The Republican Party is eating itself

Conservatives have forgotten that Americans are pragmatists first, ideologues second.

We say we are pro-life and then say we want abortion to be legal. We say we're mostly economically conservative but then say we like Medicare and food stamps. We say we want affordable health care and then say that the law that makes it affordable is un-American. What gives?

Part of it is the media. It can badly distort reality. But part of the reason (I think the greater part) is that Americans are so often lied to. Europeans have no doubt heard of the impact of Citizens United, the US Supreme Court case that permits unlimited sums of money to be spent on elections. This is the ruling that allowed Newt Gingrich to survive the GOP nomination process for much longer than he would have under prior conditions, and it allowed Mitt Romney to take the GOP nomination without the political benefit of charm, charisma or likeability.

Europeans, however, may not have heard of the army of secretive front groups that stealthily spread corporate propaganda. Recently, one of those advocating for the coal industry paid people $50 each to attend a regulatory meeting in Chicago. The goal here was creating the illusion that coal enjoys mass grassroots support when in fact it does not. This same tactic prevailed in 2010 when billionaire-backed groups like the Center for Protect Patient's Rights created the false impression that the Tea Party was a bottom-up conservative "insurrection." It funneled more than $44.5 million in 2010, much of it provided by two people: Charles and David Koch.

"Grassroots" isn't the only way the power elite masks its unpopular and oligarchical agendas. So is "small business." Few things are more sacred in Washington than the entrepreneur and small-business owner. Carrying its mantle, a group called the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is challenging the constitutionality of Obama's health care reform law along with 26 states. The US Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in June. Meanwhile, a cursory look at the group's leadership suggests it has long-held ties not to small business but to Big Business Republicans. 

Its president is a former lobbyist for the steel industry who served in Ronald Reagan's White House. Its chief lobbyist served in the first Bush administration before working for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a think-tank financed by the Kochs. Citizens for a Sound Economy is now part of the brothers' Americans for Prosperity, which, along with FreedomWorks, underwrites much of the Tea Party. And the NFIB's communications director once worked for the American Legislative Exchange Council, which, as a service to state legislatures, writes "model legislation" that often undermines the right to collective bargaining. The Kochs are known for their anti-unionism.

But in politics, lies don't last forever. Eventually, there is a reckoning, and in the case of the president's health care law, a GOP reckoning may be on the horizon.

Consider Congressman Allen West of Florida. Over the weekend, he told a liberal blog that if the Supreme Court strikes down the law, it has to be replaced with something. That is, as a practical matter, something has to do done, and as a political matter, it's important to consider features of the law that Americans now like. Those, in West's words, would include: allowing children up age 26 to be covered by a parent's plan, outlawing discrimination based on "pre-existing conditions" and expanding drug coverage, aka closing the "donut hole."

For those paying attention, West's remarks amount to a tiny incendiary device going off beneath the skullcap, as West is one of the beneficiaries of the Tea Party "insurrection" and probably best known for saying that more than 80 Congressional Democrats are members of the Communist Party (they're progressives, but that's the same thing, right?). He and other Tea Party conservatives (libertarians mostly) won office by slamming "Obamacare" as evil socialism, and now, here he is, saying, well, some of that socialism is kinda sorta OK.

Unsurprisingly, West is up for re-election, as are many other Congressional Republicans (the House has two-year terms). And some of them, even among the GOP's leadership, are saying privately that Obamacare ain't all that bad. This has inspired worry among ideologues and swift reprimand from conservative groups like FreedomWorks, which demands that none of the law be re-packaged. Ever. FreedomWorks and others scare the bejesus out of Republicans because of the cyclical threat of primaries. They recently gave the boot to Indiana's Dick Lugar. He was the Senate's longest serving member.

This puts the entire party in a position that perhaps only presidential candidate Mitt Romney can fully appreciate. As he turns his attention to the general election and starts courting mainstream "swing" voters, Romney must constantly protect his right flank from trumped up charges of being a RINO (Republican in name only). Same for House Republicans. They must appeal to mainstream voters who are only now warming up to the health care law while ducking the ire of the conservative power elite.

The irony is that the power elite is hoping to elect candidates of dubious electability. The more ideological they are, the less likely Americans are to vote for him. Americans are pragmatists first, ideologues second. Fixing the problem is more important than who's right, and the problem is so clearly that health care costs too much (it grew at twice the general rate of inflation).

The other irony is that the power elite, by backing candidates of dubious electability who themselves parrot the power elite's missives of misinformation, are setting themselves up for failure. They have manufactured an entirely self-contained world of delusion and hysteria that has no application to real-world issues. That is, they aren't offering solutions unless you count preserving the status quo as a solution, and Americans, despite our abundant confusion, know that the status quo is not sustainable.

The next couple of months are going to be a doozy for the radicalised Republican Party. Either it navigates this political mine field, repudiates the propagandists or gives itself entirely to the theatre of the absurd, in which case we may really be witnessing a party eating itself. Fun!

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney smiles as he is introduced during a campaign rally at Somers Furniture on May 29, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle