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This week in the Mayonnaise Clinic: Democrats' Problem Isn't Gerontocracy
Nancy Pelosi is good at her job. The new guy, Chuck Schumer, is not.
If it’s Wednesday, it’s the Mayonnaise Clinic! I want to once again thank everyone who has sent in questions and also everyone who has become a subscriber to Very Serious.
So let’s get to the questions and answers. This week, they’re about the usual spectrum of topics: congressional leadership, trade and tariffs, when to use em-dashes, how to deal with annoying friends, and whether four stars is good enough for a resort vacation.
Steven Geier asks:
I’ve seen articles about who will lead the House Democrats after Speaker Nancy Pelosi leaves, and I am wondering what effect the structure of leadership and committee chairs between the Dems (seniority) and GOP (term limits) has on how they behave? The Dems have a much older leadership that seems to be reluctant to give the reins over, whereas the GOP seems to let younger members into their higher ranks more easily, but also lets the Tea Party hold the house hostage at times.
Do you think these differences make any difference for producing good governance? Could Democrats benefit from reforming their committee chair seniority rules?
So you’ve identified a real phenomenon (Democratic House leadership is ancient while House Republicans have young leaders) and a real rules difference (Republicans have to turn over committee gavels after six years, while Democrats can hold them indefinitely) but I’m not sure these matters are as related as you would expect. Nor do I think Democrats would alleviate the leadership problems they do have through an adjustment of term limit rules.
Let’s look at caucus leadership in each party in each house. Note, neither party has term limits for caucus-wide leaders; only Republicans impose term limits on committee chairs, and they do it in both the House and the Senate. And in both parties, I think it’s clear that the leaders who have been around forever are better at their jobs than the ones who are theoretically “fresh blood.”
Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are both old, but only Pelosi has been leading forever; Schumer took over as Senate leader in 2017. And Schumer has made some fairly disastrous tactical choices over the last year, particularly related to his failure to bring a version of the Build Back Better Act to the floor that actually met the specifications set by his own members, and his insistence on having his caucus repeatedly punch itself in the face over voting rights. Matt Yglesias argues convincingly that these choices are best understood as an effort to ensure that, even if activists are mad at Democrats, they are not mad at Chuck Schumer, personally. This has been bad, cowardly leadership.
Pelosi has been the top House Democrat for nearly 20 years, and she’s doing a much better job than Schumer. She’s played a weak hand well, repeatedly delivering passage of Democratic priorities despite her very narrow majority. It would have been nice if she had moved the infrastructure package through the House sooner, but I doubt her members would have agreed to that. And this is the difference between her and Schumer: She has followed the normal process of getting the votes and then voting when you have them, while Schumer failed to bring forth proposals that could get sufficient support within his own caucus, and he’s forced votes on them anyway.
On the Republican side, House leaders have been young and new and sometimes even had beach bodies, while Mitch McConnell has been leading Senate Republicans since approximately the Spanish-American war. And one thing you can get conservatives and liberals to agree on in Washington is that McConnell is a tactical genius while House Republican leaders are frequently impotent dopes, especially when in the majority.
I think what you’re seeing in each party in each house is that leaders perform according to what’s allowed by internal party coalition politics, whether they are young or old. Tea Party Republicans have power in the House because they do well in party primaries and because they are willing to sink the party’s legislative priorities to get their way; they certainly weren’t powerful because John Boehner wanted them to be. For Democrats, it’s easy to become in thrall to the echo chamber of Warren voters I wrote about in my introductory letter, especially if you’re afraid of a progressive primary challenge.
What’s impressive is that McConnell and Pelosi have risen above these challenges — Pelosi’s rolling of the Progressive Caucus to pass the infrastructure package was impressive, even though it was later than I would have liked — and in each instance, I think encouraging earlier turnover would have been to the detriment of the caucuses they lead.
Patrick Spoutz asks:
You've written and spoken about how removing tariffs could help inflation, yet the administration doesn't seem to agree, or agree enough to act on it. Can you expand on why you think the Biden admin won't remove tariffs, etc.? Do they disagree with your analysis? Do various rent-seeking interest groups make it politically annoying to do? Do they have various geopolitical considerations that override these economic ones?
