The resignation of John Boehner and the Republican failure to elect a new Speaker yesterday are the biggest symptom yet of the deep crisis in our political life. Although obviously not as serious as the civil war, it is becoming the worst since 1860-1, because it definitely threatens our ability to govern ourselves. It results from at least 35 years of ceaseless anti-government propaganda and from the irresponsibility of the Republican leadership--as well as the inability of Democrats to take much interest in the details and possibilities of government, either.
Essentially, the position of Grover Norquist, a lobbyist, that the federal government needs to be shrunk to the size that it can be drowned in a bathtub, has become orthodoxy among too many Republicans. While Boehner and the majority of House Republicans seem to understand that we need more or less the government that we have, between 40 and 50 House Republicans, most of them elected in the last three elections, do not. Many of them apparently live in a bubble of wealthy contributors and Tea Party activists. That is why they complain that they have not been able to deliver the "change" that they claim their constituents expect, including the repeal of Obamacare and, now, the defunding of Planned Parenthood. They evidently feel no obligation to make our institutions work because they do not believe in them. Sometimes it seems that shutting down the government isn't their nightmare, but their fondest dream.
The disease from which they suffer is having other effects. Every single Republican now peddles the same doctrine of lower taxes, the repeal of the ACA, no funding for Planned Parenthood, fewer regulations, and so on. The Republicans have now grown two generations of dedicated cadres who want to undo the last 100 years of our history. Meanwhile,. the Democrats have bred almost no one actively working to preserve and extend the ideas of the Progressive Era and the New Deal--although Bernie Sanders, born when FDR was still President, seems to be one of the exceptions. The Republicans know what they want; most Democrats appear as lukewarm defenders of the status quo.That is why the Republicans seem to be able to hang on to the momentum in our political battle, even though the American people do not want much of what they are selling.
This morning on NPR I heard an unlikely source point to another problem: the failure of authority at all levels of our political system. For 40 years, a commentator (whom I did not initially identify) said, we have had political reforms decentralizing our government, legislative bodies, and political parties, and making it harder and harder for anyone to exercise effective leadership. The Speaker of the House no longer enjoys power over committee assignments and campaign funds, and thus has no way to bring his troops into line. The commentator,. who stated this very telling point without a hint of partisanship, turned out to be David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Rather than dismiss the remark based upon its source, I take all the greater pleasure in commending Mr. Frum for his insight because he happens to be on the other side of the aisle. Alas, today news stories report that the rebels want to weaken the speaker's power.
Another unfortunate species of chicken bred thirty years ago has also come home to roost in the Republican coop this week: the idea that politicians' sex lives are newsworthy. Republican lawmakers, it seems, received emails accusing their leader, Kevin McCarthy, of having an affair with a Republican colleague. She denied it, but there is no way of knowing whether it played a role in his decision to give up the speakership. I have no idea whether the accusation was true, but a government composed of people who have never been guilty of an affair would be chosen on a very poor basis. I for one do not want it.
There is an obvious, though unlikely, solution to the situation in the House: the election of a new Speaker by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, together with an agreement to keep funding the government at current levels, forget about Obamacare and immigration, and leave Planned Parenthood on its own. That would be the equivalent of a Parliamentary National Government, such as Britain formed in each of the two world wars. It would definitely isolate the anti-government revolutionaries, and it would also force some Republican presidential candidates, in all probability, to support the deal. I do not expect it, but I I thought I would put it forward to introduce a ray of hope into perhaps the most hopeless American political moment that I have ever lived through in 68 years.