David Brooks is getting a lot of positive attention today for this column, in which he dissolves into despair and anxiety over what has become of today’s “radical” and “ungovernable” Republican Party:
The House Republican caucus is close to ungovernable these days. How did this situation come about?
This was not just the work of the Freedom Caucus or Ted Cruz or one month’s activity. The Republican Party’s capacity for effective self-governance degraded slowly, over the course of a long chain of rhetorical excesses, mental corruptions and philosophical betrayals. Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism. Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.
Brooks sees this as a betrayal of core conservative values such as humility, faith in incremental (rather than radical and transformational) change, and a need to respect compromise and disagreement in order to make our democracy function. And not only that, but the tactics employed by today’s radicalized Republicans aren’t even succeeding in accomplishing their own stated goals:
Politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests.
But this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.
A weird contradictory mentality replaced traditional conservatism. Republican radicals have contempt for politics, but they still believe that transformational political change can rescue the nation. Republicans developed a contempt for Washington and government, but they elected leaders who made the most lavish promises imaginable. Government would be reduced by a quarter! Shutdowns would happen!…
This anti-political political ethos produced elected leaders of jaw-dropping incompetence. Running a government is a craft, like carpentry. But the new Republican officials did not believe in government and so did not respect its traditions, its disciplines and its craftsmanship….
Welcome to Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and the Freedom Caucus.
Really, have we ever seen bumbling on this scale, people at once so cynical and so naïve, so willfully ignorant in using levers of power to produce some tangible if incremental good? These insurgents can’t even acknowledge democracy’s legitimacy — if you can’t persuade a majority of your colleagues, maybe you should accept their position. You might be wrong!
People who don’t accept democracy will be bad at conversation. They won’t respect tradition, institutions or precedent. These figures are masters at destruction but incompetent at construction. These insurgents are incompetent at governing and unwilling to be governed.
All of this is well and good as far as it goes. But I think it neglects one of the most plausible explanations for what’s happening: A lot of what we’re seeing today may not be the result of the radicalized faction’s “incompetence,” but rather the result of its fraudulence and hucksterism.
Brooks assumes that Senator Cruz and the House Freedom Caucus actually believe that their tactics will produce the outcomes they want, and that they are too hapless and bumbling and incompetent to know otherwise. He assumes the radicals actually believe that if they hold out for long enough against funding Planned Parenthood and the government shuts down as a result, or if they refuse to raise the debt limit for long enough, then Obama and Democrats will ultimately have to cave and give them whatever they are demanding. It’s very hard to imagine they do really believe this, however.
There was a time when Congressional Republicans really did have the leverage to use such protracted standoffs to extract massive concessions from Democrats — right after the 2010 midterm rout, when a badly weakened President Obama calculated that he needed to give major ground on spending to re-position himself for reelection. The result: Huge spending cuts and sequester caps that both parties are now chafing under.
But then Obama decisively won reelection in 2012, broke the GOP’s use of debt limit extortion by refusing to cave in 2013 and early 2014, and again forced Republicans to back down and fund the Department of Homeland Security in early 2015. Obviously, Cruz and House conservatives will continue to insist until the end of time that, if only GOP leaders had held out for long enough in those fights, Obama and Dems would have ultimately surrendered. But they almost certainly know this isn’t true, and they almost certainly know that it isn’t true of the coming battles over Planned Parenthood and the debt limit. The political incentives are just completely flipped around from where they were in 2011. Obama isn’t facing reelection; such standoffs structurally favor the president against Congress in most cases; and Republicans have the most to lose politically from any destructive and chaotic showdowns as we head into another national election.
And so, the most likely explanation for what’s happening now is that Cruz and House conservatives continue to advocate for such tactics in the full knowledge that they cannot succeed and that GOP leaders will ultimately not opt for them as a result. This allows them to use GOP leaders as a foil, painting them as feckless enablers of the Obama agenda and feeding the story-line that only real conservatives (such as them) can be counted on to hold those sellout RINOs accountable. Cruz has been pushing this line to great effect as a rationale for his presidential run. The pleasing tale they tell is that the failure to roll back the Obama agenda is not structural — it’s not rooted in the fact that Republicans lack the votes to overcome Dem filibusters or Obama vetoes. It’s a failure of will, perhaps even a deliberate one. This is the same game Donald Trump is playing when he claims that you need a billionaire like him to bulldoze the process into producing the results Republican voters want.
Small wonder that Paul Ryan doesn’t want the job of House Speaker. At this point, accepting the gig is to assume the role of pre-designated stooge, willingly turning onself into a big, fat target for conservative blame over the continued failure to unravel the Obama presidency that keeps GOP voters seething. Brooks also neglects to accurately describe the role of GOP leaders in bringing us to this point. It isn’t that they were too incompetent to realize that these tactics would fail. Rather, it’s that again and again, they kept alive the charade for far too long that these tactics would ultimately force Democrats to surrender, even though they knew better.
The Republicans advocating for continued scorched earth tactics aren’t incompetents. They’re frauds. And from their point of view, they actually are getting the results they want. They get to continue telling the story they want to tell.