Shoddy Thinking & Fevered Churchillian Visions About Ukraine

[Update Below]

Obama isn’t doing enough to keep people in [Country X] from doing whatever they want to do in their country!

Every bad leader in the world is doing whatever he wants because Obama’s feckless!

If we’re not tough with [Foreign Leader], it will be just like Munich in 1938!

If you can learn to quickly fill in the blanks with current events, those comments will be much of what you’ll need to be a typical foreign policy pundit. And as Michael Cohen laid out a few days ago, you’d be showing you don’t understand the limits of US power, and that you approach foreign policy like it’s a board game. Cohen mentions several ways such rhetoric demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings of foreign policy, but he couldn’t mention them all. He did not, for instance, mention that pundits often fail to imagine multiple and possibly conflicting pressures or goals that could be motivating an actor. And if a pundit cannot imagine multiple causal factors, she probably also cannot understand that various states may prefer the same results, but because costs and benefits are proportional, they typically do not share the same willingness required to bring about the results they prefer.  These pundit failures are on full display in this New York Times piece published the same day as Cohen’s.

One could probably spend days discussing what’s wrong with Ben Judah’s op-ed. But almost everything wrong in the piece follows from what’s wrong with the first three sentences:

Russia and Ukraine are now at war. At least 2,200 people have died in the conflict; thousands more may die yet. The Western powers — America, Europe, NATO — now have no good options, but they cannot do nothing. President Vladimir V. Putin has left us with two dire choices, both fraught with risk: Either we arm Ukraine, or we force Kiev to surrender and let Mr. Putin carve whatever territories he wants into a Russian-occupied zone of “frozen conflict.”

The Western powers cannot do nothing? Of course they can do nothing. In fact, doing nothing militarily–neither giving material to Ukraine nor pressuring it to surrender–may be our best option.

Before arguing in favor of a strategy to respond to Putin’s actions in Ukraine, we should first try to figure out what he’s doing, and why. The crisis of legitimacy in Ukraine began in 2004, when Putin ham-handedly tried to install his puppet Viktor Yanokovych as President. Despite being bankrolled by Putin, Yanokovych’s team had to rig the election to give him a winning margin, leading to the Orange Revolution. Economic problems, poor governance, corruption and dysfunctional factional politics eventually undid the political coalition from the Orange Revolution, and Yanokovych finally did become President. But he so screwed things up that earlier this year he was overthrown, the second time Putin’s proxy failed to achieve Putin’s goals. Putin responded by seizing Crimea, and supporting rebellion in the ethnically Russian southeast part of Ukraine. But his separatist rebels, like Yanokovych before them, were failing: they were in danger of being defeated the Ukrainian military. Yet again, Putin’s Ukrainian proxies were incapable of achieving his objectives.

So Putin has been helping the rebels. But it is not, contrary to some pundits’ fevered blatherings, a 1939-style massive invasion, nor even a brutal suppression like Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968. There are probably only a few thousand Russian soldiers in non-Crimean Ukraine, and Putin even denies any of his forces are in Ukraine. Putin wants something, but there are few indications he wants to do it through a massive military action, which would be required to subdue a huge country of 45 million.

Putin tried to use Yanukovych to keep Ukraine out of NATO and the EU. He’s since tried to force the Ukrainian government to accept a kind of veto by the mostly ethnic Russian areas of the southeast. These aren’t expansionist moves. They’re more akin to imperial actions like the United States’ repeated military interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America. What Putin’s doing is not benign; it’s undoubtedly a bad development. But you can’t identify and assess options if you do not have good theories about what an antagonist is doing, why, and why it requires your response.

Judah’s piece reminded me of the Robert Benchley quip, that there are two classes of people in the world: Those who divide everybody into two classes of people, and those who don’t. Judah’s is a coarse binary approach, with Putin vs a monolithic Western powers, with their options being force the Ukrainians to surrender (which we would impose on the Ukrainians how? And to whom are they surrendering?), or we commit to a military confrontation (with the possibility of NATO troops in Kiev, Which. Is. A. Crazy. Idea.).

