Jenkins: Republicans bring country close to default - but, why?

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2013 

They tried threats. They tried more threats. President Obama took it to the hinterlands and to press conferences, using the bully pulpit of the presidency and personal charisma. The Republicans, House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell, did the same, but Boehner looks like a deer in the headlights all the time and McConnell comes across like an ol’ Southern pol who bounces between lobbyists’ parties and carries hand sanitizer in his pocket for those occasions when he has to shake hands with ordinary folks. Ah, yes, the modern face of the Republican Party.

Oh, and Boehner has the additional problem of knowing that his more-conservative majority leader, a lean and hungry Virginian named Eric Cantor, would sell him out for a pack of cigarettes and a couple of Slim Jims.

But what’s amazing about these guys is that, having scared the country half to death with threats of forcing America to default on its debt and risk plunging it into recession, they now act as if they’re deserving of paths of rose petals and a battleship signing ceremony for even trying not to do that. (“Mommy, I did not stuff Billy into his locker at school today, I did not tease the little red-haired girl and I did not make the neighbor’s dog swallow toothpaste. Sounds like somebody deserves a cookie!”)

One could say that President Obama may have failed to grease the skids with Congress early on by reaching out or trying to form alliances – but as the shutdown-debt ceiling crisis intensified, expecting the president to seek solutions with the likes of Boehner and McConnell was a little like daring him to put an apple on his head and hand the bow and arrow to Sarah Palin.

The Republicans have had the best show going, though. Here they were, having some sport with this president they so despise, toying with him by threatening to throw the country into shutdown and default. Boehner, actually looking pale at one point despite his fondness for maintaining his Hawaiian Tropic tan, kept hammering the president and talking about responsibility and how the American people don’t want Obamacare (even though they were jamming the computer network with inquiries about Obamacare).

McConnell of Kentucky held press briefings during which he echoed Boehner and kept a perpetual look on his face like he’d just walked through a stable down in bluegrass country.

And then: Uh, oh. It turned out that Boehner’s tea party minority really…did…intend…to shut down the government and put it in default! Hooray, they said! Yeah, that’s it! That’ll show Obama! No government, aw right! As long as there’s Social Security and Medicare. And an Army. And farm subsidies. And federal highways. And…

Following the 2012 election, it was said that the wise men and women of the Republican Party were planning to reshape their mostly white, arch conservative, protect-the-rich image into something more appealing to the future voters in a country that clearly was changing, and certainly becoming more culturally and racially diverse. Even as North Carolina Republicans were passing constitutional amendments and having a hissy fit over gay marriage, for example, many other places in the country were sort of shrugging their shoulders and reckoning the issue to be not much of a deal.

Some national Republicans worried that if the party didn’t change, it wouldn’t see the inside of the White House for another 20 years and might well lose control of Congress despite gerrymandered districts that seemed to give the ugliest dog in the dirtiest pet store a better chance at election than a Democrat.

Unfortunately, the party’s leaders just can’t give up their old habits of bashing the poor, holding down the middle class, alienating minorities, and harnessing the anger in the tea party base to maintain their power. The problem is, using the tea party in that way has made those in the extreme problematic. When Boehner bows and scrapes to them, they actually expect he will do what they want. If he doesn’t do it…say, he actually doesn’t put the country into default…well, big, bad John might want to think twice if Cantor suggests, say, they go get a bowl of chili at Clyde’s in Georgetown and Cantor volunteers to drive.

And there’s this: In the mid-1990s, House Republicans shut down the government. Their poll numbers took a dive, and President Bill Clinton’s took a leap once the crisis was over. Now it’s 2013, and…an interesting strategy and perhaps a slogan for 2014: We don’t listen and we don’t learn.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at

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