Tag Archives: GOP

John Boehner and the GOP’s Alternate Reality

There has been no lack of punditry–much of it inane–in the wake of John Boehner’s resignation. But I encountered one of the more thought-provoking analyses at the progressive website Daily Kos. After detailing the gleeful reactions emanating from the more reactionary precincts of what used to be a political party (and is now some sort of cult), and accusations from people like Mike Huckabee to the effect that Boehner had “given the President more power on Obamacare,” the poster ruminated:

After total legislative obstruction, a government shut-down, more than 50 votes to repeal Obamacare, an ensuing presidential election, two Supreme Court lawsuits, and other pending litigation – – Republicans are livid with the belief that John Boehner has worked with the President to strengthen Obamacare.

No sane political observer could think that.  So, what gives?  As Jonathan Chait explains, we are witnessing a sort of collective Republican denial where they cannot accept that they are not the ruling party, not the “deciders” (to use a former president’s phrase):

To understand the pressures that brought about Boehner’s demise as an ideological split badly misconstrues the situation. The small band of right-wing noisemakers in the House who made Boehner’s existence a living hell could not identify any important substantive disagreements with the object of their wrath. . . . The source of the disagreement was tactical, not philosophical. Boehner’s tormentors refused to accept the limits of his political power. . . .

The “crazy caucus” continues to occupy an alternate reality. It exists merely to throw sand in the gears of government, refusing to accept anything less than everything it wants–and increasingly unable even to articulate what “everything it wants” is. (Anyone who has ever parented a cranky two-year-old can recognize the behavior…)

That said, the real problem isn’t that a minor, albeit significant faction of a major party is arguably insane. The real problem is, voters elected them. And non-voters abetted them.

That’s what is so frightening to contemplate….


Sound of the Trump-et

I was reading Frank Rich’s analysis of the Trump phenomenon at New York Magazine, when I heard that John Boehner would resign .

Reading Rich with Boehner’s resignation in mind just served to underscore the travesty that is today’s American political landscape.

According to Rich, Trump’s “passport to political stardom” has been “his uncanny resemblance to a provocative fictional comic archetype.” His character

 is a direct descendant of Twain’s 19th-century confidence men: the unhinged charlatan who decides to blow up the system by running for office — often the presidency — on a platform of outrageous pronouncements and boorish behavior. Trump has taken that role, the antithesis of the idealist politicians enshrined by Frank Capra and Aaron Sorkin, and run with it. He bestrides our current political landscape like the reincarnation not of Joe McCarthy (that would be Ted Cruz) but of Jay Billington Bulworth….

In résumé and beliefs, Trump is even closer to the insurgent candidate played by Tim Robbins and reviled as “a crypto-fascist clown” in the mockumentary Bob Roberts (1992) — a self-congratulatory right-wing Wall Street success story, beauty-pageant aficionado, and folksinging star whose emblematic song is titled “Retake America.” Give Trump time, and we may yet find him quoting the accidental president played by Chris Rock in Head of State (2003): “If America was a woman, she would be a big-tittied woman. Everybody loves a big-tittied woman!”

Rich points out that Trump embarrasses the GOP by saying in public what “real” Republicans keep private.

Republican potentates can’t fight back against him because the party’s base has his back. He’s ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe.

 Rich’s devastating analysis of the Trump phenomenon, together with John Boehner’s resignation (to the barely veiled glee of the party’s Neanderthal wing) confirm the GOP’s descent into know-nothingness and farce– and its utter inability to govern.

We may be entering an “End Times” rather different from the one anticipated by the GOP’s fundamentalist base. The question is whether the “Trump-et” is sounding for a complete melt-down and disintegration of the once Grand Old Party, or the beginning of a difficult but necessary climb back to something approaching sanity.


How We Got Here

I’m sharing an unusually long quotation, also shared by Political Animal, from one Dave Roberts (a writer with whom I am unfamiliar), because it has so much explanatory power.

Roberts traces the history behind America’s current political polarization, and he’s pretty convincing:

In postwar, mid-20th-century America, there was a period of substantial bipartisanship, and it powerfully shaped the way political and economic elites think about US politics. The popular picture of how politics works — reaching across the aisle, twisting arms, building coalitions behind common-sense policy — has clung to America’s self-conception long after the underlying structural features that enabled bipartisanship fundamentally shifted.

What enabled bipartisanship was, to simplify matters, the existence of socially liberal Republicans in the Northeast and Democrats in the South who were fiscally conservative and virulently racist. Ideologically heterogeneous parties meant that transactional, cross-party coalitions were relatively easy to come by.

Over the past several decades, the parties have polarized, i.e., sorted themselves ideologically (that’s what the GOP’s “Southern strategy” was about). Racist conservative Democrats became Republicans and social liberals became Democrats. The process has now all but completed: The rightmost national Democrat is now to the left of the leftmost national Republican.

Crucially, however, the process of polarization has been asymmetrical. While almost all liberals have become Democrats and almost all conservatives have become Republicans, far more Republicans self-identify as conservative than Democrats do as liberal, and consequently the GOP has moved much further right than the Democratic Party has left.

Part of the explanation is that there has been a demographic sorting as well. The demographics that tend Democrat — minorities, single women, young people, LGBTQ folks, academics, and artists — cluster in the “urban archipelago” of America’s cities. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has increasingly become the voice of white people who live around other white people in rural and suburban areas, where they have been radicalized by burgeoning right-wing media and a network of ideologically conservative think tanks and lobbying groups.

