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Bennet Kelley Headshot

Return of the Kamikaze Congress

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The Miami Herald responded to House Republicans' intransigence by noting "[p]artisanship and precipice met in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday, and the Republican majority leapt into the abyss." Similarly, the Detroit Free Press explained that the vote was a victory only for "blind zeal and base politics."

Neither editorial, however, mentioned Speaker Boehner by name since these editorials were from 1998 when the Republicans came back to Washington following an electoral rebuke and voted to impeach President Clinton over the Lewinsky scandal. The last Washington Post pre-election poll showed 71 percent opposed impeachment, but the House went ahead anyway, as Speaker Newt Gingrich famously said, "because we can."

That was the moment that ideological extremism metastasized within the party so that dogma drowned out ideas and talking points trumped reason. Since then Republicans have only grown more intransigent with disastrous effects. They have clung to sound bytes regardless of facts or reason. "Tax cuts pay for themselves." "Government cannot create jobs." "Global Warming is a hoax." "Guns don't kill people."

The current "fiscal cliff" debate centers on allowing tax rates to return to relatively historically low levels in place during the Clinton boom years, before enactment and extensions of the Bush tax cuts. The Bush tax cuts were promised to create millions of jobs and pay for themselves but instead yielded few jobs and today (along with the concomitant decision to put the costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the government credit card) accounts for half of our debt.

Faced with a choice between the path of reason and the road to ruin, Republicans cling to ruin rather than adapt. That is the difference between ideas and talking points. Ideas evolve with new information, while talking points are static.

As a result, polls now show a majority of Americans believe that the Republican Party is simply too extreme -- including one in five Republicans. The first Kamikaze Congress faced similar disapproval over the impeachment vote but it was wildly popular among Republicans.

The sands may be shifting for current Republicans, as a majority of Republicans now believe that Obama has won a mandate to raise taxes. At the same time, this is the same party that nearly half believe the presidential election was stolen by ACORN and 44 percent either want their state to secede or aren't sure if they want their state to stay part of the Union. As long as these are the Republicans that turn out at town meetings and party functions and/or are a major source of their funding, the party is unlikely to yield.

This is especially true as long as their leadership will not even entertain the notion of compromise because they are afraid of the base. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has the worst in-state approval rating of any member of the Senate and was sufficiently spooked by the primary defeat of long-serving Senator Richard Lugar in neighboring Indiana to a Tea Party challenger that he has hired Tea Party Senator Rand Paul's campaign strategist for his 2014 reelection fight. Speaker Boehner also fears a leadership fight after this failed "Plan B." As a result, neither leader can be expected to exercise any real leadership and convince their caucus to compromise. With McConnell up for reelection and Republicans retaining control of the House in the new Congress, these types of false crises and brinkmanship are certain to continue -- at least until Republicans begin to face primary challenges from the center.

While many in recent years have raised the difficult question of how to remove the corrupting influence of money from politics, maybe a more realistic and timely question may be how to return reason to politics. Until then, Republicans likely will continue to illustrate Oscar Wilde's maxim that

Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason