Senator Flake

The former Senator from Arizona speaking at the Union League Club of Chicago's George Washington's Birthday Celebration.
Over the weekend, I went to hear Senator Jeff Flake at the Union League Club. Every February, the club hosts a big dinner to celebrate George Washington’s birthday and invites a guest speaker. This year, Jeff Flake of Arizona spoke. This was the 131st first year the dinner was held.

I believe that whenever one has a chance to see a major public figure, one should take the opportunity.   Flake has just left the Senate after one term but he is definitely presidential material, and I will be surprised if he fails to run for president one day. He faces one major impediment to his ambition, however: at the moment he is very nearly a man without a party.

Flake comes across as a very poised, articulate, and thoughtful conservative. He describes himself as having fallen in love with politics at an early age. He served twelve years in the House of Representatives prior to his elevation to the Senate. Then along came Trump, the game changer who has cast Flake into a sea of difficulty.  Flake is one of the few Republicans in Congress to have broken openly with the president instead of going along with him in a sheepish and cowardly way.

Most Republican senators have tried to “find common ground” with the president as though doing so does not compromise their dignity. They have chosen to collaborate with him, even though it cheapens them by association. Trump treats the Senate in a high-handed and condescending manner. The Republican-led Senate has permitted itself to be humiliated. Republican senators endure Trump for the sake of party domination.

In the rare cases when the Republican majority finds that it cannot comply with Trump, its opposition to the president is tacit, as was true last week when Trump was shut out of the budget negotiations and told afterward that he must accept the negotiated deal. By and large, Republican senators have watched silently, however, as Trump has destroyed the soul of the “Grand Old Party.” It’s a peculiar situation, because it’s not clear whether most leading Republicans genuinely endorse Trump’s ideas. What they see is that Trump is charismatic and that his charisma is pumping up Republican power. Perhaps they believe they can outlast Trump, then return to what they were before.

Jeff Flake has no such illusions. He cannot stand with a president whose followers chant, “Lock her up.” During Flake’s tenure in Congress, he witnessed the gradual erosion of comity on Capitol Hill. When he began, it was still the custom of senators and representatives to move their families to Washington. Political differences tended to evaporate when members on either side of the aisle knew one another’s children by name. On weekends, representatives worshipped together and watched their kids play sports, developing friendships that softened the edges of partisan conflict.

That changed, Flake recalled, with Newt Gingrich’s speakership.  Gingrich told House Republicans to leave their families at home, because, on the weekends, he expected them to be back in their districts campaigning. As a result, the US now has “a commuter Congress,” with members flying in to work a few days a week.

Reluctant to treat Democrats as “the enemy” and unwilling to stand with the president, Flake has learned that Republicans in his state increasingly demand this very thing. Whereas “the economy” or “jobs” used to top the list of Republican voters’ concerns, “Where do you stand on Trump?” has displaced them, according to recent polls. Out of sync with both his base and GOP leadership, Flake saw re-election was futile.  He left the Senate last month.  In retirement, he seems to have embraced the philosophy of the first president we had gathered to honor. For, as that great man once observed,

If, to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The rest is in the hands of God.

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The Rebel Angels

Senator Mitch McConnell (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
In Paradise Lost, Satan (a.k.a. Lucifer) is the leader of the forces Milton describes as ‘rebel angels.’  Satan is the most glorious of angels, but he can’t stand the idea of serving God.  He chafes at the idea of obedience.  He actually persuades many other angels, who look up to him, to wage war against God, famously declaring ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.’  God puts up with Satan as long as he can but, finally angered, he quells the rebel angels by turning every last one of them into snakes.  Unfortunately, Satan, a sibilant snake, still has the gift of speech.  And, though much reduced in his status, cosmically speaking, he still has the capacity to make trouble for earthlings, which he does when he successfully tempts Eve to eat of the apple, destroying the good thing Adam and she have had going in the Garden of Eden.

