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The Keystone Pipeline and Tea Party Politics

President Barack Obama vetoed the bill for the Keystone Pipeline. It will go back to congress where it will fail to reach the necessary 66 votes in the Senate. But it’s not the legislative failure that matters but the political one. As the dominoes fell Democrats got everything they wanted out of the situation handed to them. The dominoes were lined up long before and Republicans tipped the first one anyway. Essentially, if this was a boxing match, Democrats just held their arm out and the Tea Party pushed Republicans face-first into it. This is only the latest in a series of both legislative and political mistakes made by the Republican Party since the elections last November, but let’s look at this one up close and let’s consider what it reveals about the Future of American politics. Spoiler: nothing definitive.

  • The Pipeline to Nowhere

To best consider this multilevel chess match let’s toggle between the two levels. The Keystone Pipeline’s path was both legislative and political.

  • The Legislation 1

Consider the Keystone Pipeline. The series of events involving the Keystone Pipeline were predictable. They were more than predictable, they were inevitable. There was never an if and there was never a but. There was never another way this could go.

  • The Politics 1

This is not at all the first time legislation has been proposed that would inevitably fail. It happens for two reasons. First, so a party can tell their base that they’re trying, fighting the good fight. But there are literally thousands of potential dead end bills that can fill that purpose. The second component, parts A and B, determines which of these wastes of time and money actually get to pretend to have a chance at becoming law. Part A, so the proposing party can force members of the opposing party to make an uncomfortable vote, which ideally causes them to go on record supporting or opposing something their constituents disagree with them on. Part B is exposing an intraparty disagreement and causing division within the opposition. Of course there is the tiny chance that if you toss the bill into that chaos it might actually become law.

Republicans seemingly succeeded in appeasing their base. However, their base is so impatient and so unwilling to compromise that this appeasing is hardly a success even politically. They’ve demonstrated this many times with primarying long serving and capable members of congress. Radical, actual, all-encompassing, and immediate change is the only thing they’re willing to accept and in American democracy that just rarely ever happens.

There is a cost to doing the first part without the second part. Posturing without success makes you look ineffectual to your base, your opposition, and all in between. It makes those in between think you’re focused on you’re more focused on your base than the middle too. That is why the second part is necessary. It shifts the costs onto your opposition. It’s sacrificing a pawn to take a bishop. If the second part does not occur the costs remain with the proposing party.

  • The Legislation 2

The bill regarding the keystone pipeline only ever had one possible path from the very beginning. That path was to 1.) Be proposed 2.) Approved by the House with some Democrats 3.) Approved by the Senate with some Democrats 4.) Vetoed by the President 5.) Failing to reach 66 votes in the Senate despite some Democratic votes and therefore failing to become law.

  • The Politics 2

There is a reason Democrats get hit harder politically for infidelity. Bill Clinton got impeached for cheating on his wife while Newt Gingrich ran a competitive presidential campaign after he had cheated on his. Eliot Spitzer and David Vitter cheated on their spouses through the exact same “business” and though Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace David Vitter was reelected. It’s the same reason that Democrats get leeway if they say something racially insensitive while Republicans do not. Several Democrats had awkwardly complemented Barack Obama on being articulate and clean or even the first African American candidate to have such qualities, while Trent Lott had to resign for complementing a barely conscious Strom Thurmond (though the mess with Steve Scalise might suggest times are changing). The reason is that each party has certain negative stereotypes about it and playing into those stereotypes is more negative than going against positive stereotypes.

This is simply a function of the human brain. It’s a matter of psychology. We form heuristics, simplifications that help us understand the world. Assumptions that keep us from painstakingly analyzing everything we encounter. When something contradicts those stereotypes we easily forget it and we much more easily retain information that conforms to those stereotypes. It’s the same reason certain perceptions about race, gender, age, or religion persist despite having no statistical evidence for them. It does not only apply to controversial subjects. Some people are considered lucky or unlucky for example. There is really no such thing as luck obviously. Yet we think certain people are lucky or unlucky. We all know someone who wonders why it is always them who this or that thing happens to for example. They think this because they ignore or dismiss all the bad things that happen to others and good things that happen to them while remembering all of their bad and all others’ goods. We apply it to relations, friends, coworkers, tools, services, tasks, modes of transportation, locations, and everything else, including political ideologies.

The risk for Democrats in the Keystone game is that they be seen as ‘tree hugging’ or as putting environmental concerns ahead of energy security or jobs (although it’s not clear the keystone pipeline would provide either). The risk for Republicans in this Tea Party era is that they’ll be seen as incompetent, a lot of shouting and chest beating but ultimately the result is nothing but wasted time and wrenches in the gears that benefit no one, just children throwing a fit and being embarrassing but not even getting the candy bar at the checkout counter that prompted the theatrics. Sound and fury signifying nothing.

