In Great Britain, the opposition party assembles a "shadow cabinet," offering up individuals who are supposed to speak for it on various policy issues. One of the results is that the party is required to at least pretend to care about the substance of government. We have no such tradition here in America, so our opposition, without much to do with its time other than plot strategies to undermine the party in power, is free to be as trivial as it wants.
Granted, when you're out of power, stirring up trouble is a lot more fun than writing policy papers. But the problem for the GOP today is that it is increasingly being defined by its ugliest impulses, its most gullible conspiracy theorists, and its acceptance of a rising tide of nuttiness. Conservatives are having quite a bit of success drumming up manufactured controversies, but each one makes them look less and less like the kind of people you'd trust to run the country.
It is appropriate that the conservative moment's new leader is Glenn Beck, who spends his hours on the air drawing conspiracies on white boards and literally telling his viewers that he's terrified, and they should be too (in Time magazine's cover story on him, fellow Fox News anchor Shepard Smith calls Beck's studio the "fear chamber"). Watch Beck's disquisition on the hidden communist and fascist symbolism he discovered in the sculptures and building facades around Rockefeller Center, and you realize just how thin the line is between achieving media superstardom and standing on a corner with a sandwich board and tinfoil hat.
Having procured the scalp of Van Jones, whose job in the White House was to promote green jobs (a terribly nefarious task, I know), Beck has focused his all-seeing eye on the fact that there are people in the executive branch who have been referred to, at various times and by someone or other, as "czars." Just what is a czar? There's no definition, because the title doesn't actually exist. Aficionados of the czar conspiracy have devised lists with the number of czars ranging from 29 to 44, depending on which right-wing blog's comment thread they're using as a source. And no, that isn't a joke.
This has become Beck's latest anti-Obama crusade, that these czars, with their unchecked, unaccountable, nearly unlimited power, represent a threat to the life and liberty of every American. Though no actual Cossacks have been seen pillaging heartland towns, we should be vigilant.
I can't help but wonder if behind closed doors, Republicans say to themselves, "Man, that Glenn Beck is a real idiot. I wish we could just ignore him." But they can't, of course -- you go to war with the Fox News hosts you have. If Beck starts yammering on about a plague of czars, well, that's what the base is interested in. So you'd better put on your outrage beanie, step up to the microphone, and start yelling.
Doing their part in this piece of performance art, Republican members of Congress have been holding press conferences and posing in front of photo arrays of the alleged czars. House Republicans even have a bill, the Czar Accountability and Reform Act of 2009, which now has 100 co-sponsors. They argue that the czars are unaccountable because they haven't been confirmed by the Senate. Except many of those on the various lists were, in fact, confirmed. We have yet to see a reporter ask one of these officeholders for a definition of "czar" that goes beyond "I heard somebody once call that guy a czar, so he is one." What's the difference between a czar and someone who holds a job in the executive branch? None that we can tell. The Republicans may not be aware of it, but I heard there's a college student intern who makes copies in the office of the deputy undersecretary of agriculture. Egad -- a soybean document duplication czar!
But it's not just on the House side, where silliness is always a featured offering on the daily legislative menu. Senators are getting into the act, too. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas wrote a breathtakingly stupid op-ed for The Washington Post, decrying the unchecked power the czar epidemic represents. "A few of them have formal titles," Hutchison wrote darkly, "but most are simply known as 'czars.'" Actually, every single one of them has a formal title. And the only person who is really "known" widely as a czar would be the drug czar, or head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, an agency created under George H.W. Bush.
While Hutchison hasn't had the most distinguished of Senate careers, she has not appeared to be as much of an ignoramus as her op-ed would suggest. But she is running for governor of Texas against incumbent Republican Rick Perry, whose vigorous pandering to his party's nuttiest elements could teach Mitt Romney a thing or two. Running in a GOP primary against a man who has actually suggested that Texas consider seceding from the United States if Washington continues to pass laws and regulate things, the fairly moderate Hutchison knows she has to start shimmying her way up the crazy tree, and right quick. (A poll taken after Perry's remarks showed Texas Republicans evenly split, 48-48, on whether the state should remain part of the United States or not. Really.)
Do we even have to mention the epic hypocrisy at work here? I suppose we do. These Republicans -- who are now so concerned that by hiring people to work on issues, President Obama is "consolidating power" (Sen. John Thune of South Dakota) in a way that "upsets the checks and balances" (Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee) -- were quite happy about consolidation of power when a Republican was in the White House. They didn't criticize the Bush administration's "unitary executive" theory, which said, among other things, that criminal laws don't apply to the president as long as what he's doing has anything to do with national security. They didn't object when the Bush administration claimed that the president had the power to wiretap citizens without warrants, or arrest and lock up Americans for life, without charge or trial. They didn't disagree when over 1,200 times, Bush used "signing statements" to assert that he would ignore laws or parts of laws he found displeasing. All that was no problem -- not to mention the fact that Bush also had staffers whom people sometimes called "czars." But the presence of an Obama adviser not subject to Senate confirmation? Tyranny!
If you're a politician in either party, you often find yourself pulled to the ideological edge by your most fervent supporters. This sometimes means you have to assure them that your heart is with them, even if you know that political reality means you won't be able to give them what they want. I agree with you that a single-payer health-care system would be better, a Democrat might say, but a weak public option is all we can get -- and maybe not even that. You're right, we really should privatize Social Security, a Republican might assure a supporter, but it's just not politically possible.
But what the GOP faces now is that portions of its base, spurred on by the likes of Beck, have gone completely, utterly mad. And prominent Republicans, many of them otherwise fairly reasonable people, have decided to check into the asylum.
Why? There are many reasons. Some of the members of Congress taking up these charges are not really playing with a full deck (see, for instance, this video of Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio whispering "I agree with you" to a constituent claiming Obama wasn't born in the U.S.). Others may actually be so ignorant of how government works that they believe that an official who is not confirmed by Congress is a dangerously unaccountable czar (and yes, it's possible to be elected to our national legislature and still be a dolt -- there are more than you'd think). But the most relevant reason is that, at least in the short term, it works. Drawing the news media's attention away from policy and toward craziness is as easy as waving a shiny ball in front of a baby. And the more time they spend talking about whatever the conservatives want them to talk about, the less time goes toward a reality-based discussion of actual issues.