Theories abound about why Congressional Republicans are bent on extorting from the President a commitment to put a bullet in the Affordable Care Act’s brain in exchange for funding the government for another six or so weeks. But not until I happened on a column by New York Times conservative commentator Ross Douthat did I feel that I was finally getting my head around this meltdown. I’m sure he and I don’t vote the same way, but I always read Douthat because he doesn’t just wave bloody shirts. He actually helps me understand the conservative position.
In a recent column that didn’t get the attention it deserves, he made two points that connected a lot of dots, at least for me. First, he made a distinction that he said mainstream opinion doesn’t really get. Whereas mainstream America thinks that movement conservatives are pulling out all the stops in order to slow the growth of the federal government, all their exertions are really meant to reduce the absolute size of the government. So they’re not just trying to slow the government’s growth rate, they’re hell bent on reversing the government’s growth.
It’s the failure to grasp that core aim of movement conservatives that leaves those outside the movement completely flummoxed about why conservatives keep punching despite general agreement among people whose business it is to track these things that the annual federal budget deficit has been falling rapidly, growth in federal spending has moderated, and the nation’s total tax bill—federal, state and local—is lower than at just about any point in the last forty years.
Douthat’s second point is that the relentless campaign to cut the federal government down to something small enough, as Grover Norquist famously put it, to “drown in a bathtub” has been a forty-year failure because it’s been betrayed repeatedly by the leaders conservatives looked to for its success. Richard Nixon was further to the left in some policy areas than President Obama. Ronald Reagan raised taxes nearly a dozen times and the debt ceiling nearly twenty times. George H. W. Bush raised taxes after a read-my-lips pledge not to. And George W. Bush presided over a huge expansion of government featuring ballooning annual deficits, the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the “surveillance state” it oversees, a massive intrusion into public education, traditionally the province of state and local government, an expansion of Medicare, the iconic Great Society entitlement program, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program bailing out the financial sector.
Douthat thinks that record of failure explains why many Congressional Republicans are in no mood to take their marching orders from their caucus leadership. But I think it explains so much more that it’s hard to know where to start.
Here, for example, is one thing it clears up for me. Although Republicans in the House of Representatives have made defunding the Affordable Care Act the centerpiece of their do-as-we-say-or-your-dog-gets-it governing style, the list of demands they’ve cobbled together as the price of their support for raising the debt ceiling in a few days is essentially the Republican platform that Mitt Romney ran on unsuccessfully last year. So they’re demanding what, were he to accede to it, would amount to President Obama’s resignation from office in a kind of extra-electoral coup. That’s so bizarre that, practicing psychiatry without a license, I can’t help but see it as a display of desperation born of despair over the record of electoral failure Douthat pointed out.
I also think I understand why the House Republicans’ far right wing is willing to flirt with forcing the federal government into default. Speaker of the House John Boehner has assured us all that he’s not going to let that happen but some members of his caucus are going to vote against raising the debt limit, even if a majority of the House doesn’t. And some of those voting against authorizing the government to pay its bills will be dead serious about it.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof isn’t alone in warning of the dire consequences of even shutting down the government, let along defaulting on its obligations. Says Kristof, “When House Republicans shut our government down and leave us teetering on the abyss of default, we are a diminished nation. We have less influence. We have less raw power, as surely as if we had fewer aircraft carriers.”
But warnings like this leave some on the right unmoved exactly because they’d welcome that outcome of a government default. Becoming a “diminished nation” is the surest way, they seem to believe, of finally, after decades of frustration and failure, grasping their Holy Grail—“right-sized” government, considerably smaller than the one we have now. After all, a “diminished nation” just doesn’t need as much government as a world superpower does.
That’s why they’re also unmoved by opinion polls showing that Congress’s approval rating is lower than Paris Hilton’s and the Communist Party’s. Those abysmal numbers are, in their minds, a measure of their success in so souring the electorate on government that it’ll tolerate much less of it. While it’s still an open question whether there’s a national majority in favor of the right’s idea of “right-sized” government, opinion polls show that they’ve had a measure of success in shaking people’s trust in government, which, they think, is at least movement in the right direction.
If there’s anything to my riff on Douthat’s analysis, what makes the drama we’re all being treated to now so surreal is that it’s being driven by a faction in Congress wedded to the romantic fantasy that you can run a twenty-first century country of over 300 million people with an early nineteenth-century minimalist Jeffersonian government. Even as we glory in American “exceptionalism” (USA! USA!), we’re playing out an American tragedy: instead of drawing wisdom and strength from our history, we comb over it reenacting ancient conflicts. Even if I had a license to practice psychiatry, I couldn’t tell you why we keep doing that.