Narrative watch: Republican obstructionism

"And now I would like to yield the podium to my colleague, whose wallet has been stolen. Somebody took it, and nobody is getting out of here until—what? You found it? For Christ's sake, Bob."

One of two narratives describes the Obama presidency, and if you tell me which one is true I can tell you which 24-hour news network you watch. Either President Barack Hussein Obama is a nouveau socialist whose cult of personality has allowed him to expand federal power to an unprecedented degree, or the Republican minority in Congress has put politics ahead of the best interests of the country and paralyzed the Hill with unrelenting obstructionism. We here at Combat! would never tell you what to believe,* but only one of these narratives has been fleshed out with a lot of scenes. Two weeks ago, Senate Republicans finally released the hold they had placed on Martha Johnson, the woman President Obama nominated seven months ago to head the General Services Administration. If you’ve never heard of the GSA, it’s probably because you are not a wholesale distributor of toilet paper and cleaning supplies; the agency’s primary task is to oversee the day-to-day maintenance of the Capitol and related buildings. Johnson was eventually confirmed with a vote of 94-2, suggesting that she was perhaps not such a controversial nominee after all. While an extreme example, she was just one of dozens of qualified applicants on whose nominations the GOP has placed holds, whether to ransom them for pet projects or out of a spirit of general dicketry. While calling the Republicans obstructionists seems unfair—they are the opposition party, after all—the discrepancy between their principled objections and their voting records is beginning to suggest that they’re playing politics, not government.

This awesome video from ABC News suggests that “The Party of No” might overcome its natural disadvantages and survive as a meme. For those of you who have jobs and can’t watch videos at two o’clock in the afternoon, it features Republican senators criticizing the President for not incorporating their ideas, then—when bipartisan support emerged for some of his proposed legislation—voting against bills that they themselves had co-sponsored. We also get to see some priceless footage of Republican congressmen posing with oversized stimulus checks, even though every House Republican voted against the package.

Richard Shelby (R-AL) has since dropped his seventy-some holds on Obama nominees, saying that he only did it to “get the President’s attention.” It’s probable that attention did have something to do with his decision, since the scope of his recalcitrance and the absurdly self-serving reasons behind attracted national media attention. As the narrative of Republican obstructionism gains traction, the actual obstructing gets more difficult to pull off. The filibuster was the omnipresent bogeyman in the debate over health care reform, but should some sort of package finally come to the floor, it’s difficult to imagine Mitch McConnell having the guts to read out of the phonebook for 72 hours while America watches on C-SPAN. John Q. Public, once the whole thing has been explained to him in a 150-second video, is just not likely to put up with that kind of crap.

Fortunately, congressional Republicans don’t have to filibuster anything; they just have to look like they might. The rest of the work will be done for them by—as Donald Craig Mitchell points out in this terribly-written column—Democratic pusillanimity. A student of history, Mitchell reminds us that John F. Kennedy came to office facing a Republican Party as hostile or worse than the one currently holding its finger in President Obama’s bowl of Kix. Kennedy probably stole the 1960 election, beating Richard Nixon by a razor-thin margin cut with razors manufactured in the city of Chicago. Still, JFK had no problem putting his administrative team in place, thanks in part to a stern lecture by the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, who reminded his colleagues that nominees should be limited only by the content of their characters and their commitment to the nation’s interest, not by their position on the political spectrum. Kennedy also had Lyndon Johnson, who terrorized the Senate and—when opposition within the Rules Committee became intractable—restructured the body’s procedural organs so that deadlock and unanimous consent were no longer handmaidens to entropy. In short, LBJ kicked ass, and when asses were hard to reach, he rolled people over.

The Democratic Party of 2010 has no Lyndon Johnson. They don’t even have an Andrew Johsnon, whose political incompetence was at least bolstered by a willingness to look bad in front of the American people. Instead, Republican obstructionism has met its match in Democratic timidity, as Congressmen on both sides of the aisle repeatedly prove their willingness to vote only with overwhelming majorities. On paper, 94-2 doesn’t look like the vote tally of a viciously partisan Senate.  It fits a pattern that the last year has made familiar, however: honorless old men, balancing the problems of a troubled nation on a scale that weighs fear against spite.

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  1. On President’s Day, C-Span radio was running interviews with various Presidents, including Nixon explaining in 1983 why he was caught (and using terms like “caught” instead of PR-speak) and Ford explaining with a GW-Bush-rivaling level of incoherence why he was proud of the way the Vietnam War ended. Anyway, they played LBJ’s appearance at the National Press Club recorded (I think) the day after Nixon took office in ’69. It was incredibly refreshing to hear a man actually own up to mistakes and talk about American politics as though it actually mattered to people/the world/history.

    My point: LBJ talked about how he’d been criticized for pushing through “too much too soon,” for using his scant five years in office to actually get huge chunks of his domestic agenda through. He talked about the Voting Rights Act and how proud he was of it. And I agree with him.

    What president since then has really done something to make us proud? Ford/Carter? Uh, no. Reagan? Well other than ending the Cold War and making the White house safe for seances and Alzheimer’s, no. Bush 1, nothing. Clinton? His horrifying crime bill and welfare reform and NAFTA? Mostly terrible. GW Bush? Ugh.

    It’s hard to like Johnson, what with his Vietnam record, but at least he kicked some ass.

  2. I applaud your willingness to differentiate Republican actions from Democratic when necessary, despite the temptations to be “fair” always for the sake of appearing unbiased. Too much journalism, even commentary, attempts to give equal weight to “each side” just because it’s a side, regardless of the evidence for or against either case. It’s one more problem of a two-party system.

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