What democratic norms?

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Why Ted Cruz Is a Radical and Obama Is Not

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

Catch of the Day to Dan Drezner, who points out the differences between congressional Republicans' reactions to Planned Parenthood and Barack Obama's response to the mass killings in Oregon yesterday. Drezner notes what the president didn't do in his speech:

  • Threaten to veto all appropriation bills unless and until Congress passed gun safety legislation;
  • Refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless and until Congress passed gun safety legislation;
  • Demand the resignations of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid because they have failed to push through gun safety legislation;

Obama, Drezner says, isn’t less upset; he’s just willing to accept the reality (while still working against it) that (mostly) Republicans oppose him on the gun-safety issue, and that they have the votes to win. Threatening to hold his breath until he turns blue -- or to threaten the health of the nation unless Republicans give in -- not only would be wildly irresponsible. It also wouldn’t work. The nation would be harmed for nothing.

But that is exactly what happened with the 2013 government shutdown. And it's what Senator Ted Cruz and the House Freedom Caucus wanted to provoke this week, using federal funding for Planned Parenthood as the excuse for a shutdown, and what they want to occur in November when the debt limit is reached, and when government funding runs out in December.

It isn't just that the Tea Party faction is irresponsibly failing to channel its anger in constructive ways. It’s that for Cruz, Louie Gohmert and the rest of the radicals, taking hostages is an end in itself -- the principle they believe in. They demand that their leadership exploit every "opportunity" for doing so, whether it's the need to keep the government's doors open or to prevent a default if the debt limit isn't raised. The ransom they ask -- an end to the Planned Parenthood support or budget cuts -- is almost beside the point.

I get pushback every time I call the Republicans who engage in this kind of politics “radicals.” How can I say that when Obama and the Democrats and mainstream conservatives also want to change the world, some readers ask. But only a small subset embraces the tactics of hostage-taking. This choice of labels has nothing to do with positions on particular issues. It has to do with understanding that for democracy to work, people have to compromise with those who disagree with them. It's about politics as the art of the possible.

So if the radicals succeed in bringing about a government shutdown or, even worse, a national default in the next couple of months, just remember: The principle at stake is a belief that Republicans should threaten to damage the nation if they don't get what they want. Yes, that's radical.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net