With the shutdown of the federal government, we the citizenry were treated to ironclad promises and Namathian guarantees from congressional Republicans that at last, at long last, we had finally found a way to undo Obamacare. All that was required was for us to “hang tough,” and mysteriously, magically, miraculously, the president of the United States would be persuaded to agree to defund his signature legislative achievement. You know, the achievement that Democratic presidents since Harry Truman yearned to get Congress to pass. The achievement that he believed and still believes will vault him into the Pantheon of Great American Presidents. The achievement that has won him rapturous support among members of his own base. All of this Barack Obama was supposedly going to forsake in order to end a government shutdown.
Now, congressional Republicans–who cannot see more than one move ahead in any battle of wits if their lives depend on it–are shocked, shocked to find out that the president of the United States is not quite prepared at all to give up his signature legislative achievement. What’s more, he’s not even prepared to negotiate with congressional Republicans over any changes to Obamacare until and unless the government is re-opened for business, and perhaps not even then. I am sure that many the congressional Republican is howling in anger and protest at the White House’s stubbornness on this issue, but whatever his faults and shortcomings, Barack Obama cannot be blamed if congressional Republicans ignore poll after poll after poll after poll after poll indicating that whatever the American people think about Obamacare, they don’t want the government to be shut down over an effort to defund it. Furthermore, Barack Obama cannot be blamed for basing his response strategy on a position that sells in the polls, and Republicans can hardly be surprised that the president will take public opinion into account when thinking about how best to counteract Republican demands (though congressional Republicans continue to amaze me by finding ways to be surprised by the bleeding obvious).
For a group of tough talkers, preening swaggerers and would-be political gladiators, congressional Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they don’t have the first clue how to fight and win political battles anymore. Much of the problem has to do with the fact that much of the congressional Republican caucus is made up of members who simply aren’t the swiftest Porsches in the garage. Ineptitude and stupidity appear to be the Chekhov’s gun of congressional Republicans; they are plainly in view on the political stage and at some point during the drama, as sure as the rising of the sun in the east, congressional Republicans will reach for, grasp and employ ineptitude and stupidity in their battles with Democrats. If congressional Republicans were a police force, they would be the Keystone Kops. If, as Dante Alighieri said, names are the consequence of things, then many members of the congressional Republican caucus would be named Moe, Larry, Curly and/or Shemp, irrespective of the gender of the congressional Republican in question. If American politics were analogized to the Godfather movies, congressional Republicans would be a collective Fredo Corleone. If American politics were analogized to World War II, congressional Republicans would be the Maginot line.
Consider the fact that one GOP representative, Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, has decided that it would be oodles and oodles of fun to plague his fellow Republicans with migraine headaches by declaring that Republicans are “not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.“ (Emphasis mine, though perhaps emphasizing was entirely unnecessary.) When I was but a mere boy, I was taught that one never enters a negotiation without know what one wants, what one is prepared to give up in order to get what one wants, what one will never give up, and what one’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement happens to be. Marlin Stutzman–who, remember, was elected to represent actual Americans in Congress and to negotiate on their behalf from time to time–has made it abundantly clear that he has not learned these lessons. And that means that Marlin Stutzman is a rube. An easy mark. A bamboozlee waiting to be bamboozed by the nearest bamboozler. And thus, the perfect mascot for the congressional Republican caucus, who in deed have demonstrated that they too don’t have any idea whatsoever what they want out of any negotiations with the White House.
Oh sure, at the beginning, it was all about defunding Obamacare. But that was never going to happen, and no, it doesn’t take hindsight to see that. Now, congressional Republicans say that they might be prepared to settle for an amendment to or repeal of the medical device tax, or a one year delay in the mandate for health insurance. Raise your hand if you believe, after the display we have been treated to this past week, that the White House will suddenly decide to fold like a cheap tent and give congressional Republicans even this victory. And even if the device tax is repealed (you can forget about the mandate going away), will any congressional Republican be able to sell the public on the idea that it was worth shutting down the government just for this?
The Hindenburgian/Titanicesque calamity that has been brought about by the performance of congressional Republicans has understandably left Republican leaders with few options. So now, we are told that Republicans are considering a “Hail Mary,” which for non-football fans, is what happens when a team is behind, with almost no time on the clock, and in desperate need of nothing short of a miracle in order to win. The Hail Mary in question is the ever-elusive “grand bargain” on fiscal issues, “a budget deal that would include entitlement reforms, tax reform, and a new budget agreement, while also restoring government spending and raising the debt ceiling.” Like Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, and Iranian political moderates, the “grand bargain” has been much discussed around campfires by people snacking on smores, but thus far, no evidence has been introduced that a grand bargain exists anywhere but in the imaginations of congressional Republicans. And yet, we are supposed to believe that one is achievable, despite the fact that congressional Republicans have not succeeding in repealing or defunding Obamacare. If they cannot do that–and remember, they promised us that they could if only we indulged the shutting down of the government!–how can we possibly expect them to deliver on some kind of “grand bargain” that brings us fiscal sanity, allows us to raise the debt ceiling so that the nation can pay its bills (more on this later), and gives all Americans a unicorn?
The grand bargain’s reappearance on the political scene is due to the fact that “[m]ost House Republicans privately concede they’re fighting a battle they’re unlikely to win, and to avoid a prolonged shutdown and a disastrous debt default, Washington has to create a package so big that lifting the borrowing limit and funding the government is merely a sideshow.” So, essentially, the grand bargain is a trick play designed to distract us from the fact that congressional Republicans utterly and completely botched their battle with the White House, which surely does little to restore one’s faith in the intelligence of congressional Republicans–though it does much to reinforce my disdain for their critical thinking skills.
