Wanted: Beowulf Strength vs. Extremism

Beowulf has a compelling rebuttal to Mitt Romney’s closing argument this past week. Here’s what the GOP candidate said to supporters at a Friday Wisconsin rally:

You know that if the President is re-elected, he will still be unable to work with the people in Congress. He has ignored them, attacked them, blamed them. The debt ceiling will come up again, and shutdown and default will be threatened, chilling the economy.

Note the passive voice, which disguises who will be trying to use the debt ceiling as leverage, who will threaten to shut down the government and send the country into credit default. Hint: it’s not the Democrats. As E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post explains,

Democrats still have a positive view of government and regard trade-offs between taxes and spending as a normal part of governing. Republicans care most about reducing government’s size and in cutting taxes. They’re prepared to accept standoffs and crises to reach those goals.

In other words, Romney is saying, “Vote for me or my party will chill the economy.”

Although, for obvious reasons, Romney doesn’t mention the GOP Congress, here’s what they’ve been up to over the past two years, as outlined by Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine:

Since taking control of the House of representatives in 2011, Republicans have engaged in a de facto campaign of economic sabotage. They abandoned their previous belief, shared with the entire macroeconomic forecasting field, that short-term deficit reduction harms a depressed economy. They turned the debt ceiling vote, once an opportunity for mere posturing, into a hostage crisis threatening dire economic consequences worldwide.

What is particularly discouraging is that some moderate conservatives have been buying into the argument. Here’s former George Bush speechwriter David Frum of The Daily Beast explaining why he’ll vote for Romney:

The congressional Republicans have shown themselves a destructive and irrational force in American politics. But we won’t reform the congressional GOP by re-electing President Obama. If anything, an Obama re-election will not only aggravate the extremism of the congressional GOP, but also empower them: an Obama re-election raises the odds in favor of big sixth-year sweep for the congressional GOP – and very possibly a seventh-year impeachment. A Romney election will at least discourage the congressional GOP from deliberately pushing the US into recession in 2013.

And here’s David Brooks of The New York Times:

Republicans in Congress would probably go along [with a moderate Romney]. They wouldn’t want to destroy a Republican president. Romney would champion enough conservative reforms to allow some Republicans to justify their votes.

The bottom line is this: If Obama wins, we’ll probably get small-bore stasis; if Romney wins, we’re more likely to get bipartisan reform. Romney is more of a flexible flip-flopper than Obama. He has more influence over the most intransigent element in the Washington equation House Republicans. He’s more likely to get big stuff done.

Liberal pundits have been pointing out why this is bad reasoning. Tim Noah of The New Republic calls it “protection racket government.” Jamelle Bouie of The Washington Post says it would be “giving the hostage takers what they want.” Paul Krugman of The New York Times refers to extreme House Republicans as “the blackmail caucus.” And blogger Charles Johnson headlined an article on the subject, “Desperate Right Wing Partisan Resorts to Extortion: Nice little country you have here. Hate to see anything happen to it.”

Putting aside Frum and Brooks’ reasoning that it is okay to reward a party for its intransigence, are they right? Would a GOP in power become more moderate? Steve Benen of Maddow Blog points out that Brooks has made the same argument in the past and been proved spectacularly wrong:

Exactly two years ago this week, the New York Times columnist assured the public that the Republican Congress wouldn’t be that bad. On the contrary, Brooks said, the incoming Republican leaders would be “modest and cautious.” They’d be “sober.” They’d resist the urge to “overreach.” The GOP’s leaders, Brooks wrote at the time, are “prepared to take what they can get, even if it’s not always what they would like.”

Benen goes on the quote the conclusion of Brooks’ 2010 column:

The new Republicans may distrust government, but this will be a Republican class with enormous legislative experience. Tea Party hype notwithstanding, most leading G.O.P. candidates either served in state legislatures or previously in Washington. The No Compromise stalwarts like Senator Jim DeMint have a big megaphone but few actual followers within the Senate.

