In all American cultural history, there has never been a phenomenon quite like Will Rogers. For in his relatively brief life Rogers, (1879-1935) was a man who wore many, many hats: cowboy, vaudeville performer, movie star, radio favorite, columnist, author, social commentator and world-class pundit. During the 1920s and 1930s he was one of the best-known, best-loved celebrities on the planet. At the time of his death, he was also the highest-paid movie star in the world, making an estimated $35,000 a week. Rogers' syndicated column, Slipping the Lariat Over, was read by tens of millions every week. His quips and bon mots were in the same league as the great Mark Twain and the lesser-known Artemus Ward.
A brief sampling of Rogers' political barbs reveals a man who spoke the truth with tongue lodged firmly in cheek:
- "The income tax has made liars of more Americans than golf."
- "A fool and his money are soon elected."
- "Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for."
- "Everything is changing: people are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke."
My two favorites:
- "The average citizen knows only too well that it makes no difference to him which side wins. He realizes that the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey have come to resemble each other so closely that it is practically impossible to tell them apart; both of them make the same braying noise, and neither of them ever says anything. The only perceptible difference is that the elephant is somewhat the larger of the two," and
- "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat . . ."
This last one-liner has always fascinated me. For back in the 1920s and early 30s, the Democrats were about as disorganized a mess as one could imagine. Then suddenly, in 1932, they coalesced around FDR, and Rogers' aphorism became dated -- although never forgotten. I wonder what Rogers would make of today's Republican Party. Would he see in the Republicans of Boehner, Cantor, Ryan and Cruz a disorganized mess of a party -- just as he had with his beloved pre-FDR Democrats? Is Speaker Boehner muttering under his breath, "I don't belong to an organized party. I am a Republican." In short, has the GOP rechanneled Will Rogers?
Without question, over the past couple of years, the Republicans of Capitol Hill have been showing signs of increased disharmony and disunity. This week's vote to raise the federal debt ceiling is a prime example. You know, it wasn't all that long ago that the GOP, standing firm with Tea Party ideologues like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Louie Gohmert, chose to shut down the federal government instead of raising the nation's debt ceiling. At that time, they smelled blood in the water and decided that unless they got what they wanted -- like the dismemberment of Obamacare -- in exchange for their vote, they would shut the sucker down . . . and reap the approving huzzahs of a grateful nation. Of course, as things turned out, it was the hoots of condemnation they heard.
Turn the page to this week's debt ceiling vote, and you see a very different Republican Party; one beset with uncertainty and a lot of people pointing nasty middle fingers . . . at each other. In the House, 28 Republicans joined 192 Democrats to pass the clean debt resolution by a final tally of 221-201. This means that 199 Republicans (and 2 Democrats) were willing to let the "Full faith and credit of the United States" go down the drain. Speaker Boehner, understanding that his party simply could not go through another bout of national derision cobbled together enough establishment votes to pass the C.R. And for this relatively heroic act, he may well loose his Speakership come January 2015.
On the Senate side, faced with a filibuster from the Texas bloviator-in-chief, Ted Cruz, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell decided to play both ends against the middle. He first "saved the day" by getting enough Republican votes (12) to enact cloture -- essentially giving Senator Cruz a case of political laryngitis -- and then turn around and vote against raising the debt ceiling. In fact, every member of the Republican caucus voting in favor of cloture -- permitting the vote to come to the floor -- then turned around and voted against the resolution. Talk about political bi-polarity! Minority Leader McConnell and his Whip, Texas Senator John Cornyn are now even more vulnerable to primary challenges from Tea Party Republicans who are accusing them of being IMACs: " Invertebrates Masquerading as Conservatives." Of course McConnell and Cornyn (along with Senators Collins of Maine and Johnanns of Nebraska -- all four of whom are up for reelection) will tell voters that they were actually "standing tall" for conservative principles, both by voting in favor of cloture and against the C.R. Whether folks going to the polls will buy this rationale remains to be seen.
The behind-the-scenes political chess maneuvers involved in the vote are both fascinating and multi-dimensional. There is no one obvious reason why the clean C.R. passed both houses. However, a couple of chess moves do come to mind:
- Members of the Republican caucus were and are in so much disarray that they could not agree on precisely what they wanted in exchange for their vote. Consequently, leadership backed the clean C.R. It's kind of like a bunch of kidnappers letting their victim go free because they simply cannot agree on how much ransom to charge.
- Republican leadership simply did not want a repeat of last October's government shutdown. With 2014 being an election year they do not need all the negativity and public scorn that attends such an action. Try as they may, in 2013, Republicans utterly failed in their attempt to convince the American voting public that President Obama and the Democrats were the real culprits. In poll after poll after poll, the American public pinned the tail of blame not on the donkey, but on the elephant.
- The more pragmatic, less ideological wing of the GOP decided that nothing -- the debt ceiling, immigration reform, gay marriage or even Benghazi -- that nothing should take a nanosecond's worth of attention away from their number one issue in the 2014 election: the "failure" of Obamacare.
- Some Republicans truly understand that defaulting on our debt would be both unconscionable and catastrophic -- regardless of what Cruz, Paul, Stockman or any other Tea Party twerp may claim.
All of which adds up to the same thing:
The Republicans have rechanneled Will Rogers . . . who also famously said:
That's the trouble with a politician's life-somebody is always interrupting it with an election.
2014 Kurt F. Stone