To be fair to congressional Republicans, part of the problem doesn’t stem from the fact that they are bereft of field generals who are worth a damn. Part of the problem stems from the fact that if congressional Republicans do not hew to rigid ideological principles–irrespective of the facts on the ground and irrespective of how much rigid ideological principles might interfere with the crafting and implementation of pragmatic negotiating positions–then congressional Republicans will be challenged in primaries by people to their right. I am fine with the occasional primary challenge to congressional Republicans–people need to be kept honest, after all–but threatening primary challenges simply because some Republican somewhere decides to be practical about things every once in a while does not constitute the upholding of principles. Rather, it constitutes a sort of political cannibalism that makes Republicans look utterly and completely unreasonable to the American people, backs them into exceedingly uncomfortable corners, and lays waste to the Republican negotiating position in any talks with Democrats. From time to time, Republicans need to have sufficient ideological elbow room to strike deals. They cannot run the government on their own. But try telling that to activists who see pragmatism as heresy.
And what has all of that activism wrought? Has it wrought unity amongst congressional Republicans? Has it wrought any kind of desirable espirt de corps? Have congressional Republicans settled on a coherent battle plan and are they prepared to implement it? Hardly. Congressional Republicans are at each other’s throats, don’t know how to get themselves out of trouble, and are providing endless amounts of entertainment and mirth for congressional Democrats. The GOP has become one big, giant clown show.
And as though all of this is not enough, congressional Republicans are now planning to fight an increase on the debt ceiling (I told you that we would get to this issue). For those wondering about my sentiments on this scheme, let me spare you the suspense: Refusing to increase the debt ceiling is a fantastically stupid idea. In the annals of stupid ideas, it may rank as one of the stupidest. The United States would become a deadbeat nation. Financial markets would be thrown for a loop by the news that America cannot pay its bills. Interest rates on borrowing–and every nation borrows money; if the United States simply stopped borrowing money and lived only on tax revenue, you would see a dramatic and alarming drop in the standard of living for the American people–would rise alarmingly, something we absolutely, positively do not need with the economy still weak and with labor markets still very, very hobbled. The financial crisis of 2008 may look like a walk in the park by comparison, and the effects would be worldwide. The human misery would be staggering to behold. And I choose my words very carefully when I write all of this.
“But Pejman,” I hear you cry, “we simply cannot afford more debt!” Well, here’s some good news, for a change: Raising the debt ceiling will not put us further in debt. And refusing to raise the debt ceiling does not mean that we have decided to control government spending. Raising the debt ceiling is needed to pay bills that the United States has already incurred, just as having a job and bringing home a paycheck is needed to pay bills for your household. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling is not–repeat, not–like going to a big spender and cutting up his/her credit card and telling him/her that s/he has to live within means. Rather, it is like going up to someone who relies on a job in order to pay bills and telling him/her that s/he would no longer get paid for work that s/he did, which means that s/he will not be able to pay bills, get food, get gas, keep a roof over his/her head (and those of his/her loved ones). Refusing to raise the debt ceiling will not bring about financial responsibility. It will bring about the very opposite of financial responsibility, in fact; it will cause the United States to be unable to pay its bills. I thought that paying one’s bills on time and in full was a sign of maturity, responsibility, a willingness to do the right and adult thing. I thought that these were conservative/right-of-center libertarian/Republican virtues. When did Republicans suddenly decide that these were vices?
One of the biggest tragedies associated with this SNAFU Brought to You by Congressional Republicans is the fact that it overshadows the utter, total, complete, absolute, stark-raving-hysterical failure that has been the rollout of the health insurance exchanges that are supposed to help make Obamacare The Next Awesome Thing in the History of Ever. Quite laughably, the Obama administration compares the health insurance exchange websites with Apple products and tells us that but for a glitch here and there–and thanks to the overwhelming and rapturous popularity that has greeted the implementation of health care “reform,” popularity that has simply overloaded the poor widdle websites with which one is supposed to sign up to be part of the health insurance exchanges–the exchanges would be up and running and we would find unicorns, Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, Iranian political moderates and fiscal grand bargains along with our Glorious and Unstoppably Fantastic Health Care Reform. Don’t believe a word of this fatuous nonsense; the job of the people who prepared the health insurance exchange websites was to prepare for heavy traffic starting on October 1. If they botched that job, who knows what other shenanigans we will have to put up with when, you know, we actually go to doctors’ offices for necessary–and perhaps life-saving–procedures. Much political hay could have been made about the Obama administration’s lack of readiness when it came to rolling out the health insurance exchanges, not to mention the ridiculous attempts to compare their Internet-work with Apple products. But unfortunately, the political clumsiness of congressional Republicans–who on their best days have trouble catching a break from a partisan media–helped ensure that far less attention would be paid to the Obama administration’s bungling of the exchange rollouts this week.
So, here’s three hearty Bronx cheers for congressional Republicans, who remind us why Bobby Jindal was forced to tell the GOP that it should stop trying to be the Stupid Party. Too bad that congressional Republicans refused to listen to Jindal’s instruction. This week, they have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, catastrophe from the jaws of temporary defeat, and a spate of night terrors from the jaws of brief and minor frights. No mean trick, that. Maybe someday, congressional Republicans will collectively grow a brain. Too bad that I will likely have died of old age well before anyone has the chance to witness that particular phenomenon.
*Republican in Name Only, Conservative in Name Only, Libertarian in Name Only, [INSERT VIRTUOUS APPELLATION HERE] in Name Only.