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Michael Brenner Headshot

Republicans and Democrats -- Both Losing It

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Democrats and Republicans are behaving like two cellar dwelling NBA teams desperate to get the No. 1 draft pick by finishing with the worst record. Turnovers mount, shooting percentage plummets and defense becomes casual 'ole' passes at any opponent cutting to the basket. Playing against each other produces gaffes, goofs and fumbles in profusion. This bipartisan display of losing strategies and inept tactics sends the message that they as incompetent at politics as they are at governance.

Of course, this sad reality is not what is portrayed by the pundits and commentators who treat this pageant of error as a battle of titans. Disraeli's Tories versus Gladstone's Liberals, Lincoln's Republicans versus Douglas' Democrats. They cannot see the travesty for the turmoil and turbulence that passes for what should be a high stakes competition for the right to rule a great nation. Scatter armed rookie Paul Ryan the Republican quarterback for the game of the generation? William Daley of Goldman Sachs and Chicago machine capo to orchestrate change you can believe in and transparent government?

Political suicide is never pretty. Suicide of a political party is especially ugly. Simultaneous suicide by our two parties is reason to wonder about the fate of the Republic. Republicans and Democrats seem to be in a contest to see whose demise will be occur first. The varied methods are appropriate to the personality of each. The Republican Party is in a rage so violent that it looks like a repeated, botched attempt at hari-kari. Overtaken by fits of fierce anger provoked by the tepid Barack Obama's presence in the White House, they are lashing out at whomever and whatever haunts a disturbed psyche. They impulsively violate every norm of civil political discourse.

It means crossing the boundary between the real world and their fanciful, fearful world of ghosts and goblins. It means the quixotic search for a restored national glory in the verities of the Roaring Nineties. It means that those of reasoned and reasonable temperament place themselves hostage to the rants of old believers, evangelicals caught between reaction and Rapture, and pure crackpots. It means issuing permission slips to bigots, to haters, to simpletons of every stripe. If today's Republicans were a European party, the news stories would read: once again, the dreaded specter of.....

The Democrats, typically, prefer a gradual, lingering death by self-inflicted wounds. It is all low-key, the political equivalent of a fatal stupor induced by small dosages of a slow working drug that allows the victim to exhibit signs of normalcy right to the end. Fittingly for Democrats, it is being administered by a supposed healer whose arrival on the scene had been heralded as bringing Messianic redemption to a deeply depressed patient long suffering from self destructive behavior. Somehow you sense that he himself will avoid the collective burial ceremony. A second term for an administration to the Right of Richard Nixon alongside a slash-and-burn Republican Congress. The locus of public opinion on most salient domestic and foreign issues is well to the Left of where the Democratic Party has positioned itself. But that truth hardly figures in the White House's policy preferences or political calculations.

Let us speak frankly. The Democrats, by all objective measures, should have been riding a wave that ushered in an era of dominance. An avowedly progressive program that conforms to the needs and the mood of Americans should be taking root. Instead, they were wiped out in the House in 2010 and fret, with good reason, over the prospect of losing the Senate next year to an opposition as far off the charts and as reckless as an American party ever has been. In extremis, the Democratic Party still backs away from a fight. Democrats can't bear the sight of blood -- especially that of their enemy's.

Let's remember that 2008 marked a popular reversion from failed Republican governance that single-mindedly strove to impose a radical program on the nation. Its actions discredited it at home and abroad. Its legacy was two pointless wars and an economic collapse that harks back to the days of the Great Depression. Its plutocratic philosophy had pushed income disparities into the company of developing world kleptocracies. Its anti-government crusade wrecked large parts of the federal government as vividly demonstrated by its shameful performance on Katrina. It played fast and loose with our cherished civil liberties. If Obama were white and more aggressive, he would have garnered 56 or 58% of the vote instead of the 53% that undeservedly is celebrated as a great triumph.

Obama is the main reason for this perverse outcome. Yes, the Democratic Party is riddled by those who have sold out to the powerful interests -- to varying degrees. But it is Obama who enabled and empowered them by his diffident, above the fray attitude and by his own attachment to a conventionally conservative view of the country. After all, he has said himself that Ronald Reagan is his personal model of inspirational leadership. Since the November returns came in, the White House has turned its back on the Democrats' most steadfast backers to purr around the ankles of the country's venal business community. Obama obviously is instinctively more at home with the power centers of the Pentagon, CIA and Wall Street that he is with progressives whom he disdains.

Obama's primary, compelling tasks were to overhaul the machinery government, to make it accountable, and to reaffirm the vital role of government in modern American society. A close look at the record reveals the sad truth that our change president has been constant in his dedication to only one big change in the White House -- its occupant. Yet, many progressives still avert their eyes from this harsh reality. All is excused or justified or tolerated in silence. Even the meek capitulation in December when Obama gave eternal life to the Bush tax cuts for the rich in exchange for a handful of instant porridge did not shake the faith of his apologists. Trillions are being diverted from the federal Treasury -- and the social programs they could finance -- into the bank accounts of the un-needy and undeserving. In retrospect, that act will figure as the Democratic Party's functional equivalent of the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. A crass reversal of everything Obama supposedly stood for, it was a voluntary action supportable only by those who put loyalty and wishful thinking before critical judgment. To drive home the point, he made Jeffrey Immelt, the head of tax evading and off-shoring General Electric, his chief economic adviser. The Democratic Party, progressives foremost among them, has lost its soul. Its ranks are now filled by those who will follow their discredited prophet anywhere -- or nowhere.

So the hope, the expectation, the passion and the yearning for a better America drains away. At the very least, we are stuck with the noxious status quo. And there is a good chance that the country's free floating anger, which Obama has been uninterested in channeling for good ends, will wind up bringing to power those who are the cause of it. The madcap Republican Party may yet survive its own suicide attempt to test the limits of how much ruin this country can stand.