The Republican crackup
The Washington Post, March 31, 2010
Has anyone else noticed that seemingly well-adjusted Republicans have been driven insane by the passage of Obamacare? You can catch them muttering under their breath, whimpering on editorial pages and howling to the moon that this Democratic victory is the death knell for much that we cherish in American life. When I first saw a Republican friend jump out the window in this fashion, I assumed it was an isolated incident, or even politically motivated play-acting. Now that I've seen countless others follow suit, however, it's a phenomenon that merits deeper psychological inquiry.
As a matter of objective reality, after all, this Republican derangement seems an absurd overreaction. How could taking Mitt Romney's health-care plan national be seen by any balanced person as the beginning of the end? Still, everyone knows that too many big, stressful changes at oncesuch as getting divorced, changing jobs and moving homescan push even sturdy people over the edge. Three sudden emotional shocks likewise explain the Republican crackup.
Shock 1: Losing big. For starters, Republicans simply have not lost on an issue this big in decades. Media coverage features so many breathless political ups and downs that it's easy to assume each party tastes victory and defeat in equal measure. But as a matter of ideology, these overheated fights take place between the 45-yard lines on a field that conservatives shrewdly tilted to their advantage several decades ago. That President Obama could move the debate to the 40-yard line and win is something the modern GOP has never experienced. Republicans mauled President Clinton when he tried to do the same; after 1994, Clinton's "wins" were trumped-up and tiny. Republicans have so successfully framed the debate for so long that they don't know what it feels like to be thoroughly beaten. Who wouldn't feel disoriented and angry?
Shock 2: The quest for security. The next blow is the dawning awareness that the quest for economic security in a global era is reshaping politics. The instant premise of Republican analysisthat the public will never tolerate Obamacare's repeal once it is implementedconcedes the point that health reform will bring a measure of security that families crave. The Republican psyche is having so much trouble digesting this reality, though, that the party is resorting to the kind of condescending arguments for which they normally damn liberals. Who's got more contempt for the average American? Liberals who say everyday Kansans vote Republican because they're too dumb to grasp their own economic self-interest? Or conservatives who now say voters are too dimwitted to see that Obamacare will devour their freedom?
Deep down, Republicans know they haven't developed serious policy responses to the economic anxieties of the middle class. This (rightly) scares them.
Shock 3: The death of the tax issue. The final shock is the cruelest of all: the demise of the tax issue that's defined the Republican brand since Ronald Reagan. There's been no shortage of conservative carping since the health-care vote that we're now doomed to have a value-added tax to fund the runaway welfare state. Well, earth to GOP: Taxes have always been destined to go up as baby boomers retire and we double the number of people on Social Security and Medicare in the years aheadand the scale of that retiree commitment is far greater than the tab for Obamacare. Trying to blame health reform for the higher taxes in our future is another species of the denial that has left GOP tax talk almost comically detached from reality. But this is just the GOP acting out its fears. When a party discovers that core aspects of its political identity no longer offer meaningful answers to the nation's problems, the torment is acute. Yet what else can we say of the GOP now that "rugged individualism" won't suffice to save American workers from competition from China and India, and when taxes are sure to rise, no matter how many Republicans we elect?
The signposts in the Republican universe have been abruptly altered. So don't let yourself become desensitized to the sight of conservatives stumbling, lost in the night, the way you avert your eyes when passing poor homeless souls on the sidewalk. Suffering is subjective. There are people on the street who really think they are Jesus. There are Republicans in our midst who really think Obama's version of Romneycare equals socialism. There but for the grace of Godand maybe a little less sloppy thinkinggo we.