In Defense of Obstructionism

When Rush Limbaugh declared, shortly after the election, “I want Obama to fail,” he received a righteous round of condemnation from many people, Left and otherwise.  In a moment of financial peril, some said, in the midst of two wars, we should all hope that President Obama succeeds.  We should all help him to succeed.  Indeed, in the “hope and change” era, Rush’s brand of strident partisanship seemed like an anachronism.

In the rush to condemn Rush, there was no time for nuance.  Even the Republican leadership — remember that Obama was at soaring heights of popularity at the time — was forced to speak disapprovingly of what Rush had said.

Liberals like to present themselves as the guardians of nuance.  Many conservatives like to brand themselves as the plain-spoken, common-sense type who are not afraid to call an apple an apple and an orange an orange.  But the truth is that liberals and conservatives just find nuance in different places.  And the only person in that whole discussion who was showing nuance was Rush Limbaugh himself.

If you actually listened to his explanation, Rush was abundantly clear.  He did not want Barack Obama to fail to restore America to a sound government and a flourishing economy.  He wanted Obama to fail at implementing his plans; to fail at transforming America more in the statist direction.  And he wanted Obama to fail at these things because he believed that they would destroy the liberty and economic vitality of the country.  He didn’t want Obama to fail at making America better; he wanted Obama to fail in his objectives, because achieving those objects would make America worse.  It is because he wanted America to succeed that he wanted Obama to fail.

Two years later, Republicans have done everything they could to ensure that Obama failed.  They have stood absolutely united, or almost absolutely united, against every major legislative achievement of the Obama administration.  The stimulus, Obamacare, financial regulatory reform, the cap and trade bill, and on and on.  Jim Atwood in the Santa Fe New Mexican speaks for many progressives when he writes:

Consider both the actions and the rhetoric of the Republican leaders and spokespersons: John McCain, Sarah Palin, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Michael Steele, etc., etc. What constructive steps have any of them taken to deal meaningfully and intelligently with the economy, with financial-sector reform, with health care, with tax reform, with immigration, with our international problems?

Achieving progress on these issues — even limited progress — has not been a priority for any of the Republican leaders. Instead, their first and only priority has been to obstruct any and all efforts by the Obama administration to tackle these problems. And, the Republicans have enthusiastically embraced the unsavory tactics of filibuster, delay, obfuscation, rumor-mongering and outright lying.

The column shows a cartoonish view of the world — good guys vs. bad guys — when it says that Democrats like Reid and Pelosi, whatever their shortcomings, have “more or less tried to do the right thing for the country,” while “the Republicans” have “been single-mindedly driven to prevent progress.”  Rewarding the Republicans at the ballot box next Tuesday, he says, would be tantamount to rewarding obstructionism.

Of course, this is rubbish.  The Republicans are not determined to prevent progress.  They are determined to prevent the Democrats from moving in the direction in which the Democrats want to move — because they believe that movement is regress and not progress.  If you think the opposition party is taking the country in the wrong direction, what else are you supposed to do but obstruct?

Remember, it was not that long ago when the Democrats were being called “the Party of No.”  They stood against social security privatization, denied that there was any crisis in our entitlements system, and Nancy Pelosi, when challenged that the Democrats were offering no constructive proposals of their own, said that it was the Republicans’ job to come up with solutions.  Democrats too were using the same “unsavory” tactics.

The Republicans have offered alternative plans.  The Democrats make a fair point when they say (as the Republicans said a few years ago): it is easy to offer up alternative plans, and easy to make them as idealistic and unrealistic as possible, when you know those plans don’t have an iota of a chance of passing.  But the Republicans make a fair point when they say: the Dem leadership is being about as oppressive of the minority as it is possible to be, not bringing Republicans into the legislative process, preventing them from offering amendments, and so forth.  The Democrats have not made any serious movements in the direction of bipartisanship, and neither have the Republicans.  With an overwhelming majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority (at least for a while) in the Senate, the Democrats have been about as tyrannical with their power as they could possibly be.

