Like the utterly shameless woman-child Miley Cyrus, modern Washington understands the mortal risk of banality, and so occasionally needs to make a singular spectacle of itself.
Republicans are doing that now: sticking out their tongue, grabbing their crotch, waggling their rear end and “twerking” for the cameras, to use that awful neologism.
Absurd behaviour is fuel in America’s public square. The place has run on it for years. Shamelessness pays. Ms. Cyrus is a brazen example, but hardly an exception.
Earlier this week, an illustrative exchange occurred at the White House press briefing.
A reporter asked presidential spokesman Jay Carney whether Barack Obama would consider giving Republican Speaker John Boehner some “political cover” and let him climb down from the threat of a catastrophic default on America’s debt obligations, given “the politics of the House.”
Translation: Given that poor Boehner is in thrall to his Tea Party militants at the moment, shouldn’t the president at least pretend to consider meeting their utterly unrealistic demand that he effectively destroy Obamacare, his three-year old health care law?
“Your question,” replied Carney, “contains within it, I think, the essence of why Americans hate the dysfunction here, because the suggestion is that the Speaker of the House can’t do the obvious and right thing because of his internal party politics.”
Perform for the crowd
The “obvious and right thing,” of course, being to raise the federal debt limit immediately, and put an end to this imbecilic discussion of default, the very threat of which is already disrupting the nation’s finances.
It’s true. That is the right and obvious thing, even to the Republican establishment. One even suspects the Tea Partiers can’t actually believe otherwise.
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But, like Ms. Cyrus, the GOP has to perform for the crowd (I’m being polite; carnies would call them rubes). Like Ms. Cyrus, one suspects, most Republicans would rather not shed all dignity, but the voters in their gerrymandered districts, they tell reporters, not only expect it, they’re cheering.
Representative Ted Yoho of Florida recently showed the Washington Post a few of the overwhelmingly positive messages he says he’s received from constituents since he and his fellow Tea Partiers orchestrated the partial government shutdown last week.
“Way to go, tiger,” said one of them, from a 72-year-old lady. Another texted “Shutdown” with a smiley emoticon.
Right-o. Great job, Tiger.
Here’s what Yoho and his fellow Republicans have actually accomplished:
In a weak economy, they’ve furloughed several hundred thousand public servants. Most, though, remain at work unpaid, providing essential services. And all of them, whether furloughed or working, will get all their back pay once this is over. That’s been decided.
So, the American public is now doing without things like mortgage authorizations (during a housing recovery), but is still bearing the full cost of government.
The way Washington operates
It’s pointlessly destabilizing, in other words. Its only function is allowing the Big Twerk to continue. Likewise the threat to force a national default.
John Boehner knows that would be crazy. He’s even sent messages through his colleagues to reporters making it clear he will eventually defy the Tea Party with a collaboration between House Democrats and a sensible minority in his own party if that’s what’s necessary to prevent the U.S. government from running out of money.
But for now, as the reporter’s question to Jay Carney made clear, Boehner has to stick out his tongue and grab himself and participate in the show. It’s just the way Washington operates.
If that means a drop in economic confidence to early-recession levels, as Gallup says has taken place in the past week, so be it.
Everyone, incidentally, participates in Washington’s theatre of the absurd sooner or later.
As Carney is perfectly aware, his own boss has been known to dress up as a showgirl when it suited him.
'Shifting the burden'
On March 16, 2006, when he was a U.S. senator, Barack Obama voted against raising the debt limit to allow the Republican administration of George W. Bush to keep borrowing.
Twerking and waggling, Obama declared that the very fact that the debt ceiling needed raising bespoke a “failure of leadership” by Bush.
The administration was “shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren,” said the future president. “Americans deserve better.”
Democrats say it’s an unfair comparison, that the only reason Senator Obama voted against raising the debt limit was because he knew very well it would be raised anyway, because Republicans controlled Congress back then.
Translation: Senator Obama voted for something he knew was idiotic because it would let him go back to the, um, crowd in Illinois that sent him to Washington and tell them how he’d stood up to those neocon Bushies.
Since then, as ridings have been shaped and reshaped to guarantee the incumbent’s re-election, and pollsters have developed ever-more-precise microtargeting to cater to constituents’ every emotional, angry wish, the freak show has only become more detached from proper governance, never mind the national interest.
And sometimes, the absurd circle is perfectly, sublimely squared: Last weekend, Saturday Night Live was hosted by the young Ms. Cyrus, who satirized herself with more shimmying, tongue-sticking and crotch-grabbing, but dressed up this time as Michele Bachmann, founder of the Republican’s Congressional Tea Party caucus.
Critics said the performance will only make Cyrus a bigger star. Some said she actually looks better dressed up as Bachmann.
Of course she would. It all has a dismal logic.