Saturday, October 5, 2013

Shutdown Politics and The Princess Bride

Like everyone else, I've been watching the course of events leading the government into shutdown with that strange mixture of disbelief and utter lack of surprise. I can't believe we're at this point, but of course I can believe were at this point. Critical government dysfunction is what happens when extremists drive politics. And by "extremists" I don't just mean those 40 or so right-wing members of the House of Representatives; I mean the grassroots organizations that have offered critical support to these candidates and the right-wing voters who have sent them to Washington with their blessing to end government as we know it. James Fallows is quite right when, in a recent post, he noted that this isn't another story of "Washington Dysfunction." It is the decades-long story of one part of the entire electorate moving steadily towards reactionary radicalism.

Fallows, by the way, recently argued the same point I made in starting this blog:
In case the point is not clear yet: there is no post-Civil War precedent for what the House GOP is doing now. It is radical, and dangerous for the economy and our process of government, and its departure from past political disagreements can't be buffed away or ignored. If someone can think of a precedent after the era of John C. Calhoun, shown above in Mathew Brady's famous portrait, let me know.
Dark times. The repercussions of the shutdown are serious enough and the threat to the debt ceiling is even scarier. Yet (and I ask your forgiveness in advance for the rest of this post)... I can't help but find some levity in the buffoonish manner in which the Republican players in this drama have gotten themselves stuck. It's like they all got into the clown car (dragging the country with them), and now they're so tightly jammed inside no one can open the door.

Jonathan Chait wrote a sobering piece for the "Daily Intelligencer" about the shutdown, the debt ceiling, and the consequences when someone takes hostages without a plan. He likens the current crisis to the Coen brother's classic Fargo:
Boehner resembles William H. Macy’s character in Fargo, who concocts a simple plan to have his wife kidnapped and skim the proceeds, failing to think a step forward about what happens once she’s actually seized by violent criminals. He doesn’t intend for her to be harmed, but also has no ability to control the plan once he’s set it in motion. In the end, Boehner's Speakership is likely to end up in the wood chipper, anyway.
It's a wonderful comparison, particularly since Boehner's pathetic desperation is mirrored in every William H. Macy facial expression, but I've been thinking of parallels to a different hostage movie: the Rob Reiner classic that every child of the 80s knows by heart, The Princess Bride. Republicans in Congress have a lot in common with the trio of hostage-takers in that film. Like the hapless (though likeable) characters Inigo and Fezzik, many GOPers are well-intentioned career politicians dragooned into this crazy right wing crusade not because they believe in it, but because events swept them into a plot beyond their's (or anyone's) comprehension. The GOP adversary is the Man In Black, an antagonist whose identity is a matter of some debate, even among them: is it Obamacare? the federal debt? the Government? the Democrats? Obama himself? or is he just some local fisherman, out for a pleasure cruise at night in eel infested waters?

Whatever the answer, the hardliners keep pushing the Inigos and the Fezziks among them to employ some nasty tactics to destroy the threat, and that doesn't sit well with them. When Peter King of New York heard about Ted Cruz's absurd idea to deep-six government funding, he argued
I still think we should try to repeal the bill. But you repeal it the same way you passed it. You get bills through both houses of Congress, and you get the president to sign it. The only way we are going to do that is by electing more Republicans and winning the presidential election.
Or is he a Rat of Unusual Size?
To use Fezzik's vocabulary, yes that "would be more sportsmanlike." But King isn't in a position to author any plan. Ted Cruz is the crazy Sicilian, Vizzini in this scenario, the "mastermind" behind the hostage crisis. Each time one tactic failed, he thought up a new and more desperate one on the fly. As The New York Times reported:
The Republican leaders’ seat-of-the-pants strategy also left some Republicans baffled. “You would have to assume there is a strategy here,” said Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California.
Nope. Not so much. Inconceivable, right? And now they are at an impasse, just as eventually Vizzini and the Man in Black are stuck facing one another in their "battle of wits to the death." Who will drink the poisoned wine? The House right-wing extremists keeps pretending to have leverage in this wacky confrontation, what Brian Beutler calls the "dumbest extortion attempt ever." They keep gesturing, shouting, and rearranging the goblets as if any of that means anything. But they, and some of their less astute defenders in the press, don't seem to realize what everyone else already knows: that every glass on the table is poisoned and the Democrats are immune. It is of no small significance that the entire Democratic caucus has not exhibited one sign of disunity. The Republicans cannot say the same.

It's also worth noting that even after Vizzini drinks the wine and croaks, we'll all still be caught racing through the Fire Swamp, but maybe we shouldn't pursue the movie parallel too closely. This one probably doesn't have a fairy-tale ending.

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