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Abraham Lincoln once told a story about a man who had been tarred and feathered and rode out of town on a rail.
“If it weren’t for the honor of it, I’d rather have walked,” the man said.
In the aftermath of the slow-motion train wreck that was the 16-day federal government shutdown and dangerous flirtation with the economic disaster that would have accompanied a default on the nation’s debt, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate know something about the way the man in Lincoln’s story felt.
The honor they’ve brought upon themselves and their institutions is dubious at best.
To most of the world, the whole battle made little sense. A relatively small group of conservative lawmakers decided to try to hold this country’s — and, to some degree, the world’s — economic stability hostage to get a policy victory that they weren’t able to win in Congress, in court or at the polls.
More than a few of them blithely said that a default on our national debt wouldn’t be that big a deal, despite what every economist and credible business person in the country was telling them.
Standard and Poor’s estimated that the government shutdown and pointless dance with potential default drained $24 billion out of the U.S. economy.
And for what?
The tea-party conservatives who started us down this road said they wanted to kill the Affordable Care Act. In the end, after wasting $24 billion and throwing the entire country into upheaval, what they got was a commitment for income verification, a provision that already was in the law.
Along the way, they managed to do severe damage to the Republican Party’s reputation. Polls revealed that the GOP’s standing had reached record lows. Some polls showed that Americans now prefer Democrats to Republicans by more than 20 points.
Worse, the tea-party “wacko birds,” as 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called them, drew increasing fire from the right as well as the left. The American Conservative magazine ran a piece that blistered the tea-party wing of the GOP and said:
“There is no serious argument for Republican governance right now, even if you prefer conservative policies over liberal ones. These people are just too dangerously incompetent to be trusted with power.”
This is bad news for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is this: No political party in this country, Republican or Democratic, can be trusted to use power wisely without the check of credible opposition.
Right now, at the national level, Republicans aren’t credible.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this sorry episode in American history is that the far right-wingers don’t seem to have learned anything from the experience.
Five members of Indiana’s congressional delegation voted against a deal to raise the debt ceiling and for derailing the American economy.
They included two members who had worked their way into the national consciousness by bits of buffoonery — Rep. Todd “Loverboy” Rokita, R-Ind., (who flirted with a CNN anchor on national television by calling her “beautiful”) and Rep. Marlin “Grab Bag” Stutzman, R-Ind., (who told The Washington Examiner that Republicans had to get something out of the shutdown even if they didn’t know what it was that they wanted).
They were defiant to the end. Just before the vote in the House to reopen government and avert economic catastrophe, Stutzman issued a statement: “Hoosier families are struggling under the weight of Obamacare’s job-killing mandates and the nation’s crushing $17 trillion debt. This bill does nothing to provide relief of those issues or end special treatment for members of Congress under Obamacare, and therefore I will oppose it.”
Perhaps the Stutzmans of the world can’t learn anything from this debacle. As they retreat back to heavily gerrymandered districts, their biggest fear is being “primaried,” facing a challenge from within their party from someone whose views are even more extreme than theirs.
This means, regardless of the defeats they suffer and the damage they do to their party and country, a core of right-wingers likely still will be in a position to defy reality and court disaster.
A century ago, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was Rep. Joe Cannon, R-Ill. A contemporary said that Cannon was so conservative that, if he’d been alive at the time of creation, he would have voted against God and for chaos.
If Cannon were alive today, he might be the poster boy for the tea party.
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