This gets us to the problem of costs, benefits and proportionality. The US, Europe and NATO share many of the same interests, but not not every interest is shared by all of us, and the effects of Russian actions or a war in Ukraine are different. Unlike many European countries, the US does not rely on Russian oil, and our banking system is not stuffed with Russian petrodollars. Exports to Russia are a very small part of our economy. We don’t share a border with Russia. Our government and political system isn’t endangered by democracy, transparency and the growth of civil society on our borders. We do not have to worry that Putin will aggressively assert that Russian forces must protect the Russians of Brighton Beach.

The US does share many interests and priorities with the EU and NATO countries. But the costs and tradeoffs are not the same. Choking off Russian oil sales would have a different effect in the US, where we don’t purchase much Russian oil, than in European countries that rely on Russian oil. On the other hand, tensions with Russia didn’t complicate Romania’s efforts to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, since unlike the US, Romania wasn’t the main player in that operation.  The costs to the western nations of putting economic and diplomatic pressure on Russia are not proportionally the same. And of course, flouting international standards like Putin has in Ukraine warrants a response, but that response should be proportional to the offense, and to the threat of further violations and dangers. Overreacting would be a grave mistake.

Thinking Putin has “left us” with only two choices is silly. Such thinking is amenable Churchillian bombast, but it’s usually just unimaginatively dumb. The world is complicated and contingent. There are many combinations of responses we can have to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. Distilling everything down to binaries and wiping out ambiguity may be a great way for an ambitious young writer to pose as a Very Serious Person, which in turn can get you a moment on the New York Times opinion pages. But the declarations that follow are awful advice for the conduct of foreign policy.

[Update 4:00 CDT]

 Whaddya know, as this piece was being finished, Putin announced terms for a cease fire in Eastern Ukraine. It may be a dubious offer–after all, what power does he have, if we take him at his word that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, right?–but it’s strong evidence that while he’s not a force for good right now, he’s also probably doesn’t have any intentions of marching to Warsaw by way of Tallinn. [Note, btw, that in that article a rebel dismisses the cease fire talk, which is consistent with the idea that Putin has unreliable proxies. He’s probably has only loose control over the rebels, who are likely a melange of nationalists, miscreants and criminal mobsters.]

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Democrat Helps GOP Prepare Its Halbig Circular Firing Squad

A Halbig victory, according to Brian Beutler, could actually hurt and divide Republicans :

The Republicans who opted out of the Medicaid expansion had Obamacare’s implementation timeline on their side. At the time of the ruling in 2012, zero people in the country were eligible for expanded Medicaid, because the Medicaid expansion wasn’t effective until January 1, 2014. Republican governors could opt out without making anyone’s lives worse. Or rather, they could make people’s lives worse without taking anything away from them.

That won’t be the case if the Court invalidates Obamacare subsidies in states. People will lose their health plans, and will expect their state and Congressional representatives to reinstate them.

To illustrate his point, he describes what happened in Arkansas, where the governor was able to implement the ACA but the legislature had to authorize accepting the federal funds. Thousands of Arkansans were already receiving benefits, and numerous Republicans were reluctant to take away what were by then existing benefits, so they voted to pass the authorization.

Brian probably didn’t realize that yesterday his prediction was already being confirmed, albeit in a slightly different scenario. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette signed on to the Halbig case. Michigan never instituted its own exchange, but enough Michigan Republicans sided with the state’s Republican governor Rick Snyder and voted to expand Medicaid. As reported by the Michigan political newsletter MIRS (subscription only, excerpt here), Republican legislators at a health care conference were not at all happy with Schuette:

When pressed by the moderator on what he would have advised Schuette had the GOP Attorney General called for advice on wading into the Halbig v Burwell case, Rep. Al Pscholka (R-Stevensville) responded: “Back off.”

“I think I understand the reasons why he did. Maybe at the time I might have. [But] this is an issue that a lot of us spent a lot of time digging into.”

Rep. Mike Callton (R-Nashville) also took exception to the AG’s involvement in the case.

“The Affordable Care Act is here, I don’t understand the logic of actually taking the benefit of it away,” he explained.


