Know-Nothings And The Debt Crisis

I've been meaning to follow up on my political-science-wonk brother's post last week at Greg Sargent's Plum Line, and this seems like a good time; if you stick with me, I will get around to an explanation of what was going on with John Boehner's speech last night, and where I think things are at with the DC debt crisis. So bear with me.

In his post, Jon provided recent reported anecdotes that indicate how removed from reality many GOP congressmen are -- not in terms of policy or history or science, but in terms of politics and governing.

The stories concern the "Cut, Cap, and Balance" bill the House passed, which, aside from any substantive flaws, was, from the get-go, obviously just a symbolic sop to the conservative base. It had no chance whatsoever of passing in the Senate, let alone being signed by the President.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. It can actually be good for the process -- they get to show their base that they tried to do the right thing, but it was politically impossible, so they had to go along with a compromise.

The problem is that apparently many of the Republican congressmen did not understand that this is what was happening. As Jon notes, the Senate ultimately brought the bill to the floor, just to show that it would fail, because apparently the morons in the House were actually unwilling to believe there was, in fact, a need to compromise because, you know, Cut, Cap & Balance could pass.

And even when they did vote it down in the Senate, apparently at least two fairly important Republicans, Jason Chaffetz and Jim Jordan, still thought that CCB was alive and well, merely tabled, and thus perhaps on the verge of victory if the right kept up the pressure. Which would mean they saw the Senate vote as a disincentive to compromise.

It's always a little depressing for me to discover that high-level insider-type people, who I assume know better, actually believe their side's obviously bogus spin. Happens fairly often, sad to say, on both sides of the aisle and sometimes even among bright people. I see it more often on campaigns, which is more understandable I think -- there's such a psychological need to believe that the polling is skewed, or there is a legitimate reason for some flaw in the candidate's record, or that negative reporting is biased, or whatever.

But these House Republicans.... man oh man. It's depressing, but it's not surprising. As I've written many times over the past six years or so, the movement-conservative marketplace has so warped the Republican electorate that primaries reward real know-nothings -- again, not just about policy substance, but about the basic workings of government. That has resulted in a steady influx of know-nothings winning solid Red districts, where the primary winner got a free pass. Then in the 2010 wave election, a whole swarm of them got in. (For you Massachusetts folks, consider that Bill Hudak could easily be a member of Congress right now, had things gone a little differently.)

For some time -- say, the Gingrich-DeLay years -- most of the actual congressmen and their staffs had been there long enough to know the difference between the nonsense they were saying and the actual truth. For example, they know that it's not important for congressmen to actually read bills per se.

You might think that, once actually in Congress, these representatives would learn how things work -- and at least learn to believe what people like Boehner explain to them. But a great many of them are, really truly, completely ensconced in the bubble of the conservative-movement marketplace. They really believe that ACORN is a great malevolent force in American elections, and that Planned Parenthood is a eugenics operation, and that George Soros is behind everything. And they simply shun as unreliable anything that disagrees with their truths -- whether the New York Times, or Gallup, or the OMB, or even their own Speaker.

Or Harvard. What my brother's post really made me think of was something I reported back in December, after the 2010 elections (in the paper here, and with a relevant follow-up post here): that only 16 of the 83 newly-elected Republican members of congress were attending the Congressional Issues Conference of the Institute of Politics (IOP) at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

That conference is completely non-partisan (in fact, co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation), and serves to give the Washington newcomers a crash course in, essentially, how to be a member of congress -- the rules, procedures, and resources, as well as the current policy debates. Usually a majority of freshmen come; Boehner did.

Now, there are some competing programs -- including some run by outright conservative-movement-marketplace organizations. I don't know how many of the Republican freshmen did attend those, or exactly what they were told if they went, but I doubt it was helpful in breaking any of them out of their isolation from reality.

This leads me to last night, when John Boehner gave a speech that contained political spin type of rhetoric that he surely knows is not true. Many in his caucus, however, believe that it is true.

You see, there is no stalemate in Congress. The House has passed a bill to raise the debt limit with bipartisan support. And this week, while the Senate is struggling to pass a bill filled with phony accounting and Washington gimmicks, we will pass another bill -- one that was developed with the support of the bipartisan leadership of the U.S. Senate.

Obviously, I expect that bill can and will pass the Senate, and be sent to the President for his signature. If the President signs it, the 'crisis' atmosphere he has created will simply disappear. The debt limit will be raised. Spending will be cut by more than one trillion dollars, and a serious, bipartisan committee of the Congress will begin the hard but necessary work of dealing with the tough challenges our nation faces.

The first reference is to CCB, and it's noteworthy that although he spoke a fair amount about it, Boehner never said in his speech that it failed in the Senate -- he sounds, in fact, as though he's talking about a real bill that could still become law. The "another bill" is the new Boehner plan, and because Boehner is not a dunce I do not believe he actually expects it to pass the Senate.

He could be saying this as a ploy to convince the public that it's the Democrats who are being unreasonable. But I think otherwise.

I think Boehner is desperately trying to do two things: A) hold onto his speakership, and B) raise the debt ceiling before default. Unfortunately, he needs the know-nothings to stick with him for the first goal, and they will turn against him if they think he conceded unnecessarily for the second one.

I'm pretty sure Boehner's only path is to convince the know-nothings that the House really, truly, has no choice but to pass something like the McConnell plan (or perhaps the Reid plan, or some combination), with limited cuts and placing symbolic blame on Obama for raising the debt ceiling.

Nothing so far has convinced those know-nothings, however. So now, Boehner is trying to go through the charade one more time to demonstrate that there really is no possibility of passing a total shred-the-government deficit-reduction bill -- this time, with Eric Cantor on board. (Cantor, the congressional know-nothing leader, uses know-nothingism politically but is not actually a know-nothing; and yes, he attended the Harvard conference as a freshman.) They will pass this last-ditch, try-one-more-time bill, the Senate will reject it, and then (they hope) the know-nothings will believe Boehner and Cantor and agree to something that actually can raise the debt ceiling.

But here's what Boehner's dealing with: even with Cantor on board, the know-nothings are threatening to reject the Boehner plan themselves. In fact, none other than Chaffetz and Jordan announced yesterday afternoon that they will vote no on it. Jordan said that he believes -- you guessed it -- that House Republican leadership should continue pushing for passage of CCB.

If more know-nothings follow suit, the Boehner plan fails in the House, and you've got a House stuck with the belief that they don't need to accept any compromise solutions coming from the Senate because if they just hold firm the corpse of CCB will save the day.

So I think that Boehner's speech last night was, in large part, directed specifically at the know-nothings in his caucus and their know-nothing base supporters (he reportedly discussed the plan with Rush Limbaugh before even presenting it to the GOP caucus), trying to convince them to support the new, politically unfeasible, pure kabuki, Boehner plan -- except that he has to pretend that it is feasible; that it is a real, actual plan that they can "expect to pass" the Senate, at which point the pressure on Obama to sign it will be overwhelming and it will become law. So, when the Senate rejects it, maybe they will finally accept reality.

It's depressing, farcical, idiotic... and let's hope it works.

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