Last week, in the well of the United States Senate, a man began talking, he announced, on the subject of freedom, specifically the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare.” He said he intended to keep talking for as long as he could stand, which was the first lie of his speech: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had already scheduled a vote for debate on the bill in question the next afternoon, whether the orator was finished or not. The speechmaker likened Obamacare to life in Nazi Germany and the Bataan Death March; attacked members of his own party as Chamberlain-like appeasers, a “surrender caucus”; quoted author Ayn Rand, actor Ashton Kutcher, country singer Toby Keith, and the father of conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh; shared how much he enjoyed White Castle hamburgers; imitated Darth Vader; and read an entire children’s book, Dr. Seuss’s GREEN EGGS & HAM, to his young daughters, since he couldn’t read it to them in person because he was otherwise engaged in delivering this puzzling address. More than 21 hours later, he finally relinquished the podium, declining Leader Reid’s offer of an additional hour in which to dig his bizarre hole just a bit deeper. The garish display wasn’t even a true filibuster, since the babbler was only forestalling debate on a piece of legislation he didn’t like, but when the time came at last, he switched the position he had been putatively arguing and the action was carried on a unanimous voice vote, officially recorded as 100-0. This whole maniacal publicity stunt had been an utter and abject waste of time, a fleabag circus sullying what was once considered the world’s greatest deliberative body, where ten or so supportive members in attendance were reduced to a group of groundlings forced to binge-watch The Ted Cruz Show.
The Texas senator, who had been in office for only nine months, frequently complained about how Obamacare was harming the economy, costing jobs, destroying freedom. An amazing swath of destruction, that, considering that the core provisions of the law hadn’t even gone into effect; the part that did simply allowed young people to remain covered by their parents’ health care plans until age 26. Americans will be able to sign up for health care “exchanges” beginning tomorrow, and they can receive services under Obamacare starting on Jan. 1, 2014. Furthermore, this learned solon rose to demand that other Senators stand with him to either defund Obamacare – a law duly passed by Congress and affirmed by the Supreme Court – or refuse to pass a budget at all, thus shutting down the entire federal government, an action that would not only destroy jobs (800,000 immediate furloughs), but also delay or eliminate payments to millions more, including soldiers and retirees. His marathon rant was nominally before a Senate controlled by Democrats: even if they decided to pass such a measure – fully as improbable as replicating cold fusion – it would then be up to President Obama to decide whether or not to gut his most significant legislative achievement, one that will finally bring health care to millions of uninsured Americans. A veto would be all but certain, a simple layup for the Hoopster-In-Chief. Even Sen. Cruz’s silly choice of literature, GREEN EGGS & HAM, was baffling: the whole point of the story is that you shouldn’t criticize something new before you’ve even tried it! But irony escapes this Harvard Law graduate and Princeton debating champion. To call Ted Cruz’s excruciating performance “Quixotic” is to insult Cervantes.
As expected, the Senate amended the budget bill after first restoring funding for Obamacare (specifically, a 2.3% surcharge on medical equipment intended to help finance the program) and sent it back to the House, with these words from Leader Reid: “Here’s a president who less than a year ago won the election by five million votes, five million votes. Obamacare has been the law for four years. Why don’t they get a life and talk about something else? People deserve better.” House Republicans originally demanded the following “concessions” (the list is incomplete because more demands were constantly being added) in exchange for permitting the government to continue functioning past midnight tonight: increase oil drilling on federal lands, roll back regulations on greenhouse gases, construct the Keystone XL oil pipeline immediately, defund the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, make it more difficult to sue for medical malpractice, and one last item: postpone the Obamacare rollout by one year. It’s a colicky tantrum from an infant, or maybe a ransom note from hapless C-movie gangsters: nice country you got here…be a real shame if something happened to it. Barring an eleventh-hour miracle, some federal kneecaps are going to get broken on the same day Obamacare exchanges (the ones controlled by individual states, that is) begin accepting members. This from the party that lost the 2012 elections, except for its intractable gerrymandered majority in the House – which, as we will see, actually represents fewer voters than does the “minority.”
Are these people crazy? It’s as if they actually want the country to fall back into recession!
