The open cleavage that has emerged between House Speaker John Boehner and Eric Cantor in Congress shows just how far to the right the Republican conservative base has drifted.
Cantor completely upstaged Republican establishment politician Boehner when he walked out of the debt limit talks as soon as revenue increases were suggested. Cantor’s power base is the newly-elected and ideologically inflexible legislators who came to power with Tea Party support in 2010, bankrolled by the super-rich and their agencies. The Tea Party movement flooded the primaries to overturn orthodox Republican candidates, leveraging populist opposition to big government. Only about a third of them won: but it was enough to give them a significant caucus in Congress.
However, the interests of the two groups are not identical: the super-rich want to preserve their ability to accumulate wealth on an astronomical scale, which requires a government with legitimacy, but under their control, while the populists they manipulated are against all government on principle.
It’s clear that many congressional Republicans live in a self-reinforcing ideological bubble. As E.J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post, “history will show that Boehner, the old war horse, was a better political calculator than Cantor, the self-styled ‘young gun.’ Boehner saw an opportunity to make huge cuts in entitlement programs, shake off the severe damage done his party by Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget and ignite a war between Obama and the Democratic base. Boehner made what, in the larger scheme of things, were modest concessions on tax increases, getting three times as much in spending cuts. Only House Republicans can think that three steps forward and one step back constitutes retreat. Boehner lives in the real world. Most members of his caucus live in Foxland or Rushville, where talk shows define the truth.”
Cantor’s intransigence made it impossible for Republicans to accept huge concessions from the Obama administration. The Washington Post summed them up: “A two-year increase in the Medicare eligibility age. Chained-CPI, which amounts to a $200 billion cut to Social Security benefits. A tax-reform component that would raise $800 billion and preempt the expiration of the Bush tax cuts — which … would net out to a tax cut of more than $3 trillion when compared to current law…. The deal Obama offered Boehner would’ve traded away the option to force much more in revenues later in order to get slightly more in revenues now. And it would have thrown in a slew of entitlement cuts and spending cuts as a sweetener.”
Although Senate minority leader McConnell’s plan to make Obama take responsibility for increasing the debt limit would force Democrats to take a series of votes in the politically sensitive months leading up to the 2012 elections, it has incensed the Republican conservative rank and file. Their rightward drift has put them considerably out of line with the majority of the population (even traditional Republicans) who are not concerned with the debt limit but want Social Security and Medicare left alone. Republican legislators are ideologically in tune with these activists who they believe would unseat them if they voted for tax increases of any kind.
As Harold Meyerson argues, again in WaPo: “Republicans, to be sure, have long waged a war on government, but only now has it become an apocalyptic and total war. At its root, I suspect, is the fear and loathing that rank-and-file right-wingers feel toward what their government, and their nation, is inexorably becoming: multiracial, multicultural, cosmopolitan and now headed by a president who personifies those qualities. That America is also downwardly mobile is a challenge for us all, but for the right, the anxiety our economy understandably evokes is augmented by the politics of racial resentment and the fury that the country is no longer only theirs. That’s not a country whose government they want to pay for — and if the apocalypse befalls us, they seem to have concluded, so much the better.”
Another article in the WaPo explains: “The Republican Party’s anti-tax stand is aided by a public with conflicting wishes. Voters generally oppose large deficits, higher taxes and cuts in programs that benefit them, a painless but impossible combination. A March AP-GfK poll found that 62 percent of Americans say cutting government services is preferable to raising taxes in order to balance the budget. Less than one-third favored tax hikes. But their tune changes when faced with specifics, such as cutting popular and expensive programs that threaten to drive the deficit much higher. A new Pew Research poll asked whether it is more important to reduce the budget deficit or to maintain current Medicare and Social Security benefits. ‘The public decisively supports maintaining the status quo,’ Pew found.”
Obama has bought into the Republican framing of politics. He wants to cut spending but with some minor increase in taxation – he figures he can’t cut Social Security without showing that the rich are going to bear some pain.
Earlier this week, Paul Krugman bitterly criticized Obama’s stance: “One striking example of this rightward shift came in last weekend’s presidential address, in which Mr. Obama had this to say about the economics of the budget: ‘Government has to start living within its means, just like families do. We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs.’
“That’s three of the right’s favorite economic fallacies in just two sentences. No, the government shouldn’t budget the way families do; on the contrary, trying to balance the budget in times of economic distress is a recipe for deepening the slump. Spending cuts right now wouldn’t ‘put the economy on sounder footing.’ They would reduce growth and raise unemployment. And last but not least, businesses aren’t holding back because they lack confidence in government policies; they’re holding back because they don’t have enough customers — a problem that would be made worse, not better, by short-term spending cuts. …
“Watching Mr. Obama and listening to his recent statements, it’s hard not to get the impression that he is now turning for advice to people who really believe that the deficit, not unemployment, is the top issue facing America right now, and who also believe that the great bulk of deficit reduction should come from spending cuts. It’s worth noting that even Republicans weren’t suggesting cuts to Social Security; this is something Mr. Obama and those he listens to apparently want for its own sake.”
What’s really happening here is that the super-rich like Grover Norquist have successfully channeled Washington into accepting an anti-tax ideology which has pervaded the political debate: but the forces they have unleashed, like a Frankenstein’s monster, now threaten not only governmental legitimacy, but its very survival. Like Rupert Murdoch, their own deeds come back to haunt them.
The American people remain a potent political force: that’s why neither Republicans nor Democrats want to openly advocate entitlement cuts at a time when baby boomers are about to retire, and are desperately trying to pin the blame on someone else.
It’s more urgent than ever to fight this ideology within the Democratic Party. Wisconsin Clubs inspired by the stand of the Wisconsin 14 should be formed within the party to advocate for an extension of Social Security and Medicare for all, ending hugely expensive wars in Asia, and controlling capital trading and export.