Over all, if it is won, a Republican House majority will be like a second marriage. Less ecstasy, more realism.

Notice how much wish fulfillment there is in Brooks’ prediction. He was hoping for a Congress that used its “legislative experience” to govern with his moderation. Instead we have had one of the worst Congresses on record, a Congress whose approval ratings at times have dropped into the single digits. Now he is trying to spin Romney the same way.

What would Beowulf do? Or rather, what would Beowulf not do? Through the story of Queen Wealtheow and Hrothulf,  the poem shows that those who attempt to placate extremism are victimized by it.

The situation is as follows. King Hrothgar and Queen Wealtheow are worried that, were Hrothgar to die, their ambitious nephew Hrothulf, as regent, would seize the throne from their two young sons. To forestall this possibility, Hrothgar wants to name Beowulf as his successor. Wealtheow, however, understandably doesn’t want her sons disinherited so she talks Hrothgar out of the idea, assuring him that Hrothulf will not repay Hrothgar’s generosity with radical behavior.

Wealtheow could just as well be David Brooks talking about the House Republicans. No sooner does Hrothulf get into power than he kills one son, tries to kill the other, and seizes the kingdom. Is there any reason to think that the currently radical GOP, if it gets its man into the White House, will be content to allow him to govern as a moderate? Has there been any sign from Romney that, when the fighting gets tough, he will stand up to his right wing? The extremists may be allowing Romney to say anything he wants at the moment, but that’s because they’re pretty sure they can control him once he is elected.

The lesson of Beowulf is that, if you don’t stand up to extremism, extremism will keep pushing. In my book I quote Brooks making exactly this point last February and blaming moderate Republicans for failing to, essentially, be Beowulf strong in the face of raging resentment. Here’s Brooks:

The wingers call their Republican opponents RINOs, or Republican In Name Only. But that’s an insult to the rhino, which is a tough, noble beast. If RINOs were like rhinos, they’d stand up to those who seek to destroy them. Actually, what the country needs is some real Rhino Republicans. But the professional Republicans never do that. They’re not rhinos. They’re Opossum Republicans. They tremble for a few seconds then slip into an involuntary coma every time they’re challenged aggressively from the right.

Without real opposition, the wingers go from strength to strength.

Forgetting his strong words, Brooks is now proving himself an Opossum Republican by endorsing Romney. If the forces of intransigence know that the Brookses of their party will come around eventually, then why should they behave any differently?

As I write in the conclusion of my book,

Those Republicans who have not surrendered to rightwing extremism need to keep pushing for moderation in whatever ways they can. They must call out Grendelian resentment whenever they encounter it, chastising fellow Republicans who scapegoat illegal immigrants, American Muslims, gay and lesbian Americans, and African Americans, among others. Moderate Republicans must resist the urge to become hysterical about their own grieving. They must, above all, do what they can to convince their party not to make drastic cuts to the social safety nets (“hammocks” as some in their party deride them) and not to move ever more of the country’s riches upward to the very wealthy. Perhaps these moderate Republicans might point out that Henry Ford made millions by insuring that his workers had enough money to buy the cars they made.

Granted, moderates will find themselves under dragon fire if they call for a more equitable distribution of the country’s riches. Heroes don’t always reap immediate rewards. But if they stay strong, sooner or later they will attract Wiglafs [the younger generation] to their side.

What I don’t mention is that moderate Republicans should, in this election, vote for Obama. If Brooks were really to be a Beowulf, he would do what Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish has done in making a “conservative case for Obama.” Sullivan was once a Bob Dole and George Bush supporter but he now thinks that only through electoral defeats will the GOP abandon its rightwing radicalism and find its way back to its conservative roots.

In short, don’t think that you can placate the extreme right by electing Mitt Romney. He will not be able to control them. Rage doesn’t respect his brand of soft peddling.

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