This risk reaches not just the swayable voter but potentially the base as well. The Democratic base always has a chance of losing faith and the Republican base always has a chance of lashing out. As the saying goes, Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line, but Democrats can fall out of love and Republicans can line up against Republicans.

  • The Legislation Part 3

Obviously, any party would like to hold all seats and all chambers. In lieu of that however the current makeup of the executive and legislative branches truly minimizes the ability of Republicans to do anything with their power, both legislatively and politically. This is the case for two reasons. First, the president can veto laws and prior to the Keystone bill he spent nearly 0 of his political veto capital, having vetoed all of two bills. Second, the President will not be running for office again and can therefore freely absorb any consequences.

This series of events allows Democratic congressmen, for example Joe Manchin of fossil fuel loving West Virginia, to be able to vote for the Keystone bill without any danger of it becoming law. It allows congressmen from more liberal areas or conservationist areas to even filibuster. As long as the number of Senators voting yes is below 66, then all Democrats in both chambers can vote exactly how their constituents want and still end up with the law as the average of the party prefers it to be. There is no need for infighting and no need to make votes you would rather not make.

  • The Politics 3

Therefore, in the two part reason for proposing dead end legislation Democrats are immune to risk from the second part. There is no risk of making an uncomfortable vote because the President shields them from that necessity. There is no risk of infighting because everyone can do what they want without consequence.

Furthermore, when it comes to playing into stereotypes, Democrats now have no risk of falling into those in any place of consequence. Joe Manchin never has to explain to the West Virginia coal miner why the West Virginia coal miner should vote for him despite the energy vote because he’s great on labor, he can say vote for me because I do both.

Meanwhile, a Republican base ever-frustrated with the inability of Republicans in congress to meet their impossible demands again have a failed effort on their hands. The swayable voters who sat through shutdowns and dozens of nowhere bills to repeal Obamacare, have yet another grand display of pointlessness to observe. This defeat, these consequences, are not terribly consequential on their own. The Keystone pipeline would never, even in the best circumstances, impact very many people. A very small, nearly insignificant amount of people, on either side would rank it as very high on their list of important issues (further minimizing the risk of Democratic infighting). But a small defeat is still a defeat, and large defeats are merely the sum of small defeats. Though losing a pawn is not terribly consequential, having nothing to show for it still makes it a foolish move. Not a deal breaker, not even a game changer, but it still lowers you chances of ultimately winning the game.

Yet if there was never a chance of this going any other way, then why do it? If there was never a chance of getting that bishop, or even another pawn, for your pawn, then why lose your pawn? The reason is a strain of irrationalism the Tea Party has injected into Republicans. The Tea Party demands now. They value feeling righteous and aggressive over tangible victories, and in fact believe that tangible victory comes from feeling righteous and aggressive, now and loudly. In this chess match analogy, Democrats are one color and Republicans another. But standing behind Republicans is their child, the Tea Party, screaming that they want to go home and watch Bubble Guppies and demanding not that Republicans win, but win now. This forces Republicans to make irrational moves to placate the Tea Party in the short term but decrease their chance of winning long term. They must put up with it because they chose to adopt this child. They were taken by his brashness and attitude but once they brought him home realized they now have to deal with his brashness and attitude. Like the parent who gives in too much to avoid a scene or a headache, they are creating a more long term issue that they, or America, will have to address at some point. More on that later.

  • The Legislation Part 4

This is not the first instance of Republicans making political mistakes legislatively since taking both chambers. This is not the last either.

The first instance occurred before they even took office, during the lame duck session last winter. Senator Ted Cruz insisted on having a vote on a meaningless resolution condemning the executive order on immigration. This was a mistake for a number of reasons. First, resolutions are inherently nothing but politics and the election was over. Second, because even in the best case scenario, you’ve passed a bill that has no force of law. Third, and mostly, because it forced congress to remain in session where Harry Reid pushed through dozens of judicial and executive branch appointees while the Senate was still majority Democrat. If these nominees did not get through then, they would not have gotten through at all. So dozens of appointees were approved that would not have been for the sake of a bill that in the best possible case means nothing politically or legislatively.

