On Saturday, I wrote about what I called the conservative Republican “rage machine” and its poisonous impact on our politics. I argued that a number of prominent conservative thinkers and pundits—David Brooks, Ross Douthat, several others—were and are partly responsible for this problem as long as they sit there pretending it doesn’t exist. But there’s another responsible group here, too: Just as today’s Republican extremists benefit from the silence of conservative pundits, they also gain from the credulousness of mainstream figures who keep pretending that today’s GOP is a responsible party within the normal American political traditions. So that when the GOP takes a radical position on the sequester and Barack Obama a reasonable one, both are accorded equal seriousness, even when facts have to be ignored to do so.
Bob Woodward is Exhibit A here. Late last week conservatives were crowing about a Woodward piece blaming Obama for the sequester. His argument was built on two points. First, that Obama staffers came up with the idea. That’s fine—this fact hasn’t been disputed, although its importance has. It’s interesting that Woodward acknowledged that a majority of Republicans voted for the sequester, but then he seemed to apologize for them by writing that key GOP staffers “didn’t even initially know what a sequester was.”
But his second point was the whopper. He went on to argue that any deal seeking to replace the sequestration cuts had to consist of only cuts, not revenues, so Obama was pulling a fast one. This was a new assertion, and the right pounced on it.
This is totally factually wrong. As Brian Beutler noted on TPM, the legislation referred to “deficit reduction,” not “spending cuts.” Deficit reduction means deficit reduction, by whatever means—spending cuts or higher revenues. Ezra Klein wrote: “I remember talking to both members of the Obama administration and the Republican leadership in 2011, and everyone was perfectly clear that Democrats were going to pursue tax increases in any sequester replacement, and Republicans were going to oppose tax increases in any sequester replacement.” In other words, actual reality being so inhospitable to the Republicans’ position, Woodward just made one up that suited it far better.
Exhibit B, more comically, is Ron Fournier of National Journal. He wrote a column last week predicated on the continuing fantasy that Obama could solve all of this if he would just show the proper leadership and so this was somehow all his fault because he couldn’t bring them to the table. He followed it up with an arguably stupider one in which he acknowledged that he had no policy preference at all: “I just want it fixed. I want my leaders to lead.” Where they lead apparently doesn’t matter. Finally he pulled off an impressive-in-its-way trifecta with a Monday column that did take a whack at Republicans but that again implored the president to lead a “stubborn” Congress.
This is just fantasy land. The Republicans in Congress aren’t “stubborn.” They are completely implacable. Obama can’t lead them anywhere. They will not play. Maybe, maybe, maybe they will if their backs are against the wall, as they were in early January. But even then Obama—reelected handily on the idea of raising taxes on dollars earned above $250,000—had to settle for $450,000. And now they say that’s the end of revenues. No more.
This is not a negotiating posture. It is carved into stone with them, an edict. Their agitprop media has spread the diktat, and any Republican who even thought about breaking ranks would be guaranteeing himself a primary. No serious person can call that governing in any way, shape, or form. I marvel at how the Republicans can have the stones to say something like this. But I spend a lot more time marveling at how the panjandrums of Beltway-think decide that they should be allowed to take such a position and that it should be treated respectfully.
Someone like Fournier probably thinks that he’s not supposed to take positions. But in these three columns, he took a position whether he knows it or not: He took the position that a president who has cut spending three times as much as he has increased revenue, and whose current offer, a mostly even mix of cuts and revenues, is backed by three-quarters of the American people, is being no more reasonable than a minority party that says our way or the highway whose position is supported by 19 percent of the people.
Those positions are not equivalent. To write as if they are equivalent is to perpetrate a lie. Or at least two lies: in the immediate case, the lie that the Republicans are engaged in anything resembling good-faith bargaining; and in the broader sense, the lie that the GOP is a normal political party by our historical norms, just a slightly more intense version of the Democrats of the 1980s or the Whigs of the 1840s. They are not that. They have a radical vision for American society, and while they know they must operate within democratic bounds to try to achieve that vision, they have none of the normal respect for legislative give and take that has characterized American political parties through most of our history. I might have thought this episode was waking establishment Washington up to this fact, but unfortunately the evidence isn’t too hopeful.