Drunk Uncle

The metaphor of the Republican Party (or at least its most representative and real-world powerful entity, the House Republican Caucus) as a dysfunctional family that can’t deal with a drunk uncle has popped up twice in a major article the last couple of days. Over the weekend, Mike Tomasky challenged the scattered GOP voices calling for a serious rethinking of conservative ideology to be a little more open about the obstacles to any actual change:

They’re like a family in deep denial at the Thanksgiving table. Guys, debating the best way to cook brussels sprouts is of marginal utility. Whether Cousin Ruthie wears her hair this way or that way is not worth dwelling on. The overwhelming fact at hand is that Uncle Ralph is drunk again, and he’s being a belligerent racist homophobic ass again, and he is preventing any civility and progress from taking place, and it’s been this way for four Thanksgivings in a row, and you are intentionally choosing to say nothing about it.

In a long New Yorker piece that’s basically a profile of Eric Cantor as the pol who embodies the House GOP’s pathologies, Ryan Lizza quotes congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma using the same comparison just before a Caucus retreat in January:

“It’s a very important time for the conference, and it needs to air some of these things,” he said. “It’s a little like a dysfunctional family right now, where everybody knows old Uncle Joe at the end of the table’s an alcoholic, but nobody wants to say it. And somebody needs to say it. We need to get Joe some help. Come on, he’s ruined too many Christmas parties!”

Whether it’s Uncle Ralph or Uncle Joe we are talking about, the flaw in the Drunk Uncle at the Holiday Table metaphor is that it suggests we’re just talking about a small element of the GOP “family” that’s misbehaving. The problem with the would-be reformers Tomasky is lecturing isn’t that they won’t call out the Class of 2010 or the Tea Party or however you choose to define the loose cannons (though that would be nice). It is that “reformers” have virtually no visible support from Republican elected officials, in sharp contrast to the elected-official-led Democratic “move-to-the-center” initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s.

Cantor as displayed in Lizza’s piece sometimes comes across as this inherently reasonable guy who is grappling with the extremists in the House GOP by alternatively begging them to be nice and than getting in front of their parade as they shout curses at the “establishment” Republicans of which he is ex officio a leading member. But he’s really alternating between fecklessness and opportunism, and he’s no more a friend of would-be “reformers” than Michele Bachmann:

Since the 2012 elections, the Republicans have been divided between those who believe their policies are the problem and those who believe they just need better marketing—between those who believe they need to make better pizza and those who think they just need a more attractive box. Cantor, who is known among his colleagues as someone with strategic intelligence and a knack for political positioning, argues that it’s the box.

Indeed, Lizza’s narrative of the run-up to Cantor’s famously empty AEI speech earlier this month makes his commitment to “reform” look even more ridiculous than ever, particularly when his “real people” posturing is contrasted to the real damage real people are about to suffer in the latest phase of the Republican-engineered Great Phony Fiscal Crisis of the 2010s.

Yeah, it would be very healthy for Republican politicians and opinion-leaders to once and for all show some guts and say publicly what they say privately about the Bachmanns and the Kings and the Goehmerts and the Labradors and the new tyro of the angry right, Ted Cruz. But it’s not the raging ideological extremists at the table who are the real problem; it’s the whole family hitting the same hooch and maintaining a good steady maintenance drunk day in and day out.

Lizza reports that John Boehner began the January House GOP retreat by leading the solons in reciting that staple of A.A. meetings, the Serenity Prayer. That may have been his most appropriate act of leadership in years.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.