Saturday, December 14, 2013

Republican "civil war," or a faction squabble within the counterrevolution? (Updated)

The mainstream press and our Pod Pundit cohort are all excited over John Boehner scolding the Heritage Foundation this past week. I'm more inclined to restrain my enthusiasm. But here's Mark Shields and Michael Gerson on the PBS Newshour of 12/13/2013 gushing about the development, Shields and Gerson discuss the budget breakthrough, Boehner's backlash 12/13/2013:

Here is Gerson's spin:

Well, narrowly, this was clearly a backlash to the manifest failure of the shutdown strategy, which I think most people recognize.

My friend blogger Peter Wehner says that Republicans have apocalypse fatigue. They are just tired of confrontation in this way. But there is something broader going on here. I think the leadership has decided, it tried to appease Tea Party groups, the activist groups. But they are unappeasable. They criticized this deal before it was printed.

And there's very little incentive to accommodate a group that is going to criticize you anyway. So I think the leadership has made the decision that this is an important part of the coalition, but it can't define the Republican Party and it can't bully the Republican Party. And that's -- this is just the beginning of an institutional reaction to Tea Party activist groups, it seems to me.
Molly Ball lays it on thick in Why This Round of the Republican Civil War Was Different The Atlantic 12/12/2013:

Another round of the long-running GOP civil war broke out this week, and you could be forgiven for greeting it with a yawn. House Speaker John Boehner proposed something; conservatives immediately rose up against it, egged on by right-wing pressure groups. News flash: There's disunity in the Republican ranks.

But this chapter of the story turned out very differently than last time, when the clash between the Republican establishment and grassroots memorably ended in a two-and-a-half-week government shutdown. This time, it’s ending with a bipartisan budget deal, brokered by GOP Representative Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray, that will keep the government open for more than a year. The House passed the bill by a resounding 332-to-94 margin Thursday evening, putting final passage in the hands of the Senate.
Sacred Bipartisanship is always a good outcome in PunditLand. Even when - maybe especially when - the compromise produced is heavily tilted toward the Republicans' desired outcomes. Digby provides this helpful visual on how the latest holy bipartisan compromise - the Senate continuing resolution in the graph [Update: Digby reuses the graph in Why is Paul Ryan so darned happy? 12/15/2013 and notes that the recent House compromise amounts to $1,012 billion] - looks in light of recent history (Is embracing the suck better than eating a satan sandwich? 12/13/2013):

Paul Krugman explains in Unprecedented Austerity 12/12/2013 how drastic the austerity policy that holy Bipartiship has given us really is:

You can see that there was a brief, modest spurt in spending associated with the Obama stimulus- but it has long since been outweighed and swamped by a collapse in spending without precedent in the past half century. Taking it further back is tricky given data non-comparability, but as far as I can tell the recent austerity binge was bigger than the demobilization after the Korean War; you really have to go back to post-World-War-II demobilization to get anything similar.

And to do this when the private sector is still deleveraging and interest rates are at the zero lower bound is just awesomely destructive. [my emphasis]
Ball does give us this intriguing piece of news:

There was another, less public development this week that represented a similar turn. The Republican Study Committee, a group of House Republicans who meet weekly to talk about policy and tactics, had long served as a venue for conservative members and outside groups, chiefly the Heritage Foundation, to plot strategy together. But on Wednesday, the committee’s chairman, Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise, fired longtime Executive Director Paul Teller, accusing him of betraying lawmakers’ trust by leaking to outside groups.

That was precisely the point. Republican lawmakers were sick of being at the mercy of outside agitators whose demands they viewed as increasingly impossible. In 2011, a Teller deputy urged conservative groups to oppose the debt-ceiling deal that lawmakers were trying to reach; he was almost fired then. This September, lawmakers believe Teller helped gin up conservative resistance to a government-funding deal that would have averted the shutdown. And during the negotiations for the present deal, even as lawmakers tried to reach accord inside the Capitol, Teller, they charge, was working to undermine the agreement by sharing confidential details with groups like Heritage - which came out against the plan before Ryan and Murray even announced it. The firing sent shockwaves through the conservative-activist community, where Teller is well-known and well-liked. Dozens of conservative leaders signed on to a letter of protest that called him “one of the true heroes of the conservative movement.” He immediately became a sort of martyr, his dismissal a symbol of House leaders’ attack on their erstwhile conservative allies. [my emphasis]
Her use of "outside agitators" to describe the Tea Partiers is a nice bit of irony, whether she intended it as such or not. White Southerners fighting to preserve segregation in the face of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s routinely blamed "outside agitators" for the protests against segregation and in favor of democracy.

