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Black, White, and Gray – HotAir

I am all for clarity, which sometimes means drawing out contrasts and making stark comparisons.

In other words, I often speak in black and white while understanding that the real world has a lot of shades of gray. In many cases, it is important to do this because if you focus on the grays without first making the contours of an issue clear, readers see a blurry and muddled mess.

And, in shorter essays, focusing on the big contrasts gets you closer to the truth of the matter than blabbing about fine lines, gray areas, and minute differences. If you want to get it all, you won’t in 500 or 1000 words. It takes a book or three and a long time to think about an issue.

Simple is good, in other words. But often, it is insufficient when the differences lie in the gray area.

I was thinking about this issue recently when the Right-wing influencers blew their stack about Speaker Johnson’s spending compromise to keep the government open while negotiations are going on with the White House and the Senate.

As you certainly recall, Johnson was elevated to Speaker after a long and difficult battle to replace Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy had been booted for being insufficiently aggressive and conservative, making compromises to get legislation and budgets passed. It took 23 days for the Republicans to agree on Johnson as McCarthy’s replacement–moderate Republicans and the conservative wing couldn’t agree on a candidate.

Johnson turned out to be the only candidate on whom they could agree–he is sufficiently conservative to please the most conservative and a nice and gentle enough guy to satisfy the rest.

As I predicted at the time, Johnson faced exactly the same constraints as McCarthy, and I always expected him to wind up being essentially the same as McCarthy in the role. McCarthy’s choices as Speaker had little to do with his ideological inclinations but with the constraints of having a small and very divided caucus facing off against a president and Senate which want to destroy Republicans.

The ideological divisions are black and white, but the choices the Speaker faces are in the gray area. Neither McCarthy nor Johnson has the luxury of choosing between right and wrong, but rather better or worse.

We often ask “Why aren’t they doing anything to stop this?” Sometimes, the answer is “they don’t want to,” but often enough, it is simply “they haven’t the power to do so.”

It’s like asking why Trump didn’t build the wall and get Mexico to pay for it. Trump tried to build the wall and got some of it built. But he was a president and not a dictator, and he worked within constraints. The issue may have been mostly black and white, but the actions he took were made in the gray.

None of this is to say that differences between actors don’t matter–they do. Priorities, ideological commitments, persuasive power, and the ability to shape the battlefield matter. However, outcomes are still shaped by conditions that are out of the control of even the best and most powerful politicians.

McCarthy and Johnson both faced the same constraints: they barely controlled 1/3rd of the power base, so they would get less than we would like.

It matters who the Speaker is, for sure. But anybody who thought Johnson could fundamentally change the math in Washington forgot about working in the gray zone. An extraordinary politician can occasionally work magic–Trump accomplished a lot in his time, despite the entire Establishment shooting at him–but there are limits.

As predicted, Johnson has great intentions but limited options. He needs every Republican vote and is fighting against some of the most vicious political actors in the US, plus the entire MSM and Establishment.

Is it disappointing that he will have to cut a deal? Of course it is.

Was it to be expected? Of course it was.

Dumping McCarthy was a waste of time because McCarthy wasn’t the problem; winning the next election is, and doing so with convincing numbers.

Until then, even the most conservative leaders will have limited room to maneuver.

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