Where did this topsy-turvy world come from, a land where the defeated minority in a democracy can grip the nation by the throat and seriously threaten to reverse its limping recovery from the worst recession in half a century? Why would anyone who truly cares for our country even consider doing damage like that? In fairness, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), no friend to health care reform, did seize the Senate floor to denounce the Cruz debacle – it only took him ten minutes – but by then the Texan’s tired tonsils were already, incredibly, being lionized by his party’s extreme right wing, the daffy tri-cornered-hat crowd, starting with a fawning interview on Limbaugh’s own radio show.
What in the name of the Founding Fathers is going on?
Despite all propaganda to the contrary, America is not a right-wing nation. An interesting piece by Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books doesn’t really cover any new ground regarding what she calls the Republican “stranglehold on our politics,” but it sure does connect lots of dots. In her view, Pubs have paid better attention to elections in off-years (the next midterm election’s only a year from now; usually about half as many voters turn out than in Presidential years, but nearly all the fanatics do, giving them outsized influence through apathy) and at the state and local level (there will be 36 governorships at stake next year, several of them in key swing states whose guvs, as Pubs have long understood, control everything else). But when more people are more engaged, it suddenly doesn’t look so hot. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six Presidential elections; the sole exception was 2004, when Dick Cheney played the fear card so clumsily that he nearly gave up the game. “If we make the wrong choice,” he warned, “then the danger is that we’ll get hit again – that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.” In other words, vote for me or die. That’s desperation, friends. The Republicans are the party of rich white men and those it can persuade to help them become richer. Its base is already outnumbered, and it’s getting weaker every year as the Reaper continues to chip away at the diehards. (Hard they may be, but they die nonetheless.) The GOP’s natural hegemony is over.
Now, if you can no longer win elections on the issues, you have two simple alternatives: rig the game so you can’t lose, or if that’s too tough (as in statewide races), then prevent your opponents from voting. The right wing has found ways to do both, and their methods are based in what was formerly progressive territory: the grass roots.
Ms. Drew points out that though President Obama won the 2012 election with 51.1% of the vote, due to redistricting in key states after the 2010 census (you may recall that Tom DeLay in Texas couldn’t even wait that long to redraw his state and add five shoo-in Republican seats to the delegation; he did this just before the 2004 election), House Republicans represent only 47.5% of the 2012 electorate. The Democratic “minority” represents 48.8%. Put another way, well over a million more Americans elected Democratic House members in 2012 than voted for victorious Republicans. But the current Congress is 234-201 Republican.
Four examples of gerrymandered Congressional districts. Computer analysis has this sort of election-fixing down to a science.
How in the world does that work? Let’s look with Ms. Drew at Ohio, a state the President won with 51% of the vote. Because of redistricting – heck, let’s call it by its proper name, gerrymandering, or deliberately (1) lumping likeminded voters together, no matter where they live, or (2) splitting the enemy among several districts, a bit of power dilution known as “cracking,” which, for example, has emasculated “liberal” Columbus – today’s Ohio House delegation is three-quarters Republican. It doesn’t represent the general Ohio electorate at all, only the guys who did the redistricting. Now, in fairness, both parties press their advantage through gerrymandering. There are some funky-looking districts in Maryland, for example, that were drawn up by Democrats. But if this “false equivalency” – an argument that claims it’s OK because the other guys act exactly the same, featured nightly on Faux News – were genuine, we’d have a more closely divided Congress. The fact is, Pubs have simply been better at this for at least twenty years. It’s not equivalent. They’ve gamed the system. But, as we will see, they should have been careful what they wished for, because they got it. (In code for evangelical Christians: I’m saying thou hath reaped the whirlwind.)
The other significant tactic which keeps a minority in power is voter suppression. Whenever you see the term “voter ID law,” you’re looking at a baby step toward the heinous poll-tax laws which threatened true freedom for most of the 20th century. Pubs will tell you that they’re trying to defeat the scourge of rampant “voter fraud,” a malady they’ve never been able to demonstrate. That’s their moral cover for what’s turned out to be a 21st-century version of Jim Crow – only this time, it includes those seditious traitors, college students. In our ole pal Texas, for example, a gun license is acceptable ID for voting, but not a student ID, presumably because gun owners tip Pub, and college kids think too much. The law went into effect instants after the Supreme Court recently invalidated the critical portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the one that made partisan horseshit like this subject to prior federal approval in the several states with long histories of voter suppression.