The press is remarkably committed to the notion that there is a moderate and conservative faction to be found in the Republican Party today. Partially it's the toxic influence of decades of High Broderism, in which centrism is celebrated as something sacred and wonderful in itself. This orientation generally works to the advantage of the Republican Party, which has been pushing the spectrum of the politically acceptable further and further to the right for over three decades, so that now the Party has embraced segregationist politics as the cutting edge of its political strategy.

Centrism is a function of what kind of spectrum is being used, not a set of distinctive political policy orientations. But part of High Broderism is the practice of presenting every political problem or malfunction in terms of "both sides do it," with the centrists who practice sacred bipartisanship as the heroes and saviors who will deliver us from The Extremes On Both Sides. So the model of which reporters and pundits are so fond requires that there be "moderate" Republicans to offset the conservative extreme, which they currently identify with the Tea Party.

The reality of today's Republican Party doesn't fit well into that model. So our Big Pundits can't consider that the Republican Party is a segregationist, highly nationalistic party bought and paid for by corporate money whose factions are largely about rival fundamentalist Christian denominations and about different billionaires and lobby groups angling for influence, factions that share a remarkable consensus on policy.

John Boehner, in other words, may care a lot if the Heritage Foundation diminishes his power and prestige as Speaker of the House. It doesn't mean that he's defending some "moderate" orientation on policy as against "radicals" in the Tea Party. The bitterest faction fights can occur between people whose substantive differences seem tiny as viewed from those not directly involved, a variation on what Freud called the narcissism of small differences.

And it's not exactly a new thing for people to start pointing fingers retroactively when something they've tried plays badly politically. As Gerson puts it, Boehner's posturing against the Heritage Foundation "was clearly a backlash to the manifest failure of the shutdown strategy."

Republicans adored George W. Bush as their Dear Leader (except on immigration policy) as long as he was in office. When he left the White House highly unpopular, as soon as he was gone he was No Longer A True Conservative. The same happens with failed Presidential candidates. McCain lost, he was No Longer A True Conservative. Mr. One Percent Willard Romney lost, he was No Longer A True Conservative. If they had been more conservative, you see, they would have won. That's just the way the Republicans roll.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog has a good name for what we're seeing the last few days, You See a GOP Civil War. I See GOP Brand Proliferation. 12/13/2013:

John Boehner and Paul Ryan did a fine job this week of reintroducing "mainstream GOP" as a brand. This is an appealing product to a lot of traditional Republicans, as well as to the swing-voter market niche.

The "tea party" brand has lost some appeal among traditional Republicans, but this civil war will actually increase Brand Tea Party's appeal in certain market segments where it remains popular. Those voters will be motivated to turn out for tea party candidates because they're angry once again at the mainstreamers, and want to destroy them.

In some districts and states, this brand competition is going to result in a Brand Tea Party candidate beating a Brand Mainstream candidate. Elsewhere, now that Brand Mainstream has been rejuvenated, mainstream candidates will win more swing votes and will take votes away from Brand Democrat.

But once the Brand Tea Party loyalists have elected a certain number of members of Congress and the Brand Mainstream loyalists have elected others, they're all going to count as Republicans on the party's bottom line. These folks may fight in primaries, but they're going to be one party when the dust settles and it's time to determine who has majorities in the House and Senate. [emphasis in original]
And they won't just count as Republicans in organizing the Congress. They are have striking levels of Party discipline on pursuing ideological goals, as we've since since 2011 in dramatic ways.

The can also afford some Kabuki public squabbling, since major economic policy is going their way.

Steve M also provides links to a couple of Ed Kilgore's Political Animal posts cautioning against interpreting factional squabbles within the Republican Party as some kind of rejection of Tea Party radicalism: Ike's Not Coming Back 12/11/2013 and Nobody Here But Us Conservatives 12/12/2013.

In the former, Kilgore addresses what he calls a "dirty little GOP secret":

... conservative activists are so skeptical of politicians — at least those this side of Ted Cruz or Rand Paul — that they are perfectly happy accepting an unprincipled "pragmatist" who is totally in their thrall via highly public litmus test signatures and specific commitment to future action. By the time he went down to defeat in 2012, Mitt Romney was an absolute prisoner to the very forces in his party who trusted him least. The same thing happened to "maverick" John McCain in 2008; by the end of his campaign, he was basically a figurehead on a ticket led emotionally and ideologically by Sarah Palin.

