The shutdown of the federal government continues into its second week. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Some thoughts today on the apocalyptic horror that envelops us this week, thanks to our friends on the right. Last week I noted that conservatives are time-biders: “The catacombs were good enough for the Christians,” as National Review publisher William Rusher put it in 1960. That’s their imperative as they see it: hunker down, for decades if need be, waiting for the opportune moment to strike down the wickedness they spy everywhere—in this case, a smoothly functioning federal government. “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years,” Grover Norquist said in the first part of the quote, whose more famous second half is “to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Twenty-five years. Given that sedulous long-termism, conservatives are also, it is crucial to understand, inveterate goalpost-movers—fundamentally so. Whenever an exasperated liberal points out that the basic architecture of the Affordable Care Act matches a plan drawn up by the Heritage Foundation in the 1990s, I feel a stab of exasperation myself—with my side. Theirs is not a clinching argument, or even a good argument. It means nothing to point out to conservatives that Heritage once proposed something like Obamacare. The Heritage plan was a tactic of a moment—a moment that required something to fill in the space to the right of President Clinton’s healthcare plan, an increment toward the real strategic goal of getting the government out of the healthcare business altogether… someday.
I am never more exasperated than when Barack Obama makes such arguments. He loves them! This week it was his observation, “The bill that is being presented to end the government shutdown reflects Republican priorities.” So why can’t they see reason?
Never mind the damage such pronouncements do to the president’s status as a negotiator, a point we’ve all discussed to death, though I’ll reiterate it anyway: even when Obamaism wins on its own terms, it loses, ratifying Republican negotiating positions as common sense. As that same conservative theorist William Rusher also put it, the greatest power in politics is “the power to define reality.” As I wrote last year, “Obama never attempts that. Instead, he ratifies his opponent’s reality, by folding it into his original negotiating position. And since the opponent’s preferred position is always further out than his own, even a ‘successful’ compromise ends up with the reality looking more like the one the Republicans prefer. A compromise serves to legitimize.”
No, these days I’m worried about something worse: that Obama might not grasp the fundamental nature of the entire modern conservative project. They really do believe that a smoothly functioning federal government is the enemy—a Satanic enemy, for the more theologically minded among them. “Republican priorities”? Those were their priorities then. They have new ones now, and they’re not looking back. That’s just how they think.
A friend of mine has been arguing with me about this point. She says Obama is obviously too smart to not understand something as basic as this. Ah, but isn’t it the smartest people who are frequently the most stupid? Or at least the most myopic. Presidents, especially—they have a horrible history of locking themselves into insipid assumptions, stubborn in the belief that they must be right because they never would have become so powerful otherwise. John F. Kennedy, newly installed in the White House, didn’t think civil rights would be a big deal (he at least was smart enough to shift course on that one). Lyndon B. Johnson thought he’d have the boys home from Vietnam by Christmas—for four Christamases in a row (he never shifted course, and lost his presidency for it). Henry Kissinger (not a president, but as powerful as a president in many ways) couldn’t “believe a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.” Then there was his boss—so smart! so myopic! Richard M. Nixon honestly believed in his bones that an organized conspiracy of liberal media insiders had literally been plotting against him ever since he broke Alger Hiss in 1948 (he never shifted course, and lost his soul).
And Barack H. Obama thinks he can reason with the right. Still. What will he lose for that myopia?
Remember how he used to talk back on the campaign trail? Republicans “drove the country into the ditch,” and “now they want the keys back.” It was a very telling formulation. He thought—thinks—Republicans are bad drivers: that the problem is competence. But Republicans are great drivers. They drive exactly where they want to go, pedal to the metal. Or—time-biding, again—they creep along, should traffic conditions dictate; then, the moment comes—and zooooom. The moment in 2005, for instance, was Hurricane Katrina. It was a “golden opportunity,” Jack Kemp wrote, to suspend “burdensome federal regulations.” Tod Lindberg, of the now-defunct journal Policy Review and the Heritage Foundation, literally rejoiced: here was the chance for President Bush to “make demands in the name of New Orleans, including demands for substantive policy changes that he could never obtain in the absence of a crisis.”
They didn’t get far with that then, thank God. But in the fullness of time, the willingness to imagine boldly, the time-biding, goalpost-moving, works. Read Digby:
“Republicans are perhaps the most effective opposition party[,] well… ever. It’s not that they win all their battles by any means. They lose a lot. And now they finally seem to have even lost much of the political establishment which took decades to notice that they’d become a bunch of radical cranks. But that isn’t going to stop them because even though their wild-eyed followers may be unhappy that they didn’t get the magic pony they were promised, the real strategists like the moneybags Koch brothers and Pete Peterson, along with smart operatives like Norquist and Ryan, know that they can advance their agenda no matter who is in power. The tactics shift depending on the circumstances, but the overall strategy never changes: drown the welfare state in the bathtub.”
They’re effective. Think about it. Obama now admits it: his compromise—the left wing of the possible—is to lock in “Republican priorities.” Let’s hope he doesn’t make the same move in, say, twelve months, locking in “Republican priorities” from now, the ones even further to the right. You see the problem?
I’ll close today with another quick gripe: the one about Democrats’ “winning” this hostage-taking horror show because the Republicans now have a 28 percent approval rating, lower than during the shutdowns in the mid-1990s. Well, in 1975, only 18 percent of Americans were willing to call themselves “Republicans.” Internally, the talk was whether the party should change its name. George Will said visiting Republican National Committee headquarters was like visiting “the set for a political disaster flick, a political Poseidon Adventure.” The bank holding the mortgage on the Capitol Hill Club, the private retreat where Republicans took their refreshment, was threatening to foreclose on the place. The party’s pollster, Robert Teeter, explained that a majority of Americans considered Republicans “untrustworthy and incompetent.” A desperate RNC commissioned a series of three TV programs called Republicans Are People Too!, which ended with a pitch for contributions. The second episode cost $124,000 to produce. It brought in $5,515. The announced third episode never ran.
They came back in 1978—too late for the political scientist Everett Carll Ladd to save face, for his book Where Have All the Voters Gone? had just come out, arguing, “The GOP is in a weaker position than any major party of the U.S. since the Civil War…. We are dealing with a long-term secular shift, not just an artifact of Watergate. The Republicans have lost their grip on the American establishment, most notably among young men and women of relative privilege. They have lost it, we know, in large part because the issue orientations which they manifest are somewhat more conseravtive than the stratem favors. The party is especially poorly equipped in style and tone to articulate the frustrations of the newly emergent American petit bourgeoisie—southern, white Protestant, Catholic, black and the like.”
They did pretty good in 1980, too. Don’t gloat.
In part three of this series, Rick Perlstein discussed the historical roots of the government shutdown.