Nonetheless, the U.S. government continued to function. Most of the time, divided government led to compromise; sometimes to stalemate. Nobody even considered the possibility that a party might try to achieve its agenda, not through the constitutional process, but through blackmail — by threatening to bring the federal government, and maybe the whole economy, to its knees unless its demands were met.
True, there was the government shutdown of 1995. But this was widely recognized after the fact as both an outrage and a mistake. And that confrontation came just after a sweeping Republican victory in the midterm elections, allowing the GOP to make the case that it had a popular mandate to challenge what it imagined to be a crippled, lame-duck president.
Today, by contrast, Republicans are coming off an election in which they failed to retake the presidency despite a weak economy, failed to retake the Senate even though far more Democratic than Republican seats were at risk, and held the House only through a combination of gerrymandering and the vagaries of districting. Democrats actually won the popular ballot for the House by 1.4 million votes. This is not a party that, by any conceivable standard of legitimacy, has the right to make extreme demands on the president.
Yet, at the moment, it seems highly likely that the Republican Party will refuse to fund the government, forcing a shutdown at the beginning of next month, unless President Barack Obama dismantles the health reform that is the signature achievement of his presidency.
Republican leaders realize that this is a bad idea, but until recently, their notion of preaching moderation was to urge party radicals not to hold America hostage over the federal budget so they could wait a few weeks and hold it hostage over the debt ceiling instead. Now they’ve given up even on that delaying tactic. The latest news is that John Boehner, the speaker of the House, has abandoned his efforts to craft a face-saving climbdown on the budget, which means that we’re all set for shutdown, possibly followed by debt crisis.
How did we get here?
Some pundits insist, even now, that this is somehow Obama’s fault. Why can’t he sit down with Boehner the way Ronald Reagan used to sit down with Tip O’Neill? But O’Neill didn’t lead a party whose base demanded that he shut down the government unless Reagan revoked his tax cuts, and O’Neill didn’t face a caucus prepared to depose him as speaker at the first hint of compromise.
No, this story is all about the GOP. First came the Southern strategy, in which the Republican elite cynically exploited racial backlash to promote economic goals, mainly low taxes for rich people and deregulation. Over time, this gradually morphed into what we might call the crazy strategy, in which the elite turned to exploiting the paranoia that has always been a factor in American politics — Hillary killed Vince Foster! Obama was born in Kenya! Death panels! — to promote the same goals.
But now we’re in a third stage, where the elite has lost control of the Frankenstein-like monster it created.
So now we get to witness the hilarious spectacle of Karl Rove in The Wall Street Journal, pleading with Republicans to recognize the reality that Obamacare can’t be defunded. Why hilarious? Because Rove and his colleagues have spent decades trying to ensure that the Republican base lives in an alternate reality defined by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Can we say, “Hoist with their own petard”?
Of course, the coming confrontations are likely to damage America as a whole, not just the Republican brand. But you know, this political moment of truth was going to happen sooner or later. We might as well have it now.