America’s Republican Quandary

Spring, 2017

There is a classic John Cleese TV comedy performance, as the owner/manager of a small British hotel called ‘Fawlty Towers.’

Cleese, as the bumbling hothead Basil Fawlty, is confronted with the arrival of a group of German tourists. He goes around warning his staff,  ‘Don’t talk about the War’ — referring to the Second World War when Britain and Germany were enemies.

In due course, Basil gets hit on the head by a moosehead falling off a hotel wall and, in a concussed daze, goes off on a mad rant in front of his guests, goose-stepping around and mocking them with some ‘Heil Hitlers,’ forty or fifty years after the War ended.

Washington, DC,  these days is not far removed from this Fawlty Towers episode.

The problem is this: America’s President seems to be going on a kind of Basil Fawlty rant with wiretapping claims that only embarrass his staff and alienate the serious politicians in his own party.

The more he is pressured to leave the issue, let alone apologize for it, the more he parades it out in front of the media, and the cycle goes on. At the same time, the Republicans would like nothing more than to have the issue of Russian interference in the US elections go away. But for that, they need a controlled President who can resist making relevant statements for the next year or two, and get on supporting party policies and legislation. That’s not likely, given his penchant for early morning tweets.

Here is the core of the issue: if the Republican majorities want to execute a major policy shift, they need their focus to be on that shift, not on Presidential fantasies or other distractions. They cannot count on keeping their majorities in 2018, in part because the massive restructuring of programs and finances they hope to make may not appeal to their voters, even if they would be, at least to Republican politicians, good for the country.

This is how Obama put through Dodd-Frank financial legislation and Obamacare, the Patient Care and Affordable Care Act.

The super-sized distraction bubbling below the surface is the role the Russian government played in the election, and how complicit the President and his campaign staff might have been in co-operating with its intelligence operatives, financial flows and the like.

It is not credible that the experienced Republican politicians who were critical or hurt by the President do not see the outlines of this cooperation. There are just too many Administration appointments of people with Russian ties to be overlooked. The hacking of the DNC and the coordinated release of files through Wikileaks is too heavy-handed to be ignored as well.

Like the famous Watergate scandal, this is beginning as a small thing involving relatively minor players getting caught. Nixon’s ‘plumbers’ breaking into the DNC headquarters almost 50 years ago, like General Flynn’s ‘consulting’ for the Russians last year, was a small event, but, with Nixon, things began to unravel, and the cover-up inflated the stakes and destroyed his Presidency.

The quandary facing the Republican majorities in the House and Senate is whether to go after this Russian connection ,or ignore it and push on with their agenda. Unfortunately for the latter option, the involvement of an adversarial foreign power in the federal elections presents them with a serious issue. It may be true that a number of countries, including the US, have played around in foreign elections, but this has generally been seen as the ‘big boys’ playing with minor countries.

Somehow, it seems like it should be insulting to American self-esteem to be placed on a level with Bolivia or Angola.

Further, if this interference practice is not stopped, and an example made of one or more people, then can we expect the Democrats to do a deal with Chinese hackers in the next election? This sounds ludicrous, but if American billionaires can play in politics with impunity, why shouldn’t American politicians not just sell out to the highest bidder, domestic or foreign?

I don’t for a minute feel that American politicians should go down this route, but it already seems to have begun with last fall’s election.

This is why Congress, possibly against its own wishes, but in terms of its individual and collective survival, cannot afford to ignore, and thereby legitimize, foreign interference by anybody in American elections.

Whether it was critical in the election result is irrelevant; the issue is one of patriotism and American identity.

Gradually, this whole scheme will come to light. It is inconceivable that this relationship just developed in an uncoordinated fashion among a variety of people who did not realize that others were also doing the same thing. Normally, things in politics, in my experience, do not happen like that.

Connections and permissions come from the top. Sometimes the top people get away with it, but often there is someone who, for whatever personal or public reason, spills the beans. All that is needed is for investigative pressure to exist before that someone decides to work with the investigators, rather than take the charge that they fear will destroy him.

Meanwhile, the investigators will gradually take over the media’s attention and the credibility of the President goes down. If there are crimes suspected, the whole issue will tend to consume the attention of Congress to the detriment of the political agenda—and we are back to the essential quandary.

How do you get your agenda through with a President, who might be implicated in the scandal and cannot exercise both discipline and silence? Diverting attention will at some time lose its efficacy, especially as we have seen in the wiretapping fantasy, when no one except the faithful believes a word of it.

As the Russian scandal develops—and I believe it will develop slowly but in fine detail—the temptation for the President to speak to it will prove disastrous, not least in part because he has conditioned all of us to not believe a word he says.

This president will not need a falling moosehead to set him into gear, ‘talking about the War.’

This is not going to end well.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2017

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Jim McNiven’s latest book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America

Who is a Yankee and where did the term come from? Though shrouded in myth and routinely used as a substitute for American, the achievements of the Yankees have influenced nearly every facet of our modern way of life.

Join author Jim McNiven as he explores the emergence and influence of Yankee culture while traversing an old transcontinental highway reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific — US 20, which he nicknames “The Yankee Road.”


Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.






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