Why not show ID at the polls? You have to do it for almost anything else: to get a bank loan, to get a driver’s license, etc. But what about people who don’t have bank loans, credit cards, driver’s licenses, or any kind of photo ID? What about voters who are temporarily away from home because they’re in college, or who don’t have the means to drive across town, or who live out in the country? What about people who can’t afford photo IDs? Wait: they get to vote too? We can’t have that: poor people tend to vote for the only folks who know they’re alive! Yet simply having lawfully voted in every election since LBJ isn’t enough these days. Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) ticked off part of a laundry list before a group of Pubs in summer 2012: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” (Fun fact: The President won Pennsylvania, 52% to 47%, but he had to fight uphill over voter ID, not to mention rich-guy super-PACs.)
What would a Pub America really look like? To observe a conservative wonderland first-hand, a place where the right-wing id is suddenly leading a joyous ideological slamdance, to see what unfettered Teabag rule would actually produce, simply turn to poor North Carolina. Once it was the jewel of the Deep South, its Research Triangle a glittering star that attracted bright people from around the world. As Ms. Drew recounts, President Obama won the state in 2008. But the Pubs took over the legislature in the decennial year of 2010 (immediately redistricting the state in their favor) and the governorship in 2012, attaining unassailable “supermajorities” that could pass anything they liked without even consulting the other side. Now they wasted no time in cutting unemployment insurance and tax credits for low-income workers, banning Sharia law (whew, just in time!), restricting abortion and voting rights (their war on student voting borders on the laughable, but it’s the frickin state law), and transforming a once beautiful state into North Pubistan in only three years. Nancy McFarlane, the horrified mayor of Raleigh, could barely get a sentence out: “It’s hard to get people to understand the impact of what they’re doing is going to be.” Thinking people are going to think twice about moving to the Tarheel State, and there goes your Research Triangle. Sorry, Ms. Mayor.
Why would well-intentioned people subscribe to such madness? It’s because they talk to each other, and only to each other. They live in a different world, a right-wing echo chamber, the Republican bubble: the Pubble. Ms. Drew cites the tumultuous 1994 midterms, which restored Pub House control after forty years and handed Prof. Newt Gingrich the tiller, but I would suggest an earlier flash point: 1987, when the Reagan-era FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which held that opposing views should be granted equal time on the public airwaves. In that instant, baldly partisan broadcasting, immune to any “equivalency” whatsoever, was born. Anybody in radio will tell you that Rush Limbaugh saved the AM dial when he went on the air in 1988, and back then there probably was a progressive bias in mass media. (Although news organizations did strive for objectivity.) But Limbaugh’s immediate sensational success spawned dozens of radio imitators, and, in 1996, the Fox News Channel on television. Nowadays “the liberal media” is a fictional construct that preserves conservatives’ ability to paint themselves as victims, or to “work the refs” so that actual news organizations fall all over themselves to present the right-wing point of view even when they know the earth is more than six thousand years old and that man did not coexist with dinosaurs. El Rushbo is still the hottest thing on radio, and Fox News tops the cable ratings. When I lived in Georgia in the early Seventies, I loved Atlanta’s WRNG, “Ring Radio,” which was 24-hour call-ins; the station would entertain me during long drives. Their best “jock” was a guy named Neal Boortz, a Colbert-like improvver, you loved his quick mind. Post-Rushbo, Boortz re-invented himself as a conservative raver, and now he’s a syndicated big-shot; his verbal effluvia sometimes make their way to THE DAILY SHOW. Based on long stints spent inside Boortz’s radio-expressed mind, I know this particular guy is now only acting, but he heard the trumpets sound. If anything, the loudest megaphone these days belongs to the conservative media.
I used to think that Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Megyn Kelly and the others were, like Boortz, just entertainers, performers; they couldn’t possibly believe half the stuff they were spouting. But now I honestly wonder. The Pubble is opaque and soundproof. Barack Obama is the worst president in history, a Kenya-born socialist who hates America. If government would just get out of the way, the invisible hand of the market would regulate itself – except for the military, which merits ever-rising budgets. America is the greatest country in the world in all respects, and those who don’t think so should leave. Other nations hate us because we’re so free. Poverty is caused by laziness, and people lounge on their welfare payments rather than looking for work — but raising the minimum wage to subsistence level will destroy small businesses. Immigrants are stealing our jobs. Evolution and climate change are only theories, therefore we should disregard them. Health care is a privilege for those who can afford it. Any limitation on a private citizen’s firearms will turn us into a police state. CEOs deserve to make hundreds of times what their employees do because of competition for top talent. Tax cuts stimulate growth; spending dampens it. We should keep our hands off the big banks: they know what they’re doing. This is and always has been a Christian nation, with instructions for righteous living found in the Bible. The Israelis are freedom fighters; the Palestinians are terrorists. The government should lay off our personal liberties, unless it involves abortion or our sex lives. There is, of course, an opposing view on each of these issues, but inside the Pubble it’s all received wisdom.
