Thanks, Joe Barton
One feature of modern conservatism has been its ability to embrace, in the service of pragmatism and politics, things many of its followers find inimical. And I want to thank Joe Barton for confirming that that thin thread linking conservatives to basic political reality still exists.
“Wha-?” you say. Bear with me.
The conservatism of the past 40 years or so has basically been a critique of the modern liberal welfare state. Sometimes a pertinent critique, but usually just a critique – never an actual alternative. For the most part conservatives say they’re just fine with the achievements wrought by liberals, over their movement’s opposition: big things like Social Security, Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, and smaller things like regulations requiring seatbelts and airbags. That’s because the public overwhelmingly likes and approves of this stuff.
Lately, though, with the emergence of the tea party movement, conservatives are having a hard time covering up the fact that a lot of them aren’t really okay with the stuff they’re supposed to be okay with. And because they don’t really have a viable alternative to the basic outlines of the liberal welfare state, the atmosphere has been getting crazier and the potential policy results dangerous.
From GOP senate candidates, you had Rand Paul’s disagreement with the Voting Rights Act and Sharron Angle’s flirtations with taking up the armed struggle. They’ve been told to shut up, but these are merely the more flamboyant displays of what amounts to a broader Republican nihilism: the notion that the government doesn’t actually do anything that helps individuals, and that (whether for nefarious reasons or due to bureaucracy-run-amok) it’s actually a destructive force that can never do anything right, and as many government resources as possible should devolve to the private sector and individuals.
For instance, a few months back Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning filibustered funds for extending unemployment benefits, upgrading infrastructure, etc. As Bunning railed against government debt (a real problem, but one requiring a strategic, long-term solution), unemployed people and their families were left without money to pay their bills, transportation workers were furloughed and projects suspended. These on-the-ground facts didn’t matter to Bunning, and seemed not to matter much to the GOP leadership.
You had to wonder: does cutting off support for this stuff have no political consequences anymore? If so, then maybe the Great Recession really has changed the whole notion of America as a community.
Thursday, Texas Rep. Joe Barton upped the ante with his fawning apology to BP and his denunciation of the new $20 billion fund to aid people and businesses hit hard by the oil spill as a “shakedown.” I tried to think of ways this could possibly be good politics for Republicans, what constituencies outside of BP and the American Petroleum Institute it might play to. (Conceivably, the $20 billion could be mishandled, or won’t do enough, in which case the GOP could claim it was a bad idea all along – but its political logic now is still inexorable). It soon turned out that even Republicans considered his comments beyond the pale, and he apologized for his earlier apology.
So there are limits to the GOP anti-government rhetoric and its odd identification of corporate interests with the national one – at least in public. As this is mostly about public posturing, that’s not saying much. But it does show there are some bright lines of civility and community remaining in U.S. politics. Everyone officially agrees government still has a role to play. So thanks Joe Barton. The Sarah Palin wing lost one today.