Red vs. Blue

Washington’s Endless Civil War

Right-wing legislators can’t believe Obama is still in the White House—and they’re ready to obstruct him at almost any cost.

01.11.13 9:45 AM ET

Forget the permanent campaign. We are in a state of permanent political war—and perhaps near permanent paralysis.

We may be heading for a general and fundamental impasse—and it’s not likely to yield to public pressure for compromise.

In The New York Times, Maureen Dowd bangs a persistent drum about Barack Obama as Mr. Spock, the über-rational anti-politician with “a revulsion for playing the game”—“the flattering, schmoozing, and ring-kissing needed to coax Congress into doing what he wants.” The complaint has morphed into a meme that offers a simple way through: presumably Obama-the-back-slapper would soon be signing bills left and right.

And like a lot of simple explanations, it’s tempting; it resonates with prevailing perceptions and preconceptions; and at least in Dowd’s prose, it’s interesting and diverting.

But it’s a diversion that hardly survives a few minutes of thought. Yes, this president is not a garrulous, anecdote-trading phone buddy with members of Congress like, say, Bill Clinton—although that didn’t keep the GOP House from impeaching him or shutting down the government. Does anybody really believe that John Boehner would jeopardize his zombie speakership for regular rounds of golf with Barack Obama at Joint Base Andrews? Or that copious cups of tea in the Oval Office would persuade Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell to escalate the risk of a Tea Party challenge to his renomination in the 2014 Kentucky primary?

Similarly, the historian Michael Beschloss tweeted after the fiscal-cliff deal: “[Vice President Joe] Biden did for the president on Capitol Hill what JFK was always too wary to let the experienced LBJ do for him.” But both the times and the Senate were very different then. The newly elected Vice President Johnson learned this painfully when his longtime Senate colleagues rebuffed an attempt to have him preside over the Democratic caucus; even his closest allies closed ranks against him. The episode evoked a classic Johnsonism: “I know the difference between a caucus and a cactus. In a cactus, all the pricks are on the outside.”

In his latest volume on LBJ, Robert Caro recounts Johnson’s wan influence on legislative affairs; even Hubert Humphrey happily and bluntly disagreed with him. As Caro writes, “[The] senators didn’t listen to him …” It’s true that Kennedy didn’t deploy Johnson as his negotiator in chief with Congress; Johnson, never comfortable in a subordinate role, could have proven unpredictable as well as unavailing in a Congress deeply riven over civil rights. It was only when he was suddenly “president of the United States clothed with immense power,” as Lincoln says in Steven Spielberg’s stunningly insightful film, that LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the tax-cut bill, both proposed by JFK and positioned and passed as memorials to him.

In the process Johnson used those immense powers with immense skill. He also had an advantage now consigned to the recesses of history: when Southern Democrats opposed him, he could and did turn to the substantial ranks of moderate Republicans, who, for example, tended to favor civil rights. And after his 1964 landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, LBJ commanded more than two-to-one majorities in the House and the Senate as he pursued and enacted Medicare, Medicaid, the War on Poverty, and the rest of the Great Society. He would soon be undone by Vietnam; but in those early years, national tragedy, electoral triumph, and his own gifts let him transform America.

Obama and Biden face a far more hostile, far less amenable Washington—not only without a super-majority in Congress, but with a filibuster-infested Senate and a Republican House, many of whose members seem hell-bent on crashing the economy. The vice president does deserve credit for getting the nation off the fiscal cliff—and the president deserves credit for sending him to the cliff without worrying that he would kick over the traces and without begrudging him the limelight. Biden was comfortable in a powerful but subordinate role and the modern Senate was comfortable with his activist intervention in legislative affairs.

He did a lot of good for the country and his own future as a potential 2016 candidate. But it’s important to remember what he did—which was not to secure a landmark advance of the kind Kennedy sought and Johnson got after he was president, but to staunch a big self-inflicted wound that would bleed the economy and the markets. This was truly consequential, but it was less a matter of making progress than of preventing retrogress. And as we look ahead, it’s illusory to suggest that Obama can magically work his will if he just becomes a pol-friendly operator—or if he lets Biden act like the mythical version of a pre-presidential LBJ.

The problem that may blight the next four years is an ideological chasm where the president’s attempts at reasonable compromise are routinely rebuffed, where a polarization to the right among Republicans is reinforced by resentment and a refusal to accept the results of the 2012 election. Or to put it plainly, they can’t believe Obama is still there—and they’re more than ready, or forced by their own extremists, to obstruct him at almost any cost.

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The fiscal cliff was the front edge; next, a pitched battle will gather on the debt ceiling. The president, as steely as he is cool, will not agree to major changes in Social Security and Medicare as ransom for rescuing the government’s capacity to pay the bills Congress has already authorized. As I noted last week, there are Republicans who don’t mind closing the government down—or destroying the full faith and credit of the United States. But the party’s paymasters on Wall Street certainly do. Maybe that’s why Boehner told The Wall Street Journal that the debt ceiling is “just one point of leverage” but not  “the ultimate leverage.” And the White House has refused to rule out the apparently legal expedient of minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin, which would render congressional recalcitrance irrelevant “perhaps for quite a long time.”

