Destroying the Village

When the International Olympic Committee announced last October that London would host the 2016 Olympics, the reaction on the right was truly remarkable. America's bid for Chicago to host the event -- for which President Barack Obama had personally lobbied -- fell short. Anything that could be seen as a defeat for Obama, even if it was also a defeat for America, was cause for celebration. According to a writer for The Weekly Standard, "Cheers erupt[ed]" in the magazine's offices when the news was announced. And these are the serious conservatives, the ones with a direct line to Republican leaders.

The spirit on the right that says anything that is bad for Obama must be good has only grown stronger in the year since. Now that Republicans will be holding one house of Congress, they have to decide how far to go in undermining the president. Early signs are not encouraging.

It is the opposition's job to oppose, of course, and a political party must balance two sets of motivations. On one side are those telling them to gum up the works: stop policies they sincerely find distressing, and gloat when the ruling party stumbles. On the other side are those encouraging at least some cooperation: solve problems and keep the government doing its job. The first set is usually stronger and provides powerful incentives for the opposition to root for failure. But it's one thing to hope the president fails to institute a new program you don't like and something else entirely to hope the president fails to improve the economy or secure our common defense.

So it was unusual to see Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell put things so plainly, when he said in October, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." No policy goal, no improvement in Americans' lives -- just get Obama out and their guy in. In the service of that goal, many Republicans seem to have decided that everything -- and I mean everything -- that Obama supports must be stopped.

So last week, with a series of lame excuses, Republicans in the Senate blocked the ratification of the START treaty on nuclear weapons with Russia, a treaty supported by virtually every foreign-policy heavyweight from both parties. Sure, the Republicans' move cheered the likes of Iran and North Korea, but if ratification would have given Obama a day's positive news, then it had to be sabotaged. Many Republicans are also hoping for a showdown when the time comes early next year to raise the debt ceiling, which will allow the government to continue borrowing money. A failure to do so would mean that the United States government would be unable to pay its obligations, something that could cause a global financial panic. But who cares?

To his credit, John Boehner understands that failing to raise the debt ceiling would be catastrophic, but it's far from assured that he can convince his colleagues of that. Meanwhile, they're searching for new ways to hold Obama down, even if it means holding the country down as well.

How was it that conservatives suddenly discovered their passionate interest in monetary policy and agreed that the Fed's proposed quantitative-easing program was a disaster in the making? Was this a long-standing interest of, for instance, Sarah Palin, who used the opportunity of a speech before the Specialty Tools & Fasteners Distributors Association to expound on the topic? It's possible, I suppose. But it seems more likely that they oppose the policy because economic recovery would inevitably reflect well on President Obama, regardless of the fact that he has nothing to do with the decisions of the Fed. If it might improve opinions of Obama, then it must be opposed. So now conservatives are nearly unanimous in their opposition to quantitative easing.

Then there's the potential of a government shutdown, which would occur if the Republican-controlled House passes a budget that the Senate can't tolerate. You may recall that this happened in 1995: National parks closed, people couldn't get passports, and all sorts of government services abruptly stopped. The public was disgusted, and Republicans paid the price. But the lesson many of them have taken isn't that there would be real consequences from another shutdown. Instead, they believe they just need to win the spin war over it. Reptilian right-wing pundit Dick Morris is begging Republicans to go through with a shutdown, and Grover Norquist is assuring them they have the tools to prevail. "There's now a Fox television network," Norquist said in explaining why they can prevail this time. "There's now the Internet, in a way there wasn't back then."

True enough, as far as it goes. No matter what Republicans do, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh will have their backs. But as Jonathan Bernstein points out, the right-wing noise machine is, in this case, a double-edged sword. While it gives the Republicans a weapon in the public-relations battle surrounding a shutdown, it also makes the shutdown more likely to happen in the first place, by being a place where pressure on Republicans to be uncompromising is generated.

The values of that noise machine, where no one is burdened by responsibility and governing is relevant only as a bludgeon to be used against one's opponents, now threaten to fully colonize the right side of the Capitol. On Fox and talk radio, Obama and Democrats are always wrong, always lying, always driven by the most villainous motives, and working with them, no matter the benefits to the country, is an unconscionable betrayal. There are Republicans in Congress who know that disagreement can only be taken so far and that if all you can see is whether your opponent is losing, you've lost sight of the people you're supposed to represent. There are some who are capable of saying, "There are plenty of things to fight about -- I'm not going to throw sand in the gears this time." Unfortunately, their ranks are even thinner in this Congress than they were in the last (which itself set a new standard for obstruction).

It's possible that some of the people who campaigned on the proposition that the president is an evil socialist dictator bent on the destruction of America will now dial down their venomous rage, moderate their tone, and entertain the possibility that every once in a while, serving the public should take priority over embarrassing their political opponents. We can always hope.

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