Comedy and the New Congress

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It started out a quiet week on the domestic front, as comedians contemplated the Black Eyed Peas, Groupon, and Mubarak, while Republicans and Democrats continued to re-fight old battles to another stalemate. But before political comedy gets washed away in the deluge of shirtless Chris Lee parodies (early leader, Conan, let’s take a moment to look at the state of legislative affairs in early 2011.

The top story on the Times front page yesterday was ‘House Leaders Facing Turmoil in G.O.P. Ranks’ but a truer if less factually accurate story was The Onion’s lead from last week, “Republicans Vote to Repeal Obama-Backed Bill that Would Destroy Asteroid Headed for Earth.” Future students will look back on that article as the document that best sums up our current climate. While continuing to remind us that they were elected in November to fix the economy, the Republicans have been choosing to refight old battles from the culture war instead.

In a telling example of how Twilight Zone it is in Washington right now, one of the better jokes about it this week has actually come from Jay Leno: “President Obama hosted Republican leaders for lunch at the White House. Obama had to do without salt, bread, pepper, and butter, but not for health reasons. The Republicans refused to pass anything.”

A third Republican questioner, Representative Lee Terry of Nebraska, asked [EPA chief Lisa] Jackson facetiously if she liked puppies. She started to answer that she did, provided that they were properly housebroken. Mr. Terry sharply interrupted, saying he was only mocking the gentle questions that Democrats were asking to elicit rehearsed answers.

Meanwhile, the House also tried to limit the definition of rape as part of their reopened campaign against abortion. When it was finally scuttled, news sites gave credit for the change to Kristen Schaal for her Daily Show segment on the issue. That sounds like an exaggeration, but it is true that journalists were ignoring the issue. Entirely. Schaal’s piece is yet another example of comedy presenting a more honest reaction to current events than the balance-obsessed news organizations.

If this feels like deja vu, you don’t need to look all the way back to the 1994 election, just to 2004, which was the last time Republicans won something. That’s when President Bush gloated about winning all his “political capital,” which he spent on his failed Social Security privatization campaign. Both then and now, what was promised all through the campaign was pushed to the back seat once Congress started up again.

What’s odd is that rather than being direct parallels, this is a mirror-image symmetry. In 2004 the Republicans campaigned on a scorched-earth culture war — 9/11 worship and gay marriage — only to ignore their conservative values base to pursue a “budget balancing” transfer of Social Security funds from government to bank control. In 2010, they campaigned on balancing the budget, only to reopen old cultural and partisan battles like healthcare and abortion.

When this happened in 2004 they were actually called on it (much of that realization at the time was credited to “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) And already today, the Tea Party seems to be balking, even as many of their members are behind these moves. But the wider awareness among voters that they’re being hoodwinked has yet to set in.

“I earned political capital and now I intend to spend it” went on to become one of the more famous Bushisms. But no Bush saying will ever be more famous than, “Fool me twice, you can’t get fooled again.” To that, perhaps, we may wish to quote Obama in our response: “Yes We Can.”

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.