This latest episode in the endless Republican reality show is not chiefly about the incompetence and incessant squabbling of ideologues and petty politicians, although it’s that, too. Nor is it the outcome of the intense partisan polarization that has thrown Washington into gridlock, as if the problem is abstract partisanship itself, with Democrats and Republicans equally at fault. Least of all is it about rescuing the economy from the Democrats’ profligate deficit spending, as Republicans claim – not with the deficit shrinking to its lowest level since the financial disaster of 2008 and with the outlook improving. This crisis is about nothing other than the Republican Party – its radicalization, its stunning lack of leadership and its disregard for the Constitution.
The Republicans have now joined a relatively small number of major American political parties that became the captive of a narrow ideology and either jettisoned or silenced their more moderate elements. The Democratic Party suffered this fate in the 1840s and 1850s, when Southern slaveholders took command of the party’s levers of power. So, temporarily, did the Republicans in 1964, when Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign claimed the party for extremists on the right, an augury of things to come. But today’s Republicans, whatever their pretensions about channeling the Founding Fathers, are so contemptuous of American history and institutions that they cannot learn from even their own recent past.
Like earlier declines into dogmatic politics, the Republicans descended gradually, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s departure from the White House in 1989. Reagan had governed shrewdly. While getting his way on what he thought was important, including dramatically lowering marginal tax rates and combating the Soviet Union, he knew how to compromise. He also knew how to exploit the culture wars, paying lip service to causes like the “pro-life” movement without risking any political capital on them. Reagan adroitly kept his true- believer supporters in line even as he raised taxes no fewer than 11 times, raised government spending by 57 percent (in current dollars), and nearly tripled the national debt to $2.6 trillion. Yet while Reagan’s success continued to shape national politics for decades after he left office, he alone proved capable of holding together the conservative coalition that had swept him to power.
With no clear-cut successor on the right, the GOP turned to a scion of the old GOP establishment, George Herbert Walker Bush. Deepening divisions between center-right Republicans like Bush and a new crop of Republican right-wing firebrands like Newt Gingrich contributed heavily to Bush’s ouster in 1992. Bill Clinton’s innovative center-left politics seemed to revive the Democrats and sent the Republicans into paroxysms that fed their further shift to the right. But even though Clinton won re-election in 1996, his own precarious coalition did not hold. With George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, engineered by a one-vote majority of the conservative phalanx on the Supreme Court, the post-Reagan GOP reached a new and more radical phase.
After an unsteady start, the new Bush administration won enormous popular support following the terrorist atrocities of September 11th, 2001. In time, his popularity diminished, but it proved strong enough to secure – narrowly – his re-election in 2004. Despite the thinness of the president’s margin of victory, Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove spoke of a “permanent Republican majority” that would last for a generation or more. In the conservative Weekly Standard, the pundit Fred Barnes remarked, almost matter-of-factly, that “Republican hegemony in America is now expected to last for years, maybe decades.”
Four years later, the Bush administration was in its death spiral. The economy was on the brink of collapse in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis traceable to the utter lack of oversight and regulation of an out-of-control financial sector. Anger over the Iraq War, the government’s passive early response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and more, had caused the president’s public-approval ratings to plunge. Two years earlier, the Democrats had regained a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in more than a decade, giving them virtual control of both houses of Congress.
The anti-Bush backlash, though, was not confined to Democrats and independents. Bush had already stirred resentment on the right during his first term with his unfunded Medicare prescription-drug reforms, which many hard-line conservative Republicans viewed as a big-government betrayal. Early in his second term, Bush tried and failed to advance the privatization of Social Security, which would have put the program in the hands of the bankers, derivatives speculators and mortgage brokers. Had it worked, Bush might have gained some credibility among the hard-liners, who had long dreamed of destroying the ultimate New Deal program. Then Bush enraged much of the Republican base with his efforts to liberalize immigration policy. But it was his drastic interventions in the wake of the financial crisis to bail out the floundering banks that most offended the right wing of his party. They saw Bush’s prudent actions to prevent complete economic disaster as his final act of big-government treason. The ensuing protests sparked the uprisings that turned into the Tea Party phenomenon.
The Republicans’ continuing transformation into a narrow ideological party, which some observers thought would halt after Bush’s failure, would have many more cycles to go. Battered and discouraged, the GOP nominated Sen. John McCain, the last major national Republican whose career stretched back to the glory years of Ronald Reagan, but his reputation for irascible independence made the right-wing Republicans worse than squeamish. In desperation for party unity, McCain opted for the inexperienced, ignorant but unassailably far-right Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate, momentarily exciting the party base but, in the long run, damaging his hopes with the rest of the electorate. Sen. Barack Obama won handily, the greatest Democratic presidential victory in nearly half a century.
The Tea Party uprising helped the Republicans regain the House in 2010, in the wake of Obama’s legislative victories in enacting a large, if insufficient, economic stimulus package and a diluted but nevertheless historic national health care law. Yet the Republicans’ apparent rebound was actually dismaying to party politicos who had historic connections to the party’s more traditional and less dogmatic conservatism. Among the most powerful of them, Karl Rove, disdainfully remarked in 2010 that the Tea Party did not strike him as particularly “sophisticated.” In last year’s presidential election, it took Rove and his favored candidate, Mitt Romney, until late in the primary season to fend off a bewildering gaggle of conservative hard-liners. To secure the nomination, Romney had to adopt positions popular inside Tea Party circles but fatal in the general election, including naming the Ayn Rand-admiring congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate.
For their part, the Democrats – and, in particular, the Obama White House – actively resisted understanding how much the rightward push had radicalized the Republican Party, especially its caucus in the House of Representatives. Disappointing his ardent left supporters from the 2008 campaign who fantasized he would be their “movement” president, it turned out that Obama actually believed his own campaign rhetoric about ushering in a new post-partisan spirit to the nation’s capital. Predictably, he failed. Not a single House Republican and only three in the Senate voted in favor of the administration’s stimulus package in 2009. After almost a year of bargaining and stalling, Congress finally passed a watered-down version of the president’s health care reform bill early in 2010. Not a single Republican, in either house of Congress, voted aye.
Those outcomes should have been obvious to anyone with a glimmer of understanding of what the Republican Party had become. Working together with the president and compromising for the betterment of the nation was not in the cards. The Republican right turned to vicious personal attacks on Obama, not only on his health care plan, but also on whether he was really an American. This character assassination, along with high unemployment and the continued sluggishness of the economy, fueled the Republicans’ recapture of the House in 2010. The new Congress brought to the fore a fresh crop of leaders, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan. Dubbing themselves the Young Guns, they made no pretense of their discomfort with the new speaker of the House, John Boehner.
From the start, it was clear that the younger leaders would try to make the federal debt limit the focus of controversy, an ideal ploy for hostage-taking. Boehner demurred. “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults,” he lectured the incoming Republican freshmen about the impending debt-limit debate. “Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part.” But the Young Guns, Cantor in particular, would have no truck with such timidity. Neither would the freshmen, most of them well to the right of the Young Guns and elected with Tea Party support. And throughout, the upstarts made it absolutely clear that if their demands were not met, they would not hesitate in forcing the nation, disastrously, to default on its debts.
The Republicans either believe, or would have you believe, that the debt ceiling limits the size of the national debt and thus limits government spending. Raising it, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina has remarked, is just another way of saying, “Well, you’ve got a little bit more credit – keep spending.” The words “debt ceiling” or “debt limit” can certainly sound as if that’s what’s involved. But these assertions are false.
The debt ceiling dates back to America’s entry into World War I. Contrary to a widespread misimpression, it came into existence not as a constraint on congressional spending, but in order to make government fiscal procedures less cumbersome amid the pressures of mobilizing for war. It had – and has – nothing to do with authorizing spending; Congress does that as part of the normal legislative process. Nor does the ceiling have anything to do with annual deficit levels, which explains why even today, with the deficit shrinking, Congress still needs to raise the debt ceiling. Rather, the ceiling is an artificial cap, determined by Congress, on the amount that the government can borrow to cover obligations already made.
Through the era of World War II, the limit looked to some like it might actually act as a useful check on government borrowing. But over the decades that followed, as the size of the nation’s economy – and with it the national debt – grew exponentially, the debt limit became a vestige of a bygone era. By 1974, it was truly obsolete; that year Congress passed a new law compelling it to approve a budget and thus set borrowing levels annually.
The implication by the Republicans that raising the ceiling will enable the government to spend the nation into bankruptcy all the faster is utterly phony, a pseudo-crisis rooted in no real problem, a fraud manufactured and then stage-managed by the GOP to frighten the public and score political points. Indeed, it is the Republican radicals, and not the Democrats, who are threatening to throw the government into immediate bankruptcy unless they get their way over other issues, above all defunding (which means, basically, repealing) Obamacare.
You don’t have to be Paul Krugman to understand all of this. Since the 1950s, economists have called the debt ceiling an experiment that failed long ago. Addressing Congress in 2003 as the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, the Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan disparaged the debt ceiling as “either redundant or inconsistent with the paths of revenues and outlays you specify when you legislate a budget.” Eight years later, as the House Republicans threatened, Greenspan called the debt-limit problem “unnecessary” and said flat-out that the debt ceiling “serves no useful purpose.”
For decades, though, Congress went along with raising the debt limit as a mere formality. Every year from 1941 to 1945, Congress raised the debt ceiling to accommodate the accumulating costs of World War II. Since 1960, Congress has raised the ceiling 78 times, including 18 times under Ronald Reagan, six times under Bill Clinton, seven times under George W. Bush and seven times under Barack Obama. Occasionally members of both parties have voted against raising the ceiling as a symbolic gesture to focus attention on various issues. Indeed, in 2006, Sen. Barack Obama joined every other Democrat in the Senate in voting against raising the debt ceiling, a bit of political posturing that was part of the normal cut-and-thrust on Capitol Hill.
If the debt limit is not raised when necessary, the federal government will immediately default on some of its obligations. That, in turn, would disrupt its ability to pay its creditors, from bondholders and defense contractors to recipients of Social Security and Medicare. A default that lasted for just a single day – and perhaps even the threat of such a default – would have dire effects, causing every credit agency to downgrade the nation’s credit rating while presenting to the rest of the world a bizarre spectacle: the richest and most powerful nation on Earth willfully damaging both its economy and its international credibility. A default that lasted more than a few days would risk triggering a catastrophic financial crisis. Until now, no member of Congress, from either party, has seriously entertained wreaking such havoc.
Early in 2011, in keeping with cantor’s plans, the Republicans threatened a government shutdown and in a last-minute deal with the White House forced cuts in discretionary spending that amounted to $79 billion more than the White House had wanted. Gearing up for his re-election campaign, Obama tried to put a good face on the outcome, calling it a “worthwhile compromise.” He even seemed to boast, in words that echoed Speaker Boehner’s, that it was “the largest annual spending cut in our history.” But the Republicans, particularly the Young Guns and the more volatile Tea Partiers, having wounded Obama, were only getting started.
In early summer, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used fiscal gimmicks to delay the necessity of raising the debt limit while Obama and Boehner held secret negotiations that they hoped would produce what Obama called the “Grand Bargain.” They outlined a deal that would reduce projected deficits by $4 trillion over the coming decade; it included cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits, and tax reforms that would reduce rates – with guaranteed revenues to take care of any shortfall. Boehner grew confident of a settlement. But when Cantor learned that taxes were on the table, he publicly undermined the talks, and on July 9th, Boehner killed the big deal.
