Saturday, July 30, 2011

Could US Debt Debate Fragment The Republicans?

Tea Party Republicans: ready to go all the way
Republican House Speaker John Boehner must be wondering at this moment what to do with his rather large embarrassment of riches - with the emphasis on embarrassment. The mid-terms swept Republicans into decisive control of Congress and shifted the terrain of official debate distinctly to the right, at least as far as economic questions were concerned. Driven by a right wing insurgency grouped around the Tea Party, questions of unemployment, poverty, foreclosures and stimulus spending were buried beneath a clamour of spartan enthusiasm to slash government spending and "live within our means" - even if that meant expanding the means of the rich so that they could continue to improve how they lived. As a counter-response to the huge swell of enthusiasm for the election of Barack Obama, this seemed to revive the Republicans from the recently near-dead.

But zombies and vampires and other undead things no longer exist according to the old principles that guided them when they were alive. Zombies eat brains. Vampires drink blood. Tea Party Republicans feed on the fantasy of a mythical past that they want to recreate. Of course the Republicans have, for a long time, been the right wing of the American ruling class. They have talked about debts and favoured attacks on social programs while cutting taxes for the rich. But the reality since Reagan has been big increases in the deficit and debt under Republican administrations, usually for defence spending and tax cuts for the rich. But the infection of right wing populism that they have toyed with since Reaganism, has come back to take control of the whole Republican body.

Thus we have the ironic situation where Boehner is emboldened to challenge Obama because of the influx of Republicans. He demands that Obama surrender to the Republican agenda (which Obama dutifully does) - and then Boehner is barely able to round up enough votes to carry his own plan in Congress. With the stakes about as high as they can get - with the first ever default in US history looming just a few days away and the danger of a sharp spike in interest rates and a nose dive for the already ailing economy - many Tea Party partisans were ready to do like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove and ride a nuclear missile to ground zero, cowboy hat in hand, whooping all the way down.

But the Republican Party machine is more than just the populists who have drunk the kool aid. It is primarily made up of men (and a few women) who are integrated into the ruling class and its institutions. And while the American ruling class would like to see some austerity to foor the bill they ran up with the last decade of speculative mayhem, they are willing to compromise, as they have always done with the other wing of American capital, represented by the Democratic Party. And the modus operandi of the Democratic Party since the 1930s has been to maintain hegemony through a process of negotiation (as long as the rich generally win) and cooptation, thus maintaining an illusion of fairness and consensus.

But while the Tea Party may be backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, it seems clear that the base of the "movement" are middle class - small business owners and managers of various sorts - many of whom have probably been squeezed terribly by the crisis since 2008, the loss of investments, foreclosures, etc. They don't have the same ties or stakes in the system as the head honchos. Nor do they have the savvy to know what the real effects will be if the United States defaults. They are not driven by rational logic or even mainstream economics but rather by mystical visions of a better past that can be recaptured and a future probably involving the rapture of Jesus Christ and his heavenly host.

But while the Tea Party partisans may be driven by irrational faith, it also seems clear that if the Tea Party wing of the party continues to balk at supporting any bill that doesn't include much deeper, unsupportable cuts, the "moderate" wing of the Republicans will be forced to compromise with the Democrats and break with the rookies and their ultra conservative allies.

That raises the question of what will happen if the Republicans split.

Chances are that they'll paper over the differences and achieve some sort of concord in the wake of what many will see as a betrayal of principle. Boehner will probably lead his fellow veteran Republicans further to the right as a way to mend fences and keep the party together. But if the Tea Party newbies ultimately feel betrayed by the sight of Republican Congress members voting with the Democrats against them, we could see a splintering of the Republicans and a third party challenge emerge.

Certainly the Tea Party has the base and the mobilizing ability to have an impact, though I think that it's over-rated and their barnstorming success reflects the element of surprise as much as anything. They would also find it much more difficult to win seats if they were a standalone party outside of the many levers of influence that make up the Republican Party machine. And not all Republicans who were willing to vote for a Tea Party supported candidate on the Republican ticket will be willing to make the shift to a whole new party. I think that they would be in for a rude awakening. But in the meantime, we could be in for a very stormy season in American politics. With any luck, upheaval and instability at the top will encourage those at the bottom to fight for a different vision - one that appears in every poll that has been conducted on the issue - where jobs and services come before tax cuts to the fabulously wealthy.



G.O.P. Fervor Cuts 2 Ways for Boehner - NYTimes.com
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