Why John Boehner has to keep making crazy threats

The right-wing institutions designed to help Republicans implement their agenda have lost touch with reality

Published August 15, 2013 2:00PM (EDT)

John Boehner                                   (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

You probably read yesterday about the efforts of John Boehner and the Republican leadership in the House to convince the rank-and-file members that shutting down the government until Obamacare is defunded is a Bad Idea, and not a Brilliant Political Maneuver. Robert Costa's account in the National Review has the basic narrative. It looks, now, like Boehner has succeeded in defusing the shutdown threat. All he had to do was promise something worse. Now we are going to not raise the debt ceiling instead.

As Jonathan Chait points out, replacing the shutdown threat with a default threat is actually much crazier and more potentially disastrous. But Boehner couldn't get Republicans to agree to just give up on defunding Obamacare this year. He had to promise to exchange their one crazy plan to do so with another one that will go into effect later. And when it is time for that one to go into effect, he will need to find something else to distract them for a little while, until the next crazy plan is ready to go. As Brian Beutler says, we've seen this play out over and over again. Boehner has to promise to let Republicans do some apocalyptic thing later in order to get them to avoid doing some apocalyptic thing now. So far we've avoided an apocalypse.

But the people Boehner is trying to deal with here don't see any of these threats as particularly apocalyptic. They don't really see anything at all that might contradict their ideological stances. The House members Boehner's trying to walk back from the ledge don't read the Times or the Post. They don't care what Brookings or the CBO or CRS say. They believe every "nonpartisan" or "objective" information source to be a part of the vast liberal conspiracy, and they rely for their facts and predictions strictly on sources explicitly aligned with the conservative movement. And those sources are just telling them crazy, untrue things, all the time.

That's Boehner's problem: He's trying to ease his members into the real world, where defunding Obamacare is impossible as long as Obama is in the White House, and where attempts to do so via incredibly unconventional means could have disastrous consequences. What makes his job more difficult is that this reality isn't acknowledged by most of the conservative organizations his members, and his party's voters, exclusively follow.

Take Heritage, for years the most influential conservative think tank (it is still in the top five, depending on how you categorize advocacy groups like FreedomWorks). Heritage has been attempting to convince Republicans that a shutdown wouldn't be such a big deal. Polls commissioned by Heritage say a government shutdown wouldn't cause anyone to lose their seats, so have at it! The poll, by the way, was conducted entirely in Republican or Republican-leaning House districts.

Now, the venerable Heritage Foundation isn't saying this. The poll, and the shutdown encouragement, were issued by "Heritage Action for America," the 501(c)(4) group founded as Heritage's sister organization in 2010, to take advantage of the new post-Citizens United "almost anything goes" rules for supposed "social welfare" organizations. "Think of it as the Heritage Foundation with teeth," Betsy Woodruff said in the National Review. So far Heritage Action has been using those teeth to drag the GOP into the world of right-wing fantasy, in which the Farm Bill must be rejected because it does not cut food stamps enough, and the border "surge" amendment to the immigration reform bill must be opposed because $38 billion worth of fences and agents aren't enough.

For years, the Heritage Foundation's mission was to craft conservative policy ideas that would both be possible to implement and be broadly popular. School vouchers and welfare reform and tax cuts are all ideas within the realm of the politically possible, and they are also all ideas that have polled quite well at various times. This was effective: Reagan and George W. Bush's domestic agendas came largely prepackaged by Heritage. But now the organization is using its lobbying arm to just demand total fealty, damn the consequences, to the most extreme form of conservatism possible. That is something of a shift. But it's a shift the movement has seemingly embraced in the Obama era. Now even supposedly "sober" and "grown-up" conservatives argue that breaching the debt ceiling wouldn't be so bad -- may even indeed be pretty good depending on how you look at it! -- and work to convince Republicans that the way to handle demographic change is with strict immigration limits and the militarization of the border, combined with making the party even more dependent solely on white votes.

This is not a left-winger pining for the days of Republican "moderation." Heritage and the National Review were always very conservative. They were just realistically conservative. Professional conservatives graduated some time ago from misleading others to lying to themselves.

If you want evidence, look at the rapturous praise that greeted the publication of "American Betrayal" by Diana West, a book that argues that ... McCarthy was right about everything and that the FDR administration was a puppet regime for Stalin, and that we purposely delayed winning World War II so that the Soviets could have more of Europe when it was finished. The book is just untrue, start to finish. Conservative historian Ronald Radosh -- writing in the online publication of David Horowitz, a man who is not unfriendly to wild conspiracy theories about leftists -- patiently and at length knocked down nearly every single one of its claims in a review. The book is so silly that Radosh planned to ignore it, but he couldn't once he saw how the movement had fallen for it:

But I changed my mind after seeing the reckless endorsements of its unhinged theories by a number of conservative individuals and organizations. These included the Heritage Foundation which has hosted her for book promotions at a lunchtime speech and a dinner; Breitbart.com which is serializing America Betrayed; PJ Media which has already run three favorable features on West; Amity Shlaes, who writes unnervingly that West’s book, “masterfully reminds us what history is for: to suggest action for the present”; and by conservative political scientist and media commentator Monica Crowley, who called West’s book “A monumental achievement.”

Hey, there's Heritage again! And Amity Shlaes, who wrote a book about how FDR made the Depression worse with liberalism. That book didn't really coherently build an economic case against Keynesianism but because it had a thesis conservatives liked it quickly became popular, and she has been writing for Forbes and the Wall Street Journal ever since. (And Bloomberg View, for some reason.) This West book is just another step away from reality, into the sweet embrace of fantasy. FDR didn't just make the Depression worse, he also surrounded himself with Stalinists! The far right has been pushing this shit for decades, obviously. It used to be the mainstream right's job to make sure it only traveled as far as was politically expedient. Now they lap it up themselves.

This is why Boehner is having so much trouble. He can't live entirely in this wonderful fantasy world. He has to actually raise the debt ceiling and make sure essential government services get funded. All the institutions designed to make his life easier, to corral the voters, activists and even legislators into supporting the agenda and ensuring the future success of the Republican Party, are all too busy make-believing about the 1930s and convincing themselves that they can defeat Obamacare if they simply want to bad enough, to be of any assistance.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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