Over the past three decades, the Republican Party has spiraled from the center-right policies of Ronald Reagan - who, among other actions that would have him drummed out of his party today, tripled the debt, raised taxes 11 times, and expanded the size of government - to a tragically mis-informed extremism embodied by Tea Party zealots and a crop of erstwhile presidential candidates that features the likes of Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, and Rick Santorum.
During that same 30-year span, however, the Very Serious People in Washington - along with a lot of otherwise sensible GOP rank-and-file - pretended that this descent into venal arrogance and ineptitude was all OK; that the single-minded effort to continue dumbing-down the citizenry, the outrageous hypocrisy on everything from fiscal issues to "morality", the pride in ignorance, the demonization of government and taxation, and the culture of fear and victimhood that are the hallmarks of today's movement conservatism weren't core aspects of the modern Republican Party. Instead, it was much more convenient to pretend that this race to the bottom was just another way of looking at things - the other side of the conversation, if you will - a manifestations of homespun Americanism resurgent against the repression of liberal elitism.
Last week, however, with the likelihood that the United States might catastrophically default on its debt looming increasingly large, cracks in that facade appeared, and there seems to be some genuine alarm now that there is clearly a faction of the Republican Party which genuinely believes it would be better to tank the U.S. economy than to raise taxes in any way, whatsoever. The GOP has reached a tipping point of extremism, and so, apparently, have some of the Beltway opinion-makers who have made a career out of treating people like Mitt Romney and John McCain as if they were qualified, well-informed leaders who haven't sold their souls for the approval of an ever-more-radical right wing base.
It's hard to know if traditional GOP fluffers like David Brooks, Richard Cohen and Megan McArdle - Very Serious People, all - are genuinely shocked by what is going on and didn't see this coming, or if they have suddenly realized that the amusing, lucrative game they have been playing in which they lend legitimacy to right wing fanatics and corporate stooges isn't really a game, after all. In the first instance, this makes them morons; in the second greedy hypocrites, but in either case - amazingly - they have all recently written columns that are, for a change, firmly grounded in reality.
A longtime darling of the center-right establishment, Mr. Brooks had this to say:
... The Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.Meanwhile, Ms. McArdle, a prolific, if often logic- and fact-challenged, self-sytled libertarian conservative, made this cogent observation:
The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.
The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.
The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.
The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name. Economists have identified many factors that contribute to economic growth, ranging from the productivity of the work force to the share of private savings that is available for private investment. Tax levels matter, but they are far from the only or even the most important factor.
But to members of this movement, tax levels are everything. Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.
... I am getting the same sinking feeling that Brooks is having - that there is a sizeable faction on the right, and worse, in the GOP caucus, that is willing to default rather than make any deal at all. In fact, I think it's worse than Brooks suggests. It would be bad enough if these people were simply against higher taxes, because then you might persuade them by pointing out that if we default, we're probably going to end up with higher taxes, right now, in order to close the current gap between spending and tax revenue.Even the serially hackish Richard Cohen lifted his eyes from his navel long enough to point out what has been blisteringly obvious to anyone who has been paying attention since the installation of George W. Bush in the White House:
But when I point this out, the response in my comments and e-mail and twitter is "Fine, I'll accept higher taxes, as long as they come with radical changes in spending." The BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement) is default on either our debt, or entitlements like Social Security that people have planned their lives around; the Democrats properly view this as a disaster. But I'm hearing from people who seem to think that it's better than raising one thin new dime in taxes. This makes me very much afraid of where this is headed.
The political logic is infantile. The American public does not want you to cut Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. There is no monopartisan substitute for persuading people to agree with you...
... The hallmark of a cult is to replace reason with feverish belief. This the GOP has done when it comes to the government’s ability to stimulate the economy. History proves this works - it’s how the Great Depression ended - but Republicans will not acknowledge it.It is rare indeed to survey the works of David Brooks, Megan McArdle and Richard Cohen and come away nodding in agreement at the sensible arguments they have made, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day. This moment of journalistic syzygy should be noticed not just for its rarity, however, but for what it portends for the Republican Party. The GOP old money has painted itself into a corner with the Tea Party movement, and it is going to have to either double down on the crazy in order to keep the Teabaggers happy, or spend a lot of resources to rein in the monster it has created.
The Depression in fact deepened in 1937 when Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to balance the budget and was ended entirely by World War II, which, besides being a noble cause, was also a huge stimulus program. Here, though, is Sen. Richard Shelby mouthing GOP dogma: Stimulus programs “did not bring us out of the Depression,” he recently told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, but “the war did.” In other words, a really huge stimulus program hugely worked. Might not a more modest one succeed modestly? Shelby ought to follow his own logic.
Something similar has happened with global warming. It has become a conviction of much of the GOP that you and I, with our cars and factories and leaf blowers and barbecue pits, are off the hook — innocent of cooking the atmosphere. That being the case, it therefore is not the case that anything has to be done about it. Only much of science, common sense and your average walrus differ, but the GOP soldiers on. This is a version of Nancy Reagan’s pledge: Just say no.
This intellectual rigidity has produced a GOP presidential field that’s a virtual political Jonestown. The Grand Old Party, so named when it really did evoke America, has so narrowed its base that it has become a political cult. It is a redoubt of certainty over reason and in itself significantly responsible for the government deficit that matters most: leadership...
In either case, the ongoing debt ceiling crisis looks like it might be the beginning of the end of the Tea Party as an effective political entity. Deeper extremism will only continue to make both it and its Republican parent less appealing to the electorate, and the alternative - ongoing internecine strife - is a recipe for rapidly diminishing influence. As long as the grown-ups have enough leverage to keep the radicals from sinking the economic ship by way of default, what's on the other side of the debt ceiling crisis may actually end up being greener pastures for more rational politics.
Bill Maher points out the role of ignorance, misinformation and wealth fantasy in supporting the Republican Party: