Considering Norquist’s Bathtub

It’s not like no one noticed. After the recent sixteen-day government shutdown, when we also came close to choosing to refuse to let the administrative branch pay the bills that the legislative branch had rung up over all the years, the world noticed. Obama had to cancel his trip to a summit on matters in the far east – because he had to deal with the madness here, and because, with the government shut down, most of the folks on tha advance-team had been temporarily furloughed – and Putin made snide remarks about our dysfunctional government, and the Chinese suggested it might be time for a less America-centric world, and maybe the dollar shouldn’t be the world’s reserve currency any longer either. If America chooses to stop paying principal and interest on our Treasury Bonds, or, as an alternative, chooses to pay that principal and interest and refuses to pay what it takes to keep our own country running on a day-to-day basis instead, America’s not much of country. The shutdown was over soon enough, with the Republicans not getting one damned thing for all their trouble, and for all the pain they caused so many people, and for the twenty-four billion dollars in lost and gone-forever economic activity. What was the point?

They also gave in and agreed to raise the debt ceiling too, so we could pay our bills, so we wouldn’t be stiffing the world, or, as an alternative, stiffing everyone on Social Security and all the rest that government does for its citizens. The Republicans still hate Obamacare, and would love to force Obama to abandon it entirely, but they realized the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling were catastrophic – not only would the world’s economy collapse if US Treasuries were no longer that one safe place where everyone parks their money, their own party would be blamed for it all. No Republican would ever win another election, not even for dogcatcher in Altoona, so there’s a reason why they called Ted Cruz and his posse, who wanted to force the issue, the suicide caucus. The shutdown was bad enough. Approval for anything associated with the Republican Party dropped lower than anyone had seen before, and the Tea Party polled even worse.

Somehow, for some reason, we averted total disaster, and although the economy was crippled by the shutdown, sooner or later we’ll get back to having an economy that is merely underperforming. It will just take a few years longer now. Things have returned to the usual unacceptable normal, but the damage was done. The rest of the world now looks at America, the richest and most powerful nation on earth, and sees a nation that seems to want to self-destruct. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has ruled out another shutdown, and he may have learned his lesson on the debt ceiling threat, but all this will come up again in January, when the current spending authorizations expire, and in February when we reach the debt limit again. Ted Cruz, the new senator from Texas and the de facto leader of the suicide caucus, hasn’t ruled out another shutdown or a default on our debts, to force an end to Obamacare and anything associated with it. House Speaker John Boehner isn’t a factor here – he’ll see which way the wind is blowing before he chooses which way to go on all this.

These guys really could blow up everything next time, and the rest of the world is appalled, or amused, depending on the specific nation. We really have blown it this time, because we seem to want to blow it, which probably had to happen, because the logical outcome of all the talk, since Ronald Reagan, about how the government is always the problem, is one of the two parties having a problem with the concept of a government itself. People should be free, right? Once you start talking about the virtues of limited government, over and over, it’s hard to know where to stop. It becomes hard to justify the government doing anything at all, except for national defense. Almost all Republicans have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge to never raise taxes in any way ever again, and he is rather famous for saying that his aim is to shrink government so small that it could be drowned in a bathtub. Everyone thinks of him as an anti-tax crusader, but that misses the point. Taxes are just an instrumentality. His real aim is to end government, so we all can be free, as he sees it.

This leaves the other party, the Democrats, in an odd position. The Republicans say that the Democrats are the party of Big Government – all they want to do is tax and spend – but that misses the point. Democrats are actually the party of plain old government, whatever its size and whatever it spends. Their point is that we elect people to do things for the general good, for the “common welfare” as the Constitution says, so why not let the people vote for what they think would do the most good for the most people? Whatever that might be, it might be expensive and large-scale, but it could just as easily be a simple policy change that costs nothing much at all. The point is usefulness, not bigness. This is the people’s government – that was the concept we came up with back in the late eighteenth century – and the people actually can decide, collectively, to do useful things that make life easier all around. That’s why we have governments. That’s why everyone has governments. Heck, that’s why there are homeowners’ associations and school boards and even book clubs, or political parties for that matter, as government develops organically, out of a sense that some things are best decided as a group, for the good of all. Sure, there will always be certain individuals who are outraged at the group’s decision – those who once thought that integrating public schools was outrageous, for example – but when the people decide, as they did with Obamacare, they’ll just have to get over it, or work to get the people on their side.

This is pretty simple. You don’t drown government in the bathtub. You can’t. It will pop up again in another form, over and over, because people naturally band together to get things done, as they have since the cave-man days. If you don’t like what the group has decided, well, you convince them that their decision wasn’t the best one, because you have a better idea. Sulking isn’t an option. Lashing out isn’t an option. We’re not all sovereign citizens after all – those folks are mighty strange, but then they might be the ultimate Republicans. They answer to no one. They obey no laws. They’re totally free, except a good number of them are in jails. Everyone else thinks we have laws for a reason. Laws make life a bit easier for everyone, even if they do limit your freedom to drive as fast as you want and own slaves or whatever your thing is – and laws against this or that, and others requiring that you do something are other, have been worked out by the people, collectively. Deal with it.

Nope, sulking isn’t an option, nor is lashing out, even if self-righteous martyrdom does feel so very good. In our system of government, while we still have one, the only option is to win elections, to make your ideas the ideas everyone thinks are the better ideas. It’s pointless to say that everyone agrees with you, deep down in the heart of hearts, in spite of the results of previous elections and all the polling. How would you know? There’s no proof of that, only proof of the opposite. And threatening to do as much damage to as many people as possible unless you get your way, the Ted Cruz approach, really is suicidal. Even if you do that damage, you don’t get your way, and people then despise you. The Ted-Cruz-and-the-Tea-Party approach, where you stay true to your fixed principle, in spite of everything, is beyond counterproductive, to say the least. Purity may be wonderful, but you’ll be sitting alone, seething.

Some Republicans have figured this out. Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru published a lengthy piece in the National Review that tries to confront the purists in the Republican Party who think that the way forward, and the way to win elections, is to demand more confrontation, all the time, on everything, to offer even more obduracy, and to demand, of the people in their party, even more loyalty to the one true cause:

It is a politics of perpetual intra-Republican denunciation. It focuses its fire on other conservatives as much as on liberals. It takes more satisfaction in a complete loss on supposed principle than in a partial victory, let alone in the mere avoidance of worse outcomes. It has only one tactic – raise the stakes, hope to lower the boom – and treats any prudential disagreement with that tactic as a betrayal. Adherents of this brand of conservative politics are investing considerable time, energy, and money in it, locking themselves in unending intra-party battle. …

The need for greater purity, the ever-present danger of betrayal: These have been long-standing themes on the right. When our people get power, they immediately stop being our people, the great conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans quipped decades ago. Yet this assessment of what ails conservatism has grown less and less true with time.

Kevin Drum tries to unpack that:

The tea party faction seems unable to recognize that, in fact, they have very clearly taken over the Republican Party. Moderate Republicans are no longer a real force. For better or worse, right wingers finally have the party they’ve always wanted – or at least as much of it as any faction is ever likely to get in real life.

But now that they have it, they’ve discovered that it isn’t doing them any good, and Lowry and Ponnuru identify the obvious reason for this: We live in a democracy. The tea partiers may control the Republican Party, but they don’t command majority support among the American public. Without that, they’ll never be able to advance their agenda, and the more apocalyptic they get, the less likely they are to ever win the kind of broad-based victories that Ronald Reagan did.

Yes, we live in a democracy, but more importantly, living in a democracy assumes that everyone agrees that democracy shouldn’t be drowned in a bathtub. The government, in and of itself, is a pretty nifty thing, because it’s useful after all, which is why Drum finds this piece so timed:

Not because it’s full of caveats about how understandable the frustrations of the tea partiers are or how much their hearts are in the right place. That’s standard boilerplate in a piece like this.

No, it’s timid because, in the end, Lowry and Ponnuru pull back, seemingly unwilling to make any truly robust recommendations for changing things…

All that those two say is this:

For the country to be governed conservatively, however, conservatives have to win more elections… There is no alternative to seeking to expand the conservative base beyond its present inadequate numbers and to win the votes of people who aren’t yet conservatives or are not yet conservatives on all issues. The defunders often said that those who predicted their failure were “defeatists.” Yet it is they who have given in to despair. They are the ones who entertain the ideas that everything has gotten worse; that the last few decades of conservative thought and action have been for nothing; that engagement in politics as traditionally conceived is hopeless; that government programs, once begun, must corrupt the citizenry so that they can never be ended or reformed; that the country will soon be past the point of regeneration, if it is not there already.

This puzzles Drum:

Okay, but how will conservatives win more elections? Lowry and Ponnuru explicitly disavow the notion of the party turning left, suggesting only that they’re skeptical of “the idea that moving in the opposite direction will in itself pay political dividends.” But if they have no concrete suggestions – either in policy or tone or messaging or something – then this is just mush. When Democrats went through this kind of introspection in the 80s, the Democratic Leadership Council, for better or worse, drove a conversation that included lots of painfully concrete ideas. That produced plenty of noxious infighting, but it also produced results.

If you don’t like what the group has decided, well, you convince them that their decision wasn’t the best one, because you have a better idea, but that isn’t the case here:

It would be fascinating to see National Review start to play the same kind of role on the right. That’s unlikely, I suppose, but one way or another, they need to choose up sides. It’s easy and obvious to say that Republicans need to win electoral victories if they want to promote the conservative cause. The bigger question is what Republicans need to do in order to win those victories. Tackling that question in a forthright way will make National Review a lot more enemies, but it might, eventually, also produce some actual electoral victories.

Don’t hold your breath. If the bigger question is what Republicans need to do, in order to win enough elections to enact what they think ought to be enacted, or repealed, then they’d have to believe in government, plain old government, and they don’t, and it’s not just the Tea Party crowd. It’s all of them since Reagan, who actually believed in government a bit, in spite of what he said. If nothing else, he kept the government running. He didn’t shut it down and go home, and Lowry and Ponnuru know this:

Effective political movements create the conditions for their own success. Conservatism has not done enough of that, but when it has prospered it has never been moved by despair. The apocalyptic style of politics holds that the future of the country is at stake. That is true, which is why conservatives need to get to the work of persuading and electioneering – and drop the fantasy of a shortcut.

Fine, but Jonathan Bernstein argues that these two don’t see the real problem:

They really only attack the obviously suicidal: the awful Senate candidates, the shutdown strategy that had no chance of victory. Their solution is that the party should work hard to win elections in order to implement their agenda, which is all very well and good. However, it also masks something real going on here. The “True Conservative” agenda that the radicals and most mainstream conservatives claim to want, at this point, has become so radical that it probably is at least a modest electoral problem – and even more so, it would be a massive governing problem, both in practical and electoral consequences.

Keith Humphreys isn’t so sure about that:

There is an alternative explanation. Lowry and Ponnuru are probably more in touch than is Drum (or me) with the pulse of Tea Party at the moment. Lowry and Ponnuru may have concluded that the alienation, rage and self-indulgence in that corner of the world are such that persuading Tea Partiers that elections matter is indeed a significant task of its own, much as it was with some leftist factions in the 1960s and 1970s. You can’t tell people how to do something that they don’t want to do in the first place. If you feel that the country is lost, that your values have been rejected and the entire system is corrupt, politics can become simply an outlet for rage. That may be the ledge the Tea Party is on, post-government-shut-down humiliation.

Yes, they have rejected the entire system, the whole concept of government itself, and everyone’s favorite Tea Party rabble-rouser, Erick Erickson, shows just that:

Like much of the Republican Leadership, National Review wants to win majorities before unleashing hell, but history shows us repeatedly that Republicans never unleash hell once they have the majority. They become well-fed denizens of power, using it to reward friends and influence people, instead of willingly surrendering it to shrink the leviathan.

What is this leviathan of which Erickson speaks – the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, that collectively decided something that gives him heartburn?

Andrew Sullivan, in a long item on traditional conservatism – as formulated by Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott and those folks – wonders just what these new folks who pretend to be conservatives really want to conserve:

I am sympathetic, for example, to some conservatives’ dismay at the decline of unifying cultural events like Christmas or Easter. I am sympathetic to conservative resistance to changes in, say, marriage law, or the cultural impact of mass Latino immigration. There is real loss for many here as well as real gain for many more in the future. But the key to a more productively conservative defense of tradition is, it seems to me, a civility in making the case and alertness to the occasional, contingent need for genuine reform, as social problems emerge in a changing society.

Today’s Republicanism is, in contrast, absolutist, ideological, fundamentalist and angry. It has ceased to be a voice among others in a genuine conversation about our country and become a rigid, absolutist ideology fueled by the worst aspects of the right – from racism to Randian indifference to the many others who made – and make – our lives possible.

Hey, that happens when you don’t believe in government, when you’ve argued for smaller and smaller government for so long, for decades, that you don’t know when you should stop at small-enough-for-now – just before you drown the baby in the bathtub. It’s dangerous to get too wrapped up in Grover Norquist’s imagery. It was only a metaphor after all.

And it’s not like no one noticed any of this. They did. America seems intent on erasing itself, or half of America seems intent on that, and could pull it off. People do wonder about us, and everyone has seen a country without any government at all, where everyone has a gun and is gloriously free to do anything they want to do. That would be Somalia. We should arrange a field trip for Ted Cruz and the Tea Party crowd. That might change their minds.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Considering Norquist’s Bathtub

  1. Rick says:

    “House Speaker John Boehner isn’t a factor here – he’ll see which way the wind is blowing before he chooses which way to go on all this.”

    I’m not all that sure about that.

    Just as there’s reason to believe that Obama let the Republicans play the debt-limit card in 2011 as a way to teach them that you can’t do that sort of thing (and was apparently surprised to learn this year that they apparently didn’t learn that lesson), there’s a similar school of thought that says Boehner, in 2013, was just giving the Tea Party the chance to learn the same lesson — that is, that they can’t succeed in doing what they were trying to do. Assuming that theory is right, then who knows whether he’d give them a second chance at learning that lesson?

    Except for the confusing fact that Boehner’s idea, which he failed to convince his Tea Party contingent, was reportedly to skip the shutdown altogether and jump immediately to taking the debt-ceiling hostage, I would think he might want to be at the front of the movement of eventually bringing moderation back to the party.

    After all, martyrdom is not a self-sustaining principle of governance, and I’m sure that if such a thing is possible, then the framers of the Constitution — that is, the people who, over two hundred years ago, created a nation by creating a government — must be watching over us, and, seeing that one of the two major parties that are vying for power in the nation they created is an ANTI-GOVERNMENT party, are surely rolling over in their graves.

    When Kevin Drum says… “The tea party faction seems unable to recognize that, in fact, they have very clearly taken over the Republican Party. Moderate Republicans are no longer a real force”, I think he’s right.

    But I also think that, at some point, the suicide caucus will play itself out, and the pendulum will swing the moderates back into power, simply because the so-called Tea Party gang is a latter-day “gang that couldn’t shoot straight”, largely because, being the anti-government group, it is the group that doesn’t believe in getting anything done. (After all, how else to explain that “repeal and replace” somehow morphed into just “repeal”?)

    The fact is, if the “gang that couldn’t shoot straight” were ever to take over this country, we would then become the “country that couldn’t shoot straight”, presided over by a government that doesn’t get anything done, simply because it chooses not to.

    And that means we would probably suffer the fate of both of the flawed Confederacies in our history, both of which were let’s-pretend nations that didn’t really want to be nations in the first place, and both eventually getting their wish by going out of existence.


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