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“Arguing about How to Defuse a Huge Ticking Bomb”

[1]Burn-it-Down Nihilism Spreads Among Tea-Infused House Republicans

[ cross-posted at Daily Kos [2] ]

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“From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.” —Diderot

House Republicans laughed a former George H. W. Bush economist out of the room on Monday when he tried to warn them of the dire consequences of a U.S. debt default, according to John Stanton [3] of Roll Call. Stanton says the number of let-it-crash denialists among House Republicans is actually increasing. They think the Aug. 2 deadline is artificial. The Honorable Louie Gohmert [3] of Texas said in a radio interview that the Aug. 2 deadline is only for the convenience of the president so he can have a big Aug. 4 birthday celebration fund-raiser. Freshman Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) says there’s nothing to worry about: “In fact, our credit rating should be improved [4] by not raising the debt ceiling.” The crazy just keeps on comin’. And the clock—or is it a time bomb?—is ticking. The rating agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s [5] may not wait till Aug. 2 to downgrade the United States of America’s credit rating. Then what?

Congress raised the debt ceiling 7 times under George W. Bush, 18 times under Ronald Reagan. But that was then. There is serious concern in the Republican leadership (in the Senate, for example) that House leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor cannot control [6]the fire-eating Tea Party members, who distrust them and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell as RINOs [7] (Republicans in Name Only). The radicals have principles; they don’t give a damn [8] about reelection. Many of them scorn the Senate’s “Gang of Six” plan as a betrayal because it involves revenues and does not cut spending deeply enough.

Self-styled Tea Parties of populist anger at overtaxation and nonrepresentation began to sprout at first spontaneously in 2009 (though maybe their rise should be dated to Sarah Palin’s “goin’ rogue” rallies of late 2008). As the G.O.P. and right-wing self-interest groups including Fox News [9] began to feed the nascent movement with the steroids of corporate money [10] and tactics training [11] to direct their anger against the Obama administration’s health care reform initiative—and then against everything else Democrats were up to—political observers on the right and left voiced misgivings that in dispensing the stimulants, the Koch brothers [12], FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and other Dr. Frankensteins were creating a monster [13] that they would not be able to control. (Remember the GOP House members standing on the Capitol building porches waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and egging on the Tea Party protesters [14] down below shouting “kill the bill!” as the House was debating the health care bill  in March 2010?)

Republicans “won’t be satisfied until the family is out on the street.”

“I certainly think you will see some short-term volatility. In the end, the sun is going to come up tomorrow.” —Rep. Austin Scott [15] of Georgia, president, House Republicans’ freshman class

The New Yorker’s George Packer begins a Talk of the Town piece (July 25 issue) about the debt-ceiling fight titled “Empty Wallets [16]” with a heart-grieving anecdote of a jobless Florida man whose daughter has bone cancer. Danny Hartzell is packing up the family to move in with a friend in Georgia with whom he has reconnected on Facebook, hoping for a fresh start. After being terminated from his $8.50 an hour job at Target—business is slow—his last biweekly paycheck after taxes is $140. Hartzell is hit by one ax-blow of bad luck after another, mostly in the form of Republican-legislated cuts of unemployment benefits or access to health care (votes cast by men and women who have health insurance).

Turning to the debt-ceiling impasse between Congress and President Obama, Packer compares the struggle as “like members of an ordnance-disposal unit arguing about how to defuse a huge ticking bomb.”

Obama, securely in character, called on all sides to rise above petty politics, acknowledged the practical realities of divided government, and proposed a grand compromise that would lower the deficit by four trillion dollars. According to the Times’ Nate Silver, Obama’s offer, in its roughly four-to-one balance between spending cuts and revenue increases, falls to the right of the average American voter’s preference; in fact, it may outflank the views of the average Republican. . . . 

[17]The Republicans are also securely in character. They’ve rejected everything that the President has proposed, because Obama’s deal includes tax increases and the closing of loopholes for hedge-fund managers and corporate jets and companies that move offshore. Ninety-seven per cent of House Republicans have taken something called the “No Tax Pledge.” . . . Representative Paul Ryan’s ten-year budget plan, which remains his party’s blueprint for the future, would impose a fifty-percent cut on programs like food stamps and Supplemental Security Income, which, as long as Danny Hartzell remains jobless, represent the Hartzells’ only income. By the last day of June, the Hartzells had twenty-nine dollars to their name. The Republicans in Congress won’t be satisfied until the family is out on the street. 

Packer notes that the sociologist Max Weber in an essay on politics as a vocation [18] distinguished between “the ethic of responsibility” and “the ethic of ultimate ends”—between those who act on the basis of practical considerations and those motivated by a higher conviction, acting on principle “regardless of consequences.” They are opposites, but someone suited to a career in politics forges some kind of union of the ethics of responsibility and ultimate ends.

On its own, the ethic of responsibility can become a devotion to technically correct procedure, while the ethic of ultimate ends can become fanaticism. Weber’s terms perfectly capture the toxic dynamic between the President, who takes responsibility as an end in itself, and the Republicans in Congress, who are destructively consumed with their own dogma. Neither side can be said to possess what Weber calls a “leader’s personality.” Responsibility without conviction is weak, but it is sane. Conviction without responsibility, in the current incarnation of the Republican Party, is raving mad. . . . It was Lenin who first said, “The worse, the better,” a mantra adopted by elements of the New Left in the nineteen-sixties. This nihilistic idea animates a large number of Republican officeholders.

Packer concludes with the pessimistic observation that Barack Obama—whom we dimly remember as a man elected president on slogans of “hope” and “change” (our characterization, not Packer’s)—“is now the leading champion of fiscal austerity, and his proposals contain very little in the way of job creation. . . . he no longer uses his office’s most powerful tool, rhetorical suasion, to keep the country focussed on the continued need for government activism.”

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Top photo from the film The Hurt Locker [19] (2008). Bottom: detail of photo by Dorothea Lange [17] for the federal Resettlement Administration, taken in Blythe, California, August 17, 1936. Found at Shorpy.com [20].

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