First, I would dispute your premise: The Biden administration has acted on this. They replaced Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs with a less-onerous system of import quotas. They also achieved a détente in a long-running trade dispute with the European Union over aircraft subsidies, which led to each side lifting punitive tariffs that had been in effect on products like French wine and American motorcycles.
These were good, disinflationary steps for which they deserve credit. That said, it’s true they haven’t relaxed trade restrictions as much as I would like.
Partly, I think that’s because all kinds of things move too slowly in Washington — it took until September 2021 for the administration to announce the lifting of travel restrictions on travel from Europe to the US that were based on the COVID situation as of March 2020, and the Europeans had to throw a fit to get us to move. (And then the restrictions themselves weren’t lifted until November).
It’s also true, as you note, that the administration has a number of objectives besides fighting inflation. China tariffs are part of a complex geopolitical dispute, and trade restrictions on steel and aluminum (and softwood lumber) have backing from US interest groups that would be upset if they are lifted. Trade restrictions are always tempting for domestic political reasons — Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush engaged in them — and Biden is not an unalloyed free-trader.
All that said, I think inflation is the administration’s number-one political problem right now and should override these other concerns. They clearly don’t entirely agree. But they have made some important moves in the direction I’d like.
Drew Palmer wants to know about punctuation:
Is liberal use of the em-dash Good (clarity!) or is it Bad (crutch!)?
Some fastidious editors will tell you an em-dash is never necessary or appropriate. But I am an em-dash centrist. My usual approach is that I write with a lot of em-dashes, then I go through and replace most of them with other punctuation (semicolons, parentheses and periods, mostly.) But for a thought that is truly interruptive — where the em-dashes best indicate that the reader should imagine a heaving verbal pause — you can’t beat an em-dash.
Cody Kuiper has a gripe:
It seems like a lot of people in my social circle (white, college educated, young liberal millennials in a big city) can't have a conversation about mundane things without quickly relating it negatively to a social issue or some depressing thought about this being a dystopian end of days. It's anecdotal, but it does feel like this demographic sees being cynical and miserable as fashionable, and being generally happy or enjoying something as problematic. Do you have any advice for navigating this dynamic? I mostly agree with their politics — if not their approach — but it's just a shitty way to socialize.
Your friends sound like huge downers, Cody.
The specific style of being a downer you describe here is on trend, but the general problem of many people being insufferable sad-sacks goes back to the dawn of time. The good news is not everyone is like this. You won’t fix these people — it’s rare that anyone fixes anyone in any respect — but you can find more pleasant people to spend time with. Ideally, your friends will see this letter, take offense, and start shunning you for your insufficient commitment to the cause. In time, you’ll realize it was the shove you needed to find some more fun people to hang out with.
Robert Greene seeks travel advice:
My wife and I are going to Sardinia for a week. We don't have White Lotus/Four Seasons money, but there are several four-star resorts with private beaches, pools, restaurants, spas, and other amenities that fit our budget. Is the four-star resort experience worth it, or should we just stay at a beach-front hotel and book the adventures on our own until we can afford the five-star getaway?
I have never been to Sardinia, so I can only offer general vacationing-near-the-beach advice. And the answer is it depends on your vacation style. If you want to spend a lot of time laying on the beach or by the pool and being served cocktails while you read a book, spring for the resort. Four-star resorts are very nice, so just lay back and relax and try not to mentally benchmark every service experience against the White Lotus.That said, if you’re a more independent-style traveler and won’t be on-property that much, save your money and go for the hotel.
But that’s only general-form advice. I encourage any readers with Sardinia-specific experience to offer their tips to Robert in the comments.
I’m not usually the one to call “too much mayonnaise,” but I’m going to say that’s enough for this week! If you have questions you’d like me to address in a future issue, I encourage you to write in and of course to become a subscriber to Very Serious.
Very seriously yours,
Plus, if you watched the show, you know the personal White Lotus touch is not always something to be desired.