A Spate of Retirements

Janet Hook and Thomas Crittenden of the Wall Street Journal try to explain the rash of retirements on Capitol Hill.

A parade of retirements from Congress threatens to deplete Capitol Hill's ranks of centrists, graybeards and legislative craftsmen—increasingly rare commodities in a political hothouse more prone to line-drawing than bridge-building in recent years.  Many of the House members who are leaving are centrist Republicans, which could leave the GOP caucus more dominated than ever by the party's conservative wing. Democrats, meanwhile, are losing some of the last of their party's conservative "Blue Dog" wing.

Yet the retirements are in some way an historical throwback. Until recently it was unusual for legislators to serve out multiple terms. Until the 20th century it was uncommon for legislators to be repeatedly re-elected. "The fact that 'perpetuity in office' was not approached until the 20th century is due in part to the influence of rotation in office as a popular 19th century concept ... rotation of nominations was intertwined with the spoils system".

While nobody is under the illusion that the permanent political class in Washington is disintegrating it is reasonable to ask whether its monolithic facade is cracking -- if only every so slightly. The AP describes the retirment of one Congressman who has served 11 terms.

WASHINGTON — Joining an exodus from Congress by both Democrats and Republicans, veteran Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon tearfully announced Thursday that he's retiring after 21 years, stepping down as House Armed Services Committee chairman.

But now, perhaps by coincidence, a larger than usual number are heading for home. Nancy Pelosi denied there was anything unusual about the retirements saying "our Democratic retirements do not relate in any way to our prospects for winning".

That's as may be. But if the portents are to believed  2014 promises to bitterly fought election with a distinctly pronounced ideological streak running down its middle. Anecdotal evidence suggests that is exactly the kind of fight the administration is preparing for. According to Manu Raju and Carrie Brown of Politico, "Barack Obama has a plan to save the Senate’s tenuous Democratic majority: Sell a populist message, try to make Obamacare work better and raise lots of cash." Translation: unlimited class warfare and machine politics.

The electoral map this year favors the GOP, which has to win a net of six seats to take back the majority, including in red states like Montana, West Virginia, South Dakota, Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina.

Democrats hope messy GOP primaries in North Carolina and Georgia and McConnell’s own difficult reelection will imperil the Republican drive to the majority. But the president’s sagging popularity will burden Senate Democrats, particularly in red states, something the White House and top Democrats will have to grapple with as they try to use the bully pulpit against the GOP. Republicans, meanwhile, are making clear their November strategy will be all about the president.

In this process Obama sees his task as raising money for the party and limiting the damage he anticipates will come from Obamacare. "Obama has called back Phil Schiliro, a former legislative director, to focus solely on smoothing the Affordable Care Act implementation. And Katie Beirne Fallon, a former senior aide to Schumer and confidante to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who started last week as the legislative director, is part of the White House’s so-called early warning system to identify Obamacare problems before they become full-blown political crises."

But the trouble flagship health plan is likely to create problems far in excess of anyone's ability to spin. Obamacare has begun a three stage descent into disaster. The first phase was the catastrophic rollout of the website. This has cascaded into a situation where perhaps millions of Americans find themselves in the second phase of "limbo", unsure they are covered, unable to pay, incapable of verifying their enrollment.

To rescue them from "limbo" the administration will strongarm insurance companies into taking anyone who claims to have been covered. The companies will comply but demand a bailout, to compensate them for covering people whose enrollment cannot be verified nor their premiums collected. And then the bad demographics which is turning Obamacare into a sump of the elderly and infirm will drive premiums up. And then there's the looming arrival of the Employer Mandate, which may de-insure 25 million more.

Obamacare is broken past any possibility of a quick fix. But the biggest danger facing the Democrats, however, is an unexpected foreign policy crisis which may materialize at any time. A respected British defense advisor publicly called Obama “chronically incapable” of military strategy. He has left burning matches everywhere in a world filled with tinder. Last year the British Parliament voted against David Cameron's proposal to support Obama's proposed bombing in Syria, effectively delivering a vote of no-confidence in Obama.

The world is expecting trouble. Japan has stepped up its defense spending, as has South Korea. Australia vowed to "rebuild" its forces. Cash strapped Europe is trying to pool its resources, according to Reuters, to boost its defense. Israel is seeking a "massive top-up of 2014 defense budget". And of course China is boosting is defense spending by 10.7% to modernize what is already the second biggest military establishment in the world.

Everywhere one looks the picture is the same. People are getting ready for 2014 because they don't know what it will bring.  If the world reposes a serene confidence in Barack Obama, they sure have a strange way of showing it. The year 2014 may be a risky one.

It is inauspiciously the 100th anniversary of the Great War. That confident world, like the one Barack Obama presides over, was outwardly stable, but already on the verge of falling apart. Our world may fare better, but who knows?

At the recent funeral for Nelson Mandela, world leaders gathered in pomp and pageantry reminiscent of a passage from Barbara Tuchman's book, The Guns of August .

“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens - four dowager and three regnant - and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”

Except this time the Kings took selfies. Tuchman's paragraph painted an evocative image of a world doomed, not so much by malevolence as by folly. It strolled over the brink in a fit of absentmindedness. If disaster overtakes the current crop of politicians in Washington, it won't be because they didn't see it coming. It will simply be because they always thought that the music would always play.

Kings and Queens at a Funeral Kings and Queens at a Funeral

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