I have not had much to say about the Republican contest for President so far, in part because I find myself unable to watch more than about 15 minutes of a Republican debate. I was rather fascinated in the first one by the echoes of a Maoist party meeting. If anyone had ever said, or, worse, done anything halfway reasonable, such as Mitt Romney's introduction of universal health care, Newt Gingrich's welcoming noises towards immigrants, or Rick Perry's advocacy of mandatory HPV vaccination, they were immediately called to account for it, invited to confess their deviationism--and all did their best to take advantage of the opportunity to purge their sins and promise to do better in the future. To secure the Republican party nomination, it seems, one must now embrace numerous false propositions about our economy and society, not to mention a caricature of our President as an irresponsible socialist. The drama in the race relates to Mitt Romney's continuing inability to convince "the base" that he is their man--and the inability of any alternative candidate to sustain a boomlet. (Nate Silver now reports that Gingrich's numbers are beginning to slip.) This is one symptom of our political crisis.
A second, related one has shown up in Washington, where the Republicans in Congress can no longer think beyond political advantage and are doing their best to paralyze the government. They have stalled many presidential nominations of a quite unexceptionable character, and have even broken the much-ballyhooed agreement, reached I believe in 2007, not to filibuster nominees for federal judgeships. Now the House Republicans are trying to force the President to take a stand on the Keystone pipeline in return for extending his payroll tax cut. (On that one I have to admit that I hope they kill the deal: the payroll tax cut was a mistake and it needs to be restored as soon as possible.) I have also just noticed that the $1 trillion dollar spending bill to which they have agreed will carry the government through only until next September, the height of the election season--a recipe for further disaster. By refusing to confirm the President's choice as head of the new Consumer Protection Bureau or to fund regulatory agencies adequately, the Republicans are subverting the intentions both of the executive and of the last Congress to an unprecedented extent. Not since the last two years of the Presidency of Andrew Johnson (1867-8) has the nation seen anything similar--and that is food for more thought.
Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans differed over one of the great issues of American history: the shape of the postwar South and the fate of the freed slaves. Thad Stevens, Charles Sumner and the rest of the Radicals believed just as deeply as John Boehner and Jim DeMint that the President opposed true American values; indeed, they viewed him as ally of the recently defeated traitors. Yet they knew what they wanted: the enfranchisement of the Freedmen and a Republican-dominated South that would keep their party in office for a generation. Today's Republicans know only a mindless hatred of all government and of the bi-coastal elite that initially dominated postwar American politics. Their great plan for a new America begins and ends with lower taxes and no regulation, and they will do literally anything to advance it. An opinion piece in today's New York Times explains how the Republicans have emasculated the National Labor Relations Board and now threaten to cease its functioning altogether because they will not confirm President Obama's new nominees, leaving the board without a quorum. Like the SDS forty years ago, today's Republican legislators have no respect for existing law.
We are headed towards uncharted territory: a modern state and economy without effective government. The Obama Administration has slowed, not interrupted, the trend. Today's Times also reports that a new regulation will allow states to interpret the new health care law very flexibly, rather than requiring any particular coverage around the nation. This may be aimed at Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on the Supreme Court--which may emerge as a key Republican ally in years to come as well. The Republican use of 9/11, while hardly altogether insincere, was from their standpoint brilliant: they used the mobilization of the country and the exhaustion of the resources of the federal government up in a largely futile enterprise, leaving too little left to cope with the worst economic crisis in 80 years. A different Democratic President might conceivably have rallied the country around a different position after 2009, but that will never be known. The great adventure of the Enlightenment, the design of a government to assure justice and meet the needs of the people, is for the moment at an end in the United States. We shall need a new and more flexible view of history to integrate this epochal fact into our world view.