Bodyline politics

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

5 July 2011


Bill Woodfull facing Bodyline bowling at the 4th test in Brisbane, 1933

Pictured: Congress negotiates over the debt limit

In 1932 and 1933, the English cricket team toured Australia. The series of games between the nations would become famous for England's bodyline bowling tactic, a strategy designed to neuter the great Australian cricketer Donald Bradman by targeting the batsman's body rather than the wicket. (Americans: Think of a pitcher deliberately trying to hit a batter.) Bodyline was controversial enough to become the basis for a diplomatic incident between the UK and Australia, and the sentiments it stirred are aptly summed up by the words Australian captain Bill Woodfull spoke to the English tour manager Pelham Warner.

"There are two teams out there," said the Australian. "One is playing cricket. The other is making no attempt to do so."

In American politics right now, there are two parties. The Democrats are trying to govern the country. The Republicans are making no attempt to do so.

If you read this blog fairly consistently, you probably have a pretty good idea of where I'm coming from with my political views. I don't try to hide them, but nor do I try to premium them. I usually find it more interesting to understand what is happening in America than to try to argue for my preferred policy outcomes; after all, that government is not mine. I agree with what Frank Rich wrote in his final column as a New York Times opinion writer: "I do have strong political views, but opinions are cheap. Anyone could be a critic of the Bush administration. The challenge as a writer was to try to figure out why it governed the way it did — and how it got away with it for so long — and, dare I say it, to have fun chronicling each new outrage."

So I genuinely believe that criticizing the current Republican party is an act of analysis, not partisanship. The left, of course, does not have a problem complaining about the GOP, but thoughtful figures on the right have begun to do so as well over the past few years. Conor Friedersdorf and Ross Douthat have both voiced strong critiques of the American right. David Frum is particularly famous for his recent denunciations of the party. Andrew Sullivan and Fareed Zakaria have attacked the party's conservatism. And now, David Brooks may be added to the list:

In Brooks's column today, he concludes that the GOP "may no longer be a normal party" and that it is infected by a movement that has "no sense of moral decency":

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.

The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.

This tack from Brooks may not surprise some. He is known as the one conservative who liberals like, though I believe that reputation arises more from his style than his politics. Nonetheless, these are extraordinary remarks from a columnist who is more diffident than fiery, who favours drawing people into his broad national consensus rather than exiling them as villainous. And they are correct.

Brooks is talking specifically about the negotiations regarding raising the debt limit. The Obama administration is now offering to cut entitlements, but Republicans still refuse to negotiate — even though the Democrats have downgraded their pitch for tax increases to mere cuts in expenditures made through the tax system

This is either an irresponsible negotiating tactic or economic insanity induced by a party that has convinced itself default doesn't matter. (n.b.: Default does matter.) I still consider that the conservative side of politics, and the Republican party itself, has sufficient sobriety to ensure a deal is reached eventually, but as each day passes, that looks more likely to be a false hope. Even more troubling, Republicans appear to genuinely believe their ruthless cuts represent the wishes of an American people that are nowhere near that conservative. It is true that every election winner claims a mandate, but equally, an election win does not mean the public approves of every policy a party might like to implement.

Should Republicans succeed in scuttling a deal, Brooks has a theory:

If the debt ceiling talks fail, independent voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

This displays an admirable confidence in democratic accountability, and I'd like to share it. I know, however, that throughout history, presidents have been awarded more credit than they deserve for the successes on their watch, and have accordingly received more blame than warranted for the failures. If the worst comes to the worst, I hope Brooks is right, and the electorate will correctly judge that one side is making no attempt to play cricket.

Tags: Bill Woodfull, Bodyline, Congress, Conservatives, Cricket, David Brooks, Debt Ceiling, Republican Party, Sports

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