How to Handle GOP Tantrums

The “party of no” is acting out—and getting its way. Lee Siegel on the lessons parenting could teach the president about dealing with the petulant opposition party.

01.30.10 6:38 PM ET

It’s bad enough being an American citizen and watching the GOP’s brick-wall naysaying to every Obama proposal. But the frustration is even worse if you are also, or once were, the parent of a 3-year-old. Watching the president bend to the stubborn Republican child during the State of the Union Address by offering goodies like nuclear power and offshore drilling for oil, and treats like shifting the strategy for job creation from government stimulus to business, you wanted to throw your copy of Dr. Spock at the television screen.

Take Obama’s original proposals for health-care reform. Child-rearing equivalent? Broccoli. Most effective strategy? Chocolate cookie.

Take Obama’s original proposals for health-care reform. Child-rearing equivalent? Broccoli. Most effective strategy? Chocolate cookie. Now what do you do with this cookie? Mix it in with the broccoli? (i.e. weaken the public option into national exchanges?) No. Put it on the plate alongside the broccoli? (i.e. give each state the choice of rejecting a public option?) No. Offer it to your child as an appetizer after extracting his promise to consume the broccoli afterward? (i.e. commit $30 billion to continue the war in Afghanistan?) Nope. Do you suggest that tonight he have only chocolate cookies for dinner and tell him in no uncertain terms that tomorrow night he must eat all his broccoli? (i.e. abandon the public option, national exchanges, and a Medicare buy-in for people 55 and over?) Absolutely not.

Any one of these ploys will leave you with a plate of cold broccoli, a happy and triumphant child, and the cheerful expectation on the part of the latter that he will never have to eat any type of vegetable again for the rest of his life. The one thing parents know is never to give up anything valuable without getting something substantial in return.

And yet there is an event that looms ominously over every family dinner. In politics it is called The Filibuster. Parents know it as The Tantrum.

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Among 3-year-olds, this is referred to as the “nuclear option.” The reasons for the dire terminology are obvious. A tantrum that does not yield the desired result has catastrophic consequences. Short of leaving home, setting your toy animals on fire, or barricading yourself in the basement, the tantrum is really the strategy of last resort. The prudent child will first make sure that he has exhausted other paths of action, and that the tantrum will have a reasonable chance of success.

A full-blown tantrum with crying, screaming, and hurling objects (Glenn Beck, Joe Wilson, Tea-Partiers) is rare because it can bring on sobbing, yawning and fatigue, all of which break down the tantrum-thrower's defenses and may make him vulnerable to the worst-case scenario of an early bedtime. (See: Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate in New York’s 23rd District, who won the battle but lost the war.) It also runs the risk of inspiring delighted and faux-horrified siblings (moderate Republicans or Blue Dog Democrats) to seize on tactical weakness and pretend to a sudden passion for broccoli if it is cooked a certain way. This creates a domino effect, with the newly obedient siblings causing the guilt-ridden parent to reward them handsomely in order to reinforce cooperative behavior, and also to compensate for provoking the aforementioned meltdown.

Thus any child considering the tantrum will keep his cards close to his chest. The idea is to keep the menace of a tantrum hovering in the atmosphere so as never to force the parent into a situation where the tantrum will become inevitable. There is simply too much to lose.

A child operating behind the threat of a tantrum will begin by crying softly. (Leaking the threat of a filibuster to the press.) If the parent sticks to his guns and insists that the broccoli be eaten, then it is advantageous to escalate the cries into low, persistent shrieks. (Throw the ball to Fox.) If this meets with continued resistance, the low shrieks may then become outright screams. (Call in Sarah Palin and the specter of the death panels.) At this point, the child may even hope to attract “independents”: i.e. concerned neighbors or the police. And of course, if none of these tactics is successful, then physical gestures may be employed: first, pushing the plate away, then throwing the broccoli onto the floor, and finally full-scale assault on valuable objects: dishes, glasses, even favored toys (in order to demonstrate absolute commitment). A full-scale tantrum (filibuster) results when all three elements are combined—crying, screaming, throwing—for a substantial length of time, leading anxious, self-conscious parents to believe that they are a) severing the bond between them and their children (Obama’s fear of rejection); b) destroying them developmentally (Obama’s fear of not being a paragon of democracy); c) failing utterly as parents (Obama’s fear of, well, failure).

Of course, faced with the reality of a full-blown tantrum, parents can always do what parents have done since the beginning of time: Send the child to his room. But that requires something that strikes terror into the heart of every tantrum-thrower who has ever hurled his fire-truck to the floor in order to show his total resolve. It requires true conviction.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.