Almost a week ago, the redoubtable Charles Pierce had an interesting take on last Tuesday's State of the Union speech, entitled The Audacity of Shame. As always, it's entirely worth the read, but in this rare instance, I must disagree with Mr. Pierce's analysis.
The premise of that analysis is that despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, President Obama still believes the Republicans in Congress are amenable to shaming, that they still have a conscience to appeal to. Obama's belief persists (Pierce asserts) despite Republicans having pitched their tents and dug fortifications in the central square of Crazytown at the behest of a variety of certifiable donors, pundits, activist teabaggers, religious bigots, malleable journalists, and other assorted freaks who are in fact, driving the party's very short bus.
Pierce points out the meager requests in Tuesday's speech (asking not for passage of legislation, but simply for votes), and claims that Obama's calls for Congress to behave like a legislature and vote on things means the President believes there is still some vestige of bipartisan interest in governing somewhere deep in the makeup of today's GOP that is struggling to survive.
Pierce's is a plausible assessment, and draws on a first term record that showes Obama appealing to this bipartisan interest in governing again and again, despite getting his head handed to him every time. Nonetheless, I think the assessment is wrong.
I am fully aware that my own biases and hopes may well be coloring my disagreement, but I don't think Obama is as naive as Pierce asserts. I think Obama has given up on the GOP, and may have given up on the Democrats in the house to effectively oppose them (it would be interesting to know what the White House's calculations were about the Senate's proposed rule changes calculated to make the filibuster more difficult, which were so crippled by Harry Reid and a few Senate Democrats as to make them laughably ineffective.)
I don't think the president's appealing to a native GOP interest in governing at all, but to an electorate that shows consistent polling numbers that support the policies he proposed. I think Obama was speaking primarily to that electorate last Tuesday night, and to the extent that he was speaking to those in the House chamber at all, it was to say "I'm done with quiet negotiating in search of bipartisanship. You guys have finally convinced me that it gets me nowhere, and instead, I'm going over your heads and making the case before the voters."
There are reasons to believe this would be a good strategy. First, the appeal to bipartisanship has been a demonstrable waste of time, and shows every indication of continuing to be. The much-vaunted "Republican remix" that's been getting a lot of ink and electrons over the last few weeks, shows no sign of changing any GOP policy prescriptions or inclining the Congress to any action that would make it any easier to deal with.
Second, those polls do show pretty broad support for many of the solutions the president proposed (in some cases, overwhelming support - see background checks).
Third, the GOP has been so consistently batty for the last couple of years that they are slightly less popular than root canal. Not so Obama - see policy polling reference above, and note very solid support numbers for the president.
Finally, it's fairly clear that Obama has learned from experience that he has nobody to deal with on the other side. John Boehner can't control his own caucus, Republicans in the Senate are engaging in unprecedented filibustering of his nominees for key cabinet posts, and there's nobody in the opposition party with the inclination and the nerve to stike a bargain with him.
In short, the Republican party seems so bent on factional self-destruction that it doesn't have time to even attempt to help govern the country. It's been spouting nonsensical rhetotric for so long that it has lost track of the difference between its own press releases and reality. That connection has always been tenuous, and it has grown ever more so over the last few years. The party's leadership (such as it is) has convinced itself that all it has to do to win elections is appeal to the same base it has been feeding a steady diet of paranoid gibberish for the last fifteen years. The problem is that in order to appeal to that base, its rhetoric has gotten steadily more extreme, and it is now so divorced from the real world that even though parts of the leadership have begun to realize they have gone way off the reservation, they can't find their way back.
In such circumstances, there is really only one solution. If you try again and again to stop fighting with an opponent, and yet he still refuses to stop, you have two remaining choices. You can either surrender (a tactic the Democtrats have been using for decades, for reasons passing all understanding), or you can keep hitting him until he can't get up any more. If you can't get him to join you in saying "truce", you are left with forcing him to say "uncle". All presidents are said to have an eye on history in their second terms, and Obama is likely no different. However, he may have made the calculation that he will either force the Republicans to start working with him to enact those parts of his agenda that he wants to leave as a legacy (not out of shame, but out of the shreds of their own instinct for political self-preservation), or he'll sacrifice that legacy for another that may have longer-term benefits to the country - he'll preside over the self-destruction of the current Republican party.