It is not surprising that small-government ideology appeals to people who view government as a mechanism whereby special interest groups make claims on their resources, values, and privileges. Conservative whites, freaked out by hippies in the ’60s, blacks in the ’70s, communists in the ’80s, Clintons in the ’90s, Muslims in the ’00s, and Obama more recently, are now more or less permanently freaked out, gripped by a sense of “aggrieved entitlement,” convinced that they are “losing their country.” (If only someone would come along and promise to make it great again!)

As the GOP has grown more demographically and ideologically homogeneous, it has become, in the memorable words of congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, “a resurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

When I was a new lawyer, a more seasoned colleague told me “There’s actually only one legal question: what do we do?”

That question is equally applicable to politics. But for those of us who miss the previously sane and respectable Grand Old Party–and the balance it provided to the political system–the answer is far more elusive.


When We Don’t Know It When We See It

Ever since Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart admitted that he couldn’t define pornography, but that “I know it when I see it,” the line has become something of a joke–trotted out to underscore the less-than-coherent nature of an observation or complaint.

What isn’t a joke, however, is the increasing divide between people who recognize the complexities and realities of the world we live in and those who are increasingly at sea. The latter group– grasping for bright lines and responding to slogans in lieu of analysis–are easy pickings for  politicians willing to pander to their fears and incomprehension.

A recent commentary posted at Talking Points Memo provides a graphic example of the phenomenon. The writer attended the Trump/Palin/Cruz rally against the Iran agreement, and noted the reaction to Trump’s bombastic, non-specific attack, which boiled down to “I could have done it better” and “America needs to win again, and I’ll make America a winner.”

“We’re going to build up our military. We’re going to have such a strong military, that nobody—nobody!—is going to mess with us. We’re not going to have to use it,” said Trump.

This is American Exceptionalism re-imagined by Charles Atlas. Trump wants to prove that he can make America so huge and so strong—the strongest!—that no terrorist would dare kick sand in our faces again. Thinking this way is more than a little silly, but it is exactly how the people who went to the Stop Iran Deal Rally felt.

The pity of this all is that the Iran deal shows how America can lead (and win!) in an increasingly disorganized world. We negotiated with Iran from a position of strength. We had support from our European allies. We had Iran’s billions in our banks. Behind door number one was Iran giving up their nuclear weapons program. Behind door number two was Iran becoming the next destination for Drone Airlines. The United States gave up nothing in this deal. In exchange for their own money, Iran gave us what we wanted: an Iran without The Bomb.

This is what winning looks like. This is our enemy surrendering their weapons without a fight not because they love us but because they know they would not survive the fight. After our embassies getting bombed, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia invading Georgia, the red line in Syria, Benghazi, Russia invading Ukraine, Boko Haram, and ISIS, stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons was change we need to believe in.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the dispute over the Iranian agreement was the absolute lack of alternatives (other than war) offered by its opponents. Watching proponents and opponents debate the issue was like watching an adult argue with a two-year-old having a meltdown.

If people who don’t know it when they see it, people looking instead for simple, non-specific messages, bombast and empty rhetoric, end up outnumbering thoughtful Americans at the polls next year, we’re all in trouble.

Beyond Faux News

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution has an informative–and deeply disturbing–post on the influence of right-wing media on the GOP. As he notes, that media and that influence go well beyond the “usual suspects” like Fox News or Rush Limbaugh.

Mann cites a recent paper by Jackie Calmes, a national correspondent for The New York Times who was Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School this past spring.

Its title, “They Don’t Give a Damn about Governing,” is a direct quote from one of her Republican sources. The subtitle, “Conservative Media’s Influence on the Republican Party,” describes the focus of her impressive research, reporting, and analysis.

Calmes goes well beyond the familiar Fox News and talk-radio celebrities Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham to chart an expanding world of web-based “news” sites and social media outlets closely aligned with far-right groups such as Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. What began as a conservative insurgency nurtured and welcomed by the Republican establishment as a route to majority control of Congress has become a dominant force setting the party’s agenda and forcing repeated brinksmanship. This in turn impedes the Republicans’ ability to govern effectively and to win presidential elections…..

Her paper contains fascinating narrative on lesser-known personalities who have put themselves at the center of linkages between Republican activists and officeholders as well as case studies of why the Republican majority in Congress after the 2014 election has fallen well short of its stated objectives of restoring regular order and governing effectively.

A quote from a long-time, high-level Republican sums up the situation:

“It’s not just talk radio, but the blogosphere, the Internet – they’re all intertwined now. You’ve got this constant chorus of skepticism about anything the quote-unquote establishment does,” said a longtime former top aide to House Republican leaders, Dave Schnittger. And, he said, the chorus is loudest in opposition to those actions that are fundamental to governing: meeting basic fiscal deadlines for funding the government and allowing it to borrow. “Those are the things that leaders have to get done as part of governing,” the Republican said, “as much as conservative media may hate it.”

One of the unsettling realities of the Internet age is the ability to inhabit our preferred realities. Leaving aside the undeniably important question of who is really living in the “reality-based” community, at some point, we need to figure out how to live in a polis that is defined–and divided– by our expanded ability to reside within information bubbles of our own choosing.

And the reasonable Republicans–of whom there are still many–need to figure out how to get their party back.