to wave that I’m busy, or at least too busy for somebody who calls me “sir.” But she didn’t fit the profile. She was neat, her hair was done, she was wearing makeup, and she looked worried. I stopped.

She needed two dollars for enough gas to get her car home to Goshen. She apologized for asking, but she didn’t want to find herself stuck between Eugene and Goshen with no one to help. I pulled out my wallet and asked me if she would tell me her story.

Cindy has no family nearby. Her parents have passed. Her two children are far away. Her ex-husband is on a fishing boat in Alaska. She comes to town once a week to help an elderly woman with cleaning and shopping. The woman normally gets cash at the grocery store to pay Cindy, but this week she forgot.

Cindy was counting on the money for enough gas to get her back to Goshen, where she rents a room, until her ex-husband returns and helps her get settled in a trailer park closer to town. She told me she has food stamps and $1 on her credit card.

I offered her $20 (the only cash I had), but she refused it. She offered to buy my groceries with her Oregon Trail card to pay me back. She told me again how terrible she felt asking a stranger for help like this.

I told her I would buy my groceries and would return with smaller bills. I did that, but by the time I returned, she and her car were gone. I hope that’s because she found some one else who could help her, and not because she was so mortified to ask that she decided to take the risk of being stranded on the road rather than risk that I would disappoint her.

We see that the economy is restructuring itself beneath us. We hear that people need to learn new skills to keep up. But asking strangers for modest help is not the sort of new skill we should be asking Cindy and people like her to learn. I’m sure I’ll be thinking for the next few days how I could have acted differently to help her more quickly or less painfully.

I’ll keep the $20 I offered Cindy in a different pocket, so I can help the next person more easily. It’ll be as if Cindy helped that person. I’ll bet she’d like that.

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Amplifying Mal Mots

Here’s what the Dems have finally figured out. They don’t have to pick sides to meddle in the intramural disputes inside the GOP. Charles Jaco may have been a brave war correspondent, but his St. Louis gig is a Saturday evening gabfest with nothing like a national audience. But when his guest uttered the words, “legitimate rape” followed by pseudo-medical plumbing analysis, bingo.

Suddenly it’s a national story — helped a tiny bit by Democrats, who have learned how to amplify a mal mot uttered by the other side. Just a short time ago, you needed a dedicated talk radio army with national syndication reach in place to do this, but no more. Now you can explode it on the Internet, then force the mainstream media to cover the resultant firestorm, as measured by retweets and facebook buzz.

So watch the left amp up story after story that divides social conservatives (abortion, vaginal ultrasounds, racism, “war on women”) from fiscal conservatives (tax cuts for the wealthy, Medicare vouchers, Bain, Romney’s taxes). The right is susceptible because they have no muscle memory to combat this — it’s new for them. And when the shock jock brigade cries foul, they’ll only be making matters worse by adding further to the volume.

Meanwhile, whatever Romney’s communications people had hoped would lead the news that night will have been lost for another day. Only 71 more to go.

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Tickled Today

Today I’m tickled for no particular reason that I live in a bustling small city that marks its center with a four-way stop. I mean, how cool is that? Is that Ken Kesey writing down who’s guilty of “rolling stops”?

On a personal note, I’m pleased to have just finished laundry for the first time in three weeks (now now) with no socks in the hamper. Three weeks and no socks. Do you have a better definition of a charmed life?

There is a downside though. My zippy little convertible is filthy, but I can’t bear to put the lid on it, and people tell me going through the car wash with the top down is fun only once, so I’m saving that for another day.

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Standing in Line

Can we talk about lines? Not coloring inside them — that’s a skill we’ll never master. Not drawing them in the sand — we’re already too good at that. Let’s talk about standing in them.

This weekend, many of you will stand in line, despite the heat, at the Lane County Fair to buy something fried like the fri-jos that Dottie Chase sold there for half a century. (Dottie passed away last September.) Next weekend, others of you will stand in line to sample Cart De Frisco’s chicken sandwich featured for decades at the Eugene Celebration.

It should be pointed out, very few of you will do both.

Lines are important to an orderly society. I’ve recently observed how the world looks at lines.

The Japanese line up as a hobby. Their walking paths have a line painted down the middle, presumably so walkers don’t walk into each other. Bike paths also have lines, warning riders where not to pass. Train riders line up on platforms waiting for the train, using painted arrows on the pavement to predict where an open door eventually will appear.