Milton’s fable of the fall of Lucifer aptly encapsulates the dynamic playing out in the Senate.  The Senators, though immensely powerful, resent the President’s authority—in fact, they resent the President personally.  They simply loathe the President, and this loathing has eventually driven them to forget their duties, and their proper place in the scheme of things.  Discontent, they disdain the glories of their rightful position and their great capacity, as Senators, to effect what contributes to the betterment of our country.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, in particular, has warred against the Senate’s limited role in the selection of Supreme Court nominees.  He has militantly declared he will not do his duty, nor does he want other Republican Senators to do theirs.  He seeks to prevent the President from placing Merrick Garland on the high court, claiming that the next President will better represent ‘the people’s will.’  More recently, McConnell has disgraced himself by subjugating his own judgment on the matter to the judgment of two lobbying groups.  He falsely claims that history gives his acts legitimacy.  These are the marks of a man no longer content with dimensions of his own authority.

In truth, both the President and the Senate, as constituted, represent the people’s will.  The Senators are each delegated to express the will of their states, just as much as the President represents the people’s will nationally.  In straining to control all that happens in our political cosmology, the Senate’s ‘rebel angels’ are undermining their own prestige and the Senate’s once-illustrious reputation and authority.

Collectively, the Senate’s exercise of ‘advise and consent’ might confirm Judge Garland as a fit selection for the Supreme Court.  But wouldn’t that be a triumphant outcome, given that we live in a fallen world?  We are, as much as in Milton’s time or in Lucifer’s, ‘sufficient to stand and free to fall.’

Image:
1992 photograph of Senator Mitch McConnell by Laura Patterson,
from this source.

The GOP candidates debate on CNN

I expect Donald Trump’s support to wane slightly after last night’s debate.  Of the eleven Republican presidential candidates to appear, several of his rivals are likely to gain.

Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio pulled out strong performances; Chris Christie had some effective moments, too.

Scott Walker was allowed plenty of airtime but came off as bland; Mick Huckabee came across as pleading for our indulgence (he had least business being on the stage).  Ben Carson lost ground by relying too much on low-energy generalities.  Kasich had one or two strong moments but relied too much on his record of performance in Ohio and the Senate.  The demand was for vision, and a sharp take on policy.

The moderator, Jake Tapper, with occasional questions from Dana Bash and radio personality Hugh Hewitt, did a great job of keeping the three-hour debate focused.  It was a strenuous format.  Candidates were called on unpredictably.  Tapper shifted the topic of debate often and quickly, sometimes arbitrarily cutting off comfortable discussions.  By and large, candidates spoke spontaneously and avoided boring set speeches.  Ted Cruz and Scott Walker were the worst when it came to spontaneity.  Cruz, of all the major candidates, is the most personally unappealing.  And, although Fiorina came across as powerful and poised, she fell back on rehearsed remarks too much, both in her discussion of the military and in the closing.

It was fascinating to hear how the candidates varied.  Their discussions of the legalization of marijuana, of the consequences of US’s military involvement in Iraq, the Iran nuclear deal, immigration reform, and the role of the Supreme Court under John Roberts, were particularly revealing.  Only Rand Paul and Ben Carson resolutely refrained from saber-rattling.  The other candidates vied to out-do one another with violent promises.  Scott Walker promised that if elected President, he would undo the nuclear deal with Iran ‘on day one.’  Fiorina likewise asserted that we should have no dealings whatever with Vladimir Putin, a position that Bush, Trump, and Paul all used to draw a contrast.  Several of the candidates invoked Reagan, insisting that the US is strongest when engaged diplomatically with the world’s scariest players.

Trump claimed that he would restore respect for America and ‘get along with everybody,’ but, when asked about his limited knowledge of foreign affairs, said only that he would put together a first-rate team.  Bush pleaded, more effectively than did Kasich, for a foreign policy committed to multilateralism and steady global engagement.  When one of Bush’s rivals tried to attack his brother’s record after 9-11, Bush’s simple response, ‘he kept us safe,’ drew sustained applause.

