As I write this, the latest fight between Hamas and Israel enters its 16th day. This time, the conflict began shortly after the killing of three Israeli teenagers by unidentified Palestinian terrorists and the reciprocal murder of a Palestinian youth by Israeli extremists. Next time, it will begin with something else.
And there will be a next time, and a time after that, until leaders arise on both sides courageous enough to deal with the real issues that stand between their countries and lasting peace. Leaders on the level of Israel’s Menachim Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. Leaders willing to risk political repercussions from within and without and even their own lives to make a real difference. Stopgap measures may be encouraged by the United States and others, but an enduring solution and the leadership that can make it happen must come from within. Only a peace accord with significant concessions on each side – an end to the West Bank settlements and an acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist as a state – can end the cycle of violence.
Like its predecessors in 2007 and 2008, this Gaza war and those that will follow reflect a long history of conflict dating from the seizure of Gaza (then a part of Egypt) and the West Bank in the aftermath of the 1967 war. Since then the enmity between Palestinians and Israelis has been exacerbated by disputed land claims, oppressive occupation policies, controversial settlement expansion, acts of terrorism, and wars.
Israel voluntarily withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Two years later elections put Hamas in charge of the Strip’s government. In 2007, Hamas initiated missile attacks on Israel which led the Jewish state to send troops there. Egypt brokered a six month cease fire in June, 2008. After the time out expired in December, 2008, rocket fire resumed and Israel again attacked. That incursion, like the earlier one, ended in under a month. We can expect the same of the current conflict.
Bear in mind that Hamas began these latest attacks to regain its lost popularity. Its disastrous economic, political, and diplomatic record had led it in the last year to surrender its domestic powers to Fatah, the other political entity in Gaza. If Hamas can claim some sort of a “win” in the present conflict – while garnering increased sympathy from non-Hamas Palestinians in response to Israeli attacks – its goal of regaining the population’s support will have been met. All the more so if it get concessions from Israel and Egypt to loosen or end their blockades of Gaza.
In addition to stopping the missile attacks, Israelis are using this conflict as an opportunity to destroy the labyrinth of tunnels and access points from Gaza into its territory that provide a conduit for smuggled weapons and routes for terrorists to kidnap or kill Israelis.
Neither side’s objectives can be met entirely. There are limits to how many tunnels Israel can destroy and how many rockets Hamas can fire. At that point both sides will agree to stop the fighting under a deal likely brokered by Egypt and the United States and endorsed by the UN.
International blame for the episode will fall more heavily on Israel because she is by far the stronger power and will have “disproportionately” inflicted more human casualties and physical damage. But what constitutes a “proportionate” response to thousands of falling missiles? Shooting them down, when possible, or hoping they land harmlessly? Would those countries in the international community who accuse Israel of overreacting not do everything they could to halt a similar bombardment? Of course they would.
While we await the leaders in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps who can rise above the wounds of the past and the politics of the moment to change the future of the region, we can expect more of the same, with the same outcomes. In this area of the world, unfortunately, history can, does, and will continue to repeat itself.
Today’s political scene finds democracies everywhere in serious trouble. Are we looking at a permanent deterioration of democracy as a workable form of government? Is the great experiment over? Hardly. Keep your lab coats buttoned and read on.
Here’s the short view:
According to a recent report by the non-partisan research organization Freedom House, 2013 was the eighth consecutive year in which global freedom declined. (“What’s Gone Wrong with Democracy,” The Economist, March 1, 2014) A similar group, the Bertelsmann Foundation, also reported a significant rise in the number of defective democracies (rigged elections and so forth). (David Brooks, “Democracy in long-run decline?” New York Times, May 19, 2014)
In the United States an asymmetric polarization has seemingly ended Congress’s ability to perform as an effective legislature. The Republican Party hijacked by Tea Party radicals has become scornful of compromise, dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, and unconvinced by facts and evidence. (Thomas E. Mann, “Politics Is More Broken than Ever – Political Scientists Just Need to Admit It,” The Atlantic, May 27, 2014)
The GOP politicizes or is against anything Obama-related. How much the obstructionism is race-based is hard to say, but surely racism played some part among those who urged taking back the country from a “Kenyan-born Muslim” president. (Eugene Robinson, “The Times When Race Matter,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, May 27, 2014)
Strong showings by the Tea Party’s conservative cousins in the latest elections to the European Parliament by nationalist and anti-immigrant parties opposed to the influence of the European Union have rocked establishment leaders. The United Kingdom Independence Party got 28% of the vote on a platform favoring a flat tax, school vouchers, and disavowal of multiculturalism. (Alan Conwell and James Canter, “Established Parties Rocked by Anti-Europe Vote,” New York Times, May 26, 2014 and Cal Thomas, “The Tea Party Lives – in Europe,” Washington Examiner, May 28, 2014)
Ironically, there is flat-out admiration among these right wingers for the anti-Western policies, including restrictions on homosexuals and crackdowns on dissidents, pursued by Russia president Vladimir Putin
Democracy also disappointed by failing to put down roots in Egypt, Libya, and Syria in the aftermath of the Arab Awakening. Intensified religious and ethnic grievances there led to repression, violence, and civil war.
Most telling in the weakening of the democratic government model at home was the 2007-2008 financial meltdown. Its results and mishandling led to sustained unease and anger in the electorate about the ways globalization and technology magnified the returns for the super rich. The financial elite were operating in a world of low taxation and lax regulation, growing inequality, fewer opportunities for the young, and an increasing sense of unfairness. (Roger Cohen, “Capitalism Eating Its Children, New York Times, May 29, 2014.) For politicians, “whom to blame” took precedence over “how to govern.”
In Europe, similar disillusionment followed years of austerity cuts born by those who could least afford it, failure to curb high unemployment, out-of-touch elites at home, a heavy-handed European Union bureaucracy with no democratic mandate, and growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
Elsewhere historical factors showed the difficulty of transplanting democracy onto barren soil. President George W. Bush’s notion that toppling Saddam would lead to democracy in Iraq and throughout the Middle East was badly mistaken.
And here’s the long view:
Democracies often look a lot weaker than they are because “doing” democracy is excruciatingly slow work. That’s not a bad thing. The tortoise-paced process acts as a safeguard against sudden and all-too-often violent upheavals.
And yet the adaptability of democracy remains superior to that of its political competitors: witness the ongoing expansion of gay rights.
Moreover, despite the criticism, democracy’s world-wide appeal remains enduring. Its message of freedom that lets people speak their own minds and shape the future for themselves and their children continues to inspire.
Fear that the Chinese model of substantial economic growth with little political freedom represents the wave of the future is overblown. Its costs are too prohibitive: historical amnesia, imprisonment of dissidents, wide-ranging censorship, and pervasive and systemic corruption. China needs to whip up nationalist claims (to air space and territory in the South China Sea) to deflect public anger away from the communist party kleptocracy.
The current political gridlock in the U.S. will end in 2016. If the Republicans win the presidency they will have to govern, not just criticize. If they lose, they will have to re-embrace the party’s right-center political space, and come up with programs more appealing to women and minorities or give up on capturing the presidency.
The ballots cast for the European Parliament do not reflect voting patterns in national elections. Those contests usually favor traditional parties whose edge is reinforced by larger voter turnout. Reforms by the EU, especially its open door policy on immigrants, would temper some of the current anger.
There is a good chance that Putin’s Russia will implode after he leaves office, at the latest. The country’s liabilities continue to grow: pervasive corruption, alcoholism, a declining population, an economy too dependent on fluctuating prices in the oil and gas markets, and an inability – despite the Crimea annexation – to reestablish its empire with the states that made up the former USSR.
There and elsewhere, the desire of young people to express themselves, as they do via social media, will keep the idea of freedom attractive to them despite the practical difficulties standing in the way of its implementation.
For all of these reasons, it is premature to predict the imminent demise of democracies. The laboratory doors remain open. The great experiment continues.
Predictably, neo-conservatives are blaming President Obama’s vacillation and weakness in dealing with Benghazi, Iran, and Syria for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
The portrayal of Obama as indecisive dates from the September 11, 2012, attack on Benghazi, a tragic, isolated event carried out by terrorists against a poorly protected embassy. And yet, Obama’s conduct of foreign policy had nothing to do with the Benghazi attack. There are far more than six degrees of separation between presidential responsibility and the conduct of day-to-day embassy affairs.
Establishing cause and effect relationships where none exist is illogical and dangerous. According to neo-conservatives, giving peace a chance in Iran was also a timid choice. Better to ratchet up the sanctions until the Ayatollah “screamed uncle” and gave up all production of weapons-grade uranium. Better to green light Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, maybe even join them in the attack. So what if the American military considered such actions problematic? Lost in the accusation of timidness is Obama’s role in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, using the very sanctions he’s accused of not using sufficiently.
Then there was his refusal to send massive arms to the Syrian rebels, whose most effective fighters are extremists. And why didn’t he establish a no-fly zone? Who cares that most military leaders warned that such a move would be unenforceable? Cooperating with the Russians to get Syria to agree to destroy its massive supply of chemical/biological weapons apparently counts for nothing – or is just another sign of weakness.
The invasion of Ukraine by those same Russians is the latest fodder for critics who see the move as part of a bolder Putin plan to annex all of eastern and southern Ukraine, and maybe other former Soviet republics as well. No matter that events in Ukraine caught Putin completely by surprise, as attested to by his clumsy, heavy-handed, ad hoc responses. Apparently it’s better to forgo diplomacy and get right to the maximum sanctions while the situation continues to unfold in ways not yet predictable.
The truth is, even had Obama bombed the Syrian airforce to smithereens, Putin would have preceded exactly as he did in Ukraine. Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Khrushchev bestowed it as a “gift” to the Ukrainan people. Kiev, the center of the revolution, exists only as a weak provisional government. But historical complexity does not enter the mindset of those prone toward acting first and thinking later.
Or perhaps anything that Obama does or doesn’t do is unacceptable?
Obama has said that he and our allies would impose tough sanctions on Russia if it annexes Crimea, just as neo-conservatives suggest. But this stance is ignored because Obama is also willing to open up a diplomatic door that could lead to more autonomy for Crimea if Russia stops short of annexation.
Given our very poor track record in those places where we did act aggressively – Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – Obama has been absolutely right in keeping the United States from jumping headfirst into yet another costly, unpredictable military adventure.
Do his critics remember that after the United States withdrew the last of its forces from Iraq on December 31, 2011, the country was “awash in a blood-dimmed tide, with nearly 9,000 killed last year and almost 1,000 killed last month, as Al Qaeda and another jihadist group fight for supremacy. In Falluja, the city where nearly 100 American soldiers died in the fiercest fighting of the war, the black insurgent flag now flies over buildings.” (Maureen Dowd, “History: Get Me Rewrite,” New York Times, February 19, 2014)
Do those critics consider that to date President Hamid Karzai has been unwilling to sign off on a bilateral security agreement to let any American soldiers stay on after December 31, 2014? In response, Obama has threatened to sign an agreement with a new Afghan government after the April 5 elections. Unfortunately, “of the eleven campaigns for those elections six included at least one candidate on the ticket who was widely viewed as a warlord, with pasts and policies directly at odds with Western attempts to improve human rights.” (Bob Norland, “Warlords With Dark Pasts Battle in Afghan Elections, New York Times, February 26, 2014)
“Act first, think later,” is not a recipe for international success. Nor is refusal to recognize the limits of American power. Nor is making bad analogies, such as the current one linking Crimea and Putin to Hitler and Munich.
Better to err on the side of caution. Better to look long and hard before we leap – again – into the unknown. Better to have a cautious president who deliberates before he sounds the charge. It is not feckless to refuse to be reckless.
Reposted from Shea Magazine, http://www.sheamagazine.com.
ROUND AND ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH:
KEEPING AN EYE ON THE WEASELS
By Harvey Asher, Ph.D.
The latest economic data show workers’ wages and salaries growing at the lowest rate relative to corporate profits in U.S. history. Yet in “America’s Inequality Problem,” a January 20, 2014, column for The New York Times, David Brooks says, “. . . raising the minimum wage may not be an effective way to help those least well-off.” He cites a study by Professors Joseph Sabia and Richard Burkhauser that found no evidence that increases in the minimum wage had any effects on the poverty rate.
That may not be quite right. Also in January, USA Today mentioned an unspecified study that determined that just over 11% of those officially classified as poor and 42% of those occupying the next rung on the poverty scale would benefit if the minimum wage rose from the current $7.25 to $9.50. While not solving all problems related to poverty, raising the minimum wage would at least make many poor Americans less poor.
Brooks’s point is that “ . . . we should not be focusing on a secondary issue and a statistical byproduct.” Rather, emphasis should be on single motherhood and high school dropout rates, as they most correlate with lack of social mobility.
Right. Let’s focus on changing things that would take lots of time – assuming we even knew how to begin – and lots of money, difficult to come by in these times of large deficits. Let’s not do the simple thing we can do.
One good thing about running in circles: at least we look like we care.
It would be more honest to flat-out write off “the 47%” dependent upon government handouts, as did Governor Romney in his presidential run, than to maintain this pretense of being in their corner, all worried about their most pressing concerns, while sidelining the issue of gross income inequalities. We certainly don’t want “a class conscious style of politics” brought on by ever-widening income disparities.
And maybe if we keep on running in circles, that particular mulberry bush will just die of neglect?
In his article “More Imperfect Unions” (New York Times, January 26, 2014), Ross Douthat, unlike Brooks, offers a few words on the negative role Bain-like capitalism played in creating the current lopsided distribution of wealth. But he doesn’t mention raising the minimum wage as a tool for righting this situation. Like Brooks, he sees the undercutting of the two-parent family as the main cause of poverty, specifically, liberals’ “permissive attitudes towards sex and the 1970s era revolutions in divorce and abortion law.”
Hence, after a quick nod to the economics of poverty, Douhat shifts to a critique of liberal values that led the poor astray. Easy access to abortion allowed women the physical choice as to whether to go through with birth, he explains, and, therefore, “made marriage and child support the choice of the man.” No-fault divorce laws gave reasons to delay marriage and not to risk investing in a venture “that could be unilaterally dissolved.”
Douthat’s recommendations: wage subsidies to employers to hire underemployed workers, “modest” (unspecified) limits on unilateral divorce, and a second trimester ban on abortions. In other words, he winds up pitching the conservative family values agenda without so much as another glance at inequitable distribution of wealth.
Just keep running.
In actual fact, the reasons for the 50% divorce rates in this country transcend class. For one thing, many middle and upper class women earn enough so that they don’t have to stay in bad marriages. And it’s puzzling why Douthat thinks further restrictions on abortion would help the poor climb out of poverty. Wouldn’t it be more productive to advocate easy access to abortion? Better yet, more information, such as that provided by Planned Parenthood, to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place?
In any case, while awaiting the implementation of bold plans to resuscitate family values, why not raise the minimum wage? At the very least, such a step would not worsen the situation. Arguments that a higher minimum wage would lead to job cuts are not borne out by the results of previous hikes. In terms of purchasing power, the minimum wage reached its highest level in 1968, when, converted into today’s dollars, it equaled $10.55 an hour, more than is currently being proposed. Yet the unemployment rate in 1968 was 3.6%.
Raising the minimum wage is not a panacea for reducing poverty. But it would help many to be less impoverished, and that is a good thing. Instead, the weasels continue to race “round and round the mulberry bush” with variations on the blame-the-victim-and-blame-the-liberals theme that do not deal with the economics of poverty.
What sort of monkey would think “’twas all in fun”?
For some reason — probably having to do with the new Sandy Asher website at http://www.sandyasher.wordpress.com — the email about Harvey’s last post, WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD — arrived in your mailbox with a by-line crediting me for its content. That by-line doesn’t even appear in the draft version or the on-line version, so I don’t know how to get rid of it. (Advice welcome.) At any rate, it’s Harvey’s essay! I administer the blog and my website, but he’s the historian.
Sorry for the confusion!
Sandy (and Harvey, of course)
Reposted from Shea Magazine, http://www.sheamagazine.com.
Things That Matter, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Charles Krauthammer’s latest series of essays, for the most part previously published in the Washington Post, soared to the top of best seller lists in 2013. The collection’s popularity rides on his record of being stylistically engaging, sometimes humorous, and seemingly compassionate, logical, and objective. For many admirers like conservative blogger Tom Tillison, now Senior Writer/Editor at BizPac Review.com, Krauthammer is “arguably the sharpest conservative mind in politics today.”
Sharp he is, but more is involved than intellect. Krauthammer is quite clever in presenting himself as thoughtful and objective. He’s willing to criticize positions taken by other conservatives – Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck among them – who are given to high emotion, ideological rigidity, and mean-spiritedness. But in the end, Krauthammer turns out to be a wizard creating illusions of wisdom from behind a curtain of questionable premises and inconclusive facts.
Among the columns included in this latest book is a 1990 essay, “The Real Message of Creationism,” in which Krauthammer acknowledges that creationism “which presents Genesis as literally true, is not science,” and that the teaching of creationism “has no part in the science curriculum of any serious country.” Having thrown a sop to advocates of the scientific method, he then changes course, condoning the decision of the Kansas Board of Education to eliminate the teaching of evolution from the state science curriculum. This decision, he explains, was based not on ignorance, but on resentment at the absence of religious values in the schools. Hence, creationist lobbyists are understandable in seeking a ban on evolution because they are using that approach as a back door to restoring religion to its rightful place in the curriculum.
Krauthammer concludes that “a healthy country would teach its students about both evolution and the Ten Commandments.” One could almost allow him that, but then comes the clincher: Values eroded in the first place, he opines, because secularists used biology as a back door to inculcating their anti-American values, specifically by deceptively pushing for sex education classes. In the blink of an eye Krauthammer has moved from rejecting creationism as bad science to empathizing with Kansas anti-evolutionists for waging the good fight against the forces of darkness. The ends justify the means, and, anyway, nyah-nyah-nyah, they cheated first!
Another example of Krauthammer’s sleight of hand can be seen in “Decline Is a Choice,” a column that first appeared in 2009. Again, first comes the nod to those critical of capitalism as a distribution system: “There’s much to be said for the decency and relative equality of social democracy.” Then it’s down to business. The cost of some sort of social democracy — that is, greater focus on the needs of the poor — is too dear, he insists, because we live in a Hobbesian state of nature, a world of continual war and violence. Social democratic programs, however desirable they may be, exact too high a price “on our primacy in space, on missile defense, on energy security, and on our military capacities and future power projection.” Moreover, “at a time when hundreds of billions of dollars are being lavished on stimulus and other appropriations in an endless array of domestic programs, the defense budget is practically frozen.”
And so, by an act of legerdemain, Krauthammer shows us the needs of the poor and then makes them disappear. Military expenditures must not be curtailed if we wish to preserve our benign hegemon which keeps the international community stable. An expanded domestic agenda is not a “peace dividend”; in a world without peace, it is “a retreat dividend.” And “if we choose the life of ease [his phrase, apparently, for greater economic equality], who stands guard for us?”
In short, poverty is lamentable, but the poor simply have to be sacrificed to keep us safe.
Krauthammer is not without compassion, though. One of his essays laments the genetic ruin of border collies and another celebrates the miraculous resurrection of the baseball career of Rick Ankiel, the failed pitcher who reinvented himself as a successful outfielder.
Launching into a recent column entitled “Massacre at Newtown,” Krauthammer tells us he supported the 1994 Congressional ban on assault weapons. Then comes the switcheroo. Turns out that unless “you are prepared to confiscate all existing firearms, disarm the citizenry, and repeal the Second Amendment, it’s almost impossible to craft a law that will be effective.” He explains that the problem with gun control is not just NRA opposition. Equally, if not more, at fault are groups like the ACLU whose objections to censorship legitimized glamorized violence in the world of entertainment. Hence, the NRA and the entertainment industry bear similar responsibility for gun violence.
But has anyone ever been shot by a movie?
Throughout his essays, Krauthammer repeatedly misinterprets facts or clings to falsities despite clear evidence to the contrary. Just a few more brief examples:
* George W. Bush allowed only 22 lines of existing stem cells, many of them contaminated, to be used in research, yet Krauthammer considers Bush to be a generous promoter of federal funding for stem cell research, a conclusion at odds with the judgment of all experts in the field.
* Despite later revelations that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Krauthammer continues to believe in the wisdo m of the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam, who, in his words, held “the threat of mass death on a scale never before seen in the hands of a madman.”
* “Whatever their misgivings about the cost and wisdom of these wars (Iraq and Afghanistan),” he asserts, “the American people know how deep and authentic is the American devotion to liberty.” Well, sure, but should devotion to liberty trump all costs and wisdom?
I don’t think Krauthammer is being cynical in putting forth his arguments. I think he believes he sees all sides clearly and draws the “right” conclusions. (Pun intended.) And although the Wizard of Oz was eventually revealed to be a small man behind a curtain, he was still the one and only Wizard of Oz. By the same token, in no way are my observations meant to challenge Charles Krauthammer’s title as “the sharpest conservative mind in politics today.”
Consider the competition.
Government shutdowns, contrary to popular perception, are not rare occurrences. Between 1976 and 1996, the United States government partially shut down 16 times.
The 1996 shutdown lasted 27 days. It followed President Clinton’s vetoing of a Republican budget that called for substantial cuts to social programs, including Medicare and food stamps. Confrontations among politicians at that time exhibited the same fierce, bruising partisanship, acrimony, and rancor now in evidence. In the end, Republicans, who controlled both houses of Congress, blinked and accepted Clinton’s budget proposal to end the federal deficit in seven years. They are in a weaker position this time around because they do not control the Senate. It’s likely they will blink again, but less likely they will publicly acknowledge doing so.
It makes sense to regard the current shutdown as a continuation of its 1996 predecessor. At that time, Republicans attacked the Democratic incumbent for epitomizing all that was wrong with the morally bankrupt left-leaning boomer generation. Enemies depicted Clinton as a profligate big spender on wasteful social programs that created America’s dependence on large government at the cost of staggering, initiative-stifling deficits. They succeeded in killing Clinton’s plans for massive reform of health care insurance.
Emboldened by sweeping gains in the midterm elections of 1994, Republicans signed onto Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” that called for a balanced budget/tax limitation amendment. Poor showings in the 1998 mid-term elections – Republicans lost seats in the House and gained none in the Senate – led to the resignation of Gingrich, first from his speakership, and later from the House itself.
Somehow, this lesson was lost on Republicans. They underestimated Clinton who in 1995 surprised them and liberal Democrats by calling for a middle class tax cut and a balanced budget within ten years, while speaking out against violent television content and calling for tough police responses to crime. Thus he blunted the Gingrich offensive, and by achieving a fiscal surplus in 1998 won over business leaders and investors. Nor was he damaged by the Monica Lewinsky scandal that irked Congressional Republicans more than it did the American public, which took a more permissive attitude.
The same kind of personal hostility has carried over to Obama, in part because he is a black man. His American birth, despite impeccable confirming evidence, has been challenged by Republicans, most vociferously by Donald Trump. It was not just Obamacare but his entire domestic legislative agenda that was deemed extremely leftist, if not downright socialist, from the start.
Obama’s 2012 victory included Democratic gains in both the House and Senate, in spite of non-stop criticism of Obamacare, already passed into law in 2010. Republicans were unwilling to deem his decisive victory (by more than 4,000,000 votes) as any kind of mandate for the Affordable Health Care Act. The House passed more than 30 resolutions calling for its complete repudiation, all of which died in the Senate. As justification for their intransigence, House members selectively interpreted polls showing the majority of Americans did not support Obamacare, while ignoring those that showed even larger majorities did not believe the implementation of Obamacare justified shutting down the government.
Hostility to the man and the program led them to ignore or obfuscate the fact that Obamacare strongly resembles plans suggested by the conservative Heritage Foundation that called for the purchase of policies from private insurers, and were implemented (reasonably well) by a certain Republican governor of Massachusetts. Republican demands to attach the defunding or delay of Obamacare as a condition for approving a budget rested less on its cost (in actuality the program was designed to be self-funding) than on fear that its possible success would be a major victory for a Democratic president and an imagined Big Brother America.
Unlike the crisis of 1996, the present situation has the added burden of simultaneously dealing with the budget and the issue of raising the debt ceiling due to expire on October 16th. Virtually all economists agree that the consequences of the country’s failure to pay its financial obligations would be catastrophic both domestically and internationally. Even Speaker Boehner, who thus far has refused to allow a House vote on a clean budget bill, says he will not allow a credit default. On the other hand, Senator Tom Coburn asserted, “I would dispel the rumor that…if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we will default on our debt.”
Most critics argue that a small group of radical Republicans – Ted Cruz (Texas), Mike Lee (Utah), and others – are responsible for the Republican strategy of refusing to pass a budget or raise the debt ceiling unless Obama abolishes, delays, or significantly alters his health insurance program. The scenario indicates that these zealots have been able to overcome the moderate wing of the party and force them to go along with a strategy of holding the government hostage unless it makes major concessions on health care.
This assessment has validity, but it is not the whole story. Obstructionism antedates the coming into law of Obamacare. Senator Mitch McConnell, supposedly less extreme than Tea Party leaders, proclaimed the party’s most important objective was to do anything possible to prevent Obama’s reelection. The 2012 Republican Party Platform, agreed to by all Republican members of both houses of Congress, stated, rather inelegantly, “In our view the entire act before us is invalid in its entirety.” It is hardly likely that the party platform was exclusively drafted by radical Republicans.
The defunding strategy emerged shortly after Obama began his second term, when a loose-knit group of political activists and organizations, including former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese III (who resigned because of his role in the Iran-Contra plots) and Americans for Prosperity, sponsored a “blueprint to defunding Obamacare.” (Shirley Gay Stolberg and Mike McIntire, “A Federal Budget Crisis Months in the Making,” New York Times, October 5, 2013.) This influential group worked closely with Tea Party representatives to target “lukewarm” conservatives and bring them onto the team, while also working against the reelection of moderates who refused to play ball with them.
The distinction between radical and moderate Republicans right now is blurred, and more one of tone than substance. Even centrists, such as PA Representative Pat Meehan, who urged Speaker Boehner to allow a vote on a clean budget, stopped short of being willing to work with Democrats on procedural maneuvers to require a clean spending bill. Moderates’ inaction and retirements have made it easier for the party’s radical wing to create the poisonous political atmosphere now prevailing and to implement the strategy of rendering the federal government irrelevant. (For more on the shifts, see Nate Silver, “Moderate Republicans Fall Away in Senate,” Five Thirty Eight, New York Times, May 8, 2012.) Too many moderates stood on the sidelines while extremists initiated the modus operandi of “just say no” to everything Obama requested.
That said, the most likely scenario is that Republicans will eventually agree to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. These “concessions” will be part of a broader deal that will also end sequestration (automatic spending cuts in categories of federal outlays) in return for Obama’s “concessions” on long term changes to Social Security, Medicare, and the tax code, and, maybe, on taxing medical devices. The sad thing is, Republicans would have gotten the same give-backs even if they had not employed the strategy of brinksmanship. Once again, that is not the lesson they will draw.
Short term, the Tea Party and its financiers (the Koch brothers and others) will continue to influence a small number of House and Senate elections. Longer term, demographics – the browning of America – will work against them. American history indicates that groups or movements dominated by ideology, either on the right or the left, have short shelf lives. Alienating tactics will not win over sufficient numbers of libertarians and independents to give the movement a stable, majority status. The pendulum swings, but Americans have always tended toward the center.
Neither Ted Cruz nor his clones will get the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. They have angered too many Republicans through personal attacks, and more importantly, the GOP knows the extremists can’t win. If this prediction is wrong, and an extremist does become the Republican nominee, look for an outcome similar to the 1964 Barry Goldwater bid – a Democratic Party landslide.
Unless Republicans chart a different course, one that offers positive appeal rather than mere repudiation of the other party’s programs, they will remain stuck in the wilderness of presidential politics. Sadly, until that time comes – and it will, if for no other reason than they want your vote – the American people will continue to bear the burdens of intransigence.