In Tokyo, I shared sushi with one of Japan’s leading computer engineers. We explored how computer power could eradicate world hunger if everyone with more than enough could be paired with somebody whose need would not feel overwhelming to them. This would require the entire world to line up.

A few months earlier, I visited Egypt, where they are trying to learn a more orderly approach to everyday life. Subways are splashed with arrows and instructions, telling people to enter using this door and to exit using that door. These signs are universally ignored.

One hot summer night, I saw a vendor selling ice cream. I stood in the assembled crowd holding my money long enough to evoke pity from a stranger. His broken English could have passed for poetry: “We are not a single file people.”

Returning home, here’s what surprised me. In Lane County, we are a single file people. Nobody hurries here. My hunch is we stand patiently in line because we’re nosy. Don’t you find it amazing what people will allow to be overheard? And now, thanks to cell phones, that sort of casual discovery doesn’t require two conversants.

Whenever I’m defending the local ownership of this or any other newspaper (which is often), I always remind people that the owners are standing in line at the grocery store and hearing what people talk about. That’s infinitely better than owners who think they know everything necessary by looking at spreadsheets.

For example, we like to follow our bliss. By standing in line, we can also be following somebody else’s bliss, in case our own isn’t sufficient. We may be hoping a bit of their bliss will splash on us, like when the car ahead of us has its windshield washer jets aimed poorly.

I think Jerry’s Home Improvement should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their checkout strategy. They’ve completely eliminated “line envy.” (Yes, social scientists have a name for it. Because they buy groceries too.) After choosing a lamp or a tool, the last thing you want to do is choose a line.

Even better, Jerry’s clerks are trained to step away from their terminal to beckon you when it’s your turn. This tiny move blurs the barrier between buyer and seller. When the definitive book is written about Jerry’s, I hope that hospitable gesture is highlighted in a chapter entitled, “Two Steps to Success.”

And then I hope that book is read by some of our baristas. With most lines, you can do some rough calculations to estimate your wait time, but not with coffee. All it takes is one chatty customer ahead of you who wants their skinny mocha with a shot made with organic 2-percent and less than a half-inch of foam in a double cup and could I have that in the next larger sized cup so I can put my own soy milk in because it’s usually so hot and once I spilled it when I was driving and my phone rang and ….

Can’t some one say, “Next please?”

 

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Post Office Reform (draft)

Earlier this month, our once proud nation willingly accepted defeat or diminution for the second summer in row. The United States Postal Service failed to meet its financial obligations. Fortunately for the Post Office, their first-ever default on a $5.5 billion payment for future postal retirees’ health benefits was caused by and is answerable to the same United States Congress that overdrew on its accounts last August. Its as if a child was reported for falling behind on school lunch payments and reporting to the parent who had just missed a car payment or two.

The Post Office knows its business model is declining, but lacks the ability to adapt. Why? Because, although the postal service survives only on the revenue it raises, its budget is still controlled by Congress. Congress doesn’t do many things very well these days. But naming new post offices is one area of competence. While not passing budgets or paying its bills, this Congress has named 60 post offices. In fact, about one third of the legislation passed this year has been to name federal buildings — about half of those have been post offices.

But it’s summer. This is the best time to think about things to do that are too small or too large to fit into the hectic schedule that lurks for each of us, just beyond Labor Day. Summer is when it’s OK to put “Recycle dryer lint” on your to-do list. Or “Get PhD.” Policy wonks call the former “small ball.” We’ve seen that it can work, watching one of UO baseball coach George Horton’s buntathons turn into an unexpected win. The latter strategy is described as “long ball,” swinging for the policy fences.

Before summer gets completely away from us, let’s do both for our daily men and women in blue.

Thinking small requires only a paragraph or two. Post offices are places. In some places, they are the only place. But unless you have a child needing regular care packages, a thriving ebay business, or a post office box, you need that place only occasionally. Linking the place with a more universal need will make it easier for everyone to care about its fate. So install 24/7 public toilets in every post office — automated, timed, surveilled, but public and free. When nature calls, our government should be there for us.

When Benjamin Franklin championed postal service for the colonies, he was playing small ball and long ball both. He wanted to get his gazette into the hands of readers. But Franklin and others also wanted to declare that this vast continent was ours for the taking. He intended the service to tie us together and make our nation feel smaller. It worked.

Our modern experience of mailing and receiving mail is shaped by the thoughts and words of a mid-19th century tax reformer. Rowland Hill wrote “Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability” in 1837 and it should be required reading for any would-be reformers today. He showed that a single price for a standard letter, regardless of the distance traveled, is both practical and necessary. He also introduced the concept of a postage stamp, a delivery prepayment.

