Frum on the Republican Kamikaze Plan

With a government shutdown here and the internecine battles in the Republican party reaching a fever pitch, David Frum tries, as so many others have, to be a voice of reason in the GOP. But as he correctly notes, this has little hope of succeeding because the extreme right tail is now wagging the Republican dog.

All in all, it’s hard to see any positive outcome emerging for Republicans from this confrontation. Yet the party is charging forward anyway. Why?

The short answer is a breakdown in the party’s ability to govern itself. It can’t think strategically. Even when pressed to do something overwhelmingly likely to end in disaster, as this shutdown looks likely to do for Republicans, the party has no way to stop itself. It stumbles into fights it cannot win, gets mad, and then in its anger lurches into yet another fight that ends in yet another loss.

Republicans who want to fight smarter are called squishes; Republicans who wish to fight less are called RINOs—and both have been hunted pretty near to extinction. Instead of effective opposition, we see those doomed spasms. And out of these spasms, Obamacare looks sturdier than ever—and any hope of negotiating to fix its worst elements seemingly further out of reach than ever.

This is always the problem with extremists and zealots: Purity is the only thing that matters to them. Not intelligence or thoughtfulness or good strategy, just ideological purity. And anyone who dares suggest otherwise is dismissed as a weak-kneed appeaser. That same dynamic plays out in almost every large idea-based movement (including atheism, quite often).

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About Ed Brayton

After spending several years touring the country as a stand up comedian, Ed Brayton tired of explaining his jokes to small groups of dazed illiterates and turned to writing as the most common outlet for the voices in his head. He has appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Thom Hartmann Show, and is almost certain that he is the only person ever to make fun of Chuck Norris on C-SPAN.

  • Set Kouwenhoven

    This is why the only ideology I’m comfortable espousing is that of blanket skepticism toward every ideology.

  • Set Kouwenhoven

    Except that ideology.

  • Raging Bee

    And why did the GOP fall so squarely under the control of its most extreme factions in the first place? Because the “moderate” establishment turned out not to have jack shit to offer..

    Seriusly, take away the extreme-right social-economic agenda, and what do the GOP have left? Nothing but a bunch of naysaying that was proven wrong decades ago. Anticommunism? The fall of the USSR wasn’t the new Heaven on Earth they told us to expect (and their tougher, more realistic foreign policy didn’t help as much as it could have). The big military buildup? Wrong war. Tax and spending cuts? They’ve been an unmitigated disaster since 1981. Deregulation? Even worse. Monetarism? No one even uses that word anymore. Standing tall and getting tough on America’s enemies? We gave them lots of chances to do that, and it’s done us more damage than any commie-coddling surrender-monkey ever could. That’s why all those bold brave neocons are now in hiding, leaving the libertarians to preen about on the shoulders of their donors/clients and pretend they’re the mature, rational advocates of “fiscal responsibility.”

  • fifthdentist

    It’s like the people who thought it was a good idea to use the Hell’s Angels as security at Altamont were thinking: “What’s the worst thing that could happen? They’re dirty, have long hair and love drugs; they’ll get on great with the hippies.”

    But here, the idea was that it was OK to invite rabid weasels on crack into your political party because they’re biting your enemies. And then you’re surprised when they start biting you and keep acting like rabid weasels on crack.

  • holytape

    I don’t mind the republicans kamikazing it. But can’t they get their own private plane?

  • mattand

    Every time I see some conservative like Frum bemoan what the GOP has become, I just laugh and think “Well, you helped create this monster. What the fuck did you think was going to happen?”

  • eric

    And why did the GOP fall so squarely under the control of its most extreme factions in the first place? Because the “moderate” establishment turned out not to have jack shit to offer..

    It would be nice for liberals if this were true; if the GOP’s current problems were a result of a fundamentally flawed and unstable moderate conservative political platform. If that were the case, the Dems could expect many fat years far into the future.

    Alas, I don’t think its true. I think the problems are much more historically narrow; we have a black president who some bigots will go to any lengths to reject, and he has passed the first atttempt at a national healthcare policy, which has not yet been implemented. I think both of these reasons for extremism will dry up relatively quickly; Obama must leave office in 2016, and once the ACA goes into effect (and has none of the dire consequences the extremists claim), there won’t be as much constituent political will to eliminate it. Ten years from now, the mainstream GOP will be back in control and the tea partiers will by merely symbolic – politicians will say they are tea partiers but pass laws like mainstream politicians. And it will be because bigotry will no longer be driving opposition to the president and because once people actually get healthcare, they tend to like it. Even conservatives. You watch – in ten years, you’ll see people from the conservative base will be waving banners insisting the government not put a hand on their ACA care, the same way they did with medicare a few years ago.

  • dickspringer

    People like Frum should read about the German businessmen who in the 1920′s thought that Hitler would be a useful tool in fighting communists, or about the CIA who thought the Taliban would be useful in fighting the Russians. Hired guns can turn their guns on their employers.

  • robertfaber

    The drum of “both sides do it” or “pox on both houses” is driving me nuts, because it’s utter bullshit. The GOP isn’t going to lose as many voters as they should over this, because the media is busy playing it’s he said, she said game, and “their media” is in full blame Obama mode. The tea party has plenty of lemmings willing to follow them right over the cliff.

  • scienceavenger

    Eric – wait until we have a female president..

  • howardhershey

    The reason for the extreme wing-nuttery of the Republican Party has to do with the unintended consequences of a ‘populist’ primary system for candidate selection in a system rigged to contain only two parties in winner-take-all contests (where are the extremists to go to have any impact?) combined with computer-generated districting designed to minimize competition. That it has been primarily (but not only) the Republican Party that has become more extreme has a lot to do with money and media. But there remains a need for a ‘good’ conservative party that questions expenditures yet also recognizes a real need for governance and “the general welfare” (a phrase occurring twice in the Constitution).

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The tea party created an existential threat to America, not Obamacare

    Justin Holbrook, another “common-sense Republican” who has just realised that the Tea Party is driving the clown car.

  • Raging Bee

    It would be nice for liberals if this were true…

    What part of my thesis is false?

    I think the problems are much more historically narrow; we have a black president who some bigots will go to any lengths to reject, and he has passed the first atttempt at a national healthcare policy, which has not yet been implemented.

    Where have you been? The extremists have been gaining power within the GOP since the 1990s, long before anyone had even heard of Obama.

  • laurentweppe

    “Well, you helped create this monster. What the fuck did you think was going to happen?”

    They believe that THEY unlike every over generation who came before could tame extremists and turn them into obedient guard dogs for the upper-class assets.

    There’s one very important historical lesson that virtually no one bother to learn: the “usefull idiots” are never uncouth extremists who end up being manipulated by the educated elite: the usefull idiots are always the moderates who arrogantly believed they could outsmart the extremists and make them dance to their tune.

  • colnago80

    The takeover of the Rethuglican Party by the teabaggers reminds me of the old saw, he who mounts the tiger cannot dismount.

  • whheydt

    Re: scienceavenger @ #10:

    Heh… Wait ’til we have a Black/Hispanic female lesbian President..

  • DaveL

    And why did the GOP fall so squarely under the control of its most extreme factions in the first place? Because the “moderate” establishment turned out not to have jack shit to offer..

    I’d say rather that the they turned out not to have anything worthwhile that the Democrats haven’t already successfully co-opted as their own.

  • wscott

    @ Raging Bee: The other piece is that starting with Clinton the Democrats moved towards the center and co-opted many of the moderate GOP’s ideas, good an bad. Welfare reform comes to mind, as does (less good) the drug war and the surveillance state. Hell, even Obamacare started its life as a Republican idea! The GOP has had to swing to the fringe to come up with anything that distinguishes themselves from those evil libs.

  • aaronbaker

    An old problem. Here’s Thucydides on civil strife in Greece in the first years of the Peloponnesian War:

    Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries.

  • caseloweraz

    It’s like the people who thought it was a good idea to use the Hell’s Angels as security at Altamont were thinking: “What’s the worst thing that could happen? They’re dirty, have long hair and love drugs; they’ll get on great with the hippies.”

    That’s not the best analogy, fifthdentist. I happened to read some accounts of that event, and it seems the Hell’s Angel was challenged by a rabid fan with a knife who was trying to get onto the stage.

  • exdrone

    If you really want to depress yourself, watch an old Firing Line debate between William F Buckley Jr and Christopher Hitchens from 1984 called “Is There a Liberal Crack-up?” It’s a debate between Left and Right ideologies in the time of Reagan, but the point is that the arguments are intellectual, the debaters are respectful, the language is erudite, the points are thought-provoking, the point-counter-point is quick, the banter is witty. Yes, these are gifted speakers, but we have sunk so low in compare this to the Left vs Right discourse today. Even the right-wing nutjob on the show, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr, speaks eloquently by comparison to his peers today. We have lost so much.

  • grumpyoldfart

    …the extreme right tail is now wagging the Republican dog.

    Surely they can’t be surprised. It is standard procedure for extremists to infiltrate moderate organisations and then stack the meetings in order to get their agenda accepted.

    The extremists bring large sums of cash and lots of energetic workers into the party and the moderates pompously assume that they can accept those benefits and still keep the zealots under control – but history shows that zealots cannot be controlled.

  • Michael Heath

    wscott writes:

    The other piece is that starting with Clinton the Democrats moved towards the center . . .

    The move to the center had Democrats arriving there in the Carter presidency. In both his term and during Reagan’s, Democrats strongly supported both fiscal and monetary policies that are considered friendly to fiscal conservatism, i.e., beating down inflation, even at the expense of jobs and growth. In this very important aspect, Paul Volcker is not only the exemplar Democrat, but remains so even today.

