By seeking congressional approval for military action against the Syrian government, President Obama has accomplished something that the nation hasn’t seen in some time: He’s compelled Republicans to divert their attention from their concocted crises to an issue of actual substance.
As the August recess unfolded, Republicans — including a number of prospective presidential candidates — contemplated whether to shut down the government as a protest of Obamacare and whether to refuse to honor the nation’s debt as a cri de coeur against Obamacare or the deficit or Obama himself or perhaps modernity in general. These issues were debated at length, if never quite in depth, on right-wing talk radio and Web sites. That nobody but the hard-core Republican right seemed stirred by shuttering the government and defaulting on the debt mattered not at all.
If the American right increasingly seems to occupy an alternative planet, that’s largely because its media outlets — we can throw Fox News into the mix — dwell on stories so exquisitely calibrated to excite the right that they may not be stories at all. The New Black Panther Party? The Epidemic of Voter Fraud? The calculated perfidy of Benghazi? The impeachable crime of Obamacare (a socialist scam actually modeled on a proposal from a conservative think tank 20 years ago)? It’s not the editorials and opinionating of right-wing broadcasters and journalists that are driving the right into fantasyland. It’s the tales they spin into stories and the time and space they devote to events that never actually happened or that they surreally misconstrue.
By throwing the Syrian conundrum to Congress, Obama has at least confronted Republicans with a real-world choice. Since Saturday, the drumbeat for closing down the government has been muted in its usual haunts.
That’s why the coming collision of libertarian fantasies with reality will be instructive. Can a congressman vote to defund the government and approve a military action in the same month? Or vote to authorize cruise missile attacks while insisting the government default on its debts? All these issues will soon come before Congress in rapid succession.
The U.S. government has obligations to the American people even more fundamental than seeking to stop the use of chemical weapons that are killing innocents in a foreign land. It provides pensions to the elderly, health coverage to the old and the poor, and, in a few months, it will help Americans without health insurance buy private coverage. It has obligations that conservative opposition has kept it from meeting — among them, repairing and modernizing the nation’s infrastructure and creating the jobs (say, by repairing the infrastructure) that the nation’s private-sector employers are unable or unwilling to create.
Conservatives routinely disparage such basic government functions. But even right-wing media have to acknowledge the legitimacy of government when employing the armed forces is at issue. Whether it is wise or prudent to employ those forces is always the most legitimate of questions. Whether the nation should halt such actions, or the payment of its pensions and health-care obligations, because the government should stop functioning altogether until Obamacare or Obama or modernity just go away is not.
In theory, House Speaker John Boehner, who has spent decades in government, does not support its abolition. In practice, he has been cowed by his party’s libertarian right and by the increasing dissolution of other strains of Republicanism, which is why he has occasionally threatened both closure and default. As the share of Americans who support and identify with Republicans shrinks in the polls, the faithful who remain have taken on the aspects of a cult — secure in the knowledge of “facts” that aren’t facts, passionate about causes whose very existence bewilders their compatriots, determined to punish any believers who stray from the fold.
Now Syria has popped the balloon of their insular summer. Right-wing Republicans may decide not to authorize a strike because they want to embarrass the president, but even they must know that there’s more at stake than their war on Obama: life and death; the future of a crumbling country and a volatile region; our own security as well as U.S. credibility. There may even be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in what passes for their philosophy.
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