It's easy to shake your head and laugh at the incredible things said by some of the nincompoops who occupy the GOP's backbench in Congress, whether it's Louie Gohmert ranting about "terror babies," or Paul Broun (an actual doctor, for whose patients I fear) saying "All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell," or any of a thousand things Michele Bachmann has said over the years. But as we laugh, we know these people don't shape policy, so the damage they can do is limited. Not that the rest of the Republicans on Capitol Hill are a bunch of geniuses or anything, but most of those who have that golden combination of crazy and stupid are pretty far down in the pecking order.
But looking forward to the next four years, you have to wonder if Barack Obama is, through little fault of his own, making the entire Republican party dumber with each passing day. Fred Kaplan, a thoughtful journalist who reports on military affairs for Slate, watched Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearings and can't contain his disgust at how little the Republican senators serving on the Armed Services Committee seem to understand about things related to the armed services:
Not to sound like a Golden Age nostalgic, but there once was a time when the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee prided themselves on having an understanding of military matters. They disagreed in their conclusions and sometimes their premises. But most of them worked to educate themselves, at least to the point where they could debate the issues, or ask questions of a general without coming off like complete idiots. The sad thing about this new crop of senators—especially on the Republican side—is they don't even try to learn anything; they don't care if they look like complete idiots, in part because their core constituents don't care if they do either.
There's no doubt that Hagel's hearings were a farce, consumed with McCarthyite accusations and Talmudic parsing of anything the nominee had ever said about Israel, all accompanied by insincere expressions of dismay. Now I'm not a Capitol Hill reporter, which means I don't spend my time talking to these senators and the people who work for them. So I can't say whether they've just ceased to bother educating themselves about the issues they allegedly care so much about. But there is something that is out of balance here.
Ordinarily, if you're in the opposition party and there's an issue you spend more of your time on (like military affairs if you're on Armed Services), you have two complementary impulses shaping the way you go about your work as you approach the administration. The first is that you want to do what you can to change a set of policies you disagree with wherever possible. Sometimes, being ornery can get that accomplished, but knowing a lot about the issue—the institution of the Pentagon, the strategic challenges the country faces, the details of the administration's policies—should help you do that. The second impulse is to just be a giant pain in the ass so as to make life as difficult as possible for the administration, not in a particularly considered way, but just lashing out with whatever seems handy, in extreme a manner as possible. Benghazi is a worse scandal that Watergate! Chuck Hagel is an anti-Semite! And so on. It does seem like Republicans are doing mostly the latter, and it's hard to see how it helps them accomplish the goal of moving the administration's policies more in the direction they'd prefer.
So if Mitt Romney had won the election, would the likes of Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham be carefully studying military policy so they could find places to have the greatest influence? Actually, I think they probably would. First of all, when your party is running the show, you're more likely to have an impact on policy, so there's more of an incentive to figure out which policies you'd like to have an impact on. But more importantly, the pressure's off. You don't have to prove to your constituents that you hate the president as much as they do. You don't have to make as big a show of your opposition. The other day, I argued that while Barack Obama predicted that his re-election would make the Republican "fever" break and they'd start working with him, in truth the only thing that will break that fever is a Republican president. And I think that's true of policy seriousness as well. At the moment, they've chosen to just go on TV and act like idiots, because they don't see much margin in doing anything else.