Right-wing spite makes wrong

But fanatics don't have to win to justify themselves

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In politics, it's bad form to crow about winning. Everyone knows there will be another battle in the offing, and the victors this time may be the losers next time. Gloating can always come back to haunt you, like the ghost of Richard Nixon.

So when Republicans surrendered unconditionally after weeks of holding the government hostage, President Barack Obama didn't rub it in as he might have done. Instead, he made a point of re-emphasizing something so obvious you wouldn't think it needed to be said, but apparently it does: The way to set policy in this country is to get elected. Losing and acting as if you'd won is not much of a strategy for success.

The president -- who earned the title by winning two elections, much as the Obama haters would like to deny it -- also stressed that there were no winners at the end of this manufactured crisis. It's tempting to argue, however, that there were certainly losers.

For all their swagger and posturing, Republicans gained exactly zero in the end. It was as if they'd held a gun to their own heads and yelled "Stop, or we'll shoot," only to be stymied by the response: "Go ahead."

No wonder they now have the lowest approval rating in the history of Congress.

But the biggest loser, no surprise, was the U.S. economy -- which, as we know, has a lot to do with the well-being of all citizens regardless of their politics. Overall, the shutdown cost a hideous $24 billion, according to Standard & Poor's.

Yes, that's right. The party that's always screaming about overspending poured $24 billion down a rat hole, for one reason alone: spite.

Not only that, but the agreement they finally approved included even MORE spending -- namely, a "Kentucky Kickback" for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who got $2.9 billion for a lock-and-dam project in his state. Not bad for a man who sees other government expenditures as evil.

Hey, if I win an election by campaigning against spending, d'ya think I can get a few billion for, say, the Pittsburgh Public Schools? Our kids could sure use it.

The Kentucky Kickback enraged a lot of people. That includes the far-right wing of the GOP, which spawned the shutdown in an attempt to defund, delay or otherwise neuter the Affordable Care Act, the signature legislation of Mr. Obama's presidency. Yet as the dams project proves, the most "spending-averse" pols will seek federal funding for their own projects while denouncing everyone else's as wasteful.

Still, if Democrats want to taunt Republicans over their capitulation, they should think twice because this isn't over. The Tea Party wing nuts have failed miserably this time, but they are not going away -- at least not yet. Their national ratings may be in the toilet, but at home in Texas, martyr-in-chief Ted Cruz is more popular than ever. And the current agreement is a very short-lived one. We could be back in a similar place a few months from now.

This is where it gets tricky. One may hope Republicans have learned from this rout, but one may also hope for world peace.

Congressional fanatics only have to please their own constituents. They don't have to care what anyone else thinks, and they don't have to win to justify their self-delusion. They just have to be seen making a stand.

In those circumstances, "We fought the good fight; we just didn't win," as House Majority Leader John Boehner put it, gives way to "We'll fight the good fight even if it means taking everyone else down with us."

They did a lot of damage this time to themselves, their party, the country's image and the American people, many of whom are still suffering from the Great Recession. The fact that it got them nothing seems not to have fazed them.

It reminds me of the Vietnam-era song by Pete Seeger: "We're waist deep in the big muddy and the big fool says to push on."

Of course, it's possible that some semblance of sanity and practicality will prevail. Maybe the not-crazy wing of the GOP will find its backbone and talk some sense into the maniacs. Maybe John Boehner, having earned enough Brownie points by catering to the Tea Party this time, can get them down off the ledge.

If not, I can hear Ted Cruz's next campaign jingle, pilfered from Billy Joel:

"You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you're looking for."


Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610). First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM


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