Next up is the DHS shutdown. Again, Republicans suffered greatly on the political front during the last shutdown. Ironically they oppose pork, earmarks, and riders that have nothing to do with a bill but they shut down the government essentially for the sake of pork, earmarks, and riders that had nothing to do with the legislation. As much as they liked to say that if they killed a hostage it was the hostage negotiator’s fault for not giving in to their demands, the American public, the swayable voter, does not buy it. That shut down caused Republicans to suffer more politically than anything they’ve done in the post-Bush era. Following the shutdown, Gallup had them polling at the lowest point that any major party had polled at in the history of their polling. So again, you want to avoid stereotypes and Republicans already have that hanging over their heads and less than 2 months on the job and they’re already considering shutting down the Department of Homeland Security in order to send a few thousand child refugees back to where they came from. Some might say they’re putting lives at risk in order to put lives at risk. And if you took the important issues poll, many more American would value homeland security over deporting a fairly tiny number of children.

The Netanyahu debacle also falls into this category. They’re risking an important ally for essentially no reason. They say it’s regarding Iran sanctions, but Iran already dropped its nuclear program so to punish them further would be counterproductive. Furthermore, regardless of the logic, there is 0 chance of it passing. Lots of risk and no possible reward, yet again.

Unforced error after unforced error. But what does it all mean Basil? …

  • The Country to Where?

So there are two ways this could go, and the second again comes in two parts. Bonus though, the second part of the second way comes in two parts. Double bonus! The second part of the second part of the second way also comes in two parts. So where might we go from here?

  • Scenario 1 a and b: The Disco Backlash, Michael Jackson, and Rod Stewart.

First, the American public gets tired of this circus and votes Republicans out of office. If we were to look at the 20th century, that would seem like the logical guess. This however is a different time. Gerrymandering is more extreme than it’s ever been and there are  few House members in competitive districts. Democrats won the majority of the House votes in 2012 with 53% but due to gerrymandering gained less than 10 seats.

Also, some long standing rules of politics are now questionable. Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said that all politics was local. But is it still? Increasingly people’s votes are easier to predict based on what cable news channel they watch rather than what is actually occurring in their lives. Until recently, it seemed the better the economy did the worse Barack Obama’s polling got.

Take Sam Brownback, Governor of Kansas, for example. There is nothing about his tenure as governor that would suggest he should get reelected. He slashed the budget an extreme amount. He cut so much from education the Kansas Supreme Court questioned whether the state could still provide the constitutionally mandated public education. All the while, the state’s debt soared. The recovery has largely passed Kansas by as they continue to stagnate. There is really no objective case to be made for Sam Brownback’s reelection. While the rest of the country crawled out of recession, to a walk, to a brisk jog, Kansas still wallows in financial chaos on the public and private level.

Take Steve Scalise as well. As I previously mentioned, Trent Lott had to resign for complimenting a crazy old man, albeit a very racist crazy old man. While just a few years later Steve Scalise was found to have given a speech to a white supremacist group and no high profile Republican has come out against it, let alone called on him to resign. Steve Scalise is not just any Tea Partier, he’s the House Whip. Despite playing sharply into the stereotype regarding Republicans and race, there really does not seem to be any consequences when just a few years ago there was much more consequence for much less.

I don’t mean to sound like a pessimist. Scenario 1 is entirely possible. There are multiple signs that it’s even likely. If the Tea Party became a liability then Republicans would find a way to cast them aside or at least keep them in the corner in order to remain electorally viable. That’s one of the great things about democracy, you can dip your toes in the water, experiment a bit. If you don’t like it you can always just stop. It’s still useful to consider the other possibilities however.

I suppose scenario 1b would be Republicans going the way of the Whigs and the Know Nothings and disappearing from history. They would not transcend disco like Michael Jackson and pole vault over the backlash into a new era but die with it like Rod Stewart. You would have to think the second oldest party in American history would be able to avoid annihilating themselves. They did survive the 40s, 50s, and 60s after all a very difficult time for Republicans.

  • Scenario 2a: The Parents Come Home

So if the American public does not address this then it will be addressed within the Republican Party itself. The first way is that the grownups take control. As much as some Democrats don’t care for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, as far right as they may be, they’re not insane and they’re not dumb. Whether it’s the last shutdown or the next shutdown, it’s these two and handful of other Republicans who take a risk politically in order to save this country from being sacrificed on the altar of political posturing.

I mentioned primarying earlier. The last election had little to no successful primarying. The ‘establishment’ Republicans beat back the Tea Partiers in nearly every matchup they had. The divide is still there. Many Republicans risk being called a ‘RINO’ yet are so far right compared to any other time in the last century,but they behave responsibly. You have to wonder if that logic implies being irresponsible is really the Republican platform in the Tea Party era. The primary season of the last election should give America hope. However, there’s still the possibility…

  • Scenario 2b1: This, Now, Here

This scenario is the scenario we’re in. The 3rd best option some might say. The Tea Party mostly controls the Republican Party. Gerrymandering keeps Tea Partiers in power in the House. The Senate sways back and forth every few years. Democrats run the White House. The Tea Party throws a bunch of wrenches while the grownups stop them from throwing the biggest wrenches into the most important things. This scenario is not desirable, and would not even be bad as far as partisan composition of the elected branches if not for the Tea Party. But there is the Tea Party, so it’s not good, but not as bad as the next scenario.

