The dance over the debt ceiling and the fight over the government shutdown are nothing less than impeachment on the cheap: a chance to negate the will of the majority by ostensibly placating the letter of the law. Unable to win the last two presidential elections or to persuade a Supreme Court majority that the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional, House Republicans have arrived at a point where default and closure are the next best things. This combustible brew of race, class, and economic anxieties bubbles all too closely to the surface.
These days, the GOP comes across as hating Obamacare more than loving their countrymen, and the nation is returning that ire (PDF). Less than a quarter of Americans view the Republicans favorably, and a majority dislikes them, three-in-10 intensely. The GOP’s goal of recapturing the Senate in 2014 is now looking more like a dream than a reality, as Republicans are “forced to explain why they are not to blame and why Americans should trust them to govern both houses of Congress when the one they do run is in such disarray.” Indeed.
Unfortunately, the calamity of a potential default has tempered neither judgment nor passion. On Saturday, Ted Cruz—the man who lit the match, won the Values Voters Straw Poll with 42 percent of the vote. Channeling her inner Glenn Beck, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) concluded that the President “committed impeachable offenses.” Bachmann also proclaimed that civil disobedience was a potential response to Obama’s “thuggery,” and compared the Obama presidency to Egypt’s deposed Muslim Brotherhood.
Political pundit and former Nixon and Reagan White House speechwriter Pat Buchanan may well have captured the mood of the Republican base, as he the writes of the spirit of secession sweeping the red states. Unfortunately, Buchanan is not engaging in idle hyperbole or in simple wishful thinking.
Even before the 2012 election, fuses were running short. Texas Governor Rick Perry mused about the possibility of secession, and after Mitt Romney’s loss last November more than 125,000 Texans petitioned the White House to secede. Secession also touchéd nerves in a slew of other states, including Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The spirit of the Civil War endures.
The present divide is almost theological, and 2013’s government shutdown is not a mere replay of Newt Gingrich’s temper tantrum. According to Rutgers University’s Ross K. Baker, this time “it really does feel like they’re arguing over Biblical interpretation and each side looks at the other as some kind of apostate. And we know how long religious wars can last.”
Race, class and anxiety can roil. On his New York Times blog, Tom Edsall captured the fears of the Republican base that a majority of minority constituencies will siphon the nation’s wealth before the Republican base can get “theirs” in retirement.
But, the Democrats are also haunted by similar concerns. The downstairs portion of the Democratic base is increasingly beset by debt and disillusion. Although culturally empowered, it sees an economy growing too slowly to satisfy expectations, and a government incapable of meeting its much touted promises.
As PBS radio host Tavis Smiley acknowledged in a debate with Fox’s Sean Hannity, black Americans are not better off five years into the Obama presidency. According to Smiley, “The data is going to indicate, sadly, that when the Obama administration is over, black people will have lost ground in every single leading economic indicator category. … The president ought to be held responsible.”
Indeed, lost in the din of the shutdown is Obamacare’s failed rollout. The $400 million website devoted to signing up Americans in search of insurance has become a user-unfriendly nightmare. The site signed up only 51,000 people in its first week, but needs to enroll seven million people by March 2014 for Obamacare to emerge as economically viable. At its present rate, only two million Americans will have joined by the March deadline.
Whether cultural fissures are always there, but only submerged in times of prosperity, or if the end of prosperity and demographic shifts amplify cultural divisions as a proxy for economic anxiety is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Regardless, in a multi-polarized society, with lots of potential pluralities, but no path to grow, tried and true ideologies—especially those evoking bygone eras—must evolve or die.
And right now, the Republicans don’t know which way to turn or whom to cannibalize next. Having failed to bring Obama to his knees, the House GOP is now clamoring for “entitlement reform,” which in simple English translates as sticking it to the elderly. But for the Republicans, that’s a problem.
The elderly and the white working class comprise the party’s core, and the elderly and the white working class are hostile to linking entitlements to the resolution of the current impasse. According to a recent National Journal poll, 70 percent of whites without college degrees, and more than four-in-five white seniors say any debt deal should not deal with Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid.
And so, it has come down to this, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) engaging in tense last-minute negotiations with an eye toward passing a compromise that the House would enact, all before the debt ceiling is breached.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) told the press, “We have to get something out of this,” even as he acknowledged, “I don’t know what that even is.” Regardless, Stutzman made clear that “we’re not going to be disrespected.”
In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close boiled a bunny because Michael Douglas disrespected her. Now, instead of sticking a rabbit in the pot, a congressional minority now feels that it is time to microwave the entire country—respectfully, of course.