Sen. Jim Marleau (R-Lake Orion) argued that none of the panelists voted for Obamacare in Washington D.C. – but now that it is law, what state legislators need to do is “protect our citizens. “That’s why I believe if we had our exchange we could have done that easier.”

Beutler didn’t discuss was the Democratic response to “Democrats Republicans Divided! (Halbig Edition).” The situation in Michigan suggests that it may be an effort to exploit those Republican divisions. That’s what Mark Totten, Michigan’s Democratic candidate for AG, did with an aggressive op-ed in today’s Detroit News:

A federal court accepted Attorney General Bill Schuette’s argument that hundreds of thousands of Michigan families are ineligible for federal tax credits to purchase health insurance. If the ruling stands, Bill Schuette will have denied working Michigan families tax credits averaging $4,700…Think about that. Michigan’s Attorney General chose to champion a lawsuit to take almost two months’ worth of paychecks from a half million Michigan families.

In 2010, attacking Obamacare helped the GOP win the House. In 2012 Barack Obama didn’t run from Obamacare, but it wasn’t the lynchpin of his campaign. But if Beutler is right about Republican divisions, and Totten’s populist response is the first of many such reactions, 2014 could be marked by a vigorous Obamacare counterattack.


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It’s Senate Democrats, Not Reid, Who’ve Become More Combative

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Over the last few years liberals and progressives who had been critical of him have warmed to Harry Reid. Throughout Reid’s tenure as head of the Senate Democrats–first as Minority Leader, and the last seven years as Majority Leader–a sizable swath of highly engaged progressives and partisan Democrats have been frustrated by the Senate Democrats’ frequent failures at overcoming Republican obstruction.  Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, a lot of people saw Harry Reid as someone afraid to fight.

After deciding he was a wimp unwilling to stand up to Republicans, many of Reid’s critics are now heartened by the “new” Harry Reid, the guy who said Mitt Romney didn’t pay any federal income tax, who calls nutjobs nutjobs, who just doesn’t seem to give a rip if his statements about Republicans come off as intemperate, and most impressively, the guy who was essentially the Democrats’ field general in last year’s government shutdown, and who prevailed upon the President to Not. Back. Down.

I doubt this is a new Harry Reid.

It’s possible Reid feels free to let his fighter flag fly because he knows nobody can touch him. He may not run for reelection in 2016, but even if he does, with the strong Democratic trend in Nevada, he probably (and rightly) figures that if he could survive in 2010, that should he choose to run again he should win comfortably.

More likely, though, is Harry Reid seems newly combative because his new caucus is more combative. Most of the institutional/process conservatives–people like Robert Byrd and Carl Levin, who despite their overall politics, generally opposed institutional change–are already or soon to be gone. Most of the conservative Southern Democrats had retired or been defeated by the time Reid took over in 2005. The Southern Democrats since have mostly been quiet nationally, and not the types who regularly speak ill of their party. There were, of course, several Democratic Senators from outside the South who could be counted on to criticize Democrats and often sell them out, but the worst of the bunch–Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, Kent Conrad, Russ Feingold, Ben Nelson–are gone, and the current members from conservative states (Mark Begich, Kay Hagen, etc) don’t try to protect themselves at home by badmouthing their party to the national press.

Reid also doesn’t have to contend with the big personalities and Senate institutions who were in the caucus when he took over. Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd and Daniel Inouye passed away. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton and eventually John Kerry went to the executive branch with Barack Obama. And the big names who came in to the Senate in recent years–Obama, Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren–were new to Congress, and have only known one leader, Reid, so they were less likely to expect or insist on prerogatives they had under Tom Daschle or George Mitchell.

Finally, many of the newer members, like Jeff Merkley, Sheldon Whitehouse, Chris Murphy, and both Senators Udall–are committed to significant procedural and institutional change, most notably with regards to the filibuster and cloture. And unlike as recently as a few years ago, when Joe Biden could claim that we couldn’t come up with any solutions to national problems unless we had a consensus, almost every one of the newer Senators realizes consensus and bipartisanship are, because of the current state of the GOP, impediments to progress and a surrender to reactionaries.