Nothing illustrated the Pubble’s sturdiness more starkly than Election Night 2012. I have a friend in Mississippi who had laid in a nice bottle of champagne to celebrate Mitt Romney’s victory, and he wasn’t alone. Though statistician Nate Silver had been warning for weeks that the President was likely to earn re-election, the Pubble dismissed it as rubbish from the “liberal media.” The greatest moment of the night was watching an exasperated Karl Rove, once the Sultan of Stats, dispute the numbers coming in from his own network, Fox News Channel. To her credit Megyn Kelly, the anchor, defended her statisticians, at one point even acknowledging the Pubble’s existence. “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better,” she asked Rove, “or is this real?” The Pubble was flabbergasted, like Pauline Kael in 1972: she only knew one person who’d voted for Nixon! Rove’s confused bluster provided welcome schadenfreude for those who remembered the catastrophic Bush years. (A few days later he had the gall to blame voter suppression, but by then nobody was listening, because his American Crossroads Super PAC had infamously blown through $100 million that we know of on the 2012 election cycle, only to lose 10 of its 13 targeted races. Oh yeah, and the White House too.)
If you don’t think there’s room inside the Pubble for racism – “we’re not racists, we just think Obama is un-American!” – consider the amount of disrespect and sheer hate this President has been forced to endure, more than any other in my lifetime, more than Bill Clinton, more than Dubya. After all, nobody screamed “YOU LIE!” at 42 or 43 during a speech to a joint session, like the oafish Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC). Nobody held up huge signs saying WHAT PLAN? like the pathologically dim Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). You don’t see others angrily pointing fingers in POTUS’s face like Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ). And just consider what happened when someone observed that Sen. Cruz was not born in this country, but in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, to a Cuban father and American mother. The Constitution states that a Presidential candidate must be “native-born,” but it doesn’t define the term. Cruz’s response? My mother was American, therefore I am too, and by the way, I’m renouncing my Canadian citizenship. The accompanying sound? Crickets. Now compare that to the President, who actually is native-born, also to an American mother, but was still being visited by annoying unhinged “birthers” well into his second term. What could possibly account for the difference? When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, just after the 2008 election, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he was acknowledging that there was something wrong that needed to be set aright, and inside the Pubble the dog-whistle message was quite clear. Of course the legislative minority is expected to loyally oppose the majority – but to call deposing Obama “the single most important thing”? Jobs? Infrastructure? Health? Here, now, was the Pubble’s ultimate Other, that literal dark force that threatened the American way of life. We will now, McConnell said, foreshorten his presidency by denying him any achievement whatsoever, and Pubs have done their worst ever since to do just that: the current 113th Congress is on track to be the least productive in recent history. That’s why such events as the passage of Obamacare and the killing of Osama bin Laden — any achievements at all — are so disturbing inside the Pubble.
The “Tea Party” was nowhere to be seen when George W. Bush spent eight years busting the budget. It emerged almost instantly to bedevil the Obama administration. (I’m only half joking when I tag the origin of the Tea Party at about, oh, noonish on Jan. 20, 2009.) But a funny thing happened on the way to “liberty.” Egged on by Fox News and the rest of now-mighty conservative media, plus PACs and “think tanks” financed by the likes of the Koch brothers, the tri-cornered set crashed “town meetings” of legislators, following carefully scripted orders to assemble way down front so it would look like they represented the whole room, and thus, the whole country. Old pros like Dick Armey and Jim DeMint helped fan the flames and work the grassroots to produce actual candidates – the only surefire way to seize power. But they ran into an unintended consequence. They’d intended Tea Partiers to be rabble-rousers and not much else. But the radical right hunkered down deeper inside the Pubble, and before you knew it, the liberty baby was being thrown out with the freedom bathwater.
