Ahab Syndrome

Last time, I called the government shutdown a poker game, one where the Republicans were trying to bluff out the Democrats despite only holding a pair of threes. Upon retrospect, I think it was actually worse than that.

I think this budget fight was more akin to a game of Russian Roulette in which every chamber was loaded and the Republicans were the first ones to pick up the gun even though they knew every chamber was loaded and their opponents knew it too.

“I’ll do it,” they said. “I’ll go first and I’ll play and you’ll look like a wimp because I’m taking charge and doing what’s right.”

“Okay,” the Democrats said. “Go right ahead.”

And what was gained, for all this effort and all this spent political capital? You exhausted your good will with all but the most ardent of your base, surely it was for a reason? Nope. Nothing happened. Nothing was accomplished, unless you count costing the economy an estimated $24 billion dollars an accomplishment. Certainly I have never managed to spend $24 billion dollars. So, achievement unlocked! I guess.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that there is an element within the Republican Party that can be diagnosed with Ahab Syndrome. It’s not a real psychiatric disease as far as I know (monomania would be the medical term, but this is more pleasantly literary).

Obamacare is their white whale. It’s the one thing that must be stopped, must be crushed, must be killed. It is the ENEMY. Does it matter if your crew dies around you? Does it matter if your ship is crushed and sunk beneath the waves?

No. All that matters is the objective. All that matters is the end of Obamacare, even if the country burns in the process, even if it costs America its position as the world’s sole superpower.

The worst part? The very worst part? I’m worried that this isn’t going to change. I keep hoping that the Republican party will oust its far right wing element and unshackle itself from the religious right. I keep hoping for the resurgence of the Rockefeller Republican. Not that I would vote Republican even if that was the case, because I am too far to the left, but it’d be nice to work with those guys. I think we could come to compromises more easily and find some common ground.

I’m still hoping this fiasco will mobilize the moderate elements in the party (assuming there are any left) and say, okay, enough is enough, let’s get back to business. Being crazy is bad for business.

And then I read something like this and I worry that all my hopes are in vain:

For a certain block of House conservatives, the ones who drove Speaker John Boehner toward a government shutdown and near-default against his will, the lesson of the last few weeks isn’t that they overreached. Not that they made unachievable demands, put their leadership in an impossible position, damaged their party’s position with the public and left a deep uncertainty about whether the GOP conference can recover and legislate.

No, what they’re taking away from the 2013 crisis is: They didn’t go far enough.

They aren’t angry with Speaker John Boehner for ultimately capitulating to Democratic demands. They’re frustrated with their more mainstream colleagues who put him in that position.

Despite my rhetorical tendency to elaborate and exaggerate (like in the Russian Roulette example above), my general position is to assume that the person on the other side of an argument is not an idiot. Most people are rational. Most people are trying to do the best they can and want to do what they think is right. Very few people wake up in the morning and say, mwahaha, how best might I destabilize the country and run the government into the ground? The ones that do tend to explode or get gunned down by police, not elected to office.

It seems to me that a rational person would look at this situation and say, “wow, you know, we really alienated everybody here. Everybody thinks we’re crazy and extremist. We need to tone things down and win back the respect of the moderate elements.” Make no mistake, the self-reporting moderate element is the largest in the country.

I don’t know how anybody can look at this situation and say, “we didn’t lose because we went too far. We didn’t lose because we were too extreme on this issue. WE LOST BECAUSE WE WEREN’T EXTREME ENOUGH!!!!!1

I had hoped the message learned here is that dysfunction cannot be tolerated for the sake of disagreement. Disagree if you want, argue if you want, but above all else, keep the gears of the machine moving. Don’t jam a wrench into the cogs because you didn’t get your way.

In Which I Agree With Jeff Flake About Something

So the government shut down today. Fortunately for yours truly, I’m employed by a level of government that has so far managed to remain functional, so I get to keep coming into work every day. I am very relieved by this fact, although I admit that the idea of not having to work did sound pretty good this morning when my alarm started chiming away.

I wanted to point out something my state Senator, Jeff Flake, said in an article, if only because before today, I don’t think I’ve agreed with Jeff Flake about anything. From an article in the New York Times:

The Republican leadership in both houses of Congress have accused their Democratic counterparts and Mr. Obama of failing to entertain even the smallest changes to the health care law, which they have said is deeply flawed and harmful to businesses.

But among the rank and file, more and more Republicans are saying they believe they have no cards left to play.

“We’ve called their bluff, and they didn’t blink,” said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. “At this point it would kind of strain logic to assume that going deeper into this when Republicans are likely to get the blame will benefit us more.”

Bold emphasis is mine.

Last week, I was discussing the then-hypothetical government shutdown and described the situation as a game of Poker (Texas Hold ‘Em, of course). The Republicans are trying to bluff with a pair of threes while the Democrats are sitting comfortably on a nice King-high straight. The only difference between my assessment and Flake’s is that Flake suggests the Democrats kept their nerve even when Republicans called their bluff. In my scenario, the Democrats weren’t even trying to bluff. They didn’t need to bluff. They knew who did not have the political capital to keep up in this high stakes game and they knew who would be paying out the nose for the resulting fallout. Hint: not them.

The frustrating and somewhat scary part is that the Republicans played their hand anyway even though rationally, they should have folded as soon as the cards were dealt. It speaks to the level of dysfunction within a particular group of that particular party, which is frankly terrifying.

The sooner Republican voters oust this fringe element that has turned their party into a gibbering mess, the better it will be for all of us. Right now, we’re not stuck with a deep schism between a conservative party and a liberal party. We’re watching the struggle between a slightly-right-of-center party and an insane party.

Contrary to popular conservative depictions of socialist liberals such as myself, the majority of us don’t look forward to the Republican party’s spectacular and implosive collapse. Indeed, we’re rational enough to realize that in such a scenario, the deposed would do all in their power to drag everyone down with them. Which, come to think of it, seems to be exactly what’s happening right now.