A single price for every letter popularized the service, leading to its universality. America had to go a step further than Europe to keep its rural area’s tied to the network. If you ever wondered about “Mayberry RFD,” that was a postal designation: “rural free delivery.”

But now our problem is the obverse. Our world has recently become too small. We eat lima beans from Chile in the winter, on a table imported from Indonesia covered with linens from Pakistan, while talking on a phone assembled in China, about how nobody knows their neighbors anymore. Now that we dial a ten-digit number to call a family member who may be upstairs, distance has become an abstraction.

Since universal postal service is now assumed, we should reverse course and impose a distance tax — not just for letters, but for lima beans and linens. Transform the postal service into a newly essential government service that measures and meters how far something traveled to reach its buyer.

Wouldn’t you prefer to live in a world where lima beans at the local farmers market are cheaper than the imported alternative you get at Safeway? I know I would.

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Yet Another Column About Paul Ryan

We’ve lived with the phrase “vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan” for almost a week now, but a few details have gone unnoticed.

My first thought was about the 2016 presidential campaign. If Obama wins a second term, it seems almost foregone that we’ll be talking then about Paul Ryan running against Hillary Clinton. Even if Europe/Iran/Syria/China (circle one) implodes and Romney wins this November, I still expect Ryan to leapfrog to the top of the ticket in 2016. After all, if he waited until 2020, he’d be 50 years old and his body fat index (which seems to be his huge selling point) might be over 8 percent.

Many have observed how Ryan’s youth balances the Republican ticket. But has anyone noted the recent trend of almost every Republican vice presidential candidate since 1988? Call it the “Dan Quayle effect.” Only George W. Bush didn’t choose youth and vigor, but he might have if the adviser charged with vetting candidates (Dick Cheney) hadn’t nominated himself.

Cheney supplied gravitas ad infinitum. (No wonder that ticket captured so much of the Latin American vote.) But the other four GOP veeps have been hood ornaments, chosen to help the candidate make a better first impression. The first Bush had Quayle, Robert Dole had Jack Kemp, we know all about Sarah Palin, and now this 42-year-old doe with dreamy blue eyes.

Compensatory choices are expected and defensible — “You complete me!” — but when every VP compensates for the same thing (age), somebody should be looking in the mirror. Just be careful it’s not one of those two-way mirrors. Smart boys with clipboards may be examining and manipulating your every move.

Case in point, it sure seems like the Democratic strategists got exactly who they wanted as an opponent this fall. Maybe there are some Kenyans at work with voodoo dolls, because the political left was not-so-secretly delighted to be running against the Mormon progenitor of Romneycare. And now, they can barely conceal their glee to be able to rerun all those “Mediscare” spots they produced a few years ago.

Conventional wisdom is that a reelection campaign is not a choice between two candidates, but a referendum on the incumbent. Voters look at the guy who has been on the news every night for four years and ask themselves, “How’d he do?” Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have been working tirelessly to do no work, then pinning their lack of productivity on the president’s “failure to lead.”

Romney didn’t help the strategy by choosing a leader of that Congress. Democrats now stand a chance for making the election about a choice between two visions for the nation’s future: individualism or collectivism, in Ryan’s quoted words.

If the Democrats succeed and win the election, somebody will compare this GOP ticket to the Washington Generals, the perennial opposition — chosen and paid by the Harlem Globetrotters. Pundits are in agreement that the contest will now be more entertaining, but that’s different than suggesting the GOP’s prospects have improved.

Maybe Republican operatives knew that, because it’s difficult to explain the timing of their announcement any other way. When you have bad news, you announce it on Friday afternoon. People have stopped paying attention until Monday and by then it’ll be old news, which is as close as you can get to no news.

Romney’s team bragged how precisely they planned their unveiling. Friday’s Sikh funerals in Wisconsin pushed the announcement from Friday afternoon to Saturday morning.

Conservatives like Mondays. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk then have all week to repeat their talking points. Local news anchors have only 75 seconds to inform viewers before cutting away to the local house fire or an imperiled kitten. Simply put, conservatives don’t work weekends.

Weekend journalism favors the long form, which in turn favors the more nuanced native tongue of liberals. Who has time to read the New York Times during the week? Sunday talk shows invite all sides for, ah-hem, “discussion.”

I can think of only one explanation for purposely distancing this announcement from the weekday news cycle: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Or voodoo.

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