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Fun and Games Ahead in 2014

If you thought 2013 was unpleasant, remember this one thing: at least it didn’t drop a mid-term election on us. This year’s big political event can’t be stopped, and will begin to take up twenty-three hours a day on the cable news channels no later than February 1. As analysts and activists flap their gums at that looming election, the strangest fact is how badly so many have misdiagnosed the Republican illness and its political context.

As a starting point, take Brian Leiter—please. Leiter, a law professor at the University of Chicago, is a figure of the left who has managed to generate hard feelings across the political spectrum. In a December 31 essay at the Huffington Post, Leiter took a detour from a willfully obtuse defense of law schools to throw in this not-genuinely-related comment on the Republican Party:

A large body of research—usefully summarized here—shows that when like-minded individuals congregate and talk only with each other, their positions become more extreme, and even contrary evidence is then interpreted as confirming the correctness of the most extreme opinions. We have seen this with the Republican Party, which, as Thomas Mann (of the liberal Brookings Institution) and Norman Ornstein (of the conservative American Enterprise Institute) have noted, is now “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

You have to be carefully, willfully out of your mind these days to think that the Republican Party is made up of “like-minded” people who “talk only with each other.” Recall Rick Santorum and Ron Paul seething with mutual contempt during the last presidential election, or witness the conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin’s disgust for Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX), or watch the reliably repulsive Rep. Peter King (R-NY) describe Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) actions as “disgraceful,” his face contorted with hatred.

The Republican Party is in the middle of a civil war, pulling itself in ten different directions at once: libertarian, authoritarian, blandly corporatist, aggressively confrontational, pro-status quo and wildly anti. It’s a party that doesn’t know what it is, at all, and is fighting to decide. Are there really people who look at Chris Christie and Trey Gowdy, John Cornyn and Rand Paul, Steve Stockman and Mitt Romney, FreedomWorks and the Center for Security Policy, and see like-minded people who talk only with each other? Reader, there are. Beats me how they manage it.

Leiter’s recourse to the think tankers Mann and Ornstein is telling. Here’s the pair pining for the good old days of bipartisan consensus in a much-cited 2012 Washington Post op-ed:

No doubt, Democrats were not exactly warm and fuzzy toward George W. Bush during his presidency. But recall that they worked hand in glove with the Republican president on the No Child Left Behind Act, provided crucial votes in the Senate for his tax cuts, joined with Republicans for all the steps taken after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and supplied the key votes for the Bush administration’s financial bailout at the height of the economic crisis in 2008. The difference is striking.

It certainly is. Look at that list and try not to feel physically ill: a federal law that rigidified public school curriculum and locked children into a grimly test-oriented pedagogical arms race; tax cuts during wartime that needlessly grew the federal deficit; the Patriot Act, domestic spying, strategically insane global war, and all the other wonderfully bipartisan “steps” taken after 9/11; and a financial bailout that graced favored banks with free cash, rewarding reckless business practices and creating moral hazard in he financial industry. How wonderful that Democrats “worked hand in glove with the Republican president.” How healthy.

It’s even better than that, though, because Mann and Ornstein have repositioned their brand in the political market with the kind of nakedness that reveals an incapacity for shame. In 2012, pining for bi-partisan consensus, the pair pointed us back to the halcyon days of the Bush administration, when Congress and the president walked hand in hand. In 2008, they wrote this remarkable thing, similarly pronouncing Congress to be in crisis—because members of the institution saw themselves “more as foot soldiers in the president’s army than as members of an independent branch of government.” In just four years, congressional cooperation with the Bush administration went from being a political disaster to being an example of how government is supposed to work. You too can sustain a think tank career if you can learn to be this . . . flexible.

In many places this year, the Republican congressional primaries may actually turn out to be the scene of real argument, actual debate centered on ideological differences and divergent standing in relation to the country’s hermetically sealed political class. The argument will end badly, particularly in Texas, but the process will be the healthiest thing to have happened in American politics in twenty years. Politicians will argue, in public, about what they believe and why. The miserable facade of bipartisan consensus, that wonderfully healthy dynamic that helped us to achieve major mutual victories like the war in Iraq, will crack just a little. Thank god for it, and take care to notice who complains about all the acrimony and the extreme tone. They’re the people you can safely ignore for the rest of your life.