In the celebrated 1978 film Animal House, John "Bluto" Blutarsky famously rallies the men of Delta House with a riveting speech on the vital importance of fighting even when it seems that all hope is lost. And now, more than three decades later, one can see that same fighting spirit animating the Republicans in Congress, who see the coolly cerebral President Obama as a figure almost as reprehensible as the scheming Dean Vernon Wormer. The ironies are obvious. Wormer was a Nixonian parody of the uptight white establishment, and Delta House represented the anarchic rebelliousness of a more innocent age. Yet it is congressional Republicans, presumed heirs of the uptight white establishment, who've been willing to use madcap Delta House tactics in their struggle against Obamacare.
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Among many on the left, there is a sense that conservative Republicans have a ruthless will to win that liberal Democrats lack. And they have a point. Call it frat boy bluster, call it mania or extremism or whatever else: the political right has opened up a conviction gap in American politics, one that will either bring Republicans back into power or doom them to irrelevance. The notion that Republicans and Democrats can work together on sweeping expansions of the welfare state ignores the fact that both parties are offering irreconcilable visions of what government can and should do. One side has an essentially limitless view of what government can and ought to do to address the needs and wants of the American public. The other side can't stand the idea of taking wealth from hard-working Us to shiftless and lazy Them. The former view fills you with the belief that you're a good and virtuous person, and that you're on the side of history. Sure, these crazy reactionaries can slow you down, but they can't stop the inevitable march of Progress. The latter view, in contrast, maintains that you are on the losing side of history: the other side has every advantage, and every inch you lose will, in all likelihood, never be regained. So of course you can never surrender. Of course you insist that the Senate finish its business at 2 pm during the final phase of the health care debate. Of course you introduce frivolous amendments designed to embarrass your opponents in the run-up to the next election. You know that this could be your last chance to save the country you know and love. The other side can just wait until you grow old and die, and then try again.
From the start, congressional Republicans knew that their fight against the president's health bill would prove difficult if not impossible. Outsized Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, product of two miserably bad elections for Republicans in a row, were all but insurmountable. The unlikely victory of Scott Brown filled Republicans with hope. This was a victory that could only have been won by a political movement with a brashly irrational self-confidence. Had donations not poured in from across the country, the Brown campaign could never have blanketed the state with radio and television ads during the crucial final weeks of the campaign. And those donations wouldn't have come in such torrents if the conservative base weren't so energized by the sense that they were fighting in a just cause, and that even a remote chance of victory was enough to merit an all-out effort.
But that hope was soon dashed as Speaker Pelosi, sensing that a historic victory was still within reach, beat Democratic dissenters into submission. Throughout the debate, Republicans never lost their esprit de corps. Indeed, Republicans proved so successful in throwing sand in the gears of the marvelously creaky antique that is Congress that Democrats complained endlessly about their obstructionism, with some going to far as to accuse Republicans of undermining the democratic process with their wily parliamentary tactics. Yet the criticisms barely fazed Republicans, many of whom took a mischievous pleasure in foiling their rivals again and again.
After Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" at the president last September, contributions to his campaign spiked. And when Rep. Randy Neugebauer appeared to call Rep. Bart Stupak a "baby killer," he insisted that he had in fact described the health bill that Stupak backed as "a baby killer," for which he offered no apology. It's easy to see why. From Neugebauer's perspective, he was plainly stating the truth, and the fact that so many were appalled by his statement is proof only of the fact that they are blind to the consequences of their callous disregard for life. You don't have to agree with Neugebauer to have some sense of where his conviction comes from.
To conservatives these "compromises" look like a slippery slope on the way to a hellish nightmare of an ever-expanding state and ever-rising taxes.
Viewed through this lens, the ferocity of American politics starts to make sense. Those who call for a calmer, more deliberative, less confrontational politics are essentially arguing, as President Obama has memorably and forcefully argued on many occasions, that there are no truly irreconcilable divisions in our politics. Rather, we're plagued by false dichotomies. Liberals argue that universal health coverage will reduce the number of abortions, which should please pro-life conservatives. The new system of premium subsidies will help preserve private insurance firms, and that should please pro-business conservatives. And so on. But to conservatives these "compromises" look like a slippery slope on the way to a hellish nightmare of an ever-expanding state, ever-rising taxes, and a dark future in which the religiously devout are forced subsidize and endorse all kinds of practices their beliefs lead them to abhor. A little shouting is the least you can do.
Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.