Negotiations resumed a few days later, and on July 21st, another agreement was imminent – or so the White House believed. The next day, though, Boehner refused to return Obama’s calls until late in the afternoon, when he informed the president that the latest deal was dead. The speaker had extracted major concessions from Obama – concessions that would have probably damaged the president badly with the Democratic base had the two sides agreed. But Boehner was undone by fear of a backlash over taxes from the Tea Party members like Jim Jordan of Ohio, who were now pressing Cantor and the other Young Guns hard from the right. Naturally, Boehner blamed Obama for the breakdowns. Thus, the House Republicans, pushed by the Tea Party, saved Obama from quite possibly committing political suicide in pursuit of his post-partisan will-o’-the-wisp going into 2012.
Meanwhile, on August 3rd, the government was scheduled to default unless Congress raised the debt limit. Legal experts as well as Democratic leaders implored the president to head off a Republican-manufactured disaster by invoking or at least citing the 14th Amendment – specifically Section 4 of the amendment, which states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States,” including payments for government pensions, “shall not be questioned.” The explicit purpose behind the amendment, framed and ratified in the aftermath of the Civil War, was to prevent Southern rebel sympathizers returning to Congress from using the public debt to extract political concessions – precisely what the leaders of the current Southern-based Republican Party were doing. Policies and ideology aside, the House GOP was headed toward a blatant violation of the Constitution. But Obama would have nothing to do with the 14th Amendment. “I have talked to my lawyers,” he said. “They are not persuaded that that is a winning argument.” And so the post-partisan president pursued a last-minute compromise.
In the nick of time, on August 2nd, Obama signed the Budget Control Act, which he, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had worked out with Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky days earlier – the final product of the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis. This was the disastrous sequestration bill, which mandated that on January 2nd, 2013, unless Congress approved the recommendations of a bipartisan “supercommittee” on cutting billions from the budget over the ensuing decade, massive across-the-board cuts in mandatory as well as discretionary spending, including for defense, would take effect over that same decade. The sequester mandate was deliberately designed never to take effect; rather, it was a doomsday provision, intended to spur the “supercommittee” toward a new “Grand Bargain.”
The sequester plan did nothing to relieve mounting anxieties in the bond markets. On August 5th, three days after Obama signed the bill, Standard & Poor’s, having issued warnings for months, announced that it was stripping the United States of its sterling AAA long-term sovereign credit rating. “The fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to,” S&P’s announcement read, “falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.” But even that ominous embarrassment did not move the Republicans, who refused to bend their solemn oath never to raise any taxes and thereby killed any chance for a broader agreement. On January 2nd, the sequester bill’s doomsday, the president had to sign emergency legislation to keep the country from falling off what had become known as “the fiscal cliff.” But that only delayed the sequestration and did nothing to prevent future debt-ceiling crises down the road.
Sometime in the midst of these battles, Obama seems to have begun to grasp what he was up against in the Republican Party. He certainly did not repeat the old paeans to post-partisanship during his re-election campaign in 2012. Instead, he forcefully defended positive government and drew a clear line between his progressive political philosophy and that of his plutocratic opponent, who, at a secretly videotaped fundraiser of Republican donors, riffed on how 47 percent of the American people were parasites on government welfare. Republicans were dumbfounded when Obama won re-election by 5 million votes and by a landslide in the Electoral College, while the Democrats dominated the overall vote in both the House and Senate elections. In fact, the Democrats won 1.4 million votes more than the Republicans did in House elections nationally. Republicans retained the House only as a result of gerrymandering congressional districts in the states that they had won in the 2010 midterms. Yet the voters had clearly repudiated them. The themes of Romney’s campaign were rejected wholesale; the results marked an utter defeat of the anti-government, pro-big-business politics that have driven the GOP for decades. Republican vulnerability with key constituencies became clear over a host of issues, from women’s reproductive rights to immigration reform.
For a brief time, Republican officials playacted as though chastened. The Republican National Committee released a post-mortem report, a self-described “autopsy,” calling upon the party to change its public image as the callous party of the rich and to improve its links to blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told the Republicans to “stop being the stupid party” – remarks seconded by former RNC chairman and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Such sober second thoughts, though, never made much of a dent in the minds of congressional Republicans who, in 2013, have doubled down on their strategy of threats and disruption. Since 2010, they have sought to undermine the executive branch in any way they can. In the Senate, where the Republicans remain in the minority, they have launched more filibusters than ever before in history, blocking Obama’s appointments to virtually every position they could, from federal judges to Elizabeth Warren as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Now, having been completely overrun by a radical faction within their ranks, they are practicing a variation of the subversive politics of nullification first elaborated in the 1820s by John C. Calhoun, the Southern slaveholding archreactionary. Controlling just one half of one of the three branches of government – and having won that control only because of rigged, gerrymandered districting – they are out to nullify laws they don’t like, in part by blocking otherwise uncontroversial appointments of those officials required to execute them. The law they hate the most is the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare. The conservative-dominated Supreme Court, to their disbelief and horror, failed to declare the law unconstitutional in 2012. And so the Republicans are hellbent on nullifying the law by any means necessary, including paralyzing the government and, if need be, destroying the nation’s financial credibility and throwing the economy into a catastrophic collapse.
How has a faction consisting of no more than four dozen House members come to exercise so much destructive power? The continuing abandonment of professional responsibilities by the nation’s mainstream news sources – including most of the metropolitan daily newspapers and the television outlets, network and cable – has had a great deal to do with it. At some point over the past 40 years, the bedrock principle of journalistic objectivity became twisted into the craven idea of false equivalency, whereby blatant falsehoods get reported simply as one side of an argument and receive equal weight with the reported argument of the other side. There is no shortage of explanations for the press’s abdication: intimidation at the rise of Fox News and other propaganda operations; a deep confusion about the difference between hard-won objectivity and a lazy, counterfeit neutrality; and the poisonous effects of the postmodern axiom that truth, especially in politics, is a relative thing, depending on your perspective in a tweet. Whatever the explanation, today’s journalism has trashed the tradition of fearless, factual reporting pioneered by Walter Lippmann, Edward R. Murrow and Anthony Lewis.
A press devoted to searching for and reporting the truth, wherever it might lead, would have kept the public better informed of the basic details of the government shutdown and debt-ceiling showdowns. It also would have reported seriously the hard truths of the Tea Party “insurgency,” including how it was largely created and has since been bankrolled by oil-and-gas moguls like David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, and by a panoply of richly endowed right-wing pressure groups like Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and Jim DeMint’s Heritage Foundation. It also would have reported on the basic reason for the hard right’s growing domination of the Republican Party, which has been the decay of the party at every level, including what passes for its party leadership. No figure exemplifies the problem better than the GOP’s highest-ranking official, Speaker John Boehner, whose background and politics have largely escaped scrutiny.
Boehner owes his position to little more than his stolid longevity. A self-made, chain-smoking, run-of-the-mill Ohio Republican, he arrived in Congress in 1991 and rolled with the rising conservative tide. Three years later, after the Republicans won their first majority in the House in four decades, he rose as far as the lower end of the House leadership, mainly because he was pliable and came from an important swing state. His chief assignment was to raise funds, and he was delegated to serve as a party emissary to the K Street lobbyists. His most publicized moment came in 1996, when he was exposed distributing checks from the tobacco lobby to fellow Republicans on the floor of the House. Two years after that, in the internal bloodbath that cost Newt Gingrich his job as speaker, Boehner, too, was deposed from his leadership position.
With a lock on his congressional district, Boehner returned to the House and even managed to sit as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee from 2001 to 2006 – not an especially powerful or prestigious assignment. How, then, did such a lackluster figure come to be named speaker of the House? Only because the more prominent and able veterans were guillotined, one after another, and his was the only head left intact.
