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Romance with Fake Martyrdom

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In the course of back-to-back confrontations over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling, the conservative base has become intoxicated with visions of glorious martyrdom.

On the eve of the federal shutdown, as House Republicans agreed to insist on defunding Obamacare at the price of keeping the government open, Representative John Culberson of Texas rallied his colleagues by invoking the doomed heroes of United Flight 93. Declaring that the moment somehow reminded him of September 11, the Congressman cheered his colleagues with the words: “Let’s Roll!”

Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz likes to cite Braveheart to inspire his loyal followers, urging beleaguered conservatives to “Hold! Hold! Hold!” against the on-rushing enemy in the spirit of Mel Gibson’s version of the 13th Century Scottish warrior, William Wallace.

Every day during the crisis, excited callers to my radio show draw parallels between today’s GOP stalwarts and the doughty band who fought to the last man at the Alamo or the 300 Spartans who perished at Thermopylae in 480 BC. Is it merely coincidence, I’ve been asked, that the number of Republicans in today’s House and Senate comes to a combined total of just about 300? (Actually, 278 – but close enough).

It does little good to point out the obvious problem with invoking such fierce examples as role models for today’s conservatives. United Flight 93 crashed and burned in a field in Pennsylvania, killing all on board; “Braveheart” died in awful style when drawn and quartered by his English enemies; the slaughtered defenders of the Alamo offered only short-lived resistance to their Mexican attackers and the 300 Spartans found themselves overwhelmed by invading Persian hordes, who preceded to occupy much of Greece for more than a year thereafter. The problem with doomed, hopeless struggles, in other words, is that the participants are, in the end, hopelessly doomed.

In response to such common sense observations, enthusiasts and activists snarl imprecations about gutless RINO’s (Republicans In Name Only), milquetoasts and panty-waists, cowards and appeasers and turncoats. According to this logic, all who dare question a laughably impractical and self-destructive strategy selfishly place their own safety above commitment to a worthy cause. Sometimes, according to common convictions, decent men must take a selfless stand against the odds and prepare to sacrifice themselves for higher principle.

Such arguments rest uneasily on two faulty assumptions regarding the current situation.

First, today’s impassioned conservatives most committed to fighting an unending but impossible battle against Obamacare hardly sacrifice their own interests in this effort. In most cases, they gain rather than suffer for their self-righteous theatrics. Consider the obvious example of Senator Cruz (R-The Alamo) who has made himself a household name and a presidential front runner after just nine months in public office through his strident refusal to let go of the fantasy of instant-uprooting of the Affordable Care Act. As late as the second day of the government shutdown, he insisted that Tea Party conservatives were “winning” their struggle and could achieve final victory over Obamacare “now.” Such pronouncements win him bedazzled cadres of eager admirers together with mountains of campaign cash.

As for the House conservatives who deride all notions of compromise or cooperation, the redistricting in 2010 leaves them with little chance of serious liberal or moderate challenge in their lopsidedly GOP districts. According to leading handicappers of the upcoming 2014 campaign only two of the 232 House Republicans represents a district currently listed in the “toss-up” or “leaning Democrat” category.

And as to right wing organizations like The Club for Growth, Heritage Action, Tea Party Patriots and many more, they risk nothing at all with their demands for a fight to the bitter end on pain of primary challenge and insults to a dissenter’s manhood. Current confrontations provide the activists and entrepreneurs who run these operations with surges in publicity, membership and donations, while they make no plans to return the dough when the present non-strategy inevitably collapses in frustration and embarrassment.

Similarly, the loudest voices in conservative media hardly count as courageous or altruistic by urging their favorite politicians to take the most unbending and ideologically pure positions. In the world of talk radio, for instance, any hosts who regularly win as much as 5% of the available audience in major markets count as wildly successful, while professional consultants frequently suggest that the angriest, most emotional rhetoric reliably attracts the needed niche following. While Braveheart and his fearless Scots earned death and dismemberment for their unbending determination to resist, media figures who claim to follow that example earn million dollar contracts.

The second problem with the analogy between today’s Washington brawls and some of the most fateful battles in human history involves their long-term impact. We remember the little band of Spartans and the Alamo defenders only because their sacrifice proved so consequential. According to many historians, the ferocious defense of Thermopylae delayed the Persian invaders just long enough so that other Greeks could rally and prepare to win the decisive battle of Salamis. Similarly, Colonel Travis and his Texans held off the Mexicans and gave Sam Houston (who chose to avoid a sacrificial confrontation of his own) the chance to surprise and defeat Santa Ana’s over-confident troops at San Jacinto. Most poignantly, the heroes of United 93 stormed the cockpit and brought down a plane headed for the Capitol building, arguably saving hundreds if not thousands of other lives. Fearless commitment to advance a righteous cause counts as heroic; a pointless, losing fight that brings you no closer to your goal might better be described as self-destructive.  “Standing up for principle” only amounts to a noble spectacle when your stand advances the principle you care about, rather than damaging it.

Despite the super-heated rhetoric comparing today’s conservative dead-enders to military heroes of history, what we see today hardly counts as selfless nobility. There’s no sacrifice when individuals and organizations advance their own interests with no real risk, and no nobility when you assure both short term and long-term victories for the other side.

“Better a live dog than a dead lion,” isn’t the sentiment of some mushy-moderate, GOP squish; it’s the advice of the Bible in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Unfortunately, the unedifying melodrama in the nation’s capital doesn’t provide Profiles in Courage but offers, rather, Profiles in Crazy.

An edited version of this column appeared first in USA TODAY.

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Comments (14)

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  1. LAPhil  •  Oct 11, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Thanks for your defeatist attitude, Mike. Tell me, what’s your solution?

    • Terrye Cravens  •  Oct 12, 2013 at 5:53 pm

      One solution might be to win some elections so that a Republican Senate and President can actually repeal Obamacare…but thus far the only thing Cruz has managed to accomplish is to advance his own career at the expense of his party. He has made it more difficult to get rid of Obamacare, not less…and for what? Fame and money. He had to know it would not work. He is nothing more than a con man. A con man who works against his own party and hurts a cause he claims to support.

      • Rocket G  •  Oct 13, 2013 at 9:00 pm

        Puh-leez. Cruz gets people motivated. That is why the Main Stream Media has pulled out all the stops to try and destroy the man. How many McCains and Romneys can the GOP suffer before it goes the way of the Federalists? All I hear from the base is, “when do we go 3rd party?” Well, if the GOP folds on this fight, it IS over. All those voters who sat out the last election and the transfer of the existing base will be bigger than the current GOP in less than ten years.

  2. Alex  •  Oct 11, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    The faulty analogy here is that like the Alamo, Braveheart, and last stand if the 300 spartains, this movement is doomed to failure. I love the show Michael but we really wouldnt be doing this unless we thought it was winnable. We’re not the uncompromising martyrs you believe. On the contrary weve already made numerous concessions to our original demands, and it is Obama and the democratic party who refuse to budge an inch while the country is shut down around us. Capitulating to such pettiness is far more damaging to the country than a simple shutdown. This fight is winnable for us Michael, and we wish youd add your brilliant mind to helping us win, rather than dragging the party into further pessimism.

  3. Donald McIntosh  •  Oct 11, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    “THE ODDS AGAINST OBAMA” Enjoy your show. Pray you’re wrong again.

  4. bob  •  Oct 11, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    We’ve had 11 days of the GOP shooting themselves in the foot. So far the polls indicate lower and lower ratings for the GOP. Everything has gone against the party and we will see it and feel it in 2014. What a bunch of boobs?

    • Rocket G  •  Oct 13, 2013 at 8:49 pm

      People with nothing to lose have less of a reason to compromise. If anything, these low poll numbers should frighten the Dems. The reason the support is so low anyway has everything to do with the squishes in the GOP disgusting the base. You ever see the Dems trash their base? Hell no you don’t.

  5. Bernard Wolff  •  Oct 11, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    The reason the Republicans are foundering is that neither they, nor Michael, are offering or considering an alternative to Obamacare.

    The battle cry is “Defund Obamacare” by the Conservative pundits (except for Michael) and Tea Party Republicans.

    OK, if the Defunders win, where does that leave us? The broken system we now have?

