GELFAND’S WORLD-Most everyone understands that Hillary Clinton is going to be elected president a week from Tuesday and will be sworn in on Friday, January 20 of the new year. Even now, Hillary and her staff are getting an earful about what she should do as president. May I offer a bit of advice? Hillary should take note of how Ronald Reagan acted when he was governor of California.
That's right -- when he was governor, back in 1969-70.
Back then, there had been lots of student protests and even a few incidents that led to the police using tear gas and clubs. Student riot was the colloquialism for demonstrations based on political speech and on the escalating war in Viet Nam. At the time, it appeared that California, if not necessarily the whole United States, was entering into a period in which student demonstrations would become more and more a part of society in general. Students closed down college administration buildings and whole campuses. Rebellious groups predicted that their movement would force needed changes not only in universities, but in society as a whole. The Peoples' Park rebellion in Berkeley led to prolonged strife, including violence between police and students.
In response to the violence that had been and was yet to be, Reagan famously remarked, "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with. No more appeasement." Reagan was not willing to acquiesce in what he saw as extortion over either public facilities or public policy. In his mind, you could not just close down a public resource because you had an ideological gripe.
Perhaps you may have recognized a philosophical similarity between 1960s students and today's Republican congress. The students were headstrong, convinced of the rightness of their cause, and unwilling to engage in the kind of back-and-forth that negotiation requires. The students, not being trained troops, could just barely close down a small piece of publicly owned land in Berkeley. But if they could have, they would have closed down the whole United States government. Radical organizers pretty well said as much in public meetings all over the country.
Twice now since the 1990s, we've seen that same attitude in a high place. A small group of people got together and forced the closure of the U.S. government. We call that group the Republican Party. Newt Gingrich was the early pioneer of this tactic in the years 1995-96 of the first Clinton presidency. We saw it again during October of 2013, in the fifth year of Obama's presidency.
In each case, we saw a self-selected and extremely self-righteous group insist on imposing its own ideology on the rest of the country. In the latter case, the congressional Republicans decided that their ideological pursuits outweighed the benefits of maintaining the national government.
"Shut it down" said the student radicals.
"SHUT IT DOWN" said congressional Republicans. Shut it down, indeed.
Looking back to the earlier events, it is obvious that Reagan had an overly circumscribed view of student thought. He was biased and narrow. But he was effective in maintaining some semblance of public order in the governmental setting. He did that by calling his opponents' bluff.
We have had analogous conflicts over the past 20 years when we've had a Democratic president and at least one house of congress held by the Republicans. The Republicans have been willing to threaten shutting down the government, and they have been believable because they have been able to convince the rest of us that they don't care if the government continues or does not. In fact, some of them have been able to convince people that they truly relish the idea of putting federal agencies out of business.
Democrats are philosophically and temperamentally opposed to government shutdowns.
The new president will likely be facing a Republican led House of Representatives which will have nothing better to do than make mischief. We've already been told that congressman Jason Chaffetz intends to spend most of the efforts of his House Oversight Committee on investigating Hillary Clinton. Can attacks on liberal causes and even threats of impeachment be far down the line?
Shutting down the federal government is part of this unwholesome package because it is the way that the Republicans try to enforce their warped ideas. They will complain about deficit spending and find some excuse (like the need to raise the debt ceiling) to make trouble. The threat of a government shutdown will be used in an attempt to extort favors.
A counter-strategy is available, but Hillary and her congressional allies have to be willing to use it. As I've mentioned in these pages before, the most serious weakness of the congressional Democrats is their chronic failure to do payback when they are unfairly attacked. Reagan had his own way of dealing with recalcitrant Democrats. He threatened to go over their heads and take his case directly to the people. In earlier years, Lyndon Johnson could make life difficult for those who opposed him, and Richard Nixon developed the science of sneakiness and dirty tricks to a whole new level.
Hillary Clinton won't have to go nearly as far as her predecessors in order to be toughly effective. All she has to do is withhold money from her opponents' states and districts. She doesn't have to make war on all Republicans, only those who make things personal. That word personal includes unmerited threats of investigations and it means threats to shut down the government. It also means threats to damage Planned Parenthood and other worthy social and medical programs.
Let's think a bit about a threat to shut down the government. The so-called red states are, by and large, the old confederacy and the western plains states running from Oklahoma up through the Dakotas. Interestingly, they get more money from the federal government than they pay in the form of taxes. This makes them different from the blue states, which on the average pay more in federal taxes than they get back from the government. The red states gain a lot of income through military installations, NASA, defense plants, national parks, and national highways.
Hillary's response to the extortionate threat of the Republican coalition should be taken from Governor Reagan: If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with. If there is to be a government shutdown over raising the debt or over healthcare, then let's have it now. Make one thing especially clear: The people who will be hurt most are those whose congressmen are voting for this outrage, because they represent areas that get as much as two dollars back from the federal government for every dollar they pay in federal taxes.
And one more thing. It should be whispered quietly to the red state congressmen that in the event of a shutdown, there will be some federal money that they will never see again. The chair of the senate Budget Committee, Bernie Sanders, will keep his blue pencil active every day that the shutdown continues.
Part of the Democratic threat will include an officially nonpartisan commission on military base movements and closures, to be appointed by the president, whose real function will be to threaten red states with loss of federal income. Nothing brings out the willingness to compromise like the threat of losing local employment.
In other words, the Democrats need to learn to play hardball politics because the Republicans have already made it their lifestyle.
It's as simple as a television crime show. Mess with us? Then we mess with you. You want us to consider your governing philosophy? Then consider ours. We might eventually compromise, but we won't play the extortion game. There can be bargaining, but it has to be in good faith. And every day that the government stays shut down, your state loses ten million dollars off its military and governmental budget. Chairman Sanders will see to that.
After three or four weeks of shutdown, the red state inhabitants who live off of government money -- directly through salaries or indirectly through selling goods and services to federal employees -- will be demanding that their Republican congressmen make a deal. At that point, and not until that point, the Democrats in congress will be able to bargain from a position of strength.
Here's another way to think about this approach. There are now millions of people who are benefitting from the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Right now, the Act needs a little polishing in terms of adequate federal expenditures to maintain discount pricing on policies. But the millions who benefit by the insurance will be hurt by a legislative attack on the Act. Those people are spread all over the country, including in the bluest of the blue states. Their interests have to be protected, so we must create a new principle: Damage to the Affordable Care Act results in greater or equal damage to those states and congressional districts which vote to do that damage.
One more thought, somewhat of a cliche, but still worth thinking about. Hillary should govern in her first term as if she was already in her second term -- that is to say, without concern for winning reelection. The people who vote for her this time around will love her for it, and the people who hate her aren't going to switch to supporting her anyway. She should forget any and all debts or favors she owes to anybody, including Wall Street, her fellow Democrats, and even president Obama. That's what being president is supposed to be about.
We might also remember that when Reagan was governor of California and making his famous bloodbath remark, Hillary was a college student in an atmosphere of antiwar protest. She was also a leader in a generation that created the first inklings of the movement that was called Womens' Liberation. I'm thinking that maybe she can channel some of her 1960s idealism and directed anger towards worthy projects. And if she has to preside over a bloodbath, it will be different from Ronald Reagan's and it will be to a loftier end.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected])