When the president takes that oath of office, when members of Congress take their oaths of office, they swear to defend the Constitution. The oath isn’t about any particular public policy position – treating the poor or unlucky a certain way, or the rich, or even about defending the country. One assumes they’ll do their best to defend the country from all enemies foreign and domestic, one way or another. That’s not the main point. The main point is getting them on record regarding the basic rules we’ve agreed to follow, which is a contract, really, and the structure of all we are. America isn’t geography. We started out as thirteen states and reached fifty in the middle of the last century, and may one day add Puerto Rico, or not. It’s not a unified culture and a set of specific traditions either – all that changes, all the time. We assimilated lots of different cultures, and the greeting card companies invented all sorts of new traditions over the years. America is actually no more than an idea of how things should be done.
That’s it. That’s all. America is a complex system of checks and balances, where the people, all of them if possible, get to decide what gets done, and what doesn’t. That’s not how it works of course – direct democracy is impossible with a population of over three hundred million and growing. Everyone can’t vote on every single thing, nor would they want to, so we have a representative democracy. We elect those we trust to decide what gets done, and what doesn’t, and leave it to them. If enough people think they’ve screwed up, which happens, we vote someone else into office next time around, and hope for the best, again. But we do make everyone agree to play by the basic rules. There are rules about how laws get passed and wars get started and stopped and all the rest. Elections matter – they do change the course of things – but the system matters even more. If you don’t like the results of an election, and what changed because of it, you don’t have the option of blowing up the system. You took the oath. You’ll play by the rules.
It seems that the Republicans, who pride themselves on being the true defenders of the constitution, have forgotten that, but that began long before the current spat about Obamacare. When Sharron Angle was running against Harry Reid out in Nevada a few years ago she said this:
You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every twenty years.
I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.
It sounded like she was calling for the assassination of Harry Reid, but she was actually just calling for armed insurrection if Congress keeps doing stupid stuff – and she seemed to have had Obamacare in mind. It was pretty simple. In a representative democracy, if a majority of the duly-elected representatives of the people vote for what those who put them in office pretty much told them to vote for, and what the majority passes into law is, in your opinion, wrong, then you have those Second Amendment remedies – get your gun and change the government. You do that if you believe in democracy – or maybe if you believe that what you see as freedom is far more important than majority-rule democracy. Sharron Angle lost that election, but this was a pretty consistent theme in all the Tea Party talk.
They wanted their country back, but then it wasn’t really their country. They weren’t the majority, and they weren’t even the majority in the Republican Party, just its most riled-up bloc, but now they’re even less than that:
As Washington braces for another budget showdown, this time with the threat of defunding the new healthcare law in the mix, the key political force pushing for conservative policies sees diminished popular support. Fewer Americans now describe themselves as supporters of the Tea Party movement than did at the height of the movement in 2010, or even at the start of 2012. Today’s 22% support nearly matches the record low found two years ago….
Opponents of the Tea Party now outnumber supporters 27% to 22%, which is similar to their edge in 2012….
They are a shrinking minority of a minority, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog says that may not mean much:
There aren’t a lot of big (or even moderately sized) tea party demonstrations these days. Tea party types aren’t shutting down congressional town halls. People identified as tea party members aren’t all over Fox News. The mainstream press is no longer running its “what is this gosh-darn tea party thing anyway” stories, with tales of plucky grassroots-y types turned seasoned operators.
To those of us who regularly follow political news, “tea party” is still the shorthand term for a certain type of conservative, mainly because “tea party” rolls off the tongue more smoothly that “barking-mad extremist who’d rather shut down the government and let the country go into default than compromise with other democratically elected government officials.” Thus, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are seen as “tea party” guys, even though you rarely see them surrounded by actually tea party crowds.
The survey data is meaningless, you see. The name means nothing. It’s the blow-up-the-system methodology that matters, and the Republican Party is still trying to deal with that:
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) came to the Senate floor Thursday to lambast his conservative colleagues, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT), for not agreeing to a request by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to move up a cloture vote on a continuing resolution funding the government from Friday to Thursday evening.
Corker argued that the Senate should act as soon as possible in order to give their House colleagues more time to avert a government shutdown, criticizing Cruz for putting on a “show” meant to attract attention instead.
“It’s my understanding again, relative to this vote tonight happening tomorrow instead, is that my two colleagues, who I respect, have sent out e-mails around the world and turned this into a show possibly, and, therefore, they want people around the world to watch maybe them and others on the Senate floor,” Corker said, with Cruz and Lee present on the floor.
“And that is taking priority over getting legislation back to the House so they can take action before the country’s government shuts down and, by the way, causing them possibly to put in place again some other good policies,” he added.