Harry Reid may be more inherently combative, more likely than he was nine years ago to say something that the tut-tutters of elite centrism will find too blunt and coarse. But his new tone isn’t likely a reflection of personal change, as much as a result of personnel change in his caucus. He’s now reflecting the mainstream of his caucus, if not in tone, at least in their understanding of conflict between the parties. It’s taken two decades, but most DC Democrats now have fully internalized that until the GOP changes there is no meaningful compromise with them. And that may be one of the best things to happen in American politics in a long, long time.

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Politics and Personality Threatened Cantor, A Profligate Campaign Doomed Him

No one reason can explain the humiliating primary defeat of House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor. It was probably a mix of numerous factors: immigration, the tea party revolt reaching the guillotine stage, the possibility that he’s just not a very likable guy, and a general anti-incumbent mood in Republican primaries. These are all serious problems, but a strong campaign may have helped save him. But a look at Cantor’s Federal Election Commission filings show why his campaign couldn’t bail him out: he spent most of his time traveling the country spending as much money as he raised, and he spent a tiny fraction of his $5 million campaign fund actually communicating with voters.

Cantor started the 2014 campaign cycle with over a million dollars in his account. [He has other funds–leadership funds–in to which he raises money that can be given to fellow Republicans, but that can’t be used on his own election campaigns.] In 2013 he raised a little over $3.3 million for his campaign fund. However, he spent just under $3.3 million. So a year’s worth of prodigious fundraising left him at roughly the same place he was at the start of the year. How did he manage that? Easy: he spent almost as much raising money as he raised.

Cantor’s 2014 filings aren’t fully updated in an easily perused format. But looking just at 2013 reveals some dubious financial management. His campaign spent $1,500 at Dunkin Donuts. $3,000 at DC-area pizza chain Pizza Boli. $10,000 with a North Carolina vendor on gifts. $13,000 at Corner Bakery. $20,000 at the Marriot Marquis in New York City. $110,000 at DC steakhouse Bobby Van’s. Over $200,000 on finance consulting with a firm called Red River Co. But not a penny was spent on voter contact.

In 2013 Cantor spent roughly twice as much at Bobby Van’s as he did on polling.

Cantor’s 2014 finance reports aren’t much better. He spent about $400,000 airing television ads, but that’s probably less than he spent on airfare. He appears to have done no significant direct mail or digital advertising. There are few disbursements that look like field-related expenses. He paid for no opposition research. And his staff costs appear only marginally higher than they were in 2013, which suggests he never really ramped up for the election, but instead maintained his focus on traveling the country on behalf of other Republicans, and while on the road raising enough money to pay for his expenses (which include few nights in modest lodging but plenty of nights at some of the most expensive hotels in the country).

The most an individual donor can give a candidate for federal office is $2,400 per election. However, primaries and generals are counted as separate elections, and many donors contribute more than $2,400. Cantor could take up to $4,800 from a single donor, but he couldn’t spend more than $2,400 of a donor’s total contribution for primary expenses; the rest had to sit in his account unused until after the primary. So some of the money he was carrying in his fund was useless to him in a primary. If he ever realized that he had a tough primary he probably also realized he had burned through most of his primary funds and had little money left to spend on a primary campaign.

Cantor spent money as if the only election that mattered was the House Republican Conference leadership votes. But in spending his time and money on that election, he made himself vulnerable to humiliation at home.

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It May Take a Southern Union To Unionize The South

As Erik Loomis says, this is depressing. The United Auto Workers, off the Volkswagen loss in Chattanooga, appear to be suspending their effort to organize Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama. Erik’s explains the UAW’s strategy, and he’s right the UAW doesn’t have good options. They probably can’t win an election, even if they did everything perfectly. Without changes to federal labor law–in particular, some kind of repeal or route around the restrictions imposed on unions in the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act–it will remain difficult to organize private-sector workers.