Cruz’s worst moment came when he tried to disavow his one-time support for John Roberts, whom he now depicts as an arch-enemy.  Trump’s worst moment came when he tried to compliment Carly on her beauty.  He also failed to summon a convincing reply when Bush accused him of having tried to get concessions on casino gambling from Hillary after giving her campaign money.

Bush’s best moments came when he admitted having smoking pot forty years ago, when he argued for a nuanced approach to immigration, and when, in the debate’s closing moments, he threw out the goal of propelling the US toward a high-growth-rate economy.  Marco Rubio showed his command of a rational immigration reform plan, but looked callow when he proclaimed that he had missed votes in the Senate because (essentially) the entire direction of Congress is mistaken.  His announced determination to leave the Senate in order to seek the presidency shows how unprepared to be president he really is.

All in all, the debate was refreshing in its breadth and intensity.  In the press of competition, the candidates, desperate to differentiate themselves from one another, came across quite candidly.  The bracing back-and-forth of this, the second GOP debate, casts into relief the dangerously lackluster character of the Democratic field.   A Democratic contest between Hillary and Bernie is going to make for poor entertainment indeed.  For now, the energy is with GOP field.

Who Will Climb to the Top of the GOP Heap?

The GOP heap (photomontage), © 2015 Susan Barsy
My take on the declared Republican presidential candidates.  They are listed in reverse order, from least to most likely to rise to the top of the heap.  Those in red I consider to have no chance of winning.

16. Ben Carson  Lacks government experience.  Our nation and its foreign affairs are too complex to hand over to a novice.

15. Carly Fiorina  Her record as a business executive is too mixed to warrant considering her as a candidate for the nation’s chief executive.  She failed to gain the confidence of California voters in a run for the Senate, a proof of her unelectability.

14. George Pataki  Who?  To say that he’s missed his moment is an understatement.

13. Donald Trump  In his previous run, he proved himself a wash-out, using his candidacy to cast groundless aspersions against President Obama’s Americanness.  He’s followed this up with offensive remarks about Mexicans.  Basically a nativist, Trump shows an utter disregard for popular sentiment in putting himself forward again.

12. Ted Cruz  Smart, but too unlikable to be a viable candidate. He believes he needs no one else, a red flag given that our political system is based on interdependency.  Cruz has recklessly pitted himself against others, including wiser members of his own party, revealing a narcissism that’s pretty scary.

11. Mike Huckabee  He washed out in the previous presidential election cycle as soon as he faced primaries in the large urbanized states; what has changed?

10. Rick Santorum  Similarly, this guy has a problem tolerating diversity.  He fizzled out last time and hasn’t scored any big accomplishment to improve voters’ negative perceptions of him.   

9. Chris Christie  An east-coast media darling.  Someone who disavows responsibility for his underlings in the tiny state of New Jersey shouldn’t be put in charge of a vast federal bureaucracy.

8. Scott Walker  He’s far too provincial and inexperienced to be put in charge of America’s foreign affairs.  I’m not sure he could pass a course in geography.  Remember Rick Perry?  Walker is unlikely to fare well with a population that’s far more ethnically and racially diverse than that of Wisconsin.  Charges of corruption have already begun dogging him.

7. Marco Rubio  He’s smart; he’s likeable; but he isn’t ready.  While he’s shown his ability to ‘talk the talk’ with Florida’s diverse voters, I doubt that struggling Americans will find much to identify with in him.  He’s more of a wunderkind, a Latino JFK.

6. Bobby Jindal  Smarter and more nuanced than Scott Walker, Jindal is a talent with significant liabilities.  Though I wrote him off a long time ago after his abysmal 2009 State of the Union Response, he conveys more sophistication and sincerity when speaking off the cuff.  As a man of color, a Southerner (not a Floridian—big difference), and a child of immigrants, he speaks effectively about the need for cultural unity, a major underlying worry that American leaders seldom constructively address.  This guy doesn’t play identity politics—hooray!   He needs to get onto the national stage, but is running for president this time around really the best way?

