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.”