  • Scenario 2b2a: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here

Though the establishment, the adults, the Republicans, whatever you want to call them did get their footing and hold their ground in the last election that doesn’t mean the tide is turning. The buffer of responsible Republicans grows thin and porous. If it does not heal, and disintegrates, and someone like Ted Cruz becomes Senate Majority Leader the results would be completely unpredictable. He’s clearly shown a willingness to do harm to the country and even Republicans as a matter of principle while clearing his conscience because it’s someone else’s fault for not giving in. Ted Cruz is not popular among his colleagues, even many Tea Party ones, but someone like Ted Cruz ascending to the Speaker’s chair or to lead the Senate would have consequences.

This is a democracy. In a democracy you must be able to accept getting some of what you want. You will never, ever get all of what you want because you are not the only one living in this country. That is a fundamental truth of democracy. If you cannot accept some, then you will end up with none in reaching for all. There will always be varying interests, and you will always require at least 50% of those interests to align in order to get something done, 60% in these filibuster happy times the Tea Party ushered in, and 66% if a veto is in play. To reach 50% you must meet halfway on most things. If you are 10%, 25%, 33% or even 49%, increasingly even 59% then you must reach out and get a partner. To get those partners you must give to those partners. So at the end you may end up with 60% of interests on your side and in compromising to get there you might get 50% of what you want, but not doing so leaves everyone with 0% of what they want. 50% > 0%.

The Tea Party demands 100%. It is not possible. Therefore no one gets anything. The Constitution does not set up a government that can handle such irrational behavior. The shutdowns, the backlog of nominees, the failing of bills the large majority of Americans support are all symptoms of this. These are things that should not be, yet are, because the Tea Party refuses to come to terms with democracy.

As bad as this is, it is not the worst case scenario. The worst case is the dreaded…

  • Scenario 2b2b: Tea Party Planet

Have you ever seen a calm person snap? Just totally lose their cool? Have you ever seen someone having a bad day just reach a breaking point and transform into Mr. Hyde? That is what happens in 2b2b. 2b2b is not the occasional third wheel of R2D2 and C3PO. This is far worse. This is the worst possible scenario. This is Tea Party Planet. Like a zombie contagion, everyone who is bit by a Tea Partier turns into a Tea Partier.

There have been online rumblings for a few years now from some liberal publications wondering what if Democrats acted like the Tea Party. Sometimes a writer will outright advocate for a Democratic Tea Party. The argument is typically fighting fire with fire. It usually also contains several Tea Party style complaints of elected leaders not being obnoxious enough in their pursuit of liberal causes or accusing Democrats of caving or of meeting other interests halfway. If Democrats were to behave like the Tea Party while Republicans behaved like the Tea Party the consequences would be great for America.

Recall the toddler crying on the floor by the checkout counter analogy I used earlier. Scenario 2b2b is the equivalent of the parent reacting to the fit by also throwing a fit to get the kid to stop. The person in line behind them can’t get to the checkout so he starts screaming and rolling around on the floor to get the line moving. The cashier is confused so they start pounding the register and threatening to destroy the machine. The security guard has to wake from his nap so he starts screaming and crying. The manager wants the chaos to stop so he walks around screaming in the faces of his employees and customers that they’re communists. The customers just want to get their food and bail, so they all toss themselves into the nearest item display and scream freedom and liberty into the open air.

This could be America if the Tea Party takes over Republicans and if the Democrats react by behaving the same way. Scenario 2b21 could inevitably lead to 2b2b because if the Tea Party takes over the Republican Party then Democrats alone will have to be the adults. Their choice would be either to do as they’ve done and refuse to indulge, or to buy the candy bar for the kid in order to move on, which they’ve also done. Too much of the candy bar buying could convince the Democratic base that throwing fits is the way to go. That’s when 2b2b engages and that is the worst possible outcome.

  • Conclusion

Grab your popcorn folks because the next few years in American politics are going to determine the next few decades in American politics. The stakes are high. It will be a lot like those spinning rides at the carnival: exciting and nauseating. Let’s hope we make it out of the ride without covering ourselves in a Jackson Pollock painting made of vomit. On second thought, hold off on that popcorn.

by Zack Goncz

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