During the relatively kinder, gentler, and saner days of the Obama administration—way back in the early 20-teens—a misguided portion of the political commentariat subscribed to what was derisively termed the “Green Lantern theory” of presidential power. In short, it posited that presidential accomplishment is simply a matter of willpower (a reference to the titular DC comic book superhero’s ability to manifest astonishing superpowers simply by channeling his resolve).
That President Barack Obama could not get Republicans to agree with his priorities, the thinking went, was a failing on the president’s part, and not a reflection of Republicans’ own resolve; their publicly avowed recalcitrance concerning denying Obama anything that might be construed as a legislative or political win; or the normal impediments innate to a system of checks, balances, and divided power. (Obama himself offered a different pop-culture comparison, memorably mangling it: “I’m presenting a fair deal; the fact that [Republicans] don’t take it means that I should somehow, you know, do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right,” he said in 2015.) The weird conceit that the president can accomplish anything simply by wanting it more is nonsense that only became more apparent when Obama’s successor actually attempted to run an entire presidency based on this belief. (Not that pundits ever held Trump to a similar standard.)
Nevertheless, a variant of Green Lantern thinking is back—and it’s helping drive the looming government shutdown. Instead of focusing on the presidency, it has become a generalized theory of politics, if not of governance itself, and it has taken on a darker, more explicitly truculent tone.
Just to review: We’re careering toward a shutdown because Congress hasn’t passed bills to fund the government in the new fiscal year, which starts on Sunday. The source of the problem lies in the House, where Republicans haven’t been able to agree among themselves on a bill to fund the government on either a short-term basis (to buy time to hammer out a longer-term deal) or a long-term basis (even low-hanging fruit like funding the military has proven elusive). House Republicans are bickering about angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff: The hard-right keeps pushing McCarthy for ever-greater spending cuts, never mind the fact that they will never make it through the Democrat-controlled Senate or receive President Joe Biden’s signature.
This is an immutable reality. Yet the GOP’s wingnut caucus continues to fling barbs at hapless House Speaker Kevin McCarthy as if this was all somehow his doing—as if despite (barely) holding control of one half of one branch of government, he ought to be able to extract political victories simply by dint of being the fightiest fighter ever to fight the scourge of big government. Forget Green Lantern, this variant is better described as the Keyser Söze theory of politics: If McCarthy will only demonstrate that he is a man of will—willing to tank the economy by forcing the U.S. into default or by causing yet another damaging government shutdown—then he can achieve the victories the right has been unable to notch at the ballot box.
“If he is not willing to fight—fight and win—then he is going to fail Republicans,” GOP Representative Victoria Spartz told Politico’s Playbook last week. “He is going to be tested one more time. From my perspective, he’s already failed us twice. The third time, I’m done.… I judge people not on what they say, but the results. We need to win something.”
Republican Representative Eli Crane recently posted a video from the House gym calling for, you guessed it, more fight from the right. “The way we do things in this town has to change,” he said. “Unfortunately, the only way we’re going to get any change in this town is through force.”
Representative Ralph Norman, another similar-minded crank, recently added, “We got rolled on the debt ceiling. We’re not gonna get rolled again,” referencing a debt limit bill McCarthy negotiated with President Biden that the group also despised. “We’re gonna use our votes to defund as many things as we can.”
The problem is that that’s not how the system works. And I don’t mean the business-as-usual “swamp” that pols habitually decry—I’m talking about the Constitution, which these self-proclaimed “constitutional conservatives” claim to revere. At the risk of regurgitating basic civics, the point of divided power and checks and balances is to prevent any one actor or faction from gaining unchecked power. The system works when everyone involved understands the need to compromise to get things done, by which I mean: govern.
Unfortunately, compromise long ago became a dirty word on the right—a sign of personal weakness, if not venal corruption. When NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist asked Americans in December whether they prefer compromise or principled stands, a supermajority (74 percent) favored compromise, but Republicans (66 percent) lagged well behind independents (78 percent) and Democrats (82 percent). Similarly, 58 percent of Democrats told Gallup in January that they want Biden to work to compromise with Republicans, even if it disappoints some of his voters. Only 34 percent of Republicans said the same of working with Biden, with nearly twice as many, 64 percent, saying that the GOP ought to stand up to the president—even, as the poll put it, if doing so makes it “harder to address critical problems.”
This is more than an academic problem. Dramatic pronouncements about fighting and winning might play well on Fox News and Newsmax, but condemning compromise as weakness and failure creates an atmosphere where nothing can possibly get done and the people involved have delusional expectations about what qualifies as a win. (And let’s take a moment to contemplate the conservative notion of winning: They want to gut education funding, to use one example, aiming to cut Title I funding by a whopping 80 percent.)
It also feeds and is nourished by the GOP’s authoritarian turn. Is it any surprise that Donald Trump—the man who took us from “I alone can fix it” to storming the Capitol to overturn his election loss—is cheering on the hard right’s maximalist approach? “UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN!” he wrote on his social media platform over the weekend, torching the man he used to imperiously refer to as “my Kevin.”
As for the feckless McCarthy, he has, ironically, started to fight back against his detractors, daring them to try to remove him. “I don’t understand why anybody votes against bringing the idea and having the debate,” he said last week. “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down. That doesn’t work.”
It calls to mind one other DC Comics reference, from The Dark Knight. “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical,” Michael Caine’s Alfred memorably tells Bruce Wayne. “They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Unhappily for us, Kevin McCarthy is neither Bruce Wayne nor Batman—he’s as likely as not to help these jokers burn everything down if it’ll help him hold onto his gavel for another day.