This isn’t economics, but then David Brooks in his March 25 column predicts the end of economics as a discipline, saying that “economics would again become a subsection of history and moral philosophy.” (And not a minute too soon). In any case, I’ve been brooding about the Antichrist, after reading a recent Harris poll. 24% of Republicans — according to this poll — believe that “President Obama may be the Antichrist.” A key word here is “the.” If you take this for what it seems to imply and you go through the numbers, this means that about 16 to 20 million adults are wondering around loose in America believing that President Obama is the person put on earth over the last 2000 years to be the adversary of Christ. (This is a little different than the references to the Antichrist in John1 and 2 in the New Testament.)
This explains a great deal and may tell us what the driving force behind the current insanity of the Republican Party and the Tea party is actually about. If you have read my blogs, you know that while I eventually supported the health care legislation, I do not regard it as one of the great moments of legislative craftsmanship, and we do not have much of a clue about how we will pay for it. But I was extremely puzzled and repulsed by the behavior of Republican office holders and rank and file, and of Tea party members over last weekend.
You can find descriptions of the weekend a lot of places, I think that the best overall piece was by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post. Dana Milbank is an equal opportunity ridiculer and cynic about government and politics so I’m comfortable with quoting from his piece. Here are some selected quotes: “As the Capitol Police led the demonstrators from the chamber, Republicans cheered — for the hecklers. ” And “dozens of GOP lawmakers … proceeded to incite an unruly crowd.” And Republican congressmen whipped the masses into a frenzy.” And “conservative activists formed a gantlet and shouted insults: ‘You communists! You socialists! You have America!” Thursday, Philip Rucker’s Washington Post piece reported “10 House Democrats reporting death threats or incidents of harassment or vandalism.” In the same article, Congressman Bart Stupak is reported as having received “a voice mail saying: ‘You’re dead. We know where you live. We’ll get you.”
I think it is hard to get from a fight over a particular piece of legislation even if it is big and unacceptably messy to this kind of behavior. It is motivated by something else and maybe the Antichrist point shows what that something else is. I thought it was bad enough that the Harris poll indicated that 67% of Republicans believe President Obama is a socialist; 57% that he is a Muslim; and 52% that he wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one world government. I didn’t think this augured well for the country, but also just thought, “Get a grip.” But if the Republican Party is now in the hands of people who actually believe President Obama is the one person chosen over the last 20 centuries to be Christ’s opponent, then we kind of have a problem with a working democracy.
In the short run, the strategy of Republican leaders to mildly remonstrate their core but keep up this “energy” will probably be a November disaster for them. The American people are sensible, basically centrist and private, largely want government to leave them alone, and have a deep contempt of current politics. The Congress has sunk to a low teen’s favorable number in most polls, and the Republicans come off slightly worse than the Democrats. The vast majority of Americans would prefer — although I do not know of a poll that shows this — that political debate not start with the assumption that their president is the Antichrist.
But in the long run, a country cannot be governed sensibly in the midst of this kind of politics. There is no basis for any middle ground. As an example, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan has a entirely responsible and sensible column in the Friday, March 26 New York Times on what he disagrees with — which is most of — in the health care reform, and what he thinks we should now begin to consider. You can agree or disagree on the substantive merits of his ideas (I particularly agree with his point that “the regressive tax preference for employer-based health insurance” is a significant force for health care inflation.), but we know the reform just passed isn’t over and done. There will have to be on-going big changes. But how can there possibly be the kind of centrist discussions and negotiations required with substantive politicians like Paul Ryan when his leadership either believes or has chosen as a central strategy to encourage those who believe that President Obama embodies evil itself?
The Republican leadership has, to date, followed a highly cynical strategy. They have whipped up the part of their base that believes President Obama is not just an opponent but “the other.” They have excused unacceptable language, threats, and acts. And then from time to time, they have moderated their language just enough so that they can always quote themselves as being reasonable. If they wish to remain a great party they have to disavow this direction fundamentally and let that part of their base go.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Braintruster Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team.