According to E.J. Dionne, the House Republicans are now seeking to reprise and play two past Republican strategies. On the one hand, Dionne assumes they want to blackmail a Democratic President by threatening to shut-down the Federal government. It is, of course, obvious the House Republicans adopted this tactic. Their choice might seem surprising to observers today since the use of it did not favor the Republican Party the last time a reactionary upsurge helped the Republican Party to gain control of the House. As we know, President Clinton soundly defeated Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans he led in a political battle over the budget, a conflict which ultimately destroyed Gingrich’s House career.
But choose it they did.
On the other hand, Dionne asserts the House Republicans are also drawing upon a tactic used by another disgraced Republican — Richard Nixon.
Richard Nixon espoused what he called “the madman theory.” It’s a negotiating approach that induces the other side to believe you are capable of dangerously irrational actions and leads it to back down to avoid the wreckage your rage might let loose.
House Republicans are pursuing their own madman theory in budget negotiations, with a clever twist: Speaker John Boehner is casting himself as the reasonable man fully prepared to reach a deal to avoid a government shutdown. But he also has to satisfy a band of “wild-eyed bomb-throwing freshmen,” as he characterized new House members in Friday’s Wall Street Journal by way of comparing them fondly to his younger self.
Thus are negotiators for President Obama and Senate Democrats forced to deal not only with Republican leaders in the room but also with a menacing specter outside its confines. As “responsible” public officials, Democrats are asked to make additional concessions just to keep the bomb-throwers at bay.
This is the perverse genius of what the House Republicans are up to: Nobody really thinks that anything like their $57 billion in remaining proposed budget cuts can pass. It’s unlikely that all of their own members are confident about all of the cuts they have voted for. But by taking such a large collection of programs hostage, the GOP can be quite certain to win many more fights than it would if each reduction were considered separately.
Does Dionne’s madman claim make sense in this case? Yes, I believe it does, for we may safely assume members of the recent Freshman Republican class do need a leash, newspaper on the floor when their master is otherwise occupied and rabies shots. The Tea Party Freshman class is, when evaluated with less facetious terms, composed of true believers of the reactionary line. It is unsurprising, then, that they largely ran on an anti-Obama platform while also challenging the Republican Party establishment, which they believed to be inauthentic in a decisive way.
That said, House Speaker Boehner, a co-author of the Contract with America, hardly provides a politically healthy alternative to the reactionaries. Dionne suggests as much when he states that “Boehner can just sit back and smile benignly as Democrats battle over which concessions they should give him.” Boehner can smile because he only wants to use the intransigence of reactionary freshman to blackmail President Obama just as Gingrich tried to blackmail Clinton years ago.
Why, we might now ask, would Boehner and the ‘sensible’ and ‘moderate’ House Republicans take the risk by using this dangerous tactic in 2011 given the known outcome it produced in 1995-1996? Why would Boehner wish to court Gingrich’s fate? The answer, I believe, can be gleaned in the fact that Obama is hardly a friend of Federal budget deficits, that he is committed to political compromise with the rightwing and that he has already gone on record as supporting austere budget goals. Consequently, Boehner and his followers can depend on Obama and the Congressional Democrats to reach a favorable agreement with them. They have bent to the will of the Republican Party before and can be expected to do so again.
And it is because Obama is a neoliberal opportunist that the reactionaries and their leaders in Washington can and will perform once more a chore for which they are well-suited, namely, serving as an origin of a political gravity that pulls the Federal Government and the national public political discourse to the right. America’s reactionaries — the black hole in American politics, an oblivion into which everything plunges.
The workings of this mechanism are well-known. It was, of course, working quite effectively during the Health Care Debate, and served, as we know, to pull Washington away from policy choices favored by the majority of the country while simultaneously pushing Washington towards those policies favored by the Health Care Industry.
In sum, then, the Federal budget battle and a possible government shut-down provide little more than evidence showing that the duopoly party system is functioning normally. By working normally I mean to say that the reactionaries will merely provide coverage for Washington’s ‘sensible’ politicians while they rid the country of the remnants of the New Deal.
Fortunately, common Americans — the “lesser people” — now have a political alternative to complying with the machinations of the duopoly parties. This alternative emerged in Madison, Wisconsin. It began when the “lesser people” refused the fate Scott Walker wished to give to them. It then proceeded to motivate the soft-liners in the Democratic Party to risk their careers by supporting a non-partisan social movement. While the Battle for Wisconsin has not been won, Americans can use these events to relearn what it means to be a citizen.
Cross-posted to FireDogLake