Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to stand by his claim that Job 1 for Congressional Republicans is to defeat Obama in 2012. Yet the question looms, how far are they willing to go to make that happen? Recent history suggests, pretty damn far.
To understand what’s going on, you have to first recognize that the GOP is beholden to two major groups. On the one hand they are funded by big business and the wealthy businessmen created therein. The interests of this group define the overall agenda and goals for the party.
On the other hand, the foot soldiers at the polls are largely made up of blue-collars, religious fundamentalists, and seniors. This group is necessary because, come November, you have to have lots of bodies show up to vote for you. But they are ultimately fodder as far as the policy agenda goes. They get tossed a rousing speech, a few sound bites, and an occasional red meat issue and it keeps them fired up and loyal. I’m somewhat reminded of Dennis Hooper’s line from Waterworld where he launches into a motivational tirade for his crew and they all storm off below decks to row their hearts out. He’s asked, “So which way we rowin’?” And he replies, “I don’t have a goddamn clue. Don’t worry, they’ll row for a month before they figure out I’m fakin’ it.”
Now consider, the GOP won handily in 2012 on their promise of jobs, jobs, jobs. Then, once in office, immediately focused on Obamacare and abortion. Why? For starters, creating jobs is hard. Especially when the economy is in a demand slump and the interest rates are bumping the zero-bound. The only solution is federal deficit spending, and they sure as hell weren’t going there. After all, deficits are bad. Not for the reasons often touted, but because ultimately deficits have to get repaid through taxes—something their corporate benefactors are not fond of—especially when corporate profits and CEO salaries are soaring. Which brings us to the second point. Among their fodder constituents, abortion and Obamacare are both reviled. So the strategy was essentially to distract one group while appeasing the other.
Next up is the Paul Ryan budget. No one in the GOP thought the plan had a snowflake’s chances in hell of passing, yet they lined up behind it in droves. Why? Two reasons. First, the plan was a message to the corporate benefactors. This was a wish list for the privatization of government programs and tax cuts that all serve to line the pockets of the folks who in turn fund the Republicans. By standing behind it, they were assuring the benefactors they had their backs. Secondly, the plan was political. Actually passing a plan means you can be evaluated down the road for its efficacy. Proposing a plan that can’t pass puts you in a position down the road to say that things suck because nobody listened to your ideas. Politically this was a much more powerful position to be in.
However, the GOP underestimated their fodder constituents. You’d think they’d have learned from Bush’s crash and burn on Social Security privatization, but not so much. They tried to couch the language, but the public saw through that. The result being that Ryan’s budget is now enormously unpopular because it is recognized to fundamentally change Medicare. It turns out that when fodder folks talk about support for smaller government and less spending, they don’t mean to include programs from which they benefit directly. The message sent to Republicans in NY’s 26th District special election was overwhelmingly, mess with Medicare and we will vote your ass out. This was the GOP’s first shot to its own foot. It’s limping, and looking for a path back to hale and healthy. (Gee, I hope they can afford medical insurance.)
Still, the scary specter on the horizon is the debt ceiling. If the Ryan budget was a pistol shot to the left foot, the debt ceiling is a hacksaw poised above the right knee. All the sane people (which is not all of the people) on both sides of the aisle agree the ceiling must be raised. To not do so would be economically disastrous with long-term consequences. Even Wall Street is saying this has to happen. Both sides also recognize the Republicans are simply taking an opportunistic hostage to gain political advantage. This is a dog they clearly don’t want to shoot, but if you think they just might be crazyenough, maybe you’ll buy the magazine anyway.
Again, why are they playing it this way? And again, there are a couple of forces at work here. On the one hand, the debt ceiling is enormously unpopular. In fairness, understanding the nuances of the impact of the debt ceiling on the macroeconomic health of the U.S. economy is hard to capture in a sound bite, and most people lack the interest or the time to delve into the details. Besides, the GOP has already established with the fodder constituents that deficits are bad. So selling a refusal to move on the debt ceiling is duck soup. Besides, if they can get major concessions from Democrats, they will be in the politically favorable position of being able to crow about their accomplishments. But there are more subtle and insidious forces at work here.
Everyone acknowledges that Obama’s reelection hopes hinge on the economy. The last thing the GOP wants is for the economy to make any demonstrable progress, especially in the area of jobs, wages, or anything felt directly by their fodder constituents, prior to 2012. Obama’s demise (Job 1) is directly contingent on the majority of Americans feeling substantive economic pain going in to the election booth. The GOP is talking about needing $2 trillion dollars in cuts as ransom to get them to release the debt ceiling. Those cuts cannot be achieved without significant job losses (both government and downstream private sector jobs as well) in addition to major entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. This exacerbates the demand slump the economy is in, and pretty much guarantees pain for middle America, and what will border on inhumanity to the poor, disabled, and unemployed.
The gambit here is that Republicans can successfully hang the 2012 economic conditions on Obama—that their fodder constituents will blame their plight on “Obama’s wild spending spree” rather than on Republicans draconian budget cuts. And you can bet there will be additional tax cuts for corporations and the rich included in any debt ceiling as well, which will seal the love of the GOP benefactors. This is arguably the sweet spot for the GOP going in to the elections.
However, the downside is they are playing chicken with investors by holding the debt ceiling hostage. Wall Street and foreign investors alike certainly recognize individually that raising the U.S. debt ceiling is a matter of when, not if. But what the investors realize is that the market behaves like a herd of buffalo rather than as a single rational actor. Everyone may realize that long term there’s no danger, but if one animal spooks and heads out, the herd will react and follow, trampling all of us in its wake. This means the benefactor constituents are justifiably nervous about this brinksmanship. They can’t control all the buffalo, so everyone is tip-toeing about hoping to keep everyone else calm. Should someone spook, the results will be disastrous. But the devastation will not be just to our economy. The benefactors will doubtless bail on the GOP, who’s political ploy just cost them billions. If this happens, the Republicans will have effectively lopped off their right leg.
This is high stakes poker. The GOP may win at the polls. The corporate benefactors may win, lose, or break even. The rest of us will lose. The only path here on which we win would be if Democrats refused to bargain, called the Republicans bluff, and got them to fold. It’s pretty clear that won’t happen.
Is this view overly cynical? Perhaps. Maybe the GOP is not behaving with this much premeditation. Perhaps they are instead just ignorant and reckless or opportunistically sociopathic. But any way you slice it, unless you’re in the GOP’s corporate benefactor class, you voting for a Republican is like a chicken voting for Col. Sanders.