I have been discussing in previous posts the divisions within the Republican party. The split is not along any ideological lines (they are pretty much unified on all the major issues) but on strategy, between what we might call Tactical Obstructionists and Scorched Earthers. The Tactical Obstructionists are those who favor more traditional means of achieving political goals, carefully choosing those fights that they think they can win or that have the most resonance with voters, but letting the rest of the government function. This is the approach of the Republican party establishment.
The strategy of the Scorched Earthers, on the other hand, seems to be to try and gum up the works of government entirely so that nothing functions and little or no services are provided, except for those that serve the oligarchy and the military. So in addition to blocking the confirmation of president Obama’s nominees for administrative posts and judges and any legislation that benefits poor and middle people (such as restoring the SNAP benefits), the Scorched Earthers have refused to approve any budget, and so we now have the continuing budget resolutions that have become the norm. But since these continuing resolutions are based on the sequestration figures that indiscriminately cut government spending, the squeeze continues, hurting practically every sector of the economy. Democrats have to bear a lot of responsibility for this state of affairs because they agreed to the deal in December 2011 that created the sequester, as well as making most of the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy permanent.
What is extraordinary is that as part of the deal in September that reopened the government and extended the continuing resolution until January 15, 2014 and the debt ceiling until February 17, 2014, one element was that a new budget was to be completed by December 13. As far as I can tell, that last one seems to be going nowhere. But what is worse, there seems to be no sense of urgency to do anything. In fact, Congress is going to be on vacation for the most of the rest of the year, leaving no time to create a budget which means that yet another continuing resolution will be required setting the stage for another pointless round of brinksmanship.
It is clear that the scorched-Earthers have the upper-hand in the Republican party. It is not because they are numerically superior or have the most support. They do not. It is because the Scorched Earthers have exploited the fundamental weakness of politicians that they scare easily and almost inevitably choose the easy way out. By carefully targeting weak candidates for defeat for not being militant enough, and being successful in just a few high-profile cases of actually getting them to lose primaries, they have managed to put the fear of god in many others that unless they toe the line, they will be targeted next. The threat may be hollow but for many politicians there is no upside to fighting them. They acquiesce and hope that the bull’s-eye will be pinned on someone else.
The people wielding this threat are those outside groups that, thanks to the Citizens United case, now can pour huge amounts of money into political campaigns. This has spawned a new network of militant groups. One such group is Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation, which now wields considerable clout among Republicans. One weapon it uses is its ranking of Republicans on a congressional scorecard based on what they call ‘key votes’, i.e., votes on issues that they perceive as litmus tests for support. If something is deemed a ‘key vote’, Republicans are put on notice that if they vote the ‘wrong’ way, they become marked men and women.
The extent of the extremism being manifested by the Scorched Earthers can be seen in the fact that Obama’s nomination of Janet Yellen to replace Ben Bernanke ad Federal Reserve Chair has been called a key vote by Heritage Action despite Yellen being as solid an establishment figure as you can imagine.
We saw how the serial blocking of nominees got too much even for the normally patsy Democrats and so the filibuster was removed for that process but the rest of the gridlock continues. Heritage Action deciding to oppose Yellen is telling for the following reason. Since the filibuster threat for presidential nominees has been eliminated, there was never any doubt that Yellen would be confirmed. Normal political calculations, as favored by the Tactical Obstructionists, would suggest that the Republicans would save their fire for those nominees that they felt were too extreme, such as liberal judges or administrators who were perceived as too much on the side of ordinary people. People like Yellen would be let through in order to show that the Republican party consisted of reasonable people, who only opposed someone because of some genuine concern.
By opposing Yellen, the signal being given is that nothing less than total capitulation will be tolerated. The workings of government must be completely shut down or slowed drastically. The bitter fight against the Affordable Care Act is only one element of this. The Scorched Earthers seem to be calculating that if they can make the government completely dysfunctional, voters will be so disgusted by this paralysis that they will blame the Democrats and vote the Republicans back into power. If voters do do that, you can be sure that all this bogus concern with the deficit will go out the window and we will see a spending spree consisting of further tax cuts for the wealthy and spending on the military-industrial complex.
Will this strategy be successful? The 2014 mid-term elections is where we will see a trial run prior to the big show in 2016.