    My wife & daughter have preexisting conditions that make it impossible for them to get medical insurance should I lose my retirement insurance benefit. A conservative friend with a daughter inflicted with a serious, expensive to treat disease, recently proclaimed “I don’t like Obama & what he is doing to my Country, but Obamacare will save my Daughter’s life.”

    Michael, similar to the British Colonel in BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI argues for allowing Obamacare to survive, at least “the good parts”. Like the “good parts” of the Income Tax, or the Great Society when they were being sold to the Citizens by Washington?

    The Elephant is the room is WHERE IS THE REPUBLICAN ALTERNATIVE?

    Everyone presumes that the government is the answer. No one mentions an alternative (e.g. HR 2300)

    Except for one person:

    Dr. Benjamin Carson, the brilliant neurosurgeon, suggests an approach that is elegantly simple & should have been employed years ago: At birth, each individual acquires a high deductible health insurance policy, with a Health Savings Account to cover the high deductible expenses, and a credit card to be used for payments from the policy or HSA for medical use. Government would subsidize the early payments for low income citizens, or insurance companies may subsidize early payments in exchange for a life time policy or favorable tax credits.

    Barriers (erected & maintained by Democrats) to selling policies across state lines would be removed, sensible tort reform, and subsidizing individual policies via Medicare would cover those above 55.

    This will solve the “preexisting conditions” and “end of life” expense problem by having funds generated by investments of a life time of premiums. Just like individually owned Life Insurance.

    Most importantly it is within the free market. It obviates the need for a $900,000,000,000/year bureaucracy (according to the Congressional Budget Office) lacking personal compassion or efficiency & bankrupting our Nation. Instead, the providers will be providing jobs, paying taxes, and involved in competition to keep service high, costs low, and innovation better than their competitors.

    The privileged elites in Washington — Democrats, “Senior” Republicans, advisors, pundits — are so insular that the power of the free market isn’t event worth considering. It’s only where the power, ill gotten wealth, and exemption from their mischief & greed is found: corpulent, corrupt government.

    Dr Carson’s alternative can be described in one sentence. Best used as a preface to “why I can’t support the disastrous Obamacare alternative”.

    Why is it ignored? Michael?

  6. Greg Crown  •  Oct 11, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Most often I agree with your views – but not in this case. You over-dramatize the long term negative impact on Republicans and understate the value of directing attention to the dangers of Obamacare and the shameful behavior of Barrack Obama. I believe much has been accomplished in this effort, and while Obamacare will not be defunded, it may yet be delayed and adjusted and budgeted spending going forward will very likely be reduced. You yourself have been guilty of the Republican backstabbing that you so often condemn. Stop it. Start cheering the effort and recognizing the victories, imperfect though they may be.

  7. Carolyn Kutt  •  Oct 11, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    The current grandstanding by some conservative Republicans may help their own reelection and political advancement, but does nothing to help the party win on the national stage in 2016.
    Without a Republican president, it will be difficult, if not impossible for the conservatives to accomplish their goals.

    Thank you for another wise analysis, Michael.

  8. Glenn  •  Oct 11, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    Cruz and Lee should be investigated for their scam. Did they collect donations to “defund” Obamacare?

    • Rocket G  •  Oct 13, 2013 at 8:45 pm

      Let the witch hunts begin! Just keep in mind that you may not like where they stop.

  9. Daphne Krueger  •  Oct 12, 2013 at 1:34 am

    I don’t know why people don’t see, the “House” presented a budget, all the Senate would have to do is vote it down. Instead they shut down the government and everything associated with the government; gated and guarded it, even though it was never gated or guarded before. Which took an enormous about of money. Now, no one can get in to enroll in ObanaCare anyway, so it should wait for a year to implement it. Why are medical supplies taxed, to fund ObanaCare, so why is it so inexpensive that everyone can afford it, and it cost the government money to sustain it?

  10. Rocket G  •  Oct 13, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    Michael, you are a McLame Republican. No bold colors, just dull pastels. Stand up and fight, hold the line. Obama was on the ropes and only held firm after the skewed NBC/Wall Street Journal poll late in the week. After years and years of hearing your point of view I only ever hear, “we can’t”. Yes we can. We can drive the bus over the cliff and still effect positive change. You just have to stop being a Quisling. I swear that you are a Democrat party plant. When did they get to you Michael? Ole’ honeypot trap?

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