The Policy Apocalypse

The question of what, if anything, differentiates a "Tea Partier" from a conventional Republican has attracted a lot of attention over the past year and a half. Research from political scientist Chris Parker sheds light on one aspect of the situation: Tea Partiers are in the grips of apocalyptic fantasies such that "6 percent of non-Tea Party conservatives believe the president is destroying the country versus the 71 percent of Tea Party conservatives who believe this to be true."

In ordinary times, you might think that an over-the-top grassroots base would be restrained by party elites. But Tea Party millennialism is reinforced, not constrained, by key conservatives. Matt Continetti of the Weekly Standard published a long article this week accusing liberals of "paranoid" dislike of the billionaire Koch brothers, who have emerged as the leading money-men of the American right. But according to Continettit's own reporting, it's the Kochs who seem paranoid. David Koch said to Continetti, "He's the most radical president we've ever had as a nation," he said, "and has done more damage to the free enterprise system and long-term prosperity than any president we've ever had." Koch attributed this to Obama's admiration for his father, who, he explains "was a hard-core economic socialist in Kenya."

On this theory, despite his stated views, Obama is secretly a hard-core economic socialist, an ideology he picked up from his father without actually speaking to him. Newt Gingrich, who stands right at the center of the money men and the grassroots, worried on Monday about his grandchildren. "By the time they're my age," he fretted, "they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American." And why shouldn't secular atheism and radical Islam coexist if Obama's brand of hard-core socialism can bring record profits to corporate America?

Needless to say, this view of Obama as an apostle of the far-left seems more driven by racial, religious, and cultural anxieties than by policy. But it is relevant to policy.

In particular, it casts doubt on the viability of the president's preferred compromise-oriented approach to legislating. And make no mistake, the compromiser is the real Obama. His pre-presidential political career was as a legislative entrepreneur and assembler of coalition. The key themes of his speeches are national togetherness and a vision of technocratic competence. And during his first two years in office, he was highly successful at brokering deals between the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the handful of Senate centrists. Such deals were the basis of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation overhaul, the New START treaty, and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

That the midterm elections change this calculus is clear. But the rise of apocalyptic conservatism does more than shift the terms of the negotiation. It likely makes compromise impossible.

Compromising with an ideological opponent is usually a good thing. It suggests that both sides are making progress and, thus, that you are making progress. But how do you reach a compromise with a president who you believe is deliberately destroying the country? You can't settle for half a loaf in a bargain with a Kenyan socialist. To someone who believes Obama is fundamentally un-American, the mere fact that he would agree to anything would simply be proof of the compromiser's own complicity.

This is the story behind the story of the looming government shutdown. Both the grassroots activists and the big-time donors of the conservative movement have paranoid ideas about the Obama administration. They see the standoff in D.C. less as disagreement between two different sets of budget-spending priorities than as an epic battle between destroyers and saviors of the country. That makes compromise impossible, and means the White House needs a different political strategy. Until today, the president's rhetoric has consistently emphasized the idea that there are few fundamental disagreements of principle between the party, merely pragmatic disputes about how best to solve problems. Faced with paranoid opposition, Obama needs to better explain what principles he stands for (not, one hopes, hard-core socialism or the destruction of the country) and more squarely confront the dark sentiments driving the opposition.

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