Our long national nightmare is over – for the moment. Congress has adjourned for summer recess after a session that can safely be described as “historic,” both for its historic lack of accomplishment and the historically low regard in which it is now held by the public.
But let’s be clear: This shameful record is not an example of “government failure.” It is a demonstration of what happens when people who are opposed to government, for reasons of both ideology and self-interest, are given positions of power within it and do not face a sufficiently eloquent and well-organized opposition.
Doing nothing is not a bug for Republicans in Congress. It is a feature.
They appear to be evolving from a rhetorically extreme but ultimately self-interested body – a phenomenon that is disturbing in its moral implications but at least somewhat predictable in its behavior – into something else altogether: a rhetorically extreme group that actually believes its rhetoric.
Sooner or later that will force the GOP’s Democratic opponents to confront the question: What do they believe in, and what will they do to achieve it?
Across the Borderline
Traces of the Republican Right’s steely determination are easily found, in everything from its xenophobic treatment of refugee children to the austerity policies that continue to wrack our economy. They have even begun to mythologize this destructive endeavor, telling the story of their own obstructionism as if it were a noble and historic battle.
Consider the tragic scuttling of the House leadership’s border bill – itself essentially a symbolic gesture – by the ultra-right Cruz wing of the party. That failure left Republicans comically imploring the President to do something about the border crisis “without the need for congressional action” – while at the same time preparing to sue him for taking other actions without congressional approval.
This much-remarked madness illustrates the actions of a party that lacks both a moral and a cognitive compass. But that doesn’t mean Republicans aren’t on a winning streak of sorts anyway.
The immigration failure was the crowning non-achievement of the closing congressional session, and we’re told that it was birthed one night in Sen. Ted Cruz’s office over “We, The Pizza; Starburst; Skittles; Shiner Bock beer; Yuengling; white wine; and three selections of Dr. Pepper.”
(Which Republican was the closet elitist who ordered white wine? And what kind was it – a dry choice like a Chardonnay to go with the pizza, or perhaps a Riesling to complement the sugary fruitiness of the Skittles? Inquiring minds want to know.)
There was to be none of this “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” nonsense for this crowd. Their mission was to shut down even House Speaker John Boehner’s circumscribed funding for the effort they insisted on calling “Obama’s amnesty.”
As symbolism for the Republican right, it doesn’t get much more concise than this profound statement of ungenerosity. Children in need, hungry and endangered and far from home, should evoke sympathetic reactions in a kind and generous people. By rejecting these kids – and attempting to punish President Obama for acts of common decency – we learn who the Republicans are, not just in their policies but in their souls.
Crazy is as Crazy Does
But then, they’ve pretty much told us that themselves. The House’s far-right Republicans – which is to say, a large chunk of them – is blocking a bipartisan proposal to honor and congratulate Pope Francis on his election. These sorts of resolutions have always been uncontroversial in Congress – Catholics vote, after all – but they’re having none of it. Instead, an unnamed Republican official told The Hill that the Pope is “too liberal” for them.
If they say that about the Pope, can you imagine what they’d say about Jesus (who, if memory serves, was a child refugee himself)?
Their rhetoric is truly frightening, as the writers who follow it can attest. Terrance Heath goes spelunking in the dark caves of the human spirit so the rest of us don’t have to. In Congress’ last week alone, Heath found that Boehner called Sen. Harry Reid’s immigration plan “nutso”; Rep. Steve Stockman suggesting that Obama was using the border crisis to push his “Third World view”; and Rep. Michele Bachmann hinting that the president might conduct medical experiments on border children.
And that’s just a sampler.
But when it comes to influencing policy, they’re not as crazy as they look. They’re once again shifting the nation rightward, despite widespread public disapproval of their positions. (See PopulistMajority.org for more on the public's views.) And that shift applies to both the tone of the debate and the substance of the policy.
There's the petty obstructionism that manifests itself in the prevention of sensible deeds, large and small. That’s what led Senate Republicans to filibuster the “Bring Jobs Home Act,” for example, a bill that would end tax breaks for shipping U.S. jobs overseas and replace them with tax breaks for creating jobs here.
The GOP routinely prevents a number of common-sense acts like these – acts that until recently would have enjoyed at least some support from members both parties – from getting passed. It’s tragic that these everyday obstructions continue to take place.
A Choice, For a Change?
But the right’s real winning streak, and therefore its opponents’ challenge, lies in its continued ability to shift the public conversation away from the deep-seated, systemic issues we still face. Most Democrats, whether out of discouragement or calculation, aren’t proposing the kinds of bold and transformative initiatives the country still needs – in jobs, infrastructure, trade, workplace rights, wages, economic equality, and other areas. (There are some notable exceptions to this rule.)
The upward transfer of wealth has cost the average American household $7,400 since the year 2000. Low-wage women still bear a terrible financial and job burden, as Jiao (Kitty) Lan observes. Job growth is still anemic, as millions still struggle with joblessness. Students are still burdened with debt. The highway-bill fiasco demonstrates the ongoing toll taken by austerity’s ongoing grip on our politics.
And yet countless liberals still talk about how “crazy” the Republicans are, which raises the question: If they’re so crazy, why are they doing so well? They may even be poised to win the Senate in November. Republicans have learned to lose battles in a way that elevates their political arguments. Where are the equally bold Democratic statements of principle?
Sure, the Republicans in Congress would shoot down those bold progressive policies. But they shoot down the timid ones, too. At least voters would finally have a clear choice between two competing ideologies. The polling shows clearly that, given a choice like that, they’d reject the right.
Say what you will about the extremist Republicans, but they know what they believe in and they’ve found a way to fight for it – despite the unpopularity of their views. That raises a challenge for Democrats: Will they finally offer a clear and unashamedly progressive alternative, one that's smart both politically and as policy? Given the role money currently plays in our political system, the answer’s likely to be: not until an organized and independent progressive movement demands it.