The fiscal cliff story is a hard one to care about – it feels like a continuation of the presidential election season, in which red and blue pundits screamed at each other and traded insults while the country moved inexorably toward a moment of profound non-catharsis. That story was a bummer and this one is, too. If karma has a stake in this narrative, both Democrats and Republicans should brace for the worst-case scenario, for when it comes to politics within the Beltway, it's beginning to feel like nobody deserves to lose more than Everybody.
But while it's hard to stay focused on the fiscal cliff, the resignation of leading Tea Party pol Jim DeMint is (to me anyway) a more compelling development. Obviously, one story led to the other. The Tea Party is about purity, and DeMint doesn't want to sully himself with the congress's probably-inevitable decision to raise taxes to avoid this budget collapse. So his highly-symbolic resignation is his wing of the party's Picking-Up-The-Ball-And-Going-Home moment. The message of the DeMint move is simple: We tried to work within the system, but the system turned out to be dirty, so we are leaving the system.
It will be a very popular decision in many places. In many parts of the country, Obama's re-election was seen as final proof that mainstream two-party politics is a dead-end for true American conservatives. In those places, Obama's unexpectedly swift and brutal electoral victory, won with a newly confident coalition of expanding-demographic voter blocs (Hispanics, blacks, professional women), felt less like an ideological victory than a blunt statement of inevitability, a conqueror's dictum: Unless you assimilate, unless you change, the future is ours, because we have the numbers.
And since the election, all anyone in the punditocracy has wanted to talk is what Republicans need to do strategically to answer that dictum and recapture the White House. Solutions have ranged from leveraging upcoming ethnic party stars like Marco Rubio to win Hispanic voters, to softening on choice to win women back, to simply adopting a more welcoming tone (this is the premise of the hilarious "Republican Glasnost" column today by David Brooks, who seems to think the party can win back a leading role just by sounding nicer).
But no matter what Brooks or Ari Fleischer or Alex Castellanos or any other mainstream conservative pundit says, the driving question occupying the minds of dejected conservatives now out in actual America is not wondering what they can do to better welcome blacks and Hispanics and college kids with bad facial hair into their party. The real question they've been asking themselves since the election is probably closer to, "Why bother?"
A lot of these people gamely banded together to support a Republican nominee who left most of them cold during primary season, Mitt Romney. But there was a palpable air of We're giving this one last chance! in the effort to oust Obama through conventional mainstream politics. And when it was over, pundits everywhere insisted they faced a political Sophie's Choice: stay losers forever, or surrender on core issues.
In the minds of those Tea Party conservatives DeMint represents, they debased themselves in supporting an ultimate-RINO type like Romney, and all they got for their trouble was four more years of Black Satan lounging around on the couches of the White House.
Not to stretch too far to bring a football analogy in, but DeMint is sort of the Fireman Ed of the conservative movement. The upcoming fiscal cliff cave is the political equivalent of that amazing ass-to-face fumble by Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez on Thanksgiving night.
The instant famed Jets fan Fireman Ed saw that play, he decided he didn't want to be the guy in the stands the networks panned to for the next five years every time Sanchez threw a pick six or fumbled the ball off his face – so Ed picked up his little face-paint kit, went home, and penned a completely serious formal resignation. DeMint just did exactly the same thing, only now he's going to make seven figures at the Heritage Foundation just to not go to the games.
DeMint's departure was not exactly mourned on the Hill. ("He's the biggest douchebag in Washington," is how one congressional aide explained it to me, "and this is the douchebag capital of the world.") The writing was on the wall for DeMint and his Tea Party cronies when Boehner whacked four Tea Party-aligned Republicans from committee assignments earlier this week.
Privately, what you hear on the Hill is more and more complaining that Tea Party extremism of the DeMint type has not only cost Republicans the Senate (where DeMint's support of losers like Christine "I dabbled in witchcraft" O'Donnell and Canada-bashing Nevada candidate Sharon Angle may have cost the party winnable elections) but perhaps the White House as well. You hear talk that Republicans are listening to polls showing majorities are tired of DeMint-style filibustering tactics and will blame Republicans, not Democrats, if this fiscal cliff thing goes completely sideways.
So this is a mutual split. The Tea Partiers were sick to the point of puking of RINO types like Boehner who are gearing up to put the Republican Party's name on a massive tax increase and may eventually bend on choice, immigration and gay rights. The Republican establishment, meanwhile, is sick of waking up every morning wondering which of the party's extremist dingbats has decided that the best way to win national elections is to give interviews calling carbon dioxide a safe, naturally-occurring gas or demanding that unmarried, sexually-active women be barred from teaching children. The disgust these two groups feel for each other is genuine and in some cases may actually exceed the disgust they feel toward opponents on the blue side of the aisle.
Any pundit who tries to claim he knows where all of this is going is lying. This schism could be a disaster for Republicans (because it will further alienate the rank-and-file, middle-and-working-class voters from the party establishment, which will now be bashed from the outside by DeMint and the Tea Party), or it could actually be a good thing for the Republicans' future prospects (there's a way to look at this as a long-overdue purge of the party's moron faction).
Or it could all be irrelevant. Remember, the Democrats were facing a similarly bitter split not too long ago, when their party's mainstream unforgivably backed Bush's idiotic Iraq invasion and then saddled us with a war-waffling presidential candidate in John Kerry. And just like the Republicans after Romney, the Democrats after the Kerry loss felt hopeless, depressed and self-hating – you heard a lot of "Screw it, I'm moving to Iceland" talk. Four years later, the party sold the identical Kerry policy package in an exciting new Obama wrapper, and suddenly people were partying in the streets. You just never know how these things will turn out.
But in the meantime, this split in the Republican Party is a crazy and highly entertaining mess. DeMint sniping at Boehner through Rush Limbaugh is probably only the beginning. This is going to get ugly, like Atlanta Housewives-catfight ugly, before all is said and done. Can't you see it? Boehner comes guiltily slithering out of a back room meeting with Reid and Pelosi with an $800 tax hike deal, and DeMint will be there just waiting for him with a camera crew, screaming, "I know what you did! F%^$K you, bitch!" over and over again while the boom mic swings over Boehner's head. It's going to happen. How can this not be a good thing?