My iron conviction is that if Mitt Romney had won last year and Republicans had retaken the Senate, we'd be well into a reign of fire and blood characterized by instant reconciliation-enabled enactment of the Ryan Budget, the total destruction of the Affordable Care Act, and for added measure, a "nuclear option" more thoroughgoing that that recently imposed by Senate Democrats. We might also be at war with Iran; that’s a little harder to assume. But I betcha the vast majority of MSM political writers think life under a Republican government led by Mitt Romney would be simply a more efficient version of life as we know it now. And by 2016, the same people will be cheerleading for a Christie presidency as some sort of latter-day Eisenhower Administration. And they'll be dead wrong because they don’t understand what’s going on in the GOP." [my emphasis]
In the latter piece, Kilgore calls our attention to the following things the John Boehner actually said in his now-famous press conference:

Asked if he was officially saying "no" to the tea party, Boehner emphasized the deficit reduction achieved under the budget deal and said there was no reason to oppose it.

"I came here to cut the size of government," he said. "That’s exactly what this bill does, and why conservatives wouldn't vote for this or criticize the bill is beyond any recognition I could come up with."

Boehner also defended his own commitment to conservative principles, which has repeatedly come under fire. This criticism has at times threatened his speakership when he has attempted to negotiate with President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.

"I say what I mean and I mean what I say," he said. "I'm as conservative as anybody around this place." [my emphasis]
Fantasizing about the moderate/conservative ideological split that the High Broderist model insists must be there whether it is or not without taking into account the severe nature of the actual austerity policies that have been enacted just seems foolish to me.

Kilgore asks the relevant question, "Can you imagine Harry Reid, who occasionally gets criticized by the left, saying 'I'm as liberal as anybody around this place'? No, you can't."

He also writes about the topic in What's Really Going On With The Republican 'Civil War' TPM Cafe 12/11/2013, where he describes the prevailing ideology of the Republican Party as counterrevolutionary !!!):

Sooner or later, and it might as well be sooner, non-Republicans need to accept that the GOP knows exactly where its "soul" is located, and has an agenda that is impervious to significant change. What keeps getting described as a "struggle for the soul" of the party or a “civil war” is generally a fight over strategy, tactics and cosmetics, not ideology. For the foreseeable future, the conquest of the Republican Party by the conservative movement, itself radicalized by the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, is the prevailing reality of politics on the Right, and the GOP’s practical options are accordingly limited to one flavor or another of that persuasion.

Why is that the case? There are a lot of contributing factors, including the GOP’s shrinking but homogeneous “base,” the supremacy of conservative ideological media, and the rise of heavily funded political players determined to root out heresy. But the most important source of rigidity is conservative ideology itself, which does not aim (as do most European conservatives) at “moderating” or countering the bipartisan policies of the past or the Democratic policies of the present, but aspires to a counterrevolution that “restores” what conservatives regard as immutable principles of good government and even culture.
Former DLCer Ed Kilgore is presumably no big fan of the thought of Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse. But that comment of his brings to mind Marcuse's 1972 book Counterrevolution and Revolt, the opening lines of which are:

The Western world has reached a new stage of development: now, the defense of the capitalist system requires the organization of counterrevolution at home and abroad. In its extreme manifestations, it practices the horrors of the Nazi regime. Wholesale massacres in Indochina, Indonesia, the Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Sudan are unleashed against everything which is called "communist" or which is in revolt against governments subservient to the imperialist countries. Cruel persecution prevails in the Latin American countries under fascist and military dictatorships. Torture has become a normal instrument of "interrogation" around the world. The agony of religious wars revives at the height of Western civilization, and a constant flow of arms from the rich countries to the poor helps to perpetuate the oppression of national and social liberation. [my emphasis]
At first glance, it's kind of stunning how current so much of that sounds. Kilgore says further in that TPM Cafe essay:

The audacity of this agenda, which requires uprooting decades worth of laws, programs and constitutional precedents, many of them supported or even created by Republicans, requires a set of assumptions about electoral victories and defeats that many mainstream media folk or Democrats do not seem to understand. A "victory" that does not lend itself to counterrevolutionary outcomes is far less preferable than a deferred victory that brings down the whole rotten edifice of the welfare state and routs the secular-socialist elites who could survive a RINO administration. [my emphasis]
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