5. Rick Perry  Like it or not, we have to pay attention to him, because he’s governing one of the largest of the states and by some measures it’s thriving.  He’s still going to have problems persuading anyone that he’s competent to conduct the nation’s foreign affairs, but his no-holds-barred pro-corporate approach to the economy is going to win him a lot of powerful backing.  He’s going to emerge as the leading pro-business anti-regulation candidate (unless he fails to beat those felony charges).

4. Lindsey Graham  An interesting candidate who’s got some name recognition and might be an effective president, given his extensive experience of Washington and the Senate.  He’s got foreign-policy chops, coupled with what pass for socially moderate views, but is probably too much of a hawk to prevail, given that main-street Americans wants to do less overseas.  He might do better than expected if he succeeds in mobilizing the southern and mid-Atlantic base of the GOP outside Florida.  On the other hand, he might suffer from “Senator-speak,” Christopher Dodd’s problem.

3. John Kasich  You haven’t been hearing much about him because he’s been too busy running Ohio.  Besides, this guy will never be much of a media darling.  Of all the truly conservative candidates, however, this one is the most formidable, because he is from a large industrial state, and is the most experienced of all candidates in addressing the nation’s profound economic pain on the front line.  I believe that as many of the less viable conservative candidates drop out, conservative voters will gravitate toward Kasich.

2. Jeb Bush  He will remain near the top because he is the safest choice.  Choosing the “Bush brand’ means getting all the human capital arrayed around the Bushes in their individuality—a factor positively associated with continuity in these changing and uncertain times.  Wigged out by all the unknown qualities of all the other candidates, many moderate and benighted GOP voters will pull the lever for Bush.  The candidate himself has yet to show that he has a ‘fire in his belly,’ making him vulnerable to more ardent rivals, like Rand Paul.

1. Rand Paul  This guy remains formidable because he’s one of the few candidates who could draw in a lot of voters who don’t normally swing Republican and beat Hillary Clinton.  Moreover, with his off-beat combination of libertarian and unorthodox views, Paul is one of the few Republican candidates who could actually catalyze the Republican Party and configure it into something new.   He’s won a lot of respect because of his willingness to assert his convictions without doing so (as Cruz has) at the expense of his party.  His opposition to the growing surveillance state and his occasional willingness to cross the aisle to support positions similar to those of President Obama mark him as a maverick and a game-changer within the GOP.  It would be cool if he could redefine the voting blocks that make up the GOP, something that hasn’t been done since the Reagan Revolution of 1980.

Democracy on the ground

Click on the image to view the New York Times interactive map of House election results.

Click on the image to view the New York Times interactive map of House election results.

This map of House election results from the New York Times dramatically conveys the state of democracy on the ground.  Because the entire House stands for election every two years, the results express the state of local sentiment better than Senate elections can.

The map does not correct for population density, so one must bear in mind that some of the vast red areas represent relatively few people.  Still, it’s sobering to contemplate the restricted appeal of a Democratic ethos.  Just think of all the Americans, living in all the varied settings pictured on this map, to whom Democratic party principles no longer appeal.  Democratic strength is extremely limited geographically, whereas, as David Brooks points out, it’s hard to deny that Republican conservatism represents the mainstream.  It’s ironic, because red regions contain many people who use and benefit from the sorts of programs and services that Democrats perennially champion and defend.  Well-being is not all that drives people to the polls.

The Democratic Party’s ethos no longer resonates with such voters culturally.  Instead, the party has become identified mainly with the coastal and urban regions where more educated people tend to gather.  Looking at this map, it’s easy to understand why ‘mainstream’ Americans resent the undue influence that urban elites exercise through the media.

Many Democrats I know, convinced of the morality and truth of their views, do not see a need to proselytize.  I once asked a liberal friend why she didn’t volunteer to canvas in Democratic campaigns, and she said, “I guess it’s because I’m right—and I think that, if other people can’t see that, there’s nothing I can do.”  It’s a shame, because the Democratic Party is becoming irrelevant to a huge natural constituency of small-town and working-class Americans who are just getting by.  In those broad regions where Democratic leaders are giving up, an important strain of political culture may one day die.