    And there was a battle, plenty of liberals who reviewed themselves as Keynesians, (though they were so only in recessionary times), objected to Volcker’s policies in the late-70s and early-80s. But Volcker’s policies became those supported by those Democrats wielding power in the Congress and by 1984, it defined Mondale’s presidential candidacy and does to this day, e.g., Obama’ arguing for an 83/17 split on spending cuts and tax hikes.

    Yes inflation was very bad in the late-70s/early-80s so it was understandable Democrats would largely support attacking inflation (and therefore increasing investment) at the expense of growth and jobs. But even in 1984 and during the H.W. Bush era when we killed off harmful inflation, Democrats in Congress remained fiscal conservatives by prioritizing deficit reduction over growth-focused spending.

    It always stuns me when people claim they vote for Republicans because they’re fiscal conservatives. Such claims reveal these people are ignorant in regards to what fiscal conservatism actually is, and that the GOP in no way even remotely promotes fiscal conservatism, but instead austerity when out of power and drunken spending and tax cut binges when in power. Especially given the demonstrated success Democrats have had promoting and practicing fiscal conservatism going on five decades.

    I’m not a fiscal conservative, but instead promote maximum expansion without risking inflation, where I’m biased far more towards job growth than inflation. So I’m not promoting the Democrats here, I think they’re wrong, e.g., we’d have been far better spending and investing in the labor market in the early-90s vs. working towards achieving a short-lived budget surplus. In that era the liberal Bob Reich was right, where fiscal conservatives Bob Rubin / Larry Summers were wrong.

  • Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion

    To have the belief that one can “tame the extremists” one must recognise people as extremists in the first place, and that’s the elephant in the room here. They don’t see the wingnuts as extremists, they see people with strongly held beliefs. And right-wingers love that, so long as those beliefs are deeply conservative. Traditional values! Traditional family! Traditional economics! In short, they simply took in a group they thought was ideologically purer than the current crop of party supporters, and got swallowed up by the stupid.

    The Nazi party was ideologically pure. People voted them in because they looked like anti-comunist allies with strongly-held beliefs. The CIA and Taliban thing – they looked like allies against whoever the CIA wanted dead in that region… with strongly-held beliefs. Look at any violently destructive, militaristic, authoritatian regime and I’m willing to put money on there being support from less extreme ideologists looking for ideologically pure allies in a fight.

    So, here we go again. Just hope this one doesn’t get so violent. :|

  • stubby

    I see the republicans are trying to shift the blame to democrats by passing individual funding bills for veterans care, to keep the national parks open, and something about Washington DC. Eric Cantor was on CNN and he just couldn’t believe democrats would vote against funding programs for veterans. Unbelievable.

  • eric

    WScott @18 – don’t forget environmentalism. In the ’70s, Nixon supported it to the point of starting the EPA. Now its considered leftist. Its a very strange dance; there seem to be many ideas for which bipartisan agreement is inherently unstable. If one party supports an idea, the other must choose not to, even if the idea is good and they both started from a point of agreeing with it.

    Bee @13: are you seriously claiming that the tea party movement is not in part driven by bigotry towards Obama? And you ask me where *I* have been?

  • dingojack

    Gather around children and let old uncle Dingo tell you a story….

    Once upon a time (well Nov ’72 to be a little more precise) Australia voted in it’s first Labor Party Government in almost 20 yeas (from memory) under it’s dynamic young leader Gough Witlam.

    One of the pieces of legislation they bought in was a grand new health insurance scheme called Medicare. The way it worked was that everyone paid a 1.5% levy from their wages into a centralised pool run by the government. If you got sick or injured the fund paid for most of the expenses. It was means-tested and didn’t pay for elective procedures.

    The conservatives thought it would bankrupt the country, cause hyperinflation and lead to mass unemployment.

    Guess what happened to Medicare.


    The next (Liberal) PM, Malcolm Fraser signed it into law, and now no government would dare scrap it (not unless they wanted to commit electoral suicide anyway).

    There are 7 billion stories in the naked planet, most them aen’t American. (Too bad you won’t listen and learn).

    Now off to bed with ya. And no fighting.


  • dingojack

    And for the PoG the verse for today is Hosea 8;7.

    For they have sown the wind,

    and they shall reap the whirlwind:

    it hath no stalk:

    the bud shall yield no meal:

    if so be it yield,

    the strangers shall swallow it up.


  • Doug Little

    Eric – wait until we have a female president..

    Please, please can this be the case. The misogynist’s on the right are gonna go berserk, it will be comedy gold and keep Jon Stewart, and John Oliver when he eventually takes over, in a job.

  • caseloweraz

    @Dingojack (#27):

    Well done! You should see the nutty comments on the Guardian’s opinion piece about the shutdown — full of passionate sincerity and almost empty of facts.