As we pass into the second week of the Reign Of The Morons, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Republicans who are running the show are doing so in a manner based on two apparently contradictory dynamics. At this point, with the whole obsessive-compulsive fascination with the Affordable Care Act having waned somewhat, the Republicans are deeply confused as to why they are doing what they are doing to the country. (In this case, I am speaking of those Republicans who can still reach sanity without asking for the area code. The rump faction that's driving the party, of course, has no doubt of what it's doing at all. It believes it's forming up at Stirling Bridge against the forces of Edward Longshanks.) And, at the same time, even if they don't realize it, they're winning.
There should be memos circulating throughout the Executive branch to the effect that, in the current circumstances, anyone who goes about with "entitlement reform" on his lips, should be boiled in his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.
All weekend, the conservative pivot on the shutdown-debt-ceiling-spittlepalooza was consistent and obvious. This is now no longer entirely about the beastly tyranny of Obamacare. Oh, no. This is now about federal spending and about the deficit. Never mind that the deficit is dropping, and that the Democrats are now pleading to return to a level of federal spending below that which even Paul Ryan recommended. The old scarecrows are all coming out in time for Halloween. Poor, befuddled John Cornyn tried to make the case on CBS yesterday. And, on ABC, castrato Speaker Of The House John Boehner made it plain that there would be no movement on his side regarding the debt ceiling unless he gets what he wants in a further reduction of federal spending, and that there would be no tax increases of any kind from his side. He even trotted out the single most threadbare argument of all -- that the government should run its books like "an American family" does. (Sadly, this is a misbegotten trope to which even the president has resorted from time to time.) I am increasingly coming to believe that, for all the talk of how the conservatives have hurtled into a box canyon, it is the administration, bright people all, that may have been euchred into a situation that will truly damage it. After all, if the shutdown ended tomorrow, the sequester would still be in place. Austerity still would be the tacitly agreed upon program for both parties, and Paul Krugman likely still would be drinking before noon. The administration's brilliant eleventy-dimensional chess in 2010 looks more and more like a case of being too smart by half. It created a new reality in which both sides decided that what a country barely out of a devastating recession really needed was some belt-tightening and some fiscal discipline. If the administration really believed that the conservative monkeyhouse elected in 2010 wasn't going to be completely at home in this new reality, then somebody over there needs to be fired.
In the current political context, there was no reason for Jack Lew to go on television yesterday and utter the words "entitlement reform." There should be memos circulating throughout the Executive branch to the effect that, in the current circumstances, anyone who goes about with "entitlement reform" on his lips, should be boiled in his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. (Scrooge is very much on my mind these days. I'm getting a little worried.) Jesus God, entitlement reform? Now? Who is this man negotiating for? There also was no reason for him to talk about "tax reform, closing loopholes," without mentioning that what we really need is a higher top rate, and a financial-transaction tax, and a lot of other things that will make the Wall Street side of the Republican party howl.
For all the talk about how Republican extremism is finally catching up with the party, one can argue just as well that Wall Street-friendly, deficit-hawk, DLC-onomics is finally catching up with the Democratic party. There is no reason in the world now for the Democrats not to trot out a wish-list as long and as detailed as the one the Republicans burped up last week. Every last cut in the sequester agreement should be debated in the Democratic Senate. Medicare For All should get another run around the track. Major stimulative infrastructure programs should be designed. Hell, they should dig up John Maynard Keynes and sit him in the well of the Senate. If the denizens of the monkeyhouse want to gimmick things up with "continuing resolutions" funding those parts of the government that a) poll well, and b) make them look as though they give a rat's ass about poor people -- Tea Party congressmen defending the WIC program? Pull the other one. -- then the Democrats, many of whom actually care about this stuff, should give them a double dose of it in return.
This pivot can still work. The president has demonstrated that he can be brought to a deal if someone properly engages his impulse to be a conciliator. They're never going to be able to do that by asking him to chloroform the Affordable Care Act. But if they start talking about the deficit, they can get him to listen. If he starts to think about bipartisanship and about problem-solving, and about the rosy dream he painted in his famous 2004 speech at the Democratic convention, a speech that now sounds as though it were delivered by a five-year old, then he can convince himself to do anything. At which point, I will believe that, in doing what he did when he did it, Ted Cruz is the smartest man alive. And I do not, under any circumstances, want to believe that.