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      Colin Powell was the first black secretary of state. He was the consummate insider, who climbed the military bureaucracy with great skill and vigor. A man who always knew what had to be done to get ahead and get along. In Vietnam, for example, he understood his role perfectly: his time as a young U.S. Army Major posted in Saigon, when, after the My Lai Massa […]
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No, It Is Not “Four-Dimensional Chess”

This morning, I briefly turned on the television to MSNBC, and I saw that Chris Jansing was sitting in for Craig Melvin. And the first topic was voting rights; and the “pundit” was MSNBC’s favorite guest, Michael Steele, the former chairman of the RNC, a favorite simply because he is distinguished from most other Republicans by not being a hater, being Black, and not liking what Trump has done to the Republican Party, a party which he still wants to do well in the long term

I like Chris Jansing a lot, as she is bright, knowledgeable, and has those rare commodities in the broadcast news media, charm and class. But I was disappointed that after Steele basically mocked the Democrats for being “outplayed’ by Mitch McConnell on voting rights, she agreed with his statement that while the Democrats might be playing chess, McConnell is playing some kind of four-dimensional chess. She said that he is like a Spassky or Kasparov, who were legendary figures in chess.

In my opinion, this theme, that the Democrats keep being outplayed by McConnell and the Republicans, is much too simplistic. All McConnell did here was to keep his caucus in line. He may be good at that, may be able to use threats and inducements to get them to stay as a voting bloc. But beyond that, how did he outplay the Democrats in filibustering even debate on the H.R.1?

Steele said that McConnell was four to six steps ahead of the Democrats. In what sense? He used the Senate as a filibuster machine in the Obama Administration. He and all Republicans in Congress repeatedly use any tool at their disposal to keep Democratic presidents from being able to enact legislation. They just did it again. What were Democrats supposed to do, when they need 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate, or alternatively, hold a solid 50 votes to get rid of the filibuster, at least selectively.?

Steele said that what the Democrats should have done was to have pared down H.R.1, and put in things that moderate Republicans could get on board with. I agree that the bill was probably too broad, had too many parts which were not essential to what the bill needed to do, which was to override the Republicans’ voter suppression state bills. But firstly, there are no moderate Republicans in the Senate, although maybe there are one or two who are sometimes reasonable, but not nearly enough to get to 60. And there is no way that Republicans are going to vote to eliminate or effectively vitiate the filibuster. So Steele, and he is not alone among pundits on either side in this, takes the easy shot at blaming Democrats for blowing a game that they really had no chance to win.

Now, if the Democratic caucus were unified in getting rid of the filibuster, they would have the votes. But they are not unified. Manchin seems a lot more willing to consider some steps in that direction than does Sinema, who now strikes me as a prima donna, who first started out in the Green Party, then moved to running as a moderate Democrat, now seems to want to take the role of proud maverick; or as some have suggested, is setting herself up for as very lucrative lobbying job when she leaves office. Who knows? But she seems absolutely opposed to doing anything to modify the filibuster, which means that all voting rights bills are dead, no great “credit” due to McConnell’s “four-dimensional chess,,” which is no more complex than what the Southern secessionists did in the 1840’s, or the segregationists did in the 1950’s.

The truth is that the American electoral system was flawed from the outset, with every state getting two senators, in what is believed to have been an inducement to the Southern slave states to stay in the Union. Somehow the country survived that disproportionate imbalance, until the filibuster, and then the Southern states almost all becoming Far Right in their politics; and the Republican Party’s adoption of a scorched earth, win at any costs strategy. while the Democrats were mostly still playing by Marquis of Queensberry rules.

Who would ever have thought that the Senate Majority Leader of one party would simply refuse to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee chosen by the President from the other party? Is that brilliant strategy? Or is it the willingness to destroy all the norms, and stifle the government when the other party is running the Executive Branch? If you are willing to use any device to win, you can win some victories, but at the cost of eventually destroying what the idea was behind the democracy, which is, a group of reasonable people who might have differences, arguing and debating and contending, until some decent laws come out of it. Refusing to participate unless you get your way every time, wins the battles, and destroys the country.

Now, Democrats are being infuriatingly foolish in continuing to believe; or maybe it is that they just want to believe, that the Republicans are not what they are, which is radicals who will never relent, compromise, or care whether people get to vote or have any rights at all, as long as the outcome is that Republicans endlessly keep power.

I read something on this theme, which is pathetic in what it shows about the two parties. We know that the last census will lead to redistricting. And we know that this used to lead to gerrymandering by the party which held control in in a particular state. But apparently, while Republicans in states they run, are eagerly figuring out ways to game the redistricting so that they will gain more seats, Democrats are “trying to be fair.” In Oregon, where they control the state legislature the Speaker of the House made a deal with Republicans to have an independent commission draw the districts, in exchange for which the Republicans would stop stymieing legislation.

One Democrat, maybe in the legislature, said that this was “like shooting yourself in the head.” There were many upset people, because the Speaker gave away the right to draw the districts in their favor. But is it more honorable to have a commission draw them? Well, yes, in abstract theory; no, if Republicans are relentlessly gerrymandering in every state they control. How many Congressional seats will this, played out all across the country, cost us? Ten to fifteen, at least? That is enough to control the House for a decade. California, which could probably gerrymander out ten Republicans on its own, has districts drawn by a commission, as does Michigan. So we play by Queensberry rules, and Republicans play by the law of the street; all low blows and sucker punches allowed. How is that going to come out?

If you are in a poker game, and every time you have a strong hand, and another player bets into you, you tell them that you have him beat, but you will only call; and every time he has the better hand, he raises you a large amount, who is going to end up with all the money, assuming that the players are within some range of equal in ability? “It’s simple arithmetic,” as Jean Gilles said in the strange but great low-budget noir “Decoy.”

This is not McConnell and the Republicans being brilliant chess players. It is about a system that is terribly flawed; and a Republican Party that figured out where the weak spots are, and keeps pounding away at them, while Democrats keep hoping that they will not. I would agree that the Democrats have made many mistakes over the years, and this has led us to where we are now. Most of the mistakes were a combination of trying to be “decent,” or “fair,” or being somehow guilty about using power, or even about winning. It is also because Democrats are generally better people who want to help Americans, while Republicans are single-minded Social Darwinists who only want to enrich themselves, and will do anything to achieve it.

We are in a difficult spot, and we underestimated our opponents’ lack of decency and ethics, which somehow are more visible to us on the outside, than to many of the Democrats holding office. I think that they are probably more aware than before, when we had a two-term president who thought that because he was able to get along with people and keep rising upward, he had a magic gift that would work when the game got rough. But he did not, though he probably still believes it. Or maybe he doesn’t, but it doesn’t really matter now, because he has no power; and so we are where we are, and we have to find a way out of it.