A SCENE from Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln came to me while watching the US Republican surrender over the debt ceiling crisis. President Abraham Lincoln’s advice to Thaddeus Stevens, a leading opponent of slavery, is almost unmatchable as a universal dialogue between the world’s radicals and the men and women who hope to get things done in the real world.
“A compass... will point you true north from where you are standing. But it’s got no advice about how to get around the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of having true north?”
I wish America’s wisest President had been caucusing with the current Tea Party radicals of his own party. For the just-concluded fiscal crisis has disastrously wounded the Republican Party.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln – in the President’s shrewd if folksy way – conveys his misgivings about an agenda not founded on reality. While he admires Stevens’s understanding of what is right, and the direction America should be moving in, he has deep concerns about how Stevens plans to get there. Lincoln rightly believes that ignoring life’s practical realities is not a sign of deeper devotion to a cause; instead it is a hallmark of almost certain failure.
There is little doubt that the Tea Party radicals have been entirely correct about policy; they know where true north lies. This is true both in terms of the baleful consequences of Obamacare (the unpopular healthcare reform that prompted the whole recent mess), and the generally suicidal efforts of Democrats to turn America into just another failed experiment in big state European social democracy. But by sinking knee-deep in the entirely avoidable swamp of fiscal crisis, Republicans stand in danger of discrediting their small state message, even as later events will prove it to be on the money. This is where the recent drama moves from farce to tragedy.
The surrender terms, embodied in the deal brokered by Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, can be dealt with in swift order.
The government is to be reopened until 15 January 2014. The debt ceiling is lifted until 7 February 2014.
A bicameral conference committee of Congress will be convened to try to secure a larger budget agreement, having until 13 December 2013 to finalise a comprehensive deal (fat chance).
The Treasury Department retains the ability to put off the February deadline by use of extraordinary measures, if another deadlock erupts.
Finally, in what amounts to an almost laughably negligible fig leaf, those eligible for Obamacare subsidies will be required to provide income verification to receive them.
It’s hard to remember a case of when such trivial concessions were achieved following such Promethean struggles.
For let’s not kid ourselves; the Republicans are the overwhelming losers here, brought low by their own radical, utopian tendencies in a way the canny Lincoln would well recognise.
In the Obamacare healthcare plan, the President’s admitted signature achievement, Republicans happened upon a gold mine: a deeply unpopular piece of law that had organically ignited grass-roots indignation all over the country. Lincoln would have used this gift (with the recent hapless roll-out of the plan furthering his cause) as a never-ending populist weapon to bludgeon the Democrats in the mid-term elections in 2014, and especially in the next presidential election in 2016. Then, with both Houses of Congress and the White House secure, repeal of the hated measure would be easy.
Instead, impatient with history, as radicals always are, the Tea Party stupidly managed to turn the greatest populist issue in a generation into a series of obscure parliamentary procedures, looking grossly irresponsible by calling into question the creditworthiness of the most powerful nation on earth.
The Republican brand, until recently seen by a majority of Americans as the party of responsibility, has been badly damaged.
As ever, the tragedy of callow radicals is that they damage good causes, and the hopes of people who share their ultimate goals, if not their methods in achieving them. More particularly, by their tactical gormlessness, by failing to understand how the world works, Republican radicals have significantly set back the precious cause of the benefits of small government, which for a time will be associated with serial irresponsibility and partisanship. If only Lincoln were here.
Dr John C Hulsman is president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.