Clarence Page: The right-wing amateur hour
Once again, it appears that President Barack Obama could hardly have chosen a more inept bunch of opponents and critics. It’s only too bad that the nation has to suffer for it.
Fevered partisan bickering is nothing new in Congress. It’s part of the lifestyle. But the current disputes over the government shutdown and a debt ceiling increase reveal an unusually deep and dangerous dysfunction.
As the president and Republican lawmakers struggled amid record low approval ratings to agree on ways to reopen the government and avoid defaulting on its debts, everybody in Washington was coming up with theories as to why so much has gone so wrong. Here’s my theory: Too many amateurs have taken over.
I’m only serious. Americans have a long and storied romance with the populist ideal of the amateur. Yet the founders wisely structured our national government to avoid having too much direct democracy, which they saw as something akin to mob rule.
But could the founders have anticipated the empowering influences of the Internet age? Today, as the late comedian Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody wants to get into the act.” Some examples:
AMATEUR LEADERSHIP. As the GOP has splintered into a sensible center vs. radical right-wingers, House Speaker John Boehner, a skilled and well-experienced professional, has looked more like a dog being wagged by a tea party tail.
Even when he has the votes to pass a budget or raise the debt ceiling, he is reluctant to bring a bill to the floor because they’re mostly Democratic votes. He fears losing his speaker seat if he does that too many times, just as other House Republicans fear being challenged in primaries by upstarts who are even more right-wing than they are.
Boehner largely was forced to shut down the government by pressure from maverick Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who lobbied his House allies like a third-party leader — which in effect Cruz has become.
AMATEUR POLITICAL THEATRE. Over in the Senate we see the “wacko birds” in full feather, as Arizona Sen. John McCain called senators like Cruz and Kentucky’s Rand Paul in the no-compromise tea party wing. McCain later apologized. But according to various reports, other Senate Republicans have been much less kind to Cruz for his grandstanding and for driving his party into a blind alley over the shutdown without an exit strategy.
AMATEUR RESEARCH. Experienced leaders know better than to listen too much to those who already agree with them. But today’s partisan media environment leads to more political polarization by making it too easy for people to choose not only their own opinion but also their own ego-stroking version of reality. The result can lead to shocks like those experienced by anyone who listened to now-former Fox News analyst Dick Morris’ prediction that Mitt Romney would be elected “in a landslide.”
More recently, Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum, suggested on an Oct. 9 Fox News Radio program that voters are less likely to blame GOP lawmakers for this year’s shutdown than they did during the 1995-96 shutdown. Why? They didn’t have Fox News in those days. “It was much easier,” she said, “to pin the problems in (the mid-1990s shutdown) on the Republicans.”
Even so, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported the next day that more Americans this time blame the GOP — by a 22-point margin, wider than the one Republicans received in the mid-90s shutdown.
AMATEUR ECONOMISTS. The hazards that such closed information loops pose to democracy — and good sense — can be seen most vividly in the default deniers. Yes, like the deniers of climate change and President Obama’s birth certificate, we have some Republican lawmakers in both houses of Congress who deny that it would be all that bad to let the full faith and credit of this nation’s finances go into default. Try that excuse the next time you have to make a car payment.
Another voice on the right, Daniel Larison of the American Conservative, shows a better grip on reality. If this is how small-government conservatives “approach the most basic responsibilities of governing,” he writes, “why are voters going to trust them to implement their larger policy agenda?” Why, indeed?
Clarence Page’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Email him as email@example.com. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.