Turning Point

10.11.13

The Day the Mad Dogs Took Over the Republican Party

It was a historic Thursday: The GOP finally and fully succumbed to its cultural rage. Michael Tomasky on a tumultuous day in Washington’s shutdown drama.

It was a head-spinning day in Washington, yesterday was, as the story seemed to change from hour to hour in terms of who was proposing or accepting or refusing what and who seemed up and who seemed down. But through it all, one constant did not change and doesn’t seem likely to change: The Republicans are wrecking themselves.

Indeed, historically so. This is one of those turning points in American political history, the kind you’ll tell your grandkids you were around to see: a once-respectable party that finally was eaten alive by the cultural rage it had so long used to its advantage but held in check in order to win elections. It was a long time coming and it’s a grand thing to watch, provided they don’t wreck the country along with themselves.

First, a quick recap. Thursday morning, John Boehner finally picked up on the signals the White House had been sending and offered a “clean” but short-term debt-limit increase. Since Boehner clearly knew that such a measure wouldn’t get votes from his loony-tunes caucus, he was aiming for something that might pass with a combination of Republican and Democratic votes. That was admirable. But there was a problem: He proposed to do nothing about the government shutdown until Nov. 22, and that was something most Democrats wouldn’t have gone for.

Still, the Obama administration signaled that it would play ball. This angered Harry Reid, who was at work trying to round up a few Republican votes for his own one-year increase of the debt limit. The afternoon skirmishing was intense, featuring a few Republican senators (Roy Blount, Susan Collins, and, most interestingly of all, John Cornyn) undercutting Boehner, saying they would like to alter his proposal to include a provision to allow the government to open back up. Then, late in the day, the Not-So-Magic Bus of 20 Republicans rolled up to the White House, and Boehner put… well, put something on the table to Obama, something involving a six-week increase in the debt limit but who knows what else, and Obama said: not yet.

Video screenshot

For years now, John Boehner and President Obama have squared off in the fiscal face-off.

The elites aren’t in charge now. The snarling dog they kept in a pen for decades has just escaped and bitten their hand off.

It is true that Obama drew back from the signals his people had been sending for a couple of days. But it’s also true that we don’t know exactly what happened in that room and what was proposed. One of the various crazy things about the GOP position now is that we don’t even know what they’re negotiating for. “America’s pressing problems,” they kept saying. But what exactly are those? I guess now Obamacare isn’t one of them, since it’s off the table. Or maybe the medical-device tax is. So higher taxes on prostheses is the crisis that the country must solve yesterday?

They mean, of course, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They want cuts. But they just want Obama to give in on those without giving him anything on revenues. This would be the normal way of what we call “negotiating.”

But the thing is this. People who have specific policy goals engage in negotiation. But these Republicans don’t have specific policy goals. They have what we might call emotional policy goals. They want to wipe Obamacare, and Obama’s desires on taxation, and the entire Obama record, really, from the face of the earth, like Pharoah wanted to wipe Moses’s name from the obelisks. They don’t even really know what they want to win, as Indiana GOP Congressman Martin Stutzman famously said last week. But if it humiliates Obama, it’s a win. Bad for the country? That doesn’t matter either. To them, by definition, if it’s bad for Obama, it’s good for the country. They actually think this.

And so, through a combination of a critical mass of anti-thought people in their caucus who won’t govern at all if it means seeing Obama come out OK, and a “leader” who can now plainly be called the weakest speaker since America became a country of consequence, the Republican Party has finally and fully succumbed to its cultural rage. It has used that rage mostly effectively for nigh on 50 years now, since Barry Goldwater. That rage has served it well on balance. It helped elect Nixon. It certainly helped elect Reagan, and even though it could be argued that once in office Reagan didn’t do that much to stoke it, he understood that he needed it to win, which is why he opened his 1980 campaign down in Mississippi, to say to his America that it was all right to resent black people, he understood you.

The rage kept the base galvanized. It kept the enemy, or enemies—liberal and the media, often one and the same—in the gun sights. But it could also be controlled, the way Reagan controlled it. And even Dubya controlled it. The rich didn’t really share the rage, or most of them. Even the Koch Brothers probably don’t, what with all the froufrou artsy-fartsy outfits up in New York they help sustain.

But all of them have used it. And they have tolerated it, the casual racism, the hatred of gay people, and the rest. They tolerated it because the booboisie voted the right way, and because they, the elites, remained in charge. Well, they’re not in charge now. The snarling dog they kept in a pen for decades has just escaped and bitten their hand off.

The Republicans still might pull it back together. They were also at a historic low after Nixon resigned. They won three of the next four elections. But that was just one man’s megalomania. This is the psychosis of one-quarter of the nation. That quarter is now leading the elites around by the nose. And the Red Sea just might swallow them all. It’s certainly what they deserve.