RELATED ARTICLES:
The Enduring Republican Grip on the House (NYT)

After the Red Wave: What Democrats Should Do

2014midtermcolorbar
Republican gains in Tuesday’s elections delivered a stunning rebuke to Democrats and their party.  The GOP is resurgent, despite having teetered after the 2012 election on the verge of disintegration and decline.

The Republicans achieved this gain primarily by telling voters that, under President Obama and the Democrats, the nation has fared badly.  Republican candidates attacked both the style and substance of the administration.  They assailed a government that they styled as autocratic, expensive, and ineffective.  They railed against government intrusion, and (in the case of illegal immigration) against governmental laxness, too.  They chafed against laws and constraints they don’t believe in.  Most of all, Republicans succeeded by denigrating what will surely be regarded as this era’s most significant achievements, such as the government’s success at bringing the nation back from the brink of all-out economic collapse and at passing a radical yet tenable and comprehensive health-care reform bill.

Strategically, the GOP also took care to marginalize some of the worst kooks seeking to work their way up in the party’s ranks.  The Republican National Committee under Reince Priebus encouraged and supported more electable candidates whose messages would still resonate with conservatives.  The policy also served the goal of producing a Republican Congress that is more homogeneous and governable.  Anyway, as campaign strategy, it worked.  Even weak candidates like Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas won.

Sadly, the Democrats were afraid to be identified with their party’s strengths.  They also failed to deliver a vision of government, that, if consonant with their recent achievements, was fresh and forward-looking.  As the president’s time in office wanes, Democrats should be thinking about how to catch the next wave.  What should the Democratic Party be about, once heavyweights like Obama and the Clintons are gone?  The Dems are notably short on galvanizing up-and-comers who could breathe new life into what has become a too-staid and centrist political party.

Chiefly, though, the Democrats have failed to accommodate and adapt to legitimate criticisms of Democratic governance and ideology.  In particular, they do not seem attuned to the people’s desire for a government that, if powerful, is deft and efficient.  They have not cared enough about the national mood to break with the president and demand Congressional debate on issues like our open-ended bombing campaign against the Islamic State.*  Nor have Democrats cared enough about the middle and lower classes to attack the glaring issue of corporate responsibility, favoring a rise in the minimum wage, yes, but remaining silent on a host of policies that work against working-class prosperity while benefiting corporations and the interests of global capital unduly.

Renew themselves: in short, this is what the Democrats must do.  Dare to be a more interesting, local, peaceful, green, and economical party.  Dare to think small, and find new ways to promote prosperity that rely less on government spending and more on shrewd uses of information and technology.  Scour the countryside for young, charismatic, ardent, and innovative political thinkers.  Restore pride in American citizenship and civic culture.  And move beyond the paradigm of the social-welfare state in trying to figure out how to give a stagnant, suffering America what it wants and needs.

* The president has since called on Congress to debate and authorize the bombing campaign.

A talent gap that favors the GOP

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY, no matter how retrograde its ideas, has long outshone Democrats in its ability to attract galvanizing up-and-comers.  Eric Cantor’s startling fall is just the latest instance of a conservative “star” self-destructing, but one that underscores the Party’s uncanny ability to spot and exploit a long string of controversial media darlings: Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan . . . the length of the list is downright alarming.

Cantor, though departing the House under a cloud, had become a nationally known leader at an impressively young age.  Figures like Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul have few Democratic counterparts.  Rising Democrats like Kristen Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren have yet to be given leading roles that would signal their stature within their party, and Warren, a latecomer to politics, is only now beginning to hit her stride.  Only the GOP has a cadre of young iconoclastic lieutenants with big responsibilities and long resumes.

The GOP’s leadership advantage derives not just from personality but from the very ideological conflict that has threatened to weaken it as a party.  In the last presidential election, outsized but deeply flawed figures like Palin or Herman Cain held our attention because they stood for something, because they were staking their claim to the soul of their party, and because something dramatically different was going to happen if they gained enough popularity.  Even as we despised them, they contributed paradoxically to the political system’s health, energizing the opposition and re-establishing the voting public’s unwillingness to tolerate meanness, character flaws, or dangerous ideas.

