Belmont Club

The Speaker Flubs His Lines

It was as if John Boehner had a confession to make after all these years of troubled conscience.  His recent resignation had the effect of suggesting the pro wrestling in Congress is fake.  The Washington Republicans, dear fans are supposed to lose  — after making some effort to heighten the drama — to the Capital Democrats.  All those heart stopping moments toward the end lost due to some error or a sudden reversal of fortune — well that was in the script.

Republican Eric Cantor, writing in the New York Times, argues that there was no dishonor to being on the losing team so long as the game drew the crowds in.  It kept the masses entertained, filled the stadium, paid the bills and prevented the Capital Democrats from winning too easily. There was an art to arranging things so that the Capital Democrats could imperceptibly gain a hundred points and let the Washingtons win back ten of them without becoming too obvious.

The payoff for playing by the rules was that it kept things going. In fact the long term statistical predictability of a staged game is so much better than a real one.  In a sense, the system contributed to world and social stability because it allowed orderly progress to be planned without letting things get too dull. Cantor described how this worked by citing an example of the way things should unfold:

During President Obama’s first two years in office, his party controlled the House and for a time had a supermajority in the Senate. Almost entirely on their own they enacted a nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill, Obamacare and Dodd-Frank financial regulations. Not for the first or last time, alternative suggestions from Republicans were dismissed out of hand.

Following that, the American people elected Republicans to the majority in the House. And Mr. Obama’s liberal platform ground to a halt. Spending actually went down. Republicans, led by Speaker Boehner, provided the check and balance voters had demanded.

Now all stability is at risk from people, hicks who not knowing the noble history of the game, actually want to wrassle for real.

But somewhere along the road, a number of voices on the right began demanding that the Republican Congress not only block Mr. Obama’s agenda but enact a reversal of his policies. They took to the airwaves and the Internet and pronounced that congressional Republicans could undo the president’s agenda — with him still in office, mind you — and enact into law a conservative vision for government, without compromise.

Wrassle! Why … There were unwritten rules that kept everything civil. One of them was that Masked Barry was allowed to pound his opponents with a stool but Kid Boehner must limit himself to a few mild body-slams.   Without these rules limiting actual violence there was the danger than a real fight might erupt in the ring  — and someone might get hurt.  Cantor urged the Republicans to remember the bigger picture and stay within bounds.

The response I often hear to these points is: “Well, Republicans at least need to fight.” On this I agree. It is imperative that we fight for what we believe in. But we should fight smartly. I have never heard of a football team that won by throwing only Hail Mary passes, yet that is what is being demanded of Republican leaders today. Victory on the field is more often a result of three yards and a cloud of dust. In politics this means incremental progress, winning hearts and minds before winning the vote — the kind of governance Ronald Reagan perfected.

What’s really at stake is not just the fate of the Washington Republicans but the wrestling federation itself.  Since loyalty to the sport should be greater than loyalty to the team, the end of illusion is to be regretted. In fact Republican Lindsay Graham is so worried that Boehner’s public breakdown may have discredited the Game such that it may prove difficult to attract the fans to the next season matches.

Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham is concerned that one politician’s recent actions could cause the party’s meltdown — and it’s not Donald Trump.

It’s John Boehner, who announced his plans to resign as Speaker of the House on Friday. …

Graham’s central fear is potential collapse within the party that will “hurt our brand even further” and possibly jeopardize the chances of seizing the White House next year.

David Weigel at the Washington Post argues that a series of events led the fans to suspect the league was rigged,  events which led to the Speaker’s resignation.  Although fans came to the stadium for Republicans in record numbers they soon began to think something was sorely amiss which led the rowdier elements in the bleachers to start pelting the ring with rotten vegetables.

The problem was that the Republican Party’s conservative base had been promised more — sometimes by Boehner himself. The historic 2010 wins that gave him the gavel were powered by the tea party movement, which demanded the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and which Boehner indulged on the trail. In his first post-victory news conference, Boehner promised that Republicans would “do everything we can to try to repeal this bill and replace it with common-sense reforms.”

That never happened. Stand-alone repeal bills were smashed by the Senate. The debt limit, which conservatives attempted to turn into a vehicle for repeal, was passed with a smaller package of spending cuts. In 2013, those same conservatives were joined by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in a fight that briefly shut down the government, before it was reopened with full Obamacare funding. In 2014, conservatives won another landslide, and McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, seemed to suggest that they could finally unravel the Obama administration, “reducing the funding or restricting the funding” for bad law.

Weigel’s analysis is perceptive but too narrow.  It neglects to account for the fact that real developments outside the closed, hermetic world of Washington DC are shattering the suspension of disbelief upon which all good shows depend.   Real consequences are impinging upon the artificial world of the ring canvas.

The fans, once enraptured by the wrestling, have noticed large fires starting outside the stadium.  They hear shouting a few blocks over in Chinese.  In the far distance there’s appears to be a rumble of Russian.  And right next door, where the smoke (is it smoke?) seems to be coming from thickest, are loud yells in Arabic, French and German.

They notice that the price of tickets gets higher and higher; and the food service quality lower and lower.  The space under the seats looks like they haven’t been swept in weeks.  And there are disturbing movements of cash boxes from the ticket gate they’ve never noticed before.  They sense, even if they can’t articulate it, that something is different.

Yet to their astonishment no one in the wrestling ring, not even the announcer, appears to take the slightest notice of events and carry on making the same choreographed moves, the same scripted sounds.  At that point, they crowd may start to boo.

That could prove enough to break the spell.  As any dramatist knows, there is nothing more fatal for a play than the audience to so lose interest in the plot that they begin to notice the shabbiness of the props, the obvious make-up of the players and the cardboard nature of their swords.  For at that moment onward, the production is doomed.  The greatest danger to a show is that the crowd begins to to see the play-outside-the-play.

Boehner’s depature is yet one more sign that the narrative is breaking down.  Both in Europe and in America, the same old nostrums are having increasingly less effect.  The problem is growing without an answer in sight. The players are still going through the motions, but they are only making things up as they go along.

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