A partisan war on two fronts

A PARTISAN WAR ON TWO FRONTS…. To pay even passing attention to American politics is to notice that contemporary congressional Republicans are as right-wing as they’ve ever been. The GOP caucuses in both chambers have embraced a hysterical, borderline-nihilist worldview, which is often terrifying in its scope and severity.

In recent years, though, as Republicans in Washington have driven off a right-wing cliff, there have been GOP governors who’ve been far less ridiculous. At the state level, Republican chief executives have more serious governing responsibilities, and are considerably closer to those who feel the effects of their policies, so it’s been fairly common to find occasional examples of GOP sanity in governors’ offices nationwide.

That, alas, is changing, too. National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein explained this week that President Obama “finds himself fighting a two-front war,” one in Congress with right-wing lawmakers, and one at the state level with a new breed of right-wing governors.

Republican governors came out swinging against many of Obama’s initiatives at the opening bell. Moderates Charlie Crist in Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California supported Obama’s 2009 economic-stimulus package, but almost all of their GOP colleagues lobbied congressional Republicans to oppose it. After the stimulus bill passed, several GOP governors (along with a few Democrats) rejected the increased unemployment aid it offered, arguing that the strings attached would force them to increase state spending.

On the same grounds, Republican governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin have also renounced federal money to build high-speed rail. Seventeen states — all but two headed by Republicans — are suing to block Obama’s effort to regulate carbon emissions. GOP governors led the drive to resume offshore drilling after Obama suspended it following last year’s BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. From the other direction, the president did his part to heighten tensions by suing Arizona over its immigration law and conspicuously siding with public-employee unions in their struggle with GOP governors (the most notable so far led by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker) over collective-bargaining rights.

The mother of all disputes, though, remains over health care. Twenty-seven states—all but two of them boasting Republican governors and all but four GOP attorneys general — are suing to dismantle the law’s foundation: the mandate on individuals to purchase insurance, most with help from government subsidies. The majority of Republican governors are also resisting the law’s provisions requiring them to maintain state spending on Medicaid and to establish exchanges where the uninsured can shop for coverage. Put it together and it’s fair to say, without drawing any moral equivalence, that health care reform is facing more-extensive resistance from conservative states than any federal initiative since Brown v. Board of Education.

Keep in mind, it’s ideology, not practical concerns, that lie at the heart of these governors’ reactionary moves. The states turning down investments for high-speed rail, for example, were effectively handed a gift — jobs, economic development, improved infrastructure — but Republicans like Rick Scott and Scott Walker turned down the benefits because of a philosophical opposition, deliberately hurting their state in the process. The administration was effectively throwing a life-preserver to a Republican who’s drowning, only to be told, “We don’t like government life-preservers.”

The same is true of health care, which would be a boon to states, but which far-right governors resist for reasons that have nothing to do with public policy.

President Obama, in other words, not only has to resolve crises unlike anything his predecessors have dealt with in generations, he has to do so with a ridiculous Republican Party in Washington that approaches public policy with all the sophistication of a junior-high student government, and Republican governors who resist effective policies for purely ideological reasons.

“One had the sense in the mid-1990s that conservative governors were doing whatever was in the best interest of their state,” a senior administration official told Brownstein. “This time, the Republican governors appear determined to make an ideological point, even if it costs their state a great deal.”

The result, Brownstein concluded, is a political landscape that “increasingly resembles a kind of total war in which each party mobilizes every conceivable asset at its disposal against the other. Most governors were once conscientious objectors in that struggle. No more.”

I found myself nodding my head quite a bit reading Kevin Drum’s related thoughts.

Even after writing about this for most of the past decade, it’s hard to fathom. When Ronald Reagan was elected, it seemed at the time like the ultimate triumph of hardcore right-wing politics. It was the Reagan Revolution! He was going to slash taxes, institute supply-side economics, bust the unions, appoint uncompromising judges, give the Christian right a seat at the table, and declare war on the welfare queens.

It couldn’t get any worse, could it? Well, yes, it could: in the 90s we got the Republican Party of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, and they made Reagan look like the jolly old man he’s since been mythologized as. Taxes? They wanted a blood oath against ever raising them for any reason whatsoever. Gingrich gleefully led an assault on a Democratic Speaker of the House that destroyed his career, something no previous leader of either party had ever tried to do. The GOP flatly refused to negotiate on healthcare reform, they shut down the government in 1995, and then did their best to impeach Bill Clinton over a blow job. This was a take-no-prisoners party like we’d never seen.

But the Newt Gingrich of 1995 was, as Clinton said, still somebody you could deal with. He may have been right wing, but he cared about policy and he cared about getting things done. Today even that’s gone. Obama got virtually zero support for a stimulus bill designed to help get us out of the worst recession since World War II, he got no support for rescuing GM and Chrysler, he got no support for healthcare reform, and he got no support for financial reform even after a decade in which big banks were so far out of control they nearly wrecked the entire global economy. He’s been attacked from Day 1 as non-American, non-Christian, and non-patriotic. The filibuster became not just a tool of intense opposition to big legislation, but an everyday tool of obstruction. Tea partiers and Glenn Beck accused him of being a socialist for sure, maybe a Muslim too, and quite possibly a fifth columnist as well. Rush Limbaugh mocks his wife and prominent GOP leaders make jokes about whether he was born in Kenya. A government shutdown isn’t just something that might happen if Obama and Congress can’t find a workable compromise on the budget, it’s actively viewed as a positive goal.

I don’t know how this story ends, exactly, but I’m confident the last chapter will be awful unless the electorate begins to appreciate what’s transpiring. The vast majority of the public — the folks who don’t even know if the health care reform law still exists — have no idea what’s become of the modern Republican Party.

The only way a once-credible GOP can return to some semblance of sanity is for voters to bring the party back to reality. I don’t know when or if that’ll happen, but I’m fairly sure it will keep getting worse until it does.