Barack Obama took to the podium a few hours after his unyielding stance had forced Republicans to cry uncle, raising the debt ceiling and allowing the government to reopen in return for a sandwich full of sawdust. The president spoke about the real pain that the Republican shutdown of government inflicted on the American people. He then used that pain to strike at the very heart of modern Republicanism, the myth put forth by Ronald Reagan that "government is the problem." With one deft stroke, Barack Obama made clear that the shutdown and the threat of a national default flowed directly from Reaganism, that the tea party Republicans are no fringe element, but rather represent the core values of today's Republican Party:
In fact, one of the things that I hope all of us have learned these past few weeks is that it turns out smart, effective government is important. It matters. I think the American people during this shutdown had a chance to get some idea of all the things, large and small, that government does that make a difference in people's lives.
We hear all the time about how government is the problem. Well, it turns out we rely on it in a whole lot of ways. Not only does it keep us strong through our military and our law enforcement, it plays a vital role in caring for our seniors and our veterans, educating our kids, making sure our workers are trained for the jobs that are being created, arming our businesses with the best science and technology so they can compete with companies from other countries. It plays a key role in keeping our food and our toys and our workplaces safe. It helps folks rebuild after a storm. It conserves our natural resources. It finances startups. It helps to sell our products overseas. It provides security to our diplomats abroad.
So let's work together to make government work better, instead of treating it like an enemy or purposely making it work worse.
The shutdown showed us all the ways that government, rather than being the problem, actually solves problems and does things that matter in all of our lives. Here Obama has taken direct aim at Reaganism -- and connected Reagan's famous quote about government with the tea party radicals who shut it down. Obama also invoked another trenchant criticism of the extreme anti-government ideology of his opponents, one best captured by P.J. O' Rourke: "Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work, and then they get elected and prove it."
Humor aside, the president reminded people that Republicans have made it more difficult for government to work, and then complained when it doesn't. If we want a government that works, Americans must elect representatives who don't treat government like an enemy or sabotage its operations. The tea party does exactly that, and their anti-government extremism -- which derives directly from Reagan's own anti-government extremism -- is what caused the recent crisis.
If Republicans want to try and argue that St. Ronnie was no tea partier, then let them, but the only way to do that is to throw the tea party under the bus and contrast those nasty folks to their beloved demigod. And if tea party Republicans want to double down and say, yes, the tea party is great and Reagan was the original tea partier, then let them, that only makes Reagan look as extreme as they are.
The tea party brand has become toxic, and with good reason. Obama, in this speech, used the righteous anger and frustration people feel about those Republican radicals to drive deeper the wedge between the realists and the extremists in the GOP. Additionally, he showed that modern Republicanism itself is based on an extreme ideology that has proven in the past three weeks to be dangerous to our country and our democracy.
P.S. -- I've saved for this postscript my own personal bit of gloating. With the end of this ridiculous crisis that they manufactured, congressional Republicans have been exposed as radical, extreme and -- ultimately and most importantly -- stupid and weak. At least the widow of Sen. Frank Lautenberg got $174,000 out of the deal that reopened the government. The tea party Republicans didn't even get their parking validated.
And there was no other possible outcome. Any fool could see it coming. On that point, here's what I predicted way back on July 29:
President Obama must tell Speaker Boehner that he will not get he wants. Period. Obama won the election, and the American people are with him. If Boehner wants to shut down the government, then he must shut down the government. I believe that in such a scenario, given the polling and the president's history of being reasonable and willing to compromise, the American people will put the blame squarely on Boehner and the House Republicans.
The majority of House Republicans will not bend or yield no matter the public pressure, either because they are in safe districts, or because they are absolutely rigid ideologues. For some, it's both. So the only way this impasse can end is for John Boehner to do what he has already done four times this year (the fiscal cliff deal, Hurricane Sandy relief, the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, and a historical sites acquisition bill). He must put together a majority made up mostly of Democrats on the budget and, when the time comes, raising the debt ceiling.
The other part of my prediction was that the Republican party would break as old-fashioned conservatives recoiled from tea party radicalism. It started to happen even before the shutdown ended. And just in the past few days, we've seen a number of new examples along that front, perhaps the most important of which is Rep. Peter King (R-NY) all but declaring war on the head tea party Republican, Ted Cruz.
Between Republicans breaking, and President Obama pushing back hard against the tea party's founding ideology, there's reason to hope our country is finally lancing the boil of right-wing Republican radicalism.