The Tea Party concluded that we had mistakenly elected a socialist Kenyan president not because Pub candidates were too conservative, but because they were not conservative enough. So you had the spectacle of thinking senators like Bob Bennett of Utah, as right-wing as they come but still earthbound, tossed over the side for Tea Party candidates, while others simply quit in disgust. That chilled Pub incumbents in both Houses: if you didn’t hew to the tri-corner gang’s extremism, if you didn’t keep the customer satisfied, even if you were in a district that was super-safe in any general election, you could still be “primaried” from the right! This wave of zealot candidates, and intensified zealotry among fearful incumbents, has had two deleterious effects.
First, it turned away reliable Pub Senatorial candidates, some of them incumbents, for the likes of Sharron Angle in Nevada (“People are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness, what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out!”), Christine O’Donnell in Delaware (“I am not a witch”), Richard Mourdock in Indiana (“Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that…is something that God intended to happen”), and Todd Akin in Missouri (“From what I understand from doctors…if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”). Each of these candidates proved too icky for the electorate, but each of the Senate seats they sought had been eminently winnable by more sensible Pub candidates. The wacko-birds simply threw those opportunities away, and thus potential control of the Senate for at least two election cycles.
Second, yo-yos like this actually started to win House races in districts so tightly gerrymandered that you could wear a tinfoil hat to your own fundraiser and feel right at home. John Boehner, the most ineffective Speaker of the House of modern times, has lost control over his caucus because so many of them are newly elected Tea-Party bombthrowers who see nothing wrong with bringing government to its knees, or failing to make good on obligations the country has already made (that’s what “raising the debt ceiling” means). They literally don’t know any better. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster has broken loose, and not even Dick Armey knows what to do now.
Why all the hue and cry, the garment-rending, the Cruz clowning, over Obamacare just this minute? Simple. It’s because inside the Pubble, folks never expected to be sitting here right now. Romney would stomp the Kenyan, Pubs would retake the Senate, and Anycare would be D.O.A. It’s not that Pubs actually fear the country will be wrecked by the ACA (a term many of them have now gone back to employing; ever since the President shrewdly embraced the term “Obamacare,” the “person-you-don’t-like-care” usage, which dates back to Hillary Clinton’s efforts twenty years ago, has lost most of its fizz). If that were so, then why not just let it happen and preside over the post-apocalypse? No, to the contrary: they’re afraid the country will like having affordable health care. This is why they continue kicking and screaming, now urging young people in TV spots to “burn your [nonexistent] health care cards” (isn’t that rich, Pubs invoking draft-card burning? Younger folk have noticed too) and doing everything possible to scuttle health care reform by any means necessary. They’re afraid it will work, that Big Medicine will be reined in just a tad, and universal health care will become yet another “entitlement” for the “takers.” They should be afraid.
Deep down in Karl Rove’s mind has to be a thought that would torture him to madness if he actually cared, and boy, I wish he really did. It’s this. If the fear-fueled Tea Party had never emerged, Republicans would have long since controlled the Senate, and today there would be no such thing as Obamacare – and, just possibly, as a little sweetener, no such thing as Senator Ted Cruz.
Ah, Senator Cruz. Back to our star of the moment. It doesn’t take an Ivy League degree to understand why he staged his narcissistic spectacle: he was only trying to attract cameras. (The biggest whopper of his entire blabathon came in Hour 18: “I would be perfectly happy if not a single story coming out of this mentioned my name.”) On March 6, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) unwound a 12-hour corker on unmanned drone strikes that actually stalled an Obama nomination – and people started taking him seriously as a Presidential candidate. Then, in June, Democratic Texas state senator Wendy Davis successfully ran out the clock on the legislative session with a 13-hour speech against an omnibus abortion bill – and unlike the two gentlemen, she was required by Texas law to remain on topic the whole time, and she could not be “spelled” for a break, as Cruz himself did for Paul. She became not only a statewide but a national sensation, and in a few days she’s expected to announce her candidacy for governor; if elected she would be the first woman, and first Democrat, to hold that position in twenty years. Well, Sen. Cruz thinks he is also fit for higher office. And that alone is why he embarked on his pathetic fauxlibuster. But, as with his tin-eared choice of Seussian morality lessons, he had no actual substance to offer, only windbaggery on which he even turned his back himself. He claims he’s “listening to the American people,” but all he can really hear are the people on his own Twitter feed. He’s affected nothing, proved nothing, and achieved nothing more than the winner of a beard-growing contest. It makes perverse sense that they love such a man inside the Pubble.