March 24, 2010

A Vital Part of Our Political System Is Destroying Itself

Yesterday, President Obama signed into law landmark health care reform legislation.  After a year of increasingly contentious - and often absurdist - opposition from the Republican Party, Mr. Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wrangled enough votes in the House to pass a version of the Senate bill.

As a practical matter, immediate impact will be felt in a number of ways. The bill is projected to reduced the deficit by $143 billion over 10 years, expand health insurance coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans, close the Medicare prescription coverage gap, and expand Medicaid to more of the poor. Insurers are prohibited from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, exchanges will be established to allow the self-employed to purchase insurance, low-income families will be able to buy insurance with the help of subsidies, and all individuals are now mandated to have coverage.  This effort - while far short of what many, including myself, advocated - is unquestionably transformational.

Beyond the effect on the daily lives of Americans, however, is the political impact the passage of health care reform has had on the two major political parties.  Democrats were able - as they have far too often not been - to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and are re-energized.  Their Republican colleagues, meanwhile, pushed in all their chips in radical, obstructionist opposition to what was at heart a centrist bill that included many of their own ideas (albeit disavowed once they were being championed by Democrats), and were left with nothing but embarrassment and dissarray to show for it.  GOP Senator Jim Demint had talked of making health care reform President Obama's Waterloo, but it was his own party that suffered ignominious defeat.

David Frum, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush, pulls no punches in evaluating the root cause of this meltdown:
I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours.
Unfortunately, this frank appraisal doesn't seem to be one that has gained much traction among Republican Party leadership.  Senator John McCain, the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee who ran on the slogan "Country First," instead dropped this playground-level nonsense in the wake of his party's defeat:
"There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year... They [the Democrats] have poisoned the well in what they've done and how they've done it."
Ignoring for a moment the utter childishness of this statement on its own - and the fact that it puts politics as team sports above the interests of the nation - one need only look back over the course of the last 12 months at the staggering number of filibusters in the Senate to realize this represents no change whatsoever from the tactics Senator McCain's party has employed since being roundly thrashed in the last election cycle.

The always-excellent Digby puts it in perspective:
It's fairly clear that Republicans don't understand how democracy works. You campaign, people vote, you win elections, you get a majority, you pass legislation. They seem to think Democracy means that elections are irrelevant, majorities are meaningless and that all legislation is contingent upon the permission of the Republican Party.

I'm sorry these people are so unhappy. I know how they feel. I used to hate it when the Republicans passed some disgusting initiative that went against everything I believe in. But I don't recall having a mental breakdown at the notion that they could do it even though I didn't want them to. The idea that they were obligated to do my bidding didn't actually cross my mind.

As they used to say repeatedly, "elections have consequences." If the people don't like this bill, they have every right to turn the Democrats out of office and repeal it. But screaming hysterically that it's cheating to pass legislation with a majority just proves that these folks' great reverence for the Constitution is based more on their love of wearing funny hats than anything that's written in it.

This is how the system works. If you don't like it, start pressing for a constitutional amendment that requires that all legislation be approved by every teabagger in the land before it can be enacted. Or start campaigning to put your teabaggers in office so they can have a majority and enact the legislation you like. In either event, stop the whining about "abuse of power." They passed a bill you don't like, for crying out loud, it's not like they seized office with a partisan decision by the Supreme Court and then invaded a country that hadn't attacked us or anything...
As correct as I think that sentiment is, however, it still leaves America with a problem.  As we saw during the Bush years, single party rule is a dangerous, often disastrous, recipe for arrogance and stupidity, and while I currently trust Democrats in Washington a little bit more than I trust their Republican counterparts, there is nothing like a good dose of unfettered power to bring corruption levels to a steady boil.

Unfortunately, at this point, there isn't much choice, as today's GOP is a fractured entity that is more and more unwelcoming to reasonable conservatives.  It is a party that has degenerated into a self-destructive mass of willfull ignorance and divisive anger that not only tolerates, but actively promotes, both disinformation and the basest elements of the American polity.  As Bob Herbert writes:
It is 2010, which means it is way past time for decent Americans to rise up against this kind of garbage, to fight it aggressively wherever it appears. And it is time for every American of good will to hold the Republican Party accountable for its role in tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior in its ranks and among its strongest supporters.
Glenn Beck of Fox News has called President Obama a “racist” and asserted that he “has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

Mike Huckabee, a former Republican presidential candidate, has said of Mr. Obama’s economic policies: “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.”

The GOP poisons the political atmosphere and then has the gall to complain about an absence of bipartisanship.

The toxic clouds that are the inevitable result of the fear and the bitter conflicts so relentlessly stoked by the Republican Party — think blacks against whites, gays versus straights, and a whole range of folks against immigrants — tend to obscure the tremendous damage that the party’s policies have inflicted on the country. If people are arguing over immigrants or abortion or whether gays should be allowed to marry, they’re not calling the GOP to account for (to take just one example) the horribly destructive policy of cutting taxes while the nation was fighting two wars.

If you’re all fired up about Republican-inspired tales of Democrats planning to send grandma to some death chamber, you’ll never get to the GOP’s war against the right of ordinary workers to organize and negotiate in their own best interests — a war that has diminished living standards for working people for decades.

With a freer hand, the Republicans would have done more damage. George W. Bush tried to undermine Social Security. John McCain was willing to put Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the Oval Office and thought Phil Gramm would have made a crackerjack Treasury Secretary. (For those who may not remember, Mr. Gramm was a deregulation zealot who told us during the presidential campaign that we were suffering from a “mental recession.”)

A party that promotes ignorance (“Just say no to global warming”) and provides a safe house for bigotry cannot serve the best interests of our country.
The current iteration of GOP leadership is so far off the reservation it has become little more than a burlesque show of lowest common denominator hypocrisy, crass clownishness and mob rage.  It has left principled conservatives essentially homeless and unrepresented in a modern political dialog that has devolved into a circus sideshow in which one side tries to talk while their opposition screams about socialism, communism, fascism, or some brain-dead, impossible mixture of all three, blindly following whatever half-chewed conceptual train wreck Glen Beck has vomited up that day.

The fact is that we need the Republican Party, or at least another viable opposition organization in its stead.  We need real dialog, because without it, there is no choice, there is no competition and there is no marketplace of ideas.  In my opinion, it is a good thing that we have taken our first steps on the road to health care reform, but I take no pleasure in watching a very necessary component of our political system immolate itself on the national stage.

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