Falling off the cliff on purpose is dangerous for both Republicans and Democrats

Here I am in California, for another few hours anyway. I’m reading the newspapers, watching the news on TV, and listening and talking to real people. Everyone is paying attention to the Fiscal Cliff dramatics, but with less intensity than you might expect, given the hype about how dire the consequences will be if no deal is struck before midnight rings in 2013 in a couple of days. It seems that no one is really engaged; no one is really expecting much.

One thing that I’m noticing is the nearly universal pessimism, not to mention cynicism, that people down here express whenever the subject turns to the dysfunctional U. S. federal government. No one expects a comprehensive deal, and few hold any hope that the likely deal, to extend the middle class tax cuts and the extra unemployment benefits, will do anything more than yet again defer any comprehensive agreement.

And no one here is expressing faith in the legislators, who will, as they always do, calculate their fiscal principles in the currency of their chances for re-election. David Brooks may be saying that while a compromise that raises tax rates on the richest Americans is bad for the economy, that’s preferable to the wholesale economic chaos of going over the cliff; but his Republican friends in the House don’t take the same larger view. Realignment of congressional districts over the last twenty years has made the vast majority of House seats “safe,” for both parties. As Nate Silver points out, this makes a primary challenge more threatening than a general election contest. As a result, ideological purity has replaced the ability to get things done as the #1 criterion for electoral success.

Of course, if Republicans keep the faith to the extreme detriment of the nation, they will be cast out in sufficient numbers to lose control of the House. For one thing, they’ll keep nominating candidates from further and further out on the right wing; and as we saw in some of the Senate races in November, there is a point beyond which the dwindling but still breathing Republican centre won’t go. And if opinion polls that show that a clear majority of Americans will blame the Republicans for going over the cliff hold steady, even some not-so-nutso Republican members of Congress could be swept away in a general disgust with the party as a whole.

For this reason, there are some prominent Democrats who actually want President Obama to make sure that the country drops off the cliff. They’re hoping that they can make the Republicans pay for the damage in 2014. Notice that neither part is paying a whole lot of attention to the damage itself. They’d rather figure a way to get some political advantage out of the crisis. In today’s Washington, that calculated self-interest is what passes for governance.

But last night’s PBS Newshour discussion between conservative Brooks and his opposite number, liberal columnist Mark Shields, highlighted another danger, this one more subtle. As the comedy show that is Congress continues, confidence in the ability of the government to accomplish anything, to function at all, continues to wane. This is a great threat to the country as a whole, but it’s particularly dangerous for Democrats.

There is a strongly-expressed Republican narrative, one that resonates with Libertarians as well, that not only is Big Government always Bad Government, but also that Government itself, in any form, is an evil force that exists not to serve the people but to control them. This paranoid claim, popular with all of the right-wing media, is only bolstered when even reasonable people lose faith in the ability of their leaders to lead. If the only things that come out of Washington are flawed programs and failed promises, more and more people will turn away from government as solution and turn toward the argument that government is the problem.

Is this crisis of confidence just an unintended negative consequence of extreme partisanship? Or is it, perhaps, the underlying strategy behind the blustering and blocking bloviations of the Republicans in Washington? After all, after the 2010 Congressional election, John Boehner candidly stated that the primary legislative priority of House Republicans was going to be to make sure that nothing that President Obama wanted would pass. Not that this or that particularly unacceptable proposal would be rejected. The sole criterion for determining the worth of a proposal would be where it originated, not what it contained.

This slavish partisanship is not a new approach, of course. Three hundred years ago, at the birth of the modern party system of competitive government in England, essayist Joseph Addison was already complaining in The Spectator that the worth of an idea was determined by which party proposed it, not by the quality of the idea itself.

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