First, Gingrich was booted from the House entirely when his fellow Republicans removed him from his speakership in 1998 after a disastrous midterm election cycle. “I’m willing to lead,” Gingrich wailed, “but I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.” Then, in 2005, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the true malicious power behind the inert Speaker Dennis Hastert, was indicted on felony charges (later dropped) involving corporate campaign contributions and resigned his post in disgrace. In a surprise win over another unexceptional wheeler-dealer, Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, Boehner took over as majority leader, partly because he was so unthreatening. Finally, in the Democratic sweep of 2006, Hastert lost his leadership role in the party. Boehner became minority leader, which in turn put him in line to become speaker when the Republicans regained the House in 2010.
Boehner is a remainderman, the last figure from the Gingrich revolution left standing. In the absence of anyone with flair or talent, he rose to the heights with no virtue greater than his ability to hang around. And now, as speaker, he finds himself thrust into the middle of a momentous political crisis.
The speakership, historically, has offered an excellent opportunity for creative lawmakers to shape the politics of their times. Between 1811 and 1825, Henry Clay, the greatest speaker of all, transformed what had been essentially a rule-enforcer’s job into a position second in importance only to the president, concentrating power in his own hands by appointing his allies to the most important committees. Having put political pressure on the more pacific President James Madison, Clay helped lead the nation through the War of 1812 and then through the early implementation of a sweeping national economic plan, which he devised and called the American System. He also brokered the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that calmed sectional furor over slavery for more than 30 years.
Several powerful men have followed in Clay’s footsteps. “Uncle” Joe Cannon sternly ruled the Republican-dominated House for eight momentous years between 1903 and 1911, greatly augmenting the power of his “Old Guard” Republican faction and stifling legislation proposed by Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressives. Sam Rayburn, the Democrat of Texas, held the job for 20 years with two brief interruptions, under presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy; and with a firm but generous hand, he worked effectively with conservatives as well as liberals. Most recently the affable old-time Massachusetts liberal Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill held the House Democrats together during the lean years of the 1980s and struck up a strong and productive relationship, political and personal, with Ronald Reagan.
As a matter of history, Boehner is the most pathetic figure ever to serve as speaker of the House. Questioned last month about why he let right-wing members of his caucus overrule his own crucial – and publicly announced – decision to keep Obamacare out of the budget negotiations, Boehner could only reply that there were many points of view inside the Republican caucus and that “the key to any leadership job is to listen.” Henry Clay, who could not only listen but also speak eloquently, would scoff at Boehner’s withered definition of leadership. Days into the shutdown, Boehner reportedly told colleagues that he would prevent a default – an uncommon show of firmness. But those reports also raised questions about how long he could command the loyalty of his caucus.
If Boehner is the saddest speaker of the House in American history, the current Congress is among the lowest of the low. And while there have been numerous terrible Congresses, the closest parallel in our past had been the relatively obscure 46th Congress in the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction. Then, the Democrats were the Southern conservative party. Otherwise, the similarities between now and then are striking. So are the lessons that an old and mostly forgotten history can teach the present about how the executive branch should deal with a tightly organized extremist faction in Congress.
A financial panic in 1873 had led to an earthquake in the midterm elections the following year, costing the Republicans control of the House for the first time since the Civil War. Lacking an effective leadership, the Democrats had few ideas about how to combat the economic difficulties. Their entire agenda amounted to rousing their white Southern base’s resentment against the Republicans’ efforts to protect black voting rights.