Even though it’s hard to organize private-sector workers, organized labor continues to have modest success in the Northeast, most of the Midwest, and along the Pacific Coast (Hawaii and Alaska are two of the three most heavily unionized states). And unionization isn’t only in states that never passed so-called “right to work” legislation, where winning union elections and maintaining a healthy union are harder. Several right-to-work states–such as Nevada and Iowa–have unionization rates much higher than Southern states. Because of factors such as the stability of the workforce and size of the workplaces, manufacturing is one of the easier sectors in which to organize workers, and over the last several decades the South has increased its national share of manufacturing facilities and workers. Manufacturing’s shift to the South is a reason the recent discussions have been about organizing efforts in the South; to paraphrase bank robber Willie Sutton, manufacturing unions are trying to organize in the South because more and more that’s where the manufacturing workers are.

Nevertheless, even before the Taft-Hartley amendments–which included the option for states to go “right to work”–it was still harder to organize in the South. The reasons for that have to do with the history, the social and economic power structures of the South, the racial dynamics and factors too numerous to discuss here. But many boil down to “the South defines itself in opposition to the North.”

If we accept that it is different, it may take a different approach to improve labor’s fortunes in the South. It may require a “Southern labor movement.”

150 years after the end of the Civil War, white Southern identity is still somewhat rooted in opposition to full social and cultural integration with the rest of the country. Instead of fulminating about Northern abolitionists, bankers, and railroads, today many white Southerners fulminate against Washington DC, Hollywood, and…France, I guess. And Muslims. At the heart of much of white Southern identification is a sense of historical rootedness in the South and the related defiant belief that they are different from and not inferior to the urbanites and suburbanites in the North and coastal West.

A labor union based in that most black of major northern cities–which (unfairly and simplistically) is seen as an example of everything that’s wrong with almost everything about non-white majority Northern cities–that union may not stand a chance of gaining the trust and allegiance of any group of mostly male, mostly white Southerners, much less a group of auto workers making wages that are pretty good for the South, and who are told that unionizing could force their employer to pick up and move that production and those jobs to Mexico or China.

It’s not an easily tested empirical hypothesis, but a Southern labor movement could be more effective representation of Southern workers. Imagine major unions based in places like Birmingham, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas.  Think about how they might be seen–and whether they would be more trusted–by Southerners if those unions organized workers only in the South. And speculate how white Southern workers might react to a union that’s largely free–real or wrongly attributed–of association with black members, black leaders and black influence.

A Southern labor movement would probably be wrong for the country, because it would help perpetuate rather than challenge America’s two-tiered labor market. It also probably wouldn’t be a strong challenge to the vestiges of white dominance of the South. So a Southern labor movement is not the right answer. But that it may nevertheless be the least bad answer shows the difficulty–in the absence of major changes to federal labor law–of unionizing the South.

And “unionizing” is, in this case, a double entendre.

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Republicans Resist Reality That Sometimes Reality Can’t Be Resisted

When analysis like this is actually better than what comes from most Republican consultants, it’s dispiriting to think that Democrats do not win nearly every election:

Many Republican strategists now see this as a parallel dynamic similar to what the Iraq War issue did in 2006 to President Bush’s job approval, costing the Republicans their Senate and House majorities. That year, Democrats for the House got 54 percent of the national vote. Here’s what the 2006 national media post-election survey showed:

 42 percent approved of the Iraq War and 56 percent disapproved.
 If you disapproved of the war in Iraq, you voted for Democrats for Congress 80–18.
 If you disapproved of the job President Bush was doing, you voted for Democrats for Congress 82–16.

The Democrats’ 2006 strategy was simple: Drive up the disapproval of the Iraq War, which drove up President Bush’s disapproval, which drove up the vote for Democrats for Congress. [Emphasis added]

The authors go on to argue that the situation isn’t quite parallel, and that Republicans can’t count on opposition to Obamacare to be the GOP’s silver bullet. That much is true, since approval/disapproval of the ACA has been fairly static, and three times as many people want to keep the ACA as want to repeal it and go back to the way things were. But the authors have a bizarre view of the relationship between rhetoric and reality, and what influences people’s votes.