This may become the only way to run a government, but it’s no way to run government. As the predictable hours of crisis tick down, we as a nation, and the global economy, could be living out Bette Davis’s line in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Then there’s Boehner’s fallback blackmail: the sequester. Those automatic spending cuts would slash both domestic programs and the GOP’s once-cherished Pentagon budget. Here too Obama won’t concede entitlement “reforms” that would hollow out Social Security and Medicare. (He’s willing to discuss genuine reforms, but not in the form of surrendering to budget brinkmanship.) What happens next is anyone’s guess. But it’s conceivable that the far right in the GOP House could force draconian cuts in everything from education and student loans to health research, transportation, and public safety—and yes, military hardware and personnel. Indeed the sequester would bring layoffs to tens of thousands of federal workers, and then to many more Americans as a depleted economy slides toward recession.

This is what happened in Europe with austerity politics: cutting too sharply, too soon—that is the Republicans’ essential demand. It’s idiotic economics and preposterous politics, but the GOP firebrands, assuming they are safe in their gerrymandered districts, may, lemming-like, do massive damage to the country while dooming their party to a generation of defeat at the presidential level.

Let’s not stop here. The conflagration in Congress is spreading to singe, if not consume, critical decisions across the board.

On presidential appointments, we have the disgraceful smear campaign against secretary of defense–designate Chuck Hagel, a retired senator from Nebraska whose fellow Republicans can’t forgive him for criticizing the Iraq War. They spout false allegations that he’s pro-Iran, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic. AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that is the harder line of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington—has refused to join in. So creepier groups have stepped up—the Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol’s misnamed Emergency Committee to Save Israel is one. They are little more than a device to redeem the neocon foreign policies of rule, ruin, and the rest of the world be damned. Even worse are the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of dim-witted GOP gays who supported Romney but now traduce Hagel for long-ago statements for which he has apologized. They are running full-page ads in The New York Times but won’t say who’s paying for them.

The reaction to Hagel seems to be the rule, not the exception. As the president prepared to nominate White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew for Treasury secretary, Alabama’s throwback reactionary Sen. Jeff Sessions said “never” and accused Lew of being a liar for defending the long-term deficit-reduction plans of the administration when he was Obama’s budget director.

Even John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser who served in the Bush administration, now confronts a Gatling gun of unfounded allegations related to alleged leaks and the GOP’s maniacal determination to turn the Benghazi tragedy into an Obama scandal. (It’s unfortunate that some liberal blogs have piled on—on different grounds—that Brennan, for example, has planned the drone strikes on terrorists. Didn’t those blogs advocate the reelection of the president who authorized those strikes?)

Maybe the Republicans will attempt to decapitate the federal government by leaving it without major cabinet officials. In the end, they’ll fail—and thanks to the drafters of the Constitution, at least the deranged GOP House has no say in the confirmation process. But what’s happening is more proof that what we have in Washington is not a functioning Congress, but a one-ring circus on the far right.

And watch the freak show when the president proposes comprehensive immigration reform and moves forward on gun control. Already, Iowa Rep. Steve King has introduced a bill—which happens to be unconstitutional—that would deny citizenship to immigrant children born in this country. The only part of the Constitution that King and too many like him in the House seem to revere is the Second Amendment—in absolute and absolutely distorted terms. A week ago, I argued that it would be a mistake to bet against Biden’s chances of achieving progress on guns. After listening to the GOP stooges for the NRA—think of Texas Rep. Louis Gohmert, who said that a “hammer” could be “an assault weapon”—I’m ready to bet that not much gun legislation of any kind can get past Boehner’s brigades.

When the vice president said that Obama might act by executive order, the Drudge Report went into a frenzy, complete with pictures of Hitler and Stalin, apparently since taken down. The episode not only reveals the limitless shamelessness of Drudge, but the ugliness that pervades the opposition to Obama. And if you want to see it get even worse, just wait until the president selects someone to fill the next Supreme Court vacancy.

I hope I’m wrong—that somehow Boehner locates his conscience; that enough Republicans decide to do what’s right rather than far right; that the GOP heeds Chris Christie’s counsel that “compromise [is] not a dirty word.” But it’s more than possible that Christie will become an exile in his own party—and that the greatest nation on earth may become a hobbled, dysfunctional democracy.

If so, Americans will settle the issue at the polls in favor of progress—unless a dwindling, demographically depleted Republican Party succeeds for a while in imposing new Jim Crow–like restrictions on voting. But long-term, that’s a losing game. And today, the GOP is the party that won’t compromise; the party that threatens economic chaos; the anti-Medicare, anti–Social Security, anti-women, anti-Hispanic, anti-gay, anti-young party. There’s no future in that.

Barack Obama and Joe Biden may now have to prove their mettle as never before. The vice president has to be himself, not a reprise of a miscast LBJ. And the president has to be himself too, not the sudden apparition of an inauthentic pol.

Yes, it’s going to be not just a bumpy night, but probably a long, bumpy ride.