Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs has aged well for a thirty-year-old movie. It’s the little things. The bad guys – in Spaceball One of course – try to follow the good guys, disappearing in the distance, but Dark Helmet (don’t ask) foolishly orders the ship to “ludicrous speed” – and that doesn’t go well. There’s no way to stop without disaster. Dark Helmet flies through a wall. Slow down gradually, even if the good guys get away. In fact, never go to Ludicrous Speed. The name says it all – but two years ago the Tesla folks began offering a Ludicrous Mode switch to their electric cars – an upgrade from Insane Mode. Throw that switch and the Tesla becomes the fastest car in the world – and the batteries pretty much drain in an instant. It’s fun. Then you stop dead. It’s a ten thousand dollar option. One can travel at “ludicrous speed” after all. It’s not very useful. Somewhere, Mel Brooks is smiling.
There’s a lesson there. The Republicans didn’t learn it. Donald Trump won the election partly on the promise to repeal and replace Obamacare – immediately. He had a solidly Republican House and Senate, but every alternative they came up with was loathsome. Twenty or thirty million Americans would lose their health insurance, and the cost of health insurance for everyone else would skyrocket. They knew they were pushing nonsense. Their last alternative died in the Senate. They couldn’t find even fifty Republican votes for it – perhaps because they were trying to do this at “ludicrous speed” – using that budget reconciliation thing that requires only fifty votes. But they moved too fast. No one really knew what was in this alternative or that, and Donald Trump had insulted John McCain one too many times – or McCain knew nonsense when he saw it. He cast the deciding Republican vote against that last alternative. Never go to Ludicrous Speed. That always ends in disaster.
John McCain told them so, and now, as the Washington Post reports, he’s told them again:
The latest Republican effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act stood on the brink of failure Friday after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced his opposition to the proposal and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was leaning against it.
The intensifying resistance dealt a potentially decisive blow to the renewed attempt to fulfill a seven-year-old GOP promise. McCain joined Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in formally opposing the plan, leaving party leaders one senator away from defeat.
They should have slowed down:
Friday’s developments forced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President Trump into a difficult corner. They must now decide whether to continue to pursue a vote that increasingly appears likely to fail, or short-circuit the endeavor and deal with the backlash after another unsuccessful try.
Perhaps so, but alternatively, they could do the martyr thing – the Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing. They could be the noble heroes who went down fighting. There might be statues later, in tribute to their principled chivalry. Obamacare would still be around, but so would the statues. That worked for Robert E. Lee for a long time.
That seems unlikely:
A fresh GOP failure to undo Obamacare could have a seismic impact on the legislative dynamic in Washington and the emerging contours of the 2018 midterm elections. Trump’s relationship with McConnell has grown sour since an earlier attempt to repeal the law over the summer, and the current push represents a chance to repair that relationship. If it fails, Trump could turn on congressional Republicans more forcefully and be tempted to work with Democrats, whom he has courted on a series of narrower issues.
Many Republicans fear that a defeat could also depress the GOP base headed into the midterms, potentially reducing turnout next fall and creating an environment in which GOP incumbents are ripe for primary challenges from angry conservatives.
Winning matters to these folks, but this is a losing battle:
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Friday showed that more than half of Americans, 56 percent, prefer the ACA to the latest GOP plan. Only 33 percent prefer the bill that Senate Republicans abruptly put on the table this month.
They went too fast. Insurance companies, doctors, patients, hospitals and other patient-provider groups are screaming bloody murder too – along with Republican governors and the Medicaid administrators of all fifty states, and Jimmy Kimmel too. John McCain had to say it again:
In a lengthy written statement Friday, McCain said he “cannot in good conscience” vote for the bill authored by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), which GOP leaders have been aiming to bring to the Senate floor next week. As he has done repeatedly in recent days, he railed against the hurried process leaders have used to move the measure ahead.
