Incompetent Republicans bungle themselves into a corner
The GOP is only just beginning to realise that Barack Obama will stand firm over the shutdown
A fence surrounds the US Department of Commerce in Washington as the government shutdown continued at the weekend. Photograoh: Reuters/Mike Theiler
The US federal government is shut down, we’re about to hit the debt ceiling (with disastrous economic consequences) and no resolution is in sight. How did this happen?
The main answer, which only the most pathologically “balanced” reporting can deny, is the radicalisation of the Republican Party. As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein put it last year in their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, the GOP has become “an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”.
But there’s one more important piece of the story. Conservative leaders are indeed ideologically extreme, but they’re also deeply incompetent. So much so, in fact, that the Dunning-Kruger effect – the truly incompetent can’t even recognise their own incompetence – reigns supreme.
Early this year, it turns out, some of the usual suspects – the Koch brothers, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation and others – plotted strategy in the wake of Republican electoral defeat. Did they talk about rethinking ideas that voters had soundly rejected? No, they talked extortion, insisting that the threat of a shutdown would induce Barack Obama to abandon health reform.
This was crazy talk. After all, health reform is Obama’s signature domestic achievement. You’d have to be completely clueless to believe that he could be bullied into giving up his entire legacy by a defeated, unpopular GOP – as opposed to responding, as he has, by making resistance to blackmail an issue of principle. But the possibility that their strategy might backfire doesn’t seem to have occurred to the would-be extortionists. Even more remarkable, in its way, was the response of House Republican leaders, who didn’t tell the activists they were being foolish. All they did was urge that the extortion attempt be made over the debt ceiling rather than a government shutdown. And as recently as last week, Eric Cantor, the majority leader, was in effect assuring his colleagues the president will, in fact, give in to blackmail. As far as anyone can tell, Republican leaders are just beginning to suspect that Obama really means what he has been saying all along.
Many people seem perplexed by the transformation of the GOP into the political equivalent of the Keystone Cops. Republican elders, many of whom have been in denial about their party’s radicalisation, seem especially startled. But all of this was predictable. It has been obvious for years that the modern Republican Party is no longer capable of thinking seriously about policy. Whether the issue is climate change or inflation, party members believe what they want to believe, and any contrary evidence is dismissed as a hoax, the product of vast liberal conspiracies.
For a while, the party was able to compartmentalise, to remain savvy and realistic about politics even as it rejected objectivity everywhere else. But this wasn’t sustainable. Sooner or later, the party’s attitude toward policy – we listen only to people who tell us what we
want to hear, and attack the bearers of uncomfortable news – was bound to infect political strategy too.
Remember what happened in the 2012 election – not the fact that Mitt Romney lost, but the fact that all the political experts around him apparently had no inkling that he was likely to lose. Polls overwhelmingly pointed to an Obama victory, but Republican analysts
denounced the polls as “skewed” and attacked the media outlets reporting those polls for their alleged liberal bias.
These days, Karl Rove is pleading with House Republicans to be reasonable and accept the results of the 2012 election. But, on election night, he tried to bully Fox News into retracting its correct call of Ohio – and hence, in effect, the election – for Obama. Unfortunately for all of us, even the shock of electoral defeat wasn’t enough to burst the GOP bubble; it is still a party dominated by wishful thinking, and all but impervious to inconvenient facts. And now that party’s leaders have bungled themselves into a corner.
Everybody not inside the bubble realises Obama can’t and won’t negotiate under the threat that the House will blow up the economy if he doesn’t – any concession at all would legitimise extortion as a routine part of politics. Yet Republican leaders are just beginning to get a clue, and so far clearly have no idea how to back down.
Meanwhile, the government is shut, and a debt crisis looms. Incompetence can be a terrible thing. – (New York Times service )