Saturday, December 8, 2012

The psychology of defeat in the GOP

Here's a great article by Jonathan Chait, who's long been one of my favorite columnists, about the psychology of defeat in the Republican Party, after the recent election.

He begins by noting their exuberance a year ago:
In the summer of 2011, the conservative world was filled with giddy triumphalism. Through sheer determination, spurning all compromises, the GOP had turned the once-symbolic debt ceiling vote into a profitable hostage-taking opportunity. Even as Democrats controlled the White House and half of Congress, they had forced Democrats to accept more than a trillion dollars of domestic spending cuts, with no new revenue at all.

Republicans gloried in the weakness of Obama’s negotiating style. “He was, as he said, bluffing,” smirked Paul Ryan. “It may be blackmail. But it is progress,” gloated Charles Krauthammer. Ross Douthat, in a tone not of triumph but actual concern, persuasively explained that Obama’s unwillingness to hold a strong line on taxes made any compromise impossible:
Much of the Republican “intransigence” and “hostage-taking” and “terrorism” that they deplore is a direct consequence of the fact that Republicans assume that Democrats will always, always, cave on taxes. And so long as that assumption keeps getting vindicated by events, there’s no incentive for the G.O.P. to accede to sweeping compromises on deficit reduction. Why would you compromise with a party that won’t actually fight for the revenues required to pay for the programs it claims to want to protect?

Now, let me back up a bit. Remember, this was the 'Party of No.' They'd been crushed in 2008, after eight years of Republican rule had been one disaster after another for America, ending in the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression - and resulting in the election of our first black president.

The Republican Party was devastated by their defeat, just like they are today. Political pundits questioned whether the GOP could even survive George W. Bush. So, although I'm enjoying it, I can't get carried away by their weeping and wailing now. We just went through all this, less than four years ago.

Back then, despite an economic collapse that looked to have no bottom, rapidly increasing unemployment, and a devastating drop in American living standards, Republicans declared that their #1 job was... defeating Barack Obama in 2012. So they dug in their feet, determined to do nothing that would help get our economy moving again - or that would give President Obama any successes at all.

And it worked, at least at first. The economy stabilized, but stayed in bad shape. And two years later, Republicans were again riding high, stomping the Democrats in the 2010 elections and taking back the House of Representatives. Convinced they could keep our economy in the toilet, they were enthusiastically looking forward to the 2012 presidential election.

So, yes, in 2011, they were still riding that wave of enthusiasm, even going so far as to damage America's top credit rating, for the first time in our history, which put the recovery off for months, at the very least.

As Chait points out, Barack Obama had proven to be a Republican doormat. House Speaker John Boehner bragged about getting 98% of what he wanted in their negotiations. In the Republican presidential primaries, all of the candidates insisted that they wouldn't compromise with the Democrats, even if they got nine times what the Dems got out of the deal.

Now me, I was frustrated, not so much because Obama felt he had to give Republicans what they wanted, in order to keep our economy from completely tanking, but because he wouldn't stand up and even try to fight. He wouldn't even argue our side, instead adopting Republican talking points. He wouldn't use that great bully pulpit of the presidency. And he was such a poor negotiator that he'd start off by offering Republicans half of what they wanted and then "compromise" by giving them the rest of it.

For progressives, that was the low point. And I'm still not convinced that Barack Obama has learned his lesson, not yet. I'm waiting for results. (And I'm waiting for Senate Democrats to finally reform the filibuster!)

Still, the recent election has strengthened the president's hand. Again, Republicans are weeping and wailing. (But as I say, I'm not counting on that continuing.) The Bush tax cuts are expiring, if Congress does nothing (something Congress is very good at doing). And the Democrats in Congress have a very strong hand (not that they're ever very willing to play such a hand, even when it's very strong - witness, again, the 2010 elections).

So, I'm still very cautious. But President Obama is standing firm, so far. How's that going over?
Now Obama is taking this advice and actually forcing Republicans to negotiate rather than just roll him. The range of reactions on display is fascinating...

For sheer impotent rage, you cannot top Charles Krauthammer’s column today. That Krauthammer is a trained psychiatrist, not to mention perhaps the most influential conservative pundit in America, makes his display of incoherent sputtering pique all the more mesmerizing. It is a document that truly rewards close study.

You can read Krauthammer's column yourself, if you want, or the rest of Jonathan Chait's analysis of it. I've blogged enough about this stuff recently, both the reaction to Obama's proposal and the Republican counter-proposal. But it seems to me that Republicans are working up to more of that 'Party of No' stuff which (1) has kept the economy in the toilet, and (2) was just soundly rejected by the American people.

I don't know how that's going to work for them, but it definitely won't be good for America. Now, they don't have any leverage when it comes to taxes, since taxes on the rich are going up. That's already the law, and it's really hard to see how Republicans can change that, no matter what they do.

But they might be able to collapse our economy once more, if they hold firm about this and hold the debt ceiling hostage again. And they might just be crazy enough to do it, too. Well, that's the reason why paying ransom to hostage-takers is so dangerous. When that kind of behavior is rewarded, they tend to do more of it.

I love seeing Republicans in defeat - their histrionics, their hair-pulling, their hysterics. The psychology of defeat when it comes to conservatives is... quite entertaining. But also, admittedly, dangerous. Still, Republicans in defeat aren't nearly as dangerous as Republicans triumphant, not even close.

I'll leave you with the last part of Chait's analysis, which sums things up pretty well:
Krauthammer concludes his rant by urging Republicans to insist on extending every penny of the Bush tax cuts. (Apparently this will prove that they, and not Obama, are serious about deficits.) Krauthammer barely deals with the obstacles to such a course that have dissuaded the GOP. Conservatives tend to cherish tribal unity and strength, and Krauthammer is appealing to these traits at an almost primal level. His argument centers on the symbolism of humiliation and strength. He claims that Obama wants Republicans “neutered” and employs a metaphor about Republicans keeping their trousers, the symbolic import of which I’ll leave unanalyzed here, and concludes with a rousing call:
Most important of all, however, Republicans will still be in possession of their unity, their self-respect — and their trousers.

Unity! Self-respect! Trousers! A fitting approach indeed for negotiations over the federal budget.

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