Only when President Obama leaves office will it be clear how decrepit the Democratic Party has become.  His youth and charisma have tended to compensate for the Democrats’ bland leadership and ideology, concealing how staid and, well, conservative, its major figures are.  Figures like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden are wonderful public servants, but they can hardly be said to represent a vanguard.

Disarray in the Republican Party has given the Democrats an opportunity to dominate and prevail.  Instead, the Democratic Party is languishing.  Democratic leaders have grown unaccustomed to risk-taking, and they have lacked the energy required to consolidate their power in the states, win back the South, or expand the breadth and fervor of their support among voters nationally.  Meanwhile, their inability to cultivate young talent leaves them poorly positioned to weather the generational change at hand.

The GOP’s marriage of convenience turns sour

Back in the spring of 2012, I wrote a post, Is the Republican Party Dying?, in which I surmised that the GOP, despite its already apparent fissures, was unlikely to collapse any time soon, because of the broad popularity it continued to enjoy at the state level in many parts of the country.  Now, in the wake of last week’s House vote on a bill to reopen the government, we have fresh evidence with which to assess the current condition of the party.

The GOP’s troubles appear to be growing, for, with the House vote that ended the government shutdown, the relative strength of the GOP’s intransigent right wing is clear to see.

Here is the vote count and its geographic distribution as depicted in a New York Times interactive graphic on October 17.  The yes vote (totaling 235 votes) was composed of 198 Democrats and 87 Republicans.  The no vote (totaling 144 votes) was composed entirely of Republicans unwilling to compromise, or to adhere to the advice of the moderate leadership of the party, as embodied in the House Speaker, John Boehner.

The size of the “no vote” is significant and startling, establishing that the more radical “Tea Party” element in the GOP, far from being a minority tendency as often depicted, comprises a MAJORITY of all House Republicans.  Far from being a “tail” that is “wagging the dog,” the Tea Partiers have morphed into the dog itself.  The only wonder is that they have not yet used their power to depose John Boehner–a miracle that has probably astonished the Speaker himself.

Regarding the “upcountry” character of these more radical Republican characters, the NYT map illuminates how difficult it will be to dislodge them, and why this faction so consistently overestimates its prospects for influencing the mass of the American population.  In many states where the suicide caucus lives, it enjoys a virtual monopoly.  In 12 states—including Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, and Arizona—all the Republican representatives are of the intransigent kind.

These blinkered souls believe, despite the mounting evidence of public opinion polls, that their views command the assent of the American mainstream, and they are confidently planning to extend their geographical sweep into more moderate Republican territory.  In the meantime, moderates, alarmed at the immoderation of their right wing, have begun planning to challenge them in the primaries.  The battle for control of the GOP will be hard-fought.

But for now, the rest of us have seen how dangerous and desperate political actors can be when trying to hold together a party that’s imploding.  Should we condemn John Boehner for accommodating the radicals, or be relieved that no more radical obstructionist is replacing him?  The GOP truly is a grand old party, and should its literally elephantine organization collapse, the attendant damage would be catastrophic, not just for the party, but, as we have seen, for the nation too.

Looking back on this period, historians will puzzle over the decision of the GOP to welcome this radical fringe into their party.  Even now, the traditional Republicans could recover their dominance by unceremoniously cutting the Tea Party loose.  Without the GOP’s support and legitimation, the radicals’ spell would be broken, and their national influence would evaporate overnight.

Moderate Republicans who believe that such destructive zealots are necessary to their party have forgotten about the massive bloc of disaffected voters in the center of the political spectrum, waiting for forward-looking parties and personalities to appeal to them.

The GOP obstructionists

Who are the obstructionists intent on defunding Obamacare and delaying its implementation?

I appended to Monday’s post on Republican Fire-Eaters this list, compiled by fellow blogger Eric Prileson, giving the names and phone numbers of the 228 Republicans and 2 Democrats who passed a House spending bill to this effect on September 20.

