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How to Un-Wreck the Train

October 3, 2013

As expected, the federal budget expired on Monday night. No new budget was in place, so most of the government had to shut down.

Everyone knows that the immediate cause of the shut-down is a dispute over Obamacare, which the Democrats want to keep as is and the Republicans want to dismantle – or at least delay, so they can dismantle it later.

But theories about the root source of the Obamacare dispute are many and varied. Tea Partiers and their Republican allies insist that the argument is about protection of Americans from federal overreach, and about keeping their campaign promises. Thomas Friedman says in yesterday’s New York Times that the argument is about whether the United States remains a country of majority rule – whether a minority in one house of Congress can force its will on the rest of the country.

As the son of a psychologist, I tend toward psychological explanations of behavior that otherwise seems to defy logic. My theory in this case is that the argument is about the core legitimacy of the Obama presidency. The background is well known: it dates from the birthers, who contended without benefit of evidence that President Obama was not an American citizen and was therefore not legitimately elected president in 2008.

Having decided that President Obama was not really the president of the United States, the fringe right treated him accordingly. Arizona Governor Jean Brewer wagged her finger in the presidential face, arrogating unto herself the right and the duty to scold the president like a schoolboy. Congressman Joe Wilson accused the president of the United States of lying – shouting the accusation from the floor of the House of Representatives, while the President was speaking. Congressman Joe Barton apologized to the disgraced CEO of BP – apologizing for the President’s vow to hold BP accountable for spilling five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Daily Caller reporter Neil Munro interrupted the President at a press conference to shout questions at him.

Republican leaders publicly made it their top priority to rid the country of President Obama.

Republicans talked themselves into an almost religious belief that Mitt Romney would beat Barack Obama in the 2012 election. They utterly could not believe that Obama would win, now that the Tea Party had arisen to expose his true nature. Obama’s presidency was bogus, his election in 2008 was a fluke, and Romney was pre-destined to unseat him. The polls that showed otherwise were manifestly biased, rigged by liberal media interests to under-sample Republican voters. But the polls were right and Obama did win – and a thumping big electoral victory it was.

Having failed to unseat Obama, Republicans set out to negate his presidency – to defeat his re-election by other means.

Tea Partiers could have chosen any cause for their fight over the budget. In a fight over the budget, you might expect them to pick a cause that had something to do with the actual budget. But they didn’t – they chose a fight over President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

The Tea Partiers’ choice of tactics is similarly revealing – to get their way on Obamacare, they have shut down the government. In other words, if President Obama persists in his illegimate direction of the government, we’ll just take the government away from him. He may still be in charge, but he has nothing left to be in charge of.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see that the budget fight is of a piece with birtherism and the wagging of gubernatorial fingers in Obama’s face. Tea Partiers want to demonstrate what they know, that President Obama was never legitimately and fully the president, and they want their proof to be the undoing of his proudest accomplishment. And when President Obama refused to do as his betters in the Tea Party instructed, they punished him by shutting down his government, sending him to his room without dinner.

I think it’s necessary to understand the psychology of the budget dispute in order to understand how the impasse might be resolved. The dispute can’t be resolved by conventional compromise. President Obama won’t sign off on an agreement that amounts to an admission of illegitimacy, and the Tea Party won’t sign off on an agreement that amounts to an endorsement of Obama’s legitimacy. There is no middle ground.

Short of House Republican surrender, I can see only one way around the impasse, and that is a revolt of moderate Republicans. Tea Partiers have coerced House Speaker John Boehner’s acquiescence in their scheme by the implicit threat they pose to his speakership. If the less extreme House Republicans posed a similar threat, Boehner would have to re-think his position.

Moderate Republicans might revolt if they saw their own re-election chances dropping. They might revolt if the corporate and financial interests that support them – the traditional business wing of the Republican party – made a unified and forceful case for a revolt. And they might revolt if they became convinced that their revolt is necessary to save the country from economic disaster.

Moderates might revolt to cut their losses – in recognition that the party had erred. That revolt would probably require eviction of Boehner from the speaker’s seat, since he was the one who led House Republicans into that error.

The media reports daily that the pressure on moderates is growing. It may take a week or three or more, but the pressure will break something, and my prediction is that the breakage will be moderate Republican loyalty to John Boehner. Certainly Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is doing what he can do to provoke the rebellion. He held fast, rejecting every one of the last-minute House proposals, insisting that the budget bill not mess with Obamacare.

  1. Kathy permalink

    I agree that moderate Republicans have a significant responsibility for leading a way forward, assuming there are still moderates.

    I wonder if there is a reason you don’t mention here the racist underpinnings of the arguments challenging the legitimacy of the Obama presidency. I think racism is enmeshed in the psychological motivations of many Tea Partiers and is the reason for much of the utterly disrespectful rhetoric against him.


    • Thanks, Kathy, for your comment.

      It’s entirely fair to wonder if there still are moderate Republicans, at least among officeholders. Seems like we’re down to maybe three in the Senate, and not all that many more in the House. Still, Republican constituencies include lots of powerful moderates – corporate interests, for example, tend to be relatively indifferent to the social and religious positions espoused by conservatives, and compared to shut-it-down Tea Partiers business interests are moderate indeed.

      Your question about race is also a fair one. I strongly agree that race motivates much of the anti-Obama animus – although I would describe it as prejudice, which often exists subtly and unconsciously, instead of racism, which to my mind is a more fully formed ideology, consciously held.


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