I think I may be ready to retreat to my cocoon to read trashy books and watch baseball and reruns of NCIS before my head explodes from trying to make sense of what is going on out there.
Yesterday, Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker had a little anecdote from my Congressperson, Mike Capuano.
…Capuano said he was in an airport last weekend flying home from Washington when a TSA screener stopped him and said, “You really need to cut our taxes!” Capuano was incredulous to hear that from a federal employee, though he probably shouldn’t have been.
“I asked him, ‘Do you know taxes pay your salary?’ ” Capuano said with a laugh.
I wish I knew what the silly TSA screener said then. It is an example of how divorced from reality so many people are. Maybe we should expand the shut down to include furloughs for half of the screeners. This would cut flights so many of the members of Congress would have trouble getting home. I don’t think this would be a bad thing. Maybe if they stayed in Washington more, they would figure out how to talk to each other informally over a beer. That could only help. Maybe some of them would get a grip on reality.
As I was getting ready to write this, I Googled both “Republican Alternate Reality” and “Republican Alternate Universe”. Turns out people have been writing about the topic for a number of years now. It is one thing to talk sans facts, but another to act. And what is happening now is the action that they have all wanted: a government shutdown. I think they are hoping that a few weeks without government will show people they can live without it. Maybe a good plan except that there are already Republicans complaining that monuments in Washington are closed so veterans can’t visit them. Duh!
Back in August 2012 (2012 not 2013), Michael Cohen wrote a piece in the Guardian about the Presidential campaign. If you recall, they had a slogan “You didn’t build that”.
On 17 July, President Barack Obama spoke at a campaign rally in Roanoke, Virginia. It was a typical event for an incumbent president who is seeking a second term. In his remarks, he offered his vision of government’s role in spurring entrepreneurship and creating jobs in the United States:
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet.”
This is all fairly boilerplate rhetoric – a basic recitation of how Democrats view the role of government and its interplay with the private sector. But in this statement, there was one phrase that Republicans have grabbed on to like a famished dog with a new bone:
“You didn’t build that.”
That single phrase, taken out of context by Republicans, has become the GOP’s symbol of Obama’s supposed contempt for the free market and entrepreneurship, and for his socialist assault on America.
The Affordable Care Act is a prime example of government overreach and socialism even though it is built on private insurance companies.
“You didn’t build that” became “We built that”
And so, the Republicans made “We built that” the theme of Tuesday’s convention proceedings. Speaker after speaker hammered on this theme, accusing Obama of disrespecting small business. But they did so with almost a wilful sense of hypocrisy. For example, Delaware lieutenant governor candidate Sher Valenzuela attacked Obama for the line despite the fact that, just a few months ago, she gave a detailed speech to a business group about how they could do a better job getting government contracts.
Cohen goes on to detail a number of instances where the speakers at the Republican Convention ignored facts and concludes
But all of this is at pace with a conservative worldview that considers government to be nothing more than malevolent interference with the smooth operation of the private sector – except when it’s not. “Jobs don’t come from government,” said Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz last night, a view that basically sums up GOP economic thinking. But if you listened to Republican governors on Tuesday, you might have found yourself surprised to discover that, in their states, the government has played an oddly integral role in spurring job creation. If you listened to Mary Fallin, governor of Oklahoma, extol the virtues of the energy industry in her state and bemoan “more government, bigger spending and more regulation”, you might never know that the oil and gas industry is deeply reliant on – and spends millions lobbying for – tax breaks from the federal government.
One can believe that government should play a less direct role in the workings of the private economy – clearly, this is a defensible notion. But to listen to Republicans harping on Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line is to hear a party that views “government” in the most simplistic imaginable terms. This isn’t a governing philosophy; it’s a caricature of how the economy actually works.
To be sure, it’s hardly unusual for political rhetoric to take liberties with the truth, or to stretch an argument to breaking-point, but with Republicans today, the issues runs much deeper. Very simply, the way they talk about what the federal government does or should do, and about the role of spending, taxation and regulation, is more than just a compendium of lies: it describes an alternate reality.
In the GOP’s defense: at least they can argue they built that.
So now they have shutdown the federal government which was a goal all along. They built it. And in their alternate universe, President Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership should negotiate with them. Nancy Pelosi has tried to explain what she calls “regular order”: The Senate passes a bill. Then the House passes one. Then there is a conference committee. Budget bills were passed back in March, but the House declined to appoint members to a conference committee. Contrary to what some members of Congress seem to believe there are rules and conventions as to how to proceed.
Gail Collins has a response in the New York Times.
On Wednesday, House Republicans pushed to refund bits and pieces of the government that the members particularly like, such as veterans and the National Guard. Also anything that lends itself to a dramatic press conference, such as national parks and cancer treatment for children. Since the House proposals are never going anywhere in the Senate, there’s a limit to what you want to know about what went on during the debate. Let’s summarize:
Democrats: “Meaningless political theater!”
Republicans: “Come to the table!”
Coming to the table has now replaced strangling Obamacare as the most popular G.O.P. war cry. There is a longstanding political rule that when all else fails, you demand more talking. If you’re running for office against a guy who’s got 70 percent in the polls, it’s time to call for a debate. If you’re already having four debates, it’s time to call for six.
“Why don’t we sit down and have a conference committee about how we’re going to fund the federal government?” demanded Representative Ander Crenshaw of Florida. Republicans have posed this question a lot, and it would be an excellent one if they were not the same folks who have spent the last half-year refusing to sit down and have a conference committee about the federal budget.
Representative John A. Boehner, the House speaker, arrived at the Capitol on Thursday with his security personnel on the third day of the government shutdown.
I’ll give the final word on reality to Elizabeth Kolbert in her New Yorker posted this morning.
…Shuttering the government is a dumb idea under pretty much any circumstances. Still, the objections that Republicans in Congress raise to the health-care law might be worth considering if they bore any relationship to the law in question. Rarely do they.
Some lawmakers’ comments have been so off the wall that they defy parody. A few months ago, for example, Representative Michele Bachmann announced on the House floor that Obamacare needed to be repealed “before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens.”
“Let’s not do that,” she added helpfully. “Let’s love people.”
“All of this would be funny,” President Obama noted the other day, after bringing up the Bachmann line, “if it weren’t so crazy.”
The crazy list goes on and on. As the economist Paul Krugman has repeatedly pointed out in his Times column, congressional Republicans these days seem to think that they can override not just the laws of physics but also the rules of arithmetic. They insist that the federal budget is so bloated it could easily be cut by hundreds of billions of dollars. But when a transportation bill was drafted this summer that would have actually reduced spending, they refused to vote for it. (The bill had to be pulled from the floor.) It’s hard to cut the federal budget if you’re not willing to reduce the amount of money the government spends. “What Republicans really want to do,” Krugman wrote recently, is “repeal reality.”
It’s been so long since reality has made much of a difference on Capitol Hill that it sometimes seems it genuinely has been repealed. But the thing you can always count on with reality is that it has staying power.
I hope I can hold out until reality and fact make a comeback.
Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times