In short, let’s not blow up the system. Let’s get something done. Let’s play by the rules everyone agreed to when they took their oath of office, and of course that got this response:
Moments after the heated exchange, the vice president of government affairs at the conservative Club for Growth tweeted that Corker sounded like a Democrat…
Republicans get what they want through sabotage. That word comes by way of the Netherlands in the fifteenth century, when workers would throw their sabots (wooden shoes) into the wooden gears of the textile looms to break the cogs. They feared those automated looms would soon make human workers obsolete. What was going on in the Senate was much like that, with the issue being Obamacare, making something these folks cherish but can’t quite define obsolete, and the gears being the gears of government. The wooden shoes were the endless words that tumbled from the mouth of Ted Cruz. The point was to jam the gears. By the way, the Industrial Revolution happened anyway.
The gears did turn for Obamacare, no matter what they did, and Ezra Klein summed up the situation well:
Behind all this is a simple fact: The GOP has lost on Obamacare. They didn’t have the votes to stop it from passing in 2010. They didn’t have the votes to repeal it in 2011. They didn’t have the votes to win the presidency and the Senate by campaigning against it in 2012. And they really have no way to stop it in 2013.
Now it’s going into effect, and once it goes into effect and begins delivering health insurance to tens of millions of people, it’s pretty much here to stay.
But conservatives don’t want to believe they’ve lost on Obamacare, and the rest of the Republican Party is scared to admit they’ve lost on Obamacare. So as their situation becomes more desperate their tactics become more desperate, too.
That’s when you turn to sabotage. Unless Obama agrees to defund and dismantle all of the Affordable Care Act they will shut down the government – the House passed their version of a continuing resolution that funds everything but Obamacare, keeping the government running for a few more months. In spite of Ted Cruz, the Senate eventually will amend that bill, taking out the bit about defunding Obamacare, and send the amended bill back to the House. The House will not pass that. They’re locked into their position on this, and the government will shut down, until John Boehner eats crow, because Obama isn’t going to agree to any such thing – the law was passed fair and square, long ago, by both houses of Congress, and survived a Supreme Court challenge too. The rules of the system were followed, scrupulously, and there are explicit rules for repealing a law. You find the votes to pass something else in its place. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes. A minority of a minority, with their wooden shoes, doesn’t get to stop what the majority enacted.
The Republicans have ceased to believe that:
With no serious negotiations in sight, a disorderly and divided Congress slipped closer to a double-barreled fiscal crisis on Thursday as House Republican leaders tried to shift the budget dispute to a fight over raising the government’s borrowing limit.
Trying to round up votes from a reluctant rank and file, House Republicans said they would agree to increase the debt limit to avert a mid-October default only if Democrats accepted a list of Republican priorities, including a one-year delay of the health care law, a tax overhaul and a broad rollback of environmental regulations.
At the same time, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio signaled he was not ready to abandon a spending fight that could shut down the federal government as soon as Tuesday. Asked whether he would put a stopgap spending bill to a vote free of Republican policy prescriptions, he answered, “I do not see that happening.”
President Obama, who has faced three years of down-to-the-wire standoffs that have nearly ended in default or shutdowns a half-dozen times, fired back with a broadside of his own.
“No Congress before this one has ever, ever, in history, been irresponsible enough to threaten default, to threaten an economic shutdown, to suggest America not pay its bills, just to try to blackmail a president into giving them some concessions on issues that have nothing to do with a budget,” Mr. Obama said before a friendly audience in suburban Washington.
These really were issues that had nothing to do with the budget. This was a precise list of everything Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan ran on in 2012 – when they lost by five million votes:
The legislation would also roll back regulations on coal ash, block new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gas production, eliminate a $23 billion fund to ensure the orderly dissolution of failed major banks, eliminate mandatory contributions to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, limit medical malpractice lawsuits and increase means testing for Medicare, among other provisions.
Even with that legislative Christmas tree, many Republican backbenchers balked. After introducing the measure to his divided troops, a sheepish speaker of the House faced the press with a grimace. “Oh, this ought to be a blast,” Mr. Boehner sighed as he opened a news conference for questions.
Of course he looked sheepish. They’re proposing to nullify that election:
Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, encouraged Democrats to come to the table.
“We call on the president to sit down with us, Harry Reid to sit down with us, and let’s resolve this problem,” he said.
The problem is that they lost that election. The people spoke, so they seem to be arguing that what the people said doesn’t matter, or that the wrong people voted, or a whole lot of people shouldn’t have been allowed to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is in play again, with the Supreme Court this June saying that old thing might have been a good idea, at the time, but now it’s just quaint, and has to go – so from North Carolina to Texas to Florida a whole lot of minority folks, and the young, and the elderly who depend on the social safety net, such as it is, are going to find it damned hard to ever vote again. The Republican National Committee has mounted a state-by-state effort to make sure of that – but that’s for future elections. The last one is the problem for them.
Sabotage may be the only answer here, although they may not get their way:
A senior White House adviser on Thursday compared House Republicans threatening to hold the debt limit hostage to “people with a bomb strapped to their chest.”
“What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest,” Dan Pfeiffer told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “We’re not going to do that.”
Dan Pfeiffer should have talked about wooden shoes, but then the bomb-strapped-to-the-chest thing may be closer to the facts of the matter.
Ezra Klein is simply amazed at the scope of the new Republican demands:
In return for a one-year suspension of the debt ceiling, House Republicans are demanding a yearlong delay of Obamacare, Rep. Paul Ryan’s tax reform plan, the Keystone XL pipeline, more offshore oil drilling, more drilling on federally protected lands, rewriting of ash coal regulations, a suspension of the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate carbon emissions, more power over the regulatory process in general, reform of the federal employee retirement program, an overhaul of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, more power over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s budget, repeal of the Social Services Block Grant, more means-testing in Medicare, repeal of the Public Health trust fund, and more.
Andrew Sullivan is appalled by the new list:
Why not demand president Obama’s resignation while they’re at it?
What the sheer gob-smacking scale of these demands means is that the GOP effectively wants to nullify the last election entirely (except of course for their gerrymandered, no-popular vote House majority). The staggering thing about this party as it now exists is that it views the governance of the other party as always effectively illegitimate. Elections do not matter. Only their agenda matters. No compromise is possible, even when this kind of catastrophic default is hanging over our heads. In fact, the danger of catastrophic default is something they relish in order to undo the basic principles of democratic government.
This is not a bargaining position; they already voted for the budget that requires us to raise the debt ceiling. It is a bald attempt to reverse elections as the mark of a democracy and replace them with endless blackmail until they get their way. This isn’t conservatism. It’s pure constitutional vandalism.
Derek Thompson sees the same thing:
Give us everything we want or else we’ll destroy the country!
That is the sort of demand that only a broken party inside a broken system could possibly hope to make.
The debt ceiling should not exist and the rules of the Senate and House shouldn’t allow a minority to repeatedly extort the majority, but, well, you go to debtmageddon with the government you got. Republicans, inching away from shutdown, are all in on an apocalyptic strategy to trade the full faith and credit of the country for their agenda.
At Business Insider, Josh Barro points to the obvious:
America’s constitutional system only works if the divided branches of government are willing to work together to make consensual agreements about running the government. Republicans are showing themselves to be too irresponsible to make the American constitutional system work.
Jonathan Chait sees something unique here:
The fact that a major party could even propose anything like this is a display of astonishing contempt for democratic norms. Republicans ran on this plan and lost by five million votes. They also lost the Senate and received a million fewer votes in the House but held control owing to favorable district lines. Is there an example in American history of a losing party issuing threats to force the majority party to implement its rejected agenda?
Ah, no… this is unique, and at National Affairs, Jon Rauch discusses norms:
Playing hardball in politics is not unhealthy. Hardball is often necessary and important, and many who complain about it should pay more attention to getting better at it. Madison’s framework does not require or desire that individuals should all be moderates. But to valorize hardball for its own sake is unhealthy, and even more unhealthy is to veto a compromise simply because it is a compromise. There is no contradiction between compromise and political principle, or at least no necessary contradiction. Nor is compromise at odds with constitutional principle. Just the reverse: Compromise is the most essential principle of our constitutional system. Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.
No one is saying, of course, that anyone should support anything only because it is a compromise, any more than that he should oppose something only because it is a compromise. The point, rather, is that compromise is a republican virtue. It endows the constitutional order with stability and dynamism. It not only tempers the worst in us; it often brings out the best. It is patriotic, not pathetic, and it deserves to be trumpeted as such.
That would mean the current crop of Republicans are not only not the true defenders of the Constitution, they don’t even believe in democracy – or they’re just fools.
At the Economist, Matt Steinglass wonders about symmetry:
If either party can take advantage of this sort of doomsday threat, it should be clear that neither can. To underline that fact, Mr Obama ought to counter the Republican threat not to raise the debt ceiling, with a threat of his own to veto a raise in the debt ceiling. Republicans may demand the postponement of Obamacare in exchange for a debt-ceiling hike. Mr Obama can demand passage of an immigration-reform bill including a path to citizenship in exchange for a debt-ceiling hike. …
The whole idea that Mr Obama would threaten to tank America’s credit rating and the global economy in order to achieve his legislative agenda is just nuts. Whereas Republicans, well, you just have to expect them to pull that sort of stunt, because… because why again?
That would be because they’re a broken party inside a broken system, where to reverse elections is the mark of a democracy. The new system is endless blackmail, where the minority rules. It’s the new alternative to constitutional democracy. Yeah, that one is going to require a new oath of office – or a few more elections where we vote someone else into office next time around, and hope for the best, again. Some of us do want our country back – the real one.