In 2006 Democrats didn’t win big because they drove up disapproval of the Iraq War. They won big because they blamed Republicans for supporting what by then was an obviously failed war. Gallup polls during and immediately after the invasion showed a 50 point margin for belief that it was not a mistake to go to war against Iraq. Once US soldiers began taking significant casualties in the fall of 2003 that margin plunged 30 points, to roughly +20 in favor of going to war. By late 2004 the margin was down to roughly +5. And by the run up to the 2006 election support for the decision to go to war plummeted to -15. From 2003, disapproval of going to war had doubled, from 27% disapproving the decision to 55% thinking the war had been a mistake.

What explains that massive shift from overwhelming support to solid opposition? The McLaughlins appear to think it was something the Democrats did. That does not hold up, for two reasons. First, full-throated Democratic opposition to the war didn’t lead public opinion beyond the Democratic base, it followed it. Presidential candidate John Kerry danced around Iraq in 2004, and in 2004 few Democrats in competitive races had opposed the war, or if they had, their messaging on Iraq was defensive, rather than an attack on their opponent for supporting Bush’s war. Even in early 2006, most highly-touted Democratic Congressional candidates challenging pro-war Republicans were timid in their criticism of the Iraq war.

What changed public opinion about the war was not what Democrats said about it, it was the war itself. Most who supported the war bought the story pitched by Bush and the neocons, that it would be a quick war, and then Arab democracy would flourish across the Middle East. But US casualties never came down:

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And it was not just US casualties that soured Americans on the Iraq debacle, it was that things in Iraq looked in some ways even worse than before the invasion. What got to voters were the daily reports of rampant killing in Central Iraq, in particular the “religious cleansing” of Baghdad, which hit a peak right before the 2006 election:

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Claiming what drove up Bush’s negatives was Democrats driving up disapproval of the war is dumb, and it’s also insulting to American voters. Voters are often ill-informed, and can often succumb to clever campaigns of deception, like the Iraq WMD story. But after a while, if they’re confronted with a reality that is hard to deny, most voters will incorporate that reality in to their beliefs and–sometimes–their voting behavior. In 2006 a lot of Americans saw that large numbers of US soldiers were still being maimed and killed in Iraq, and that things in Iraq had gotten horribly worse. Only a third of independents believed the US would succeed in Iraq. Those voters realized that the Iraq war had been a disaster, so they voted against the Republicans. Democrats didn’t win big in 2006 because of turnout–Democrats were 38% of the electorate, Republicans 36%–but because of an 18 point advantage among independents. [Incidentally, in 2010 Republicans won independents by 19 points.]

Iraq didn’t hurt Bush because Democrats succeeded at convincing voters of their illusions at the expense of Republican illusions. No, Iraq hurt Bush and his fellow Republicans because Iraq fell apart, and with it the rationale for the invasion and occupation. It was obviously a failure. To think it was spin over reality appears to be a problem rampant not only among the GOP primary electorate, but a good many of its consultants and strategists as well.


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Congress: Worked With FDR to Address a Catastrophe, Working Against Obama to Create One

From Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 State of the Union address:

In the many methods of attack with which we met these problems, you and I, by mutual understanding and by determination to cooperate, helped to make democracy succeed by refusing to permit unnecessary disagreement to arise between two of our branches of government. That spirit of cooperation was able to solve difficulties of extraordinary magnitude and ramification with few important errors, and at a cost cheap when measured by immediate necessities and the eventual results.

FDR’s fruitful partnership with Congress ended not long after that speech, as the expansion of the modern welfare state began to bump against the white supremacist foundations of political and social power in the South. But even after acknowledging that  fundamental legislation like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act excluded most African Americans from their protections in order to get the support from Southern Congressmen they needed for passage, it is undeniable that from 1933 to 1937 Congress and the President effectively cooperated to address the devastation of the Depression without succumbing to the anti-Democratic forces sweeping the globe.

The last five years have been possibly the toughest we’ve faced since World War II and the Depression. But the challenges for government could have been much more easily managed than what faced FDR and those Congresses. But our politics have failed, largely because the Republican party has failed our democracy.

Congress cooperated with FDR to recover from a catastrophe. Our current Congress–specifically, the House Republicans–are so deranged that rather than cooperate with Obama, they are determined to create a catastrophe.

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