On several fundamental issues that confront our country now, the Democrats and the Republicans have diametrically opposed visions of the direction in which the country should move.  If you think the opposition is taking the country in precisely the wrong way, on a path that leads to destruction, aren’t you actually morally compelled to obstruct?  If you cannot convince the opposition to change their minds, then isn’t obstruction, in fact, the principled thing to do?

If a “yes” leads to ruin, then I want to belong to the party of “no.”  And if America agrees with you, they will appreciate your “no” and will — rightly — reward your obstructionism.

I do remember feeling this way toward the Democrats.  All they do is get in the way of fixing the problems we face.  All they do is put up obstacles.  All they do is block the path of progress. I understand that many liberals feels that way of Republicans now.  Now, I absolutely believe that Democrats then and Republicans now are also convinced that it is in their political interests to limit the “achievements” of the other party.  And there were, for instance, Democrats who opposed Bush’s immigration reform because they feared that Repubicans would reap the electoral rewards.  But in most cases, that’s the point.  What one party regards as “achievements,” the other regards as “catastrophes.”  In most cases, they are not just trying to prevent the other party from having an “achievement”; they are trying to prevent the other party from inflicting another travesty upon the nation.

So, some are complaining that the next two years are going to be years of gridlock and obstructionism.  Compared to movement in the wrong direction, gridlock is progress.  I hope that the Republicans and the Democrats are able to come together and forge legislative compromises where those can be found.  But in cases where their visions of what is right for the country are diametrically opposed — raise taxes or lower them, more spending or less, more regulation or less — I expect principled opposition.  I do not expect go-along-to-get-along.

I will pray for President Obama and for all of our political leaders.  Even as they disagree, they can do so in a much more charitable manner than they have.  They must honor the right processes and let both parties offer solutions.  They should speak honestly of one another.

But if Obama wants to lead the country further down a ruinous path, then I say to the Republicans who will probably control the House after Tuesday: Obstruct, baby, obstruct.  Given my belief that this is indeed a ruinous path, could you really ask any different of me?

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • Papa Buckland

    If President Obama can learn to get along like President Clinton did in ’94 then progress can be made. However, there are two reasons this will have a snowball’s chance in Hell of happening. First, Mr. Obama has had no experience working with the opposition that is the majority. Clinton had that experience as Governor of Arkansas. Second, Clinton worked with conservative Republicans who were not “Tea Party” conservatives and after Tuesday they will be a big influence in the coming two years at a minimum. As Mr. Beck has said over and over, “I hope I’m wrong”.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I think Obama is unlikely to be a Clintonian triangulator as well. It’s possible. Of course Obama will not show any signs of compromising until he has to compromise — it’s part of establishing a stronger position from which to negotiate. If he moved to the center even before these midterms, or indicated a willingness to do so, then he will have weakened his negotiating position needlessly from the start.

      But as you point out, there is nothing in Obama’s record to show an aptitude or inclination to compromise and cooperate. Unfortunately Obama’s record was pretty thoroughly ignored in the 2008 election cycle, and his language of unity and post-partisanship was never held up in a critical light against his record. And there are times – as in his recent comments to Hispanics that they should seek to “punish their enemies” when an extremely divisive attitude seems to surface. I also think governors – chief executives of states – have an inherent advantage over legislators. Since Obama was always a legislator, he could always remain as ideological as he wished. He picked a couple issues like nuclear arms control where it is not terribly difficult to form a coalition, but has always been reliably and pretty radically partisan.

      I am prepared to be surprised; I don’t think it’s quite unlikely as some seem to. But I am not hopeful that Obama will tack to the center.

  • Janie Mock

    Hi Timothy, Thank you so much for expounding your (my) position so well. I attended a conference these last 3 days here in Austin on Faith and Science. Most of the speakers were theologians/Christian Scientists. But to add interest to the mix, Dinesh D’Souza was also a speaker. In his plenary talk, he stayed with Christian apologetics. But in his Q&A breakout sessions, he answered questions about his political involvement and in particular his newest book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage. I really believe he has Obama pegged. And with regard to Papa Buckland’s comment….not only does Obama have “no experience working with the opposition”, but in fact, he has no desire to!!

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