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Rhetoric versus reality for Republicans

Published 11:00pm Thursday, August 15, 2013

So what’s it going to be for GOP hotheads in Congress this fall? A soul-satisfying episode of adolescent nihilism culminating in a government shutdown and yet another debt/default scare? Or an abject capitulation to political (and fiscal) reality and an acceptance of the Republican Party’s role as the loyal opposition?

As I write, there’s just no telling. It’s partly a contest between the GOP’s electronic/infotainment Tea Party wing and the party establishment. Talk radio shouters and cable TV entrepreneurs thrive on melodrama, and a substantial proportion of the Tea Party base follows excitedly along.

Defund Obamacare! Shut it down! To those of us of a certain age, this has a ring of nostalgia, like Abbie Hoffman’s 1967 vow to levitate the Pentagon. I don’t know what they’re smoking down at RNC headquarters, but on CNN’s “State of the Union,” party chairman Reince Priebus made a lame attempt to blame President Obama.

“I think all Republicans are unified on one thing, and that is defunding, delaying, getting rid of, eliminating Obamacare,” Priebus said. “So we have total unanimity on that issue and the question is: What are the tactics? … So Mr. President, if you want to shut the government down because you want to continue to fund this monstrosity … then go ahead.”

Nice try. No cigar.

Having wasted countless hours on 40, count ‘em, 40 votes to defund Obamacare, you’d think House Republicans might be getting the message. Their scheme is DOA in the Senate, and even if it weren’t, the White House holds veto power. The GOP’s last constitutional chance to prevent 30 million Americans from buying affordable health insurance coverage expired with Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. End of story.

True, rising Republican celebrities like Senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Rand Paul (Kentucky), Marco Rubio (Florida), Mike Lee (Utah), and rising star Rep. Tom Cotton (Arkansas) are breathing smoke and fire. However, it’s also true that none of these worthies hold leadership positions. Until very recently, nobody knew who they were. They risk nothing by enrolling in a purely symbolic resistance.

Quite the opposite: True Believers in utopian right-wing crusades evaluate politicians according to their fervor, not their coherence. Did Ronald Reagan ever pay a political price for describing Medicare as the death knell of freedom? He did not.

Indeed, the best possible outcome for senatorial rabble-rousers would be what now appears likely: a minority of GOP House moderates voting with Democrats to pass a continuing resolution, avoiding a party-line government shutdown that could doom the Republican Party’s national electoral chances. Speaker Boehner won’t have much choice but to allow it.

See, there’s nothing the Southern wing of the GOP loves more than a heroic defense of a lost cause. Save your Confederate dollars, boys, because …

Well, you know the rest.

Lately the party’s adult leadership has also taken to signaling the need for restraint regarding the national debt. According to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, congressional Democrats scrutinize Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore for signs of Republican establishment thinking.

Recently, Moore informed readers that “the biggest underreported story out of Washington this year is that the federal budget is shrinking and much more than anyone in either party expected.”

Also dropping is the annual federal budget deficit. Projections by the Congressional Budget Office show a $642 billion shortfall this year — less than half of the $1.3 trillion shortfall the Obama White House inherited from George W. Bush. It’s forecast to drop to $560 billion next year, and $378 billion in 2015.

In short, informed conservatives understand that there is no need whatsoever for a melodramatic standoff over raising the federal debt limit. No need to risk “the full faith and credit of the United States” by threatening default. Hostages need not be taken.

As in the opposition-of-Obamacare charade, Republican posturing on the debt would only risk catastrophe for the sake of certain defeat.

Alas, but herein lies the rub: The great majority of GOP voters out in the wilderness beyond the Hudson and the Potomac not only don’t know these facts, they’re constitutionally incapable of accepting them.

To followers of politicians like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, fears of fiscal collapse, runaway inflation and social chaos aren’t political ideas, but fixed beliefs scarcely amenable to arithmetic or reason.

And their Antichrist is Barack Obama.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.

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