Popcorn for the Train Wreck

As the U.S. heads toward the brink of default, I’m glued to the movie.


By Tim Connor

It is hard to find the right words to describe the stem-winding budget standoff between President Obama and the Republican leadership in the U.S. Congress.

But the picture that would illustrate it is a mouth, agape, horrified that the people in charge of governing us are about to deeply punish the nation in order to make what amounts to a religious statement.

Although the scale groans beneath the weight of all the reporting that has been done as this train wreck draws near, the key fact is that it is a wholly manufactured crisis. Congress has extended the national debt-ceiling dozens of times in recent years with barely a blip of news coverage. But now this quasi-ministerial function is being used, like a revolver to our national forehead, by House Republicans as a purification ritual where the object is to make us purge ourselves of the notion that government exists to help people, including the poor and the disabled and the old.

My frustration with Barack Obama, whom I supported and worked for in 2008, circulates in colorful ways on social media. I am with Cornel West and Paul Krugman in my disillusionment.

Not to excuse Obama for his choices, but what Grover Norquist—the nation’s shadow President—told an audience in 2003 is instructive. Norquist—the self-appointed father and enforcer of the Republican plan to starve government by depriving it of tax revenues—said that even if Republicans lost control of the White House, the party would still prevail by having set the conditions and terms whereby a Democrat wouldn’t be able to govern as a Democrat.

And, here, Obama has clearly obliged, regularly tossing aside core Democratic goals just to show how reasonable and bipartisan he is. It’s not just the concessions. It is, as Krugman and others point out, the fact that he often uses the terms and aphorisms of his right-wing opponents to explain his own positions. It leads one to think that all that’s left of the “Change We Can Believe In” button is the copper pin holding it to the lapel of a moderate Republican–an African American Bob Dole.

The irony, of course, is that he still seems not to get that the people to whom he’s making these gilded concessions still see and resent him as an illegitimate leader, who must be vanquished at all costs.

I appreciate that this is no joking matter and I’m aware enough to expect that if the trains do collide, in a few days, that the carnage will extend to my world and my neighborhood and probably right into my kitchen. And yet I’m still fixed to the movie, watching the characters and the plot lines as devotedly as I enjoy a really good book.


I bristle with criticism of the President but I agree that criticizing Obama misses the point of this tragedy.

This crisis is really about right-wing radicalism and the quest to re-fashion American society as a corporate junta, wherein the purpose of government is simply to accommodate the values and aims of the wealthy and the large corporations that generate private wealth. It is the world that Ayn Ran (the heroine of such Republican luminaries as budget architect Rep. Paul Ryan) argued for in Atlas Shrugged and her other novels.

Norquist, the head of an organization misnamed Americans for Tax Reform, has been the quiet architect of this endeavor. Those who’ve followed his career know that he is the quiet plumber who effectively managed to weld  an anti-government, anti-tax movement onto a right-wing crusade that has largely been led by social conservatives more concerned with abortion and gay rights.

Grover Norquist is to this absurd and unnecessary showdown what Rupert Murdoch has been to the collapse of journalism. Now we watch, astounded, as an anti-government crusade speaks in the tongue of the fundamental Christian movement where they (in their inflamed minds) get to be on God’s side and the rest of us are, what?, the witches and pimps and harlots of Salem? But that explains the zeal behind this confrontation, and the absolutist notion that addressing our budget deficit has to be done entirely with budget cuts, that we can’t raise taxes a penny, or close a single tax loophole on a private jet or an oil company subsidy.

I appreciate that this is no joking matter and I’m aware enough to expect that if the trains do collide, in a few days, that the carnage will extend to my world and my neighborhood and probably right into my kitchen. And yet I’m still fixed to the movie, watching the characters and the plot lines as devotedly as I enjoy a really good book.

