October 14, 2013

With the debt limit deadline only days away and negotiations over resolving the crisis stalled in the Senate, the tea party this weekend staged perhaps the most brazenly ridiculous rally in its short history. While it was of little significance in and of itself, it is starkly indicative of the depth of the GOP breakdown we’re currently witnessing.

The rally was also a reminder that it’s time to start thinking seriously about reforms that would make minimal governance possible in our current predicament.

So here’s what happened. Yesterday morning, a smallish rally of tea party conservatives descended on the World War II memorial on the National Mall, bashed through the barriers that the Park Service had put up, and proceeded to wallow in nuttiness. Their primary grievance appeared to be that Obama had closed down the national parks. So they marched down to the White House and piled up the barriers. CNN reported:

“I call upon all of you to wage a second American nonviolent revolution, to use civil disobedience, and to demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up,” said Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch, a conservative political advocacy group.

Sarah Palin, as well as Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee were in attendance. At least one large Confederate flag made an appearance. Some Republicans actually imagined that this rally was somehow a game changer.

The incoherence on display was truly astonishing, even by tea party standards. Recall that this shutdown/debt limit extortion crisis was the explicit plan of House Republicans. Republicans have openly admitted that such a crisis must be used to get rid of Obamacare precisely because their loss in the last election leaves them no alternative. As Paul Ryan said last month: “The reason this debt limit fight is different is, we don’t have an election around the corner where we feel we are going to win and fix it ourselves…we are stuck with this government another three years.”

And yet, these tea partiers were absolutely incandescent with rage at Obama that the national parks are shut down. This was the plan, don’t you remember? Guys? The only operating principle at work here seems to be “If X is bad, then X is Obama’s fault.”

The total disregard for even the simplest details or logic here, even according to the Republicans’ own frame of reference, underscores again that this crisis has nothing to do with actual policy differences. This is nothing but the politics of reactionary grievance. The details of the situation currently under discussion are basically trivial. Where previous governing crises revolved around fundamental questions of power and race, we’re now talking about the medical device tax, or funding the government for six weeks instead of six months.

But the threat to the country is no less dire for this being perhaps the goofiest standoff in American history. This radical fringe, by all appearances, remains in control of the Republican Party. This is thwarting a majority in Congress — and the President – from governing. And the GOP is plainly not fixing itself. I think it’s time to start taking this as a given, and start thinking about ways we might reform our system to make basic governance possible when one has a small minority of fanatically committed quasi-revolutionaries wielding so much influence.

Remember: The best case scenario is we’ll run this whole infuriating show again in a few months, and all of our chronic long-term problems will continue to fester.

Now, this is more about starting a conversation; I don’t have a fully fleshed-out plan at hand. One starting idea: we could elect House representatives South Africa-style, where instead of districts as we have now, parties submit a slate of statewide candidates, and seats are disbursed according to vote percentage. (Or, we could just go full parliamentary democracy.) Sure, real change might require amending the Constitution, which obviously would be a heavy lift. But it’s time to at least start talking about serious reform.