Call it the Republican betrayal.
But understand first that, for all the faults that inevitably accompany politics, people in that party have stood for many good things. They actually like the Constitution. They believe in limits to government that otherwise is sure to inflict oppression and unintended penalties on people. They get it that some things are worth preserving in society, especially in an exceptional society.
So Republicans graciously fought back against the worst of the office-holding Democrats, meaning most of them, officials who once called themselves “liberals” until they so tarnished that designation that they began calling themselves “progressives” instead. “Liberalism” once indicated something noble. It has as its root the Latin word “liber,” meaning free, and the liberals who emerged from the Enlightenment put the principle of freedom first as they simultaneously struggled for principled rationality.
Timothy Ferris, in an outstanding 2010 book, “The Science of Liberty,” says the scientific revolution from that 17th- and 18th-century era had a mate — political revolution — and the result was spreading freedom and rights and the ultimate rescue of “billions from poverty, ignorance, fear and an early grave.” He is all for liberalism in the old sense, but not for progressivism and leftism that “put the force of government behind efforts to create greater political and economic equality even if personal freedoms are abridged in the process.”
Ferris, who has his complaints about conservatives, too, grasps the worst of progressivism. He sees how it wrecks equality of opportunity as it tries to coerce equality of outcome and fosters presumptuous governmental intrusiveness made unending by a discomforting fact: Electoral turnovers often leave costly, currently useless old programs in place.
As we saw how many of President Barack Obama’s programs were downright destructive from the start, on top of being largely useless, many of us imagined something different. We hoped Republicans could work their way to more power in the 2014 elections and then prudently, intelligently turn things around, refusing to let the bad sit there sneering at us.
Prudence be damned, said some congressional Republicans, and off they were with overreaching maneuvers on Obamacare funding and then on debt. And it is true that the other side has reacted with huffing, puffing, blow-your-house-down retaliation, instead of anything halfway adult. Still, anyone with any sense would know how this would be portrayed, what the public reaction would be and what the consequences would be. An Oct. 12 New York Times story tells the tale.
It notes that Republicans had a real chance in 2014 to take control of the Senate in addition to keeping control of the House, but that the government shutdown has hurt their prospects along with elements in the party accusing the least hasteful for being insufficiently conservative.
The same front page has a next-door story underlining what the Republicans otherwise had going for them. The overly complicated, bureaucratic Obamacare mishmash is such a horror that people have been unable to use a malfunctioning $400 million online system to sign up for insurance, portending fiscal mayhem in the months to come.
In other words, the GOP members of Congress could have let the program make its own case that it was outlandish, and the overreaching crowd among the rank-and-file could have relaxed. The Senate could maybe have been won, and then there would have been golden chances for meaningful health-care reform, addressing a potentially calamitous debt and beginning to rein in other egregious excesses of progressives that threaten our future.
The worst of it is when you turn on the radio and hear a Republican House member saying he is not worried about people blaming the GOP for an irresponsible shutdown because his district is safe. He’s OK. Well, maybe he is, but the country is not. Some of us were counting on the Republicans as our most likely salvation, and they have let us down even if some are serving their own careers well.
Yes, this country has time and again overcome our worst afflictions, and you’ve got to believe we will again. But we now will have to also overcome a GOP betrayal.
Jay Ambrose is the former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers.