An Exercise in Futility (Mixed Up Mixmaster Mix)

Detail of frame from 'Durarara!' episode 17: Masaomi Kida addresses his color gang, the Yellow Scarves.

The sad tale of Aaron Schock is also one of the stranger scandals we’ve seen lately Marin Cogan of New York magazine explains:

The saga unfolded in the most unexpected way. About two months ago, Washington Post reporter Ben Terris dropped by Schock’s office for a coffee with the congressman’s spokesman, Ben Cole. When Terris commented on the unique office décor — most politician’s offices are painted standard-issue yellow or navy and filled with knickknacks from the member’s district, but Schock’s walls were blood red, decorated with pheasant sprays and antique picture frames — an interior decorator popped out of the lawmaker’s office and offered to show him her Downton Abbey–inspired work. Terris might have never written about it had Schock and his staff not treated him like he was about to reveal a state secret. That story caught the eye of other reporters, who started digging into his spending reports. What they found was not good: Schock had spent more than $100,000 in one year from his taxpayer-funded congressional account on chartered planes — more than the senators who represented the state. He’d taken his interns to sold-out Katy Perry concerts. He misreported a private flight as a software purchase. Along the way, his spokesman was forced to resign after Facebook posts he’d written comparing black people to zoo animals were unearthed.

Republicans in the twenty-first century have suffered an extraordinary number of unusual scandals, and some of it is just small stuff like some Tea Partiers being discouraged that their unvetted candidate got elected, arrived in Washington, and then failed to vote the way the winning voters wanted. With those, it was as if the supporters had somehow not considered the idea that they wouldn’t get everything they wanted. And some, it turns out, have nasty histories of bigotry or crime, or just aren’t that smart to begin with. If I say something about the Blue Squares joining the Yellow Scarves, at least ninety-eight percent of the readers who so kindly torture themselves by reading what we have to say wouldn’t know what that means.α

Still, though, Mr. Schock is, technically speaking, not part of the Tea Party movement. He was elected to represent Illinois’ 18th Congressional District in 2008. But there is still a question worth exploring that overlaps with the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2010, and that is, most simply expressed, a generational changing of the guard.

In American politics, there is a range of corruption and lying that we accept as normal, and even expect―pundits will criticize candidates for not being aggressive enough in some of these circumstances. It becomes a weird matrix of balances, with one axis teetering between the nod and wink to the one, and outright corruption to the other. Another axis seems to have something to do with complaining about political excrement while simultaneously demanding it, a delicate balance indeed.

And to think back to the nods and winks of old, it seems that the new generation is having a hard time comprehending the compromises.

It is easy enough to recall an old Doonesbury, from the eighties, when the Slackmeyers clashed over securities trading scandals; Phil Slackmeyer argued that the people involved didn’t even know what they were doing was illegal.

It was, for those who recall the period, not exactly an uncommon defense.

The difference now seems to be that the pretense of nobility is gone. Oh, poor traders, they didn’t know they were breaking the law. And, yes, you can sort of see where this goes.

Because in the twenty-first century, it seems like the conservative heritage has reached a threshold at which nobody actually cares whether something is illegal or not. As Cogan notes:

So when Schock finally resigned today, it seemed obvious that another shoe was about to drop. And sure enough: Moments later, Politico posted a story saying that Schock had billed both his taxpayer-funded congressional account and his campaign account for 170,000 miles, but when he sold his car last year, the odometer showed only 80,000 miles on it. I’m pretty sure lawmakers sign those reimbursement forms verifying that they’re true under penalty of perjury. And getting reimbursed by taxpayers for 90,000 miles you never drove sounds more like stealing than bad accounting.

To the one, it seems really difficult to suggest they didn’t know they were breaking rules or laws. To the other, look at the incompetence. It would be one thing to overstate mileage, but to log more miles than the car shows driven? How does one miss that? How does one fail to recognize the danger of fudging the numbers with impossibility?

Cogan reminds that Schock’s staff is comprised of “people even younger and less experienced in politics than he was, and that his finances weren’t in capable hands”, but even still, what fundamental incompetence is required in order that they could not figure out the problem with invoking impossibility?

To reiterate a point from yesterday, we might wonder at the amateurism about this scandal; if Charlie Rangel can beat a property tax rap, Aaron Schock should have been able to avoid this disgraceful end. It is not merely youthful inexperience; the Illinois Republican apparently led a troupe of halfwitted hacks.

In the end, this chapter is microcosmic. We’ve seen similar incompetence before, and some of those politicians think they can be president. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) couldn’t answer the actual Wikipedia plagiarism question in a sensible manner, even waiting far too long to blame his staff, which is itself a curious thing. To the one, yes, blame your staff from the outset; don’t make ridiculous excuses that don’t make sense, like saying you credited the screenplay authors when the screenplay itself is not what one is accused of plagiarizing. To the other, though, really? As the Kentucky junior’s penchant for intellectual property theft emerged, it became very difficult to ignore the question: And nobody on your staff knows what plagiarism is?

As we watch the #GOP47 clodhopping through an incredibly stupid scandal, it really is hard to figure how even the Senate Majority Leadership managed to look past the cold realities staring back at them. Three basic issues emerge; the warmongering against Iran, the undermining not only of this executive but future presidents as well in foreign policy negotiations, the undermining of Republican demands for unity with the White House in foreign policy, and the question of just how so many Senate Republicans―including and especially those with the experience to know better―decided it was a good idea to follow a two-bit backbencher down this rabbit hole.

And this is where the superficial politics can genuinely and usefully influence the discussion: Did more experienced Senators, including and especially the Majority Leadership, forget what line they were crossing, or simply ignore it?

The answer to how that process worked will tell us a lot about the state of the conservative conscience. It’s not just that the political arena seems that much more vicious; it also seems that much less intelligent. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky senior, has been in the U.S. Senate for thirty years, but suddenly he can’t figure out the problem with trying to wreck nuclear nonproliferation negotiations in order to score cheap political points against an executive he hates?

What the hell happened?

And what is happening to conservatives?

The seemingly tenuous connection is the appearance of a moderate to severe decrease of conservative intelligence and competence. One would think the point obvious, given the GOP’s need to reject civil rights, empower bigotry, undermine the president in hopes of triggering a war, wreck health care access, and hold back clean energy. This is a suicide caucus. And yet, perhaps, it is the little things that show this most clearly. What are Republicans thinking? Well, to judge by Mr. Schock’s resignation in disgrace, they aren’t.


α I would say ninety-nine percent, except this blog isn’t so important as to draw a hundred readers to any one post. Well, it happens, but rarely, and over longer periods. Forty-nine out of fifty? Fifty is pushing it, but still within the bounds of possibility. And I suppose it should be worth mentioning that you would have to watch or read Durarara! in order to know what that means. Like I said, at least ninety-eight percent.

Image note: Detail of frame from Durarara! episode 17: Masaomi Kida addresses his color gang, the Yellow Scarves.

Cogan, Marin. “The Aaron Schock Scandal Comes Full Circle”. New York. 17 March 2015.

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