In the so-called Compromise of 1877, Republicans won a disputed presidential election by agreeing to remove all but a token number of federal troops sent to guarantee civil rights – but even that mostly symbolic presence, along with the presence and power of U.S. marshals, continued to infuriate Southern Democrats. In the spring of 1879, with the Democrats still controlling the House, Congress passed routine appropriations bills to fund the army and the rest of the federal government for the coming fiscal year, beginning July 1st. Seeing their opportunity, Southern Democrats attached riders to the bills that forbade the use of troops and U.S. marshals to keep order at Southern polls. Though the Democrats were not threatening a default on the public debt, there were clear affinities between that Southern-based party and today’s Republicans. Pushed by its extremist wing, the party threatened to shut down the federal government – and defund the army – to secure the extremists’ narrow political interests.
As it turned out, the sitting Republican president, Rutherford B. Hayes, did not care much about protecting black voters in the South – but he and his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill recognized the Democrats’ blackmail for what it was, an attack on the fundamental American system of checks and balances. Five times the Democrats passed offensive bills, and five times Hayes rejected them, using the full powers of his office and denouncing the doctrine behind the Democratic threats – a doctrine, he said, that would “make a radical, dangerous and unconstitutional change in the character of our institutions.” After a legislative impasse of more than three months, when public opinion moved sharply against them, the Democrats backed down. Defeated by a president who had become strong as well as principled, they soon ceased their mayhem.
According to the usual workings of the American political system, success demands building diverse coalitions that contain swings too far to the right or the left. But historically this has not always been the case – not in the movement for Southern secession that provoked the Civil War, not in the paranoid politics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy early in the Cold War, not the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign that openly courted extremism and took over the Republican Party, and not in the George Wallace campaigns against civil rights.
The current Republican Party is the latest angry exception to the rules of normal consensus-building politics, and it is unlikely that the GOP will function as a normal political party once again anytime soon. The GOP’s long rightward march – deeply rooted in the revolt against the New Deal, headed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and accelerated by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s – depends upon the “cannibalism” that Gingrich came to lament; and that cannibalism has devoured, among many things, what had once been the party’s strong “moderate” and even “liberal” wings. All that remains as a supposedly tempering force inside the GOP are Republicans so conservative that they cannot really be called tempering, and so inept and on the defensive that they cannot be called a force. If John Boehner is the last man standing against extremism in the party, there is really nothing to bar the door.
Many experienced Republican politicos know that their party is at risk of dying. With the systematic removal of moderates from its ranks, the party has become based, more than ever, in the Deep South, along with the Mountain states – the least-dynamic regions in the country. Its base is also aging, a fact made all the more striking by the shift of young voters heavily toward the Democrats since Reagan’s heyday. In 2012, Republicans ran worst among those national constituencies that are growing the fastest – from Latinos to youth – and in democratic politics, demography is pretty much destiny. One reason for the Republicans’ ferocity is their sense that their time is inexorably running out.
Institutional reform could provide constraints that the Republican Party has long since lost. Changing the Senate rules to curtail filibustering and expediting the nomination process, for example, would halt some of the most outrageous obstructionism evident since 2008. The rise of a different kind of mainstream press, devoted to telling the plain, unvarnished truth, without fear or favor, instead of propping up a false equivalency and calling it objectivity, would also be a great improvement.
For the foreseeable future, though, the prolonged death throes of the Republican Party will lead from crisis to crisis. Certainly, there is little chance that the Republicans, even if they fail to get their way, will learn any lessons in moderation and self-control that might calm their destructive, subversive fury. For now, that spirit of subversive fury defines the Republican Party.
So the acceleration of radicalism and the political crises will continue. Even Mitch McConnell – a notoriously conservative partisan, the party boss behind the obstructionist Senate filibusters and a man often openly contemptuous of President Obama – is the target of a primary challenge from the right in his 2014 re-election campaign. Sadly, frighteningly, after the 2011 debt-limit deal was struck, McConnell observed that “it set the template for the future,” and threatened that soon “we’ll be doing it all over.” And so, all too soon, we will, in a reprise that ought to alarm Americans across the political spectrum: the Constitution unheeded and endangered, the nation’s history blithely ignored, and the security of the American people put severely at risk by an extremist political faction.
This story is from the October 24th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.