The determination of the House to “hold up” the government until the Affordable Care Act is modified to its liking solidified when House Speaker Boehner and other G.O.P. moderates decided, once again, to cave in to the far-right members of their party.  The 80 radical Republicans leading the charge have been nicknamed the “suicide caucus”–an apt coinage highlighting their resemblance to a terrorist group.

As Thomas L Friedman and others have noted, this group is a minority with some striking geographical and sociological peculiarities.  I encourage you to read Ryan Lizza’s geographical analysis of the suicide caucus, recently published on the New Yorker website.  Accompanying it is a dandy map, based on data from The Cook Political Report, showing the “upcountry” character of the caucus’s constituency. Click on the map to go to its source.

congressdistricts_final-01.png

Lizza:

The geography of the suicide caucus shows . . . [that] half of these districts are concentrated in the South, and a quarter of them are in the Midwest, while there’s a smattering of thirteen in the rural West and four in rural Pennsylvania (outside the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) . . . . there are no members from New England, the megalopolis corridor from Washington to Boston, or [from] along the Pacific coastline.

These eighty members represent just eighteen per cent of the House and just a third of the two hundred and thirty-three House Republicans. They were elected with fourteen and a half million of the hundred and eighteen million votes cast in House elections last November, or twelve per cent of the total.

The districts represented are also whiter than the nation as a whole.

The South, where many of the obstructionists live, is home to some of the nation’s unhealthiest populations.  Most Southern states, under Republican control, have decided against implementing the ACA-funded expansion of Medicare that might have benefited their neediest citizens.  This interactive map, published in today’s New York Times, shows the millions of people who will be affected by their choice.

*     *     *

Minorities, if sufficiently intransigent, can cause great harm if the majority fails to neutralize or contain them, leading to a frightful dynamic that President Lincoln, long ago, most eloquently described.

Republican Fire-Eaters

Political cartoon from Puck, showing various political types, including the "fire-eater" (Courtesy Library of Congress)

In politics, as in the circus world, a fire-eater is a performer who will swallow fire to attract a crowd and earn a living.  This aptly describes the tawdry crowd of grand-standing Republicans threatening to shut down the federal government today.

Their behavior resembles nothing so strongly as that of radical pro-slavery men, who, before the Civil War, threatened angrily to secede from the Union whenever the federal government wasn’t going their way.  Antebellum fire-eaters pretended to be great patriots and high-minded constitutionalists while actually serving the retrograde interests of a minority.

So it is with today’s right-wing Republicans, whose aversion to President Obama and health-care reform is so intense as to drive them along a reckless and self-defeating course.  Ted Cruz is, if anything, more self-serving and sophomoric than leading pro-slavery apologists–men such as William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama or Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina–whose parochial defense of slave-holding and states’ rights marred careers as distinguished as any in their day.  In the end, these men could not love the United States more than they loved holding slaves, leading them to sacrifice true patriotism to an ignoble cause.

By now it has dawned on many Americans that those in Congress intent on derailing Obamacare at all costs are more like demagogues than patriots.  In their stubborn attempt to thwart the inclinations of a national majority, stand in the way of progress, and sabotage the federal government, Cruz and his ilk recall the secessionists whose noblest vision was to arouse local populations to follow them.  Intent on justifying their contempt of the federal government with high-toned ideas, the first fire-eaters used every conceivable means they could to oppose the federal government and the will of the majority, ultimately succeeding in persuading their fellow-citizens to withdraw from the Union and take up arms.

So it is with the current Republican spoilers, laboring unceasingly to deprive Americans of access to the new ACA-mandated health-insurance plans.  Don’t they realize that most Americans are tired of extremism, tired of factions intent only on undoing?  Republican fire-eaters would be better off quitting the circus and getting down to the sober, un-sensational business of governing.

Image: A 1900 political cartoon from Puck showing various American political types, including the fire-eater at right, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Want to tell the fire-eaters what you think of their actions?
FOR A HANDY LIST OF THEIR TELEPHONE NUMBERS, COMPILED BY FELLOW BLOGGER ERIC PRILESON,
CLICK HERE