WASHINGTON — For the crime of attempted compromise, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) is being hounded by a furious Republican right-wing that considers civil conversation with Democrats a suggestion of weakness, if not a sign of outright capitulation. Though Chambliss has spent years in service to conservative causes, his membership in the now-fracturing Gang of Six — a bi-partisan group of senators who have attempted to hammer out a deal on the federal deficit — has subjected him to harsh criticism among ultra-conservative purists.
For his work on deficit reduction and for other alleged heresies, Chambliss has earned the ire of Erick Erickson, a hyper-conservative Georgia blogger and talk radio host, who wants to defeat the senator in 2014. “Tea party activists in Georgia who want to make a big impact have two years to organize, mobilize, and lay the groundwork to get rid of Saxby Chambliss . . .Now, why Saxby?. . .Saxby has consistently stabbed conservatives in the back and it is time to take him out,” Erickson wrote earlier this month.
Chambliss is not a man you’d mistake for a moderate. He opposes allowing gays to serve openly in the military, opposes reproductive rights and dutifully serves the National Rifle Association. Still, he has been openly rebuked for daring to enter discussions that might lead to a deal with Democrats. (Let me emphasize “might.” Now that Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, another conservative Republican, has dropped out of the Gang of Six, the odds of a deal have plummeted.)
This is what it has come to: A fundamental principle of democratic governance — negotiating with political opponents in good faith — has come under attack from an irrational ultra-conservative base that demands its own way while claiming to champion the U.S. Constitution. They dismiss the democratic process if it produces a result they oppose. They denounce tyranny — unless it is in service of their own ideals.
Let Rush Limbaugh say what he will, there is simply no similar force on the political left. Liberals have their fringe lunatics, of course. Recently, the usually-respectable, if always ultra-liberal, Princeton professor Cornel West fired several crazed volleys at President Barack Obama — condescendingly dismissing him as a “centrist” and labeling him, more or less, an Uncle Tom.
But Obama gives his party’s radical elements a subtle third-finger salute. He’s a pragmatist dedicated to cutting the best deal he can get, even if it means setting aside a campaign pledge or two. And it’s unlikely he will get so much as a primary challenge for it because of his broad appeal among Democrats.
The climate is a lot more hostile to the ideals of cooperation and compromise on the other side of the aisle. Not even the sainted Ronald Reagan would have come up to the take-no-prisoners, brook-no-compromise standards of tea partiers, Limbaugh and the anti-tax radical Grover Norquist. Though conservatives try to airbrush these facts from history, they are, indeed, stubborn things: Reagan cut deals with Democrats to raise taxes — several times. During his presidency, business taxes were raised, the gas tax increased, Social Security taxes hiked.
Chambliss has refused to use the phrase “tax increase,” referring, instead, to “revenue increases.” Since taxes constitute, by far, the biggest source of revenue for the federal treasury, that means somebody’s taxes will go up. For Norquist, that’s a violation of conservative dogma.
The Republican Party is now held hostage to its fringe elements, a development that endangers us all. With a GOP-controlled House and a Senate barely in Democratic hands, Congress is whipsawed by the demands of an angry minority of tea partiers, paranoid conspiracy theorists, leftover John Birchers and anti-government cranks.
That’s why House Speaker John Boehner has moved from reasonable to rigid in his statements on raising the debt-ceiling: He is afraid of alienating the tea party forces in his caucus, who don’t seem at all concerned about the prospect of pushing a fragile economy over the edge into the abyss. Wall Street’s entreaties haven’t brought them around.
(Reagan would have run afoul of GOP radicals here, too. In 1983, he sent a letter to Howard Baker, then Senate Majority leader, urging the Senate to raise the debt ceiling and warning of “incalculable damage” if the U.S. defaulted on its debts for the first time in its history.)
Eventually, I’d guess, the Republican Party will come to its senses, relegate its fringe to Siberia and return to a platform that embraces reason, logic and cooperation. Unfortunately, the nation’s economy could be a smoldering ruin by then.