“I would consider supporting legislation similar to that offered by my friends Senators Graham and Cassidy were it the product of extensive hearings, debate and amendment. But that has not been the case,” McCain said. He blamed a looming Sept. 30 deadline to take advantage of a procedural rule allowing Republicans to pass the bill with as few as 50 Senate votes, plus Vice President Pence as a tiebreaker.
That was what was ludicrous:
McCain also said he could not vote for a bill without a complete snapshot of its effects from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which said earlier this week that it could provide only a partial picture by next week. The office said it could not determine the bill’s impact on insurance premiums or project the change in coverage levels it would trigger until a later date.
“I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats, and have not yet really tried,” McCain said. He added that he took “no pleasure” in his announcement. McCain and Graham are close friends.
Graham later said they were still the best of friends – McCain had been talking procedure, not substance – but this seems to be over:
At a town hall in liberal Iowa City, which began an hour after McCain announced his opposition to the bill, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told a cheering crowd stacked with ACA supporters that the GOP’s repeal push was probably over for the year.
“I’ll be honest,” Ernst said. “It seems unlikely that we’ll be voting on this.”
The New York Times’ Carl Hulse reports that it’s not that simple:
As more than 40 subdued Republican senators lunched on Chick-fil-A at a closed-door session last week, Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado painted a dire picture for his colleagues. Campaign fund-raising was drying up, he said, because of widespread disappointment among donors over the inability of the Republican Senate to repeal the Affordable Care Act or do much of anything else.
Mr. Gardner is in charge of his party’s midterm re-election push, and he warned that donors of all stripes were refusing to contribute another penny until the struggling majority produced some concrete results.
“Donors are furious,” one person knowledgeable about the private meeting quoted Mr. Gardner as saying. “We haven’t kept our promise.”
In short, the Senate moved at “ludicrous speed” because their donors, those that finance their staying in office, told them to:
Republicans say the fund-raising drop-off has been steep and across the board, from big donations to the small ones the party solicits online from the grass roots. They say the hostile views of both large and small donors are in unusual alignment and that the negative sentiment is crystallized in the fund-raising decline.
One party official noted that Senate Republicans had a lucrative March, raising $7 million – an off-year record for the organization. But in the aftermath of the failed health repeal effort before the August recess and other setbacks, the take dropped to $2 million in July and August – a poor showing for a majority party with a decided advantage on the midterm map.
The totals have left Republicans increasingly worried about having the funds they need next year.
These folks won’t fund noble martyrs of lost causes. They promised to do something that proved to be stupid and dangerous and hateful, but they promised. Do it. Do something. Otherwise, you’re gone.
That’s crazy, but maybe the Republicans are crazy. In the Mel Brooks movie, Dark Helmet was sort of crazy – “So, Lone Star, now you see that evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”
Maybe it’s like that. Lee Drutman thinks so, and he offers his futuristic screenplay:
It’s December 2020, and President Donald Trump has still refused to concede that he lost the tumultuous presidential election.
A month earlier, Sen. Kamala Harris narrowly defeated Trump. Even though the incumbent held onto the Rust Belt states he had gained in 2016, record-high minority turnout gave Harris narrow wins in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Democrats also narrowly took back both the House and the Senate, with razor-thin pickups in North Carolina and Georgia. The urban/rural partisan divide continued to widen. And for the first time in American history, a majority of one party’s voters (the Democrats) were nonwhite.
And then this had to happen:
The Trump campaign demanded recounts in the four states Harris narrowly won, blaming “illegal voting” and Chinese hacking. Recounts confirmed the original totals. Trump dismissed the recounts. With the balance of power in both the Senate and House potentially implicated as well, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader John Thune quietly backed the Trump administration.
Sen. Harris, daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, gained momentum early with a strong pro-immigrant, pro-civil rights campaign that electrified the Democratic base. A former prosecutor, she promised to intervene with an even hand in the increasingly contentious battles over policing and to prosecute Trump once and for all for collaborating with Russia. Though special prosecutor Robert Mueller indicted and convicted a few Trump campaign affiliates in early 2018, Trump kept up the drumbeat about a “witch hunt,” containing the damage.
Trump ran a brutal campaign, accusing Harris of harboring a secret plan to implement Sharia Law in the US, and promising to open our borders and grant amnesty to millions of “illegals.” He repeatedly said that if Harris stole the presidency (he never acknowledged she could win legitimately), America may as well surrender to radical Islam.
And then this had to happen:
After the recounts, Trump held increasingly large rallies in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, saying a Democratic victory would mark the “end of America.” He openly encouraged violence if Harris failed to concede. Nobody knew what would happen if Trump had to be forcibly removed from the White House.
Drutman admits none of that is likely, except he concedes it’s all quite possible:
American democracy, like all political systems, rests on norms. Rules can only save us if they are agreed upon and respected.
For a long time, we collectively assumed that respect for elections and peaceful transfer of power were so sacred to the stability of our political system that nobody would ever challenge them. But in 2016, Trump, a major party candidate, promised to keep the country in suspense over whether he would concede if he lost. (Since he won, we’ll never know what would have happened had he pressed the issue.)
For a long time, we assumed that while we might have strong political disagreements with each other, there were certain neutral arbiters in society whose authority we would all respect and abide by. There were enough generally agreed-upon facts that our disputes wouldn’t threaten the foundations of our political system.
But for years now, we’ve been retreating into our separate tribal epistemologies, each with their own increasingly incompatible set of facts and first premises. We’re entering a politics where the perceived stakes are higher and higher (“the fate of our nation lies in the balance”) that they justify increasingly extreme means. When it is a war of good versus evil, “norms” and “fair play” seem like quaint anachronisms.
It seems that evil will always triumph because good is dumb, at least in this context:
It’s not just how much we are divided, but more fundamentally how we are divided. The core problem is that the fundamental disagreement in our politics is now over what it means to be an American – it’s over what our nation’s core values are. And that has historically spelled trouble.
Recent events in Charlottesville bring these divisions into sharp relief: Can “very fine people” march alongside Neo-Nazis? Do counterprotesters on the alleged “alt-left” deserve just as much (or maybe even more) of the blame for any violence? Do Confederate generals deserve commemoration in our public squares? Answers to these questions reveal very different visions of both the past and the future of our country. And they break overwhelmingly along partisan lines.
So we get this:
To the political left, Donald Trump is un-American: His xenophobic, racist rhetoric stands in opposition to the true American vision of tolerance. It’s an affront to our nation of immigrants, a country in which equality is written into our founding documents. Any Republican who supports or voted for him is guilty by association.
To the political right, it’s the Democrats who are un-American. They denigrate our founding as a Christian nation and want to secularize everything. They want to sacrifice our sovereignty to globalist institutions under the guise of invented problems like global warming and to undermine our exceptional heritage by opening our borders to anybody, even those who want to blow us up. There is only one “real America” and it doesn’t include the coasts or cities where many Democrats live.
We now have two political parties with very different and increasingly irreconcilable ideas about what it means to be American, and, perhaps more saliently, what it is to be un-American.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way, but these things happen:
Parties mobilize and engage citizens to win elections, in the process bringing many otherwise apathetic citizens into politics. They bind disparate citizens together in a common purpose, providing a shared sense of collective energy necessary for a functioning democracy. Absent parties to structure and organize politics, democracy would crumble under chaos or apathy.
But the good things that parties accomplish come with side effects. To unite people, parties must also divide, by offering a common enemy to everyone on their side. As psychologists have long known, in-group loyalty and out-group hostility are two sides of the same coin. And under certain circumstances, particularly ones of high stress and high threat, and usually with active goading from above, out-group hostility can easily take on very dark and destructive forces.
Here’s the paradox: We can’t have democracy without partisanship. But when partisanship overwhelms everything, it becomes increasingly difficult for democracy to function.
Okay, we’re screwed:
When division involves purity and impurity, when it devolves into a pure contest between “us” and “them” – then there is no bargaining, because there are no negotiable principles, just team loyalties. “We” are good and pure, while “they” are evil and corrupt. And, of course, you cannot compromise with evil and corrupt. The preferred cocktails of such a politics are of the Molotov variety, and the roads and bridges are not to be traded, but to be burned.
This is doom-loop partisanship, because it contains many reinforcing dynamics that can quickly spiral out of control.
It has spiraled out of control, but we had been warned about this:
The founders feared doom-loop partisanship from the beginning; it was why they were hostile to political parties. In making the case against parties, George Washington prophesied in his farewell address: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities.” Washington agonized precisely about the arms race of incivility and nastiness that has overwhelmed national politics over the past few decades.
Washington feared that instability would “gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.”
It didn’t matter:
George Washington’s vision of no parties, just men of good character, was obviously unworkable. American politics quickly organized around the competing Hamiltonian Federalist and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican parties.
And now we are where we are:
Neither party can escape from identity politics because identity is more than ever the ideological glue that holds together both party coalitions. The corollary is that any argument about economic policy can never be just an argument about economic policy.
How then, do we unscramble this? First, we have to understand the features of our current politics that are making this situation worse. Three conditions stand out: Our winner-take-all system of elections, the expanding powers of the presidency and the federal government generally, and the outsized importance of private money in politics
Drutman discusses all that at length, but it comes down to this:
The raw division and conflict and mutual demonization are there, and are getting worse and worse. The events in Charlottesville are just the latest manifestation. Where will things be by 2020? What happens if there’s a major recession, and even more anger?
I honestly don’t know whether we’ll get escape this mess without a constitutional crisis.
We need partisan conflict to organize politics. Without political parties, there is no meaningful democracy. But we are deep into a self-reinforcing cycle of doom-loop partisanship. We need to think hard about how to escape this trap, before it is too late.
Who has the time and energy, or incentive, for that, and Jonathan Chait notes this:
The Democratic Party is racially and economically heterogeneous. Even if he had wanted to take vengeance upon white America for its sins, Obama had far too many white supporters to make such a course of action remotely practical. (A majority of Obama’s voters were white, in fact.) On economic issues, the Democratic Party relies on support and input from business and labor alike…
There is little such balance to be found in the Republican Party. Republicans concerned about their party’s future may blanch at Trump’s pardoning of the sadistic racist Joe Arpaio or his gleeful unleashing of law enforcement. In the short term, however, they have bottomed out on their minority support and proven able to win national power regardless, by using racial wedge issues to pry away blue-collar whites.
It may be that Dark Helmet and the Republicans really are the crazy ones. Drutman concedes that to Chait:
We can all recognize that the Republican Party has gone insane. That’s not hard to do. Naming the problem is a first step, but it offers no practical guide for what to do next.
Maybe the Republican Party will in time collapse under the weight of its own incoherent extremism and declining demographic coalition. But Republicans have locked in some electoral advantages to get the most out of their demographics. And the two-party system makes it almost impossible for parties to collapse. We’ve had the same two parties in this country for 160 years now for this reason. In a multi-party system, an alternative conservative party or new centrist party could emerge. In a two-party system, it’s much less likely.
My deep fear is that things will get much worse before they get better… The dynamics that have driven the Republican Party to increasingly illiberal extremes are not going away. If anything, they are continuing to intensify.
Drutman ends with this:
The image that keeps running through my head these days is of Wile E. Coyote, running to the edge of the cliff, full steam ahead, unable to stop as the solid ground cedes into air and gravity takes over. We don’t know how much running room is left. But we know where it winds up, if we don’t do something to change course. And simply pointing a finger at the runaway coyote doesn’t seem to be working.
That’s also where John McCain agrees with Mel Brooks. Republicans should know better. Never go to Ludicrous Speed. That always ends in disaster, and that’s only funny in the movies.