Face it, the GOP are anarchists.
Slate's Jonathan Chait calls out the D.C. establishment for tragically mis-reading today's GOP. He notes that everyone from deficit-hawk think tanks to the Washington Post's editorial page came into this debt-ceiling debacle thinking that folks of goodwill on both sides of the aisle might usefully take this opportunity to get America's deficit under control.
Dems do care about the deficit. So much so that Obama - now suffering his lowest public-approval ratings, at about 40% - put even FDR's and LBJ's hallowed Social Security and Medicare, respectively, on the table in the expectation, or hope, of getting an agreement.
But the Dems - and for that matter, traditional deficit hawks (hey, who wouldn't rather be deficit-free?) - are not dealing with folks of goodwill on the other side of the debate. As I said in an earlier post, we need to start calling today's GOP what it is, anarchists or normally reasonable folks currently under the spell of anarchism.
A strong word. Falls right into the stereotype of bloggers as serial exaggerators and sensationalists. But I swear, at this rate it won't be long before my fellow moderate progressives - Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman, Josh Marshall, Felix Salmon, Andrew Sullivan - are compelled to stop trying to figure out the governance principles of the Tea Partiers who run today's GOP and acknowledge, finally, that these extremists can be placated only by dismantling the Republic. And their method, no different from Gingrich's the last time there was a Dem in the WH, is to blow it up. My dictionary defines that as anarchism. You can work within the system to attempt reform - as Obama has done to a fault - or you can push for the change you seek by the crude methods of chronic mendacity, obstructionism, character assassination and incitement to fear and hate.
In attempting a semi-defense of Murdoch in a recent e-mail to my MP, she reminded me that his brand of casual inhumanity finds an especially large audience in times of economic distress. True, of course. In previous such times, we have demogogues like Father Coughlin, Huey Long and Westbrook Pegler during the Depression, and McCarthy soon after the Soviets stunned us by emerging with their own nuclear weapons. This is the Tea Partiers' moment, and it's the task of those seeking to preserve the Republic to somehow transcend it.
In the meantime, Chait moves further out along that branch toward what I'm afraid is a necessary incivility in identifying just who the American people are dealing with in the modern GOP. As Chait rightly notes, conservatives of good will in the Beltway were expecting the debt-ceiling crisis to be handled by backslapping moderates akin to Tip O'Neill and Bob Dole. But moderates on the right have long since left the building. The GOP House majority depends on the Tea Party cohort elected last November, each of whom can expect a primary challenge next year from Tea Party zealots if they don't oppose any attempted resolution of this crisis.
Between the two of them, Eric Cantor and Michele Bachmann - each self-appointed leaders of the Tea Party movement - have outmuscled the comparatively moderate John Boehner, who like other GOP moderates is anticipating a primary challenge in his Ohio district. Somehow this dynamic - of Cantor openly lusting for Boehner's job, with necessary Tea Party backing - has not registered on Wall Street or Main Street. In business, we'd call this a "reverse takeover" in which a small firm acquires a much larger one. The Grand Old Party has been acquired by the upstart Tea Partiers, itself a cauldron of the aggrieved ranging from culture warriors to libertarians to tax revolters to one-world conspiracy theorists.
You can run through that destructive agenda and worry about its implications. But for now it's sufficiently alarming to heed what the new GOP already has bought into.
The main problem is that the Republican Party does not actually care very much about the deficit. It cares about, in order: Low taxes for high-income earners; reducing social spending, especially for the poor; protecting the defense budget; and low deficits. The Obama administration and many Democrats actually do care about the deficit and are willing to sacrifice their priorities in order to achieve it, a desire that was on full display during the health care reform debate. Republicans care about deficit reduction only to the extent that it can be undertaken without impeding upon other, higher priorities. Primarily 'deficit reduction' is a framing device for their opposition to social spending, as opposed to a genuine belief that revenue and outlays ought to bear some relationship to each other.
I keep reading these days that in dealing with this self-inflicted debt-ceiling threat Obama should act more like the Lincoln and FDR he so admires. This threat to the the poor, the elderly, the cash-strapped middle class, to national security, to a dynamic economy.
I'd ask these fellow moderate progressive commentators to read David Donald's definitive Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 1995) and Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time (Simon & Schuster, 1995) on FDR and her more recent Team of Rivals (Simon & Schuster, 2005) on Lincoln.
Lincoln was so inept a judge of character in hiring generals that the nation's capital in danger of being overrun by Lee's forces through most of the Civil War. So at sea was Lincoln on how to deal with the internal threat of the Copperheads - Northern abolitionists who preferred the country be allowed to split apart into a slave South and free North, and so determined not to permanently alienate the South after an anticipated Union triumph - that he drafted but then for a year shelved his Emancipation Proclamation. Which in any case was a diluted call to emancipation that a Voltaire wouldn't recognize as remotely liberating.
FDR was similarly hog-tied, held hostage by Southern segregationist Dems on the Hill without whom his coalition would crumble. So Eleanor's pleas to Franklin for social justice for blacks were dismissed, on the weak argument that Social Security helped blacks along with everyone else. That's as much as FDR could do for them, he said. Having found that Keynesian government stimulus of the economy worked in his first term, a complacent FDR - who had come to office promising balanced budgets, after all - dropped state stimulus in his second term, promptly triggering a relapse of the Depression. For good measure he shed a great deal of his credibility in trying and failing to "pack" the Supreme Court. Then came the inaction ahead of a Pearl Harbor attack widely anticipated by the war and state departments, and the Japanese-American internments and confiscation of property. FDR's record four election victories were not all landslides, and they were delivered by Dem machines in the major cities that have long since ceased to exist.
And I write this never being able to decide which of these giants is my favorite U.S. president. Just don't imagine they would fare any better under the current circumstances than Obama.
Obama already has succeeded where FDR failed on health-care reform, and has kept more campaign promises more quickly than any of his 43 predecessors. If Obama had the votes on the Hill, there would be the second stimulus - the focus on jobs rather than deficits - that progressives are screaming for. Where were these progressives, I really want to know, in the lead up to the Dems' loss of the House last November?
If he got even just one thing right, it's Obama's observation years ago that what chiefly motivates legislators is their fear of being defeated at the next election. That's the prism through which lawmakers operate. And that fear ravages the body politic far more than money or lobbyists or media savagery. What ails governance most is a lack of independent-mindedness on the part of elected officials. As long as a majority of House members fear losing their jobs next year to Tea Party insurgents, you can pretty much forget about sound governance in the long-term interests of the people.
Until early last century, American tradition had aspiring office-seekers regarding such work as part-time and of brief duration. Lincoln served one term in Congress, was defeated after two years, and happily returned to Springfield to resume the more lucrative work of attending to the legal affairs of the Illinois Central Gulf railroad.
One can argue the merits of politics as a long-term vocation rather than a limited tour of duty. What can't be argued is that the preoccupation with clinging to office is behind the present difficulties, and those that came before and will lie ahead. The current widespread fear of standing up to, for instance, a public figure who actually believes Paul Revere set out to warn the Redcoats or an imbecilic proposal to turn Social Security into a voucher system is adequate proof that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is playing out in real life on the banks of the Potomac.