It's a magical time in Washington – or at least a time of magical thinking.
Increasingly, political criticisms involve some sort of unspoken deus ex machina with which pols should be able to magically overcome opposition to their policies.
Hence the prevalence of what has come to be derisively known as the "Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power" – named for the DC Comics character whose powers derive from his strength of will – which states that President Obama ought to be able to get his agenda passed through an intractable opposition by sheer force of will and an exercise of "leadership." Obama used a slightly different formulation back in the spring when he chided reporters that he couldn't perform a "Jedi mind meld" on Republicans to get them to support his ideas. The problem with the Green Lantern theory is that it ignores the reality of a determined Republican opposition that controls the House and is both capable of keeping the Senate in a state of gridlock and willing to do so. Even great leadership requires some level of followership.
Now the fanatical right has developed a corollary view of political power, one better suited for the party that doesn't control the White House. I call it the Keyser Soze Theory of Power. Remember the scene from "The Usual Suspects" where Kevin Spacey's character gives the backstory of Soze, the villainous crime lord? He relates that a Hungarian gang hoped to cut into Soze's territory. These criminals had an epiphany: "They realized that to be in power, you didn't need guns or money or even numbers. You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn't." So they hold Soze's family hostage, raping his wife. "Then [Soze] showed these men of will what will really was," Spacey continues. Soze kills his own family ("He tells [them] he would rather see his family dead than live another day after this") before wreaking vengeance upon the Hungarians and, essentially, anyone they'd ever met.
This notion of power – that all it requires is "the will to do what the other guy wouldn't" – is at the core of the fringe right's last-ditch push to stop the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, from taking effect. These conservatives' big idea, pushed by Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as outside groups like the Heritage Foundation's political activist arm, is that Republicans should refuse to fund the government beyond the end of September (when currently authorized funding runs out) unless the president agrees to defund Obamacare. A popular variation would involve refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless Obama agrees to the right's terms. With the law's health insurance exchanges opening up on Oct. 1, conservatives see this as their last chance to scrap the law. These men of will then figure that they'll prevail because they're willing to do what Obama won't: shut down the government or default on U.S. debts and thus imperil the country's credit rating.
There are a couple of problems with this theory, starting with the fact that Republicans don't have enough senators to pass a bill defunding the Affordable Care Act. They could shut down the government instead, but that also wouldn't stop Obamacare, which is mostly funded through mandatory spending. Also, the idea that the president would willingly dismantle his signature legislative achievement weeks or months before it is fully implemented is absurd – especially in the face of a government shutdown that, most political observers in both parties agree, would redound to his political benefit.
Oh yeah, and there's this: It's such a politically unrealistic path to victory that most Republicans in the House and Senate have either declined to support the defund movement or outright denounced it. (North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, for example, has called the defund strategy "the dumbest idea I've ever heard of.")
Cruz has acknowledged that simply gathering the votes to pass a defund bill would require a "tsunami" of public demand for repeal, but there have been few if any signs of a such grass-roots demand. If there were one it would certainly be reflected in the House Republican Conference, but a senior GOP leadership aide recently told National Review Online that "we haven't seen any indication of a broad groundswell" in favor of the movement.
This is no surprise. Polls show that while Americans don't like the law, they also don't like repeal (owing at least in part to the fact that some people dislike Obamacare not because it goes too far but because it doesn't go far enough).
The result has been an elevation of the civil war between the fanatic and pragmatic sections of the Republican Party. The Senate Conservatives Fund, for example, this week started airing radio ads attacking seven senators – all Republicans – for refusing to sign on to the defund movement. Meanwhile, some conservatives have vowed to start referring to the law as "Boehnercare" rather than Obamacare if the House speaker doesn't join the effort.
There is an increasingly existential, panicky quality to the fringe right's lashing out at the reality-based portion of the party. "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist," Spacey's character remarks in "The Usual Suspects." The tea party fringe's greatest trick might have been convincing the world that it does exist, as a cohesive and potent political force anyway. But if pragmatists can defy the fanatics with impunity – and at this point the tea party seems unlikely to successfully pose a threat to GOP incumbents – it could expose the tea party as a force whose toxicity outweighs its utility.
- Read Mary Kate Cary: Tough on Crime and Spending
- Read Peter Roff: Kathleen Sebelius’ Obamacare Propaganda Push
- Read Kristin Soltis Anderson: The Biggest ‘Women’s Issues’ Remain Jobs and the Economy