Take our Fifth District Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the former state legislator from Colville, with the winsome rodeo girl smile. She is now the most powerful woman in the Congressional Republican leadership and, yes, that’s her standing behind Speaker John Boehner and Majority leader Eric Cantor in those defiant group photos. To put it most politely, Cathy McMorris Rodgers does not run deep. Indeed, she strikes me as the Stepford wife of the Republican brain trust and though I really should despise her for this, all I really see in Rep. McMorris Rodgers is a woman from Colville playing dress-up in D.C. No doubt she is a member of Congress. But she is as capable of governing as I am of prancing my way to fame on Dancing with the Stars.

For example, nobody in their right mind believes that the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill that Rep. McMorris Rodgers proudly voted for and spoke out about last week was anything but a political gimmick. She and the other lock-stepped Republicans passed it knowing it would die swiftly in the Senate, as it did. It was pure, and purely cynical, political theater. (It reminded me of that scene in The Three Amigos where the Steve Martin-led amigos mistake a bad-ass gang of marauders for a bunch of fellow actors. The amigos start shooting in the air and whispering stage instructions to the bad guys. The frivolity only ends when they realize that El Guapo and Jefe are not actors and are packing guns with live ammunition.)

Notwithstanding this farce, I’m guessing Cathy’s going to be fine. The Fifth is so solidly Republican now that even if the trains wreck and people begin dying from starvation in the streets of Spokane, and Jesus interrupts the next Lilac Parade to denounce her role in this debacle, her base will still blame it on the “socialist” black President. I expect she will glide through this with but a few cosmetic changes to her website.

The absurd contradictions the other Tea Party Republicans (denouncing American “socialism” but screaming at Obama to keep his hands off their Medicare) are evidence of a whole class of citizens and supposed leaders who are divorced from reality. As former Reagan advisor Bruce Bartlett puts it: “I think the vast bulk of Tea Party members are ignorant fools when it comes to understanding how government really operates.”

They demand the bullhorn, but resent the notion that they actually should read a newspaper so they know what they’re yelling about.
As movements go, it has been colorful, and comedic and more than a little maddening up until now. The gall of these people. As this chart from the Center on Budget Priority Policy illustrates, the major causes of the federal deficit are the wars initiated during the Bush Administration and the Bush tax cuts.  Didn’t hear a peep from them back then.

The facts, by the way, are not offered with any hope that I’ll change a single mind. As I noted in a piece last November, social scientists are on to an interesting development in our politics, which is that facts matter less than beliefs. You can try to reason with people but, with this crowd, the response to facts is to distrust the messenger and double down on the beliefs they’ve already settled into.

Sorry for that digression. Let me re-board my train of thought.

Part of what makes this looming economic disaster so compelling to me is that, for Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Eric Cantor and the others, this is their political Woodstock. They’re determined to let their freak flag fly, and bet the farm (and the economy) that if Obama doesn’t back down that people will blame him come 2012. They’ve also had good reason to think that they could roll him, witness his casual willingness last December to extend the Bush tax cuts after promising, in his campaign, not to do so.

In retrospect, I think there’s a good argument to be made that Obama only enabled and emboldened the extremists who are stoking this crisis. In the face of what was clearly a committed effort to de-legitimize his Presidency and sandbag him with obstructionism, he was still willing to negotiate with Republicans on his side of the field, to give away things he and his supporters believed in (single-payer health care, for example) before even asking anything of those on the other side of the table. In this way, he’s proven Grover Norquist’s point that Republicans— even when they lose the White House—can effectively co-opt the executive branch by controlling the terms of the debate.

We have more proof of that in the current impasse. As several conservative commentators have noted, the deal Obama has been willing to make (heavy on domestic budget cuts, and light on taxes) would seem to be an opportunity of a lifetime for Republicans. It would cut deeply into domestic spending while keeping marginal tax rates low and give the party cover because the deal would have been reached with a Democrat.

Instead, they seem to really want the train wreck. What it will mean, if it happens, is that the right in American politics has gotten devotedly drunk on its own punch, so much so that virtually anything acceptable to Obama just can’t be good enough for them.

People that drink shouldn’t drive. And they especially shouldn’t drive trains.

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