Political Animal


February 25, 2013 12:56 PM Drunk Uncle

By Ed Kilgore

The metaphor of the Republican Party (or at least its most representative and real-world powerful entity, the House Republican Caucus) as a dysfunctional family that can’t deal with a drunk uncle has popped up twice in a major article the last couple of days. Over the weekend, Mike Tomasky challenged the scattered GOP voices calling for a serious rethinking of conservative ideology to be a little more open about the obstacles to any actual change:

They’re like a family in deep denial at the Thanksgiving table. Guys, debating the best way to cook brussels sprouts is of marginal utility. Whether Cousin Ruthie wears her hair this way or that way is not worth dwelling on. The overwhelming fact at hand is that Uncle Ralph is drunk again, and he’s being a belligerent racist homophobic ass again, and he is preventing any civility and progress from taking place, and it’s been this way for four Thanksgivings in a row, and you are intentionally choosing to say nothing about it.

In a long New Yorker piece that’s basically a profile of Eric Cantor as the pol who embodies the House GOP’s pathologies, Ryan Lizza quotes congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma using the same comparison just before a Caucus retreat in January:

“It’s a very important time for the conference, and it needs to air some of these things,” he said. “It’s a little like a dysfunctional family right now, where everybody knows old Uncle Joe at the end of the table’s an alcoholic, but nobody wants to say it. And somebody needs to say it. We need to get Joe some help. Come on, he’s ruined too many Christmas parties!”

Whether it’s Uncle Ralph or Uncle Joe we are talking about, the flaw in the Drunk Uncle at the Holiday Table metaphor is that it suggests we’re just talking about a small element of the GOP “family” that’s misbehaving. The problem with the would-be reformers Tomasky is lecturing isn’t that they won’t call out the Class of 2010 or the Tea Party or however you choose to define the loose cannons (though that would be nice). It is that “reformers” have virtually no visible support from Republican elected officials, in sharp contrast to the elected-official-led Democratic “move-to-the-center” initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s.

Cantor as displayed in Lizza’s piece sometimes comes across as this inherently reasonable guy who is grappling with the extremists in the House GOP by alternatively begging them to be nice and than getting in front of their parade as they shout curses at the “establishment” Republicans of which he is ex officio a leading member. But he’s really alternating between fecklessness and opportunism, and he’s no more a friend of would-be “reformers” than Michele Bachmann:

Since the 2012 elections, the Republicans have been divided between those who believe their policies are the problem and those who believe they just need better marketing—between those who believe they need to make better pizza and those who think they just need a more attractive box. Cantor, who is known among his colleagues as someone with strategic intelligence and a knack for political positioning, argues that it’s the box.

Indeed, Lizza’s narrative of the run-up to Cantor’s famously empty AEI speech earlier this month makes his commitment to “reform” look even more ridiculous than ever, particularly when his “real people” posturing is contrasted to the real damage real people are about to suffer in the latest phase of the Republican-engineered Great Phony Fiscal Crisis of the 2010s.

Yeah, it would be very healthy for Republican politicians and opinion-leaders to once and for all show some guts and say publicly what they say privately about the Bachmanns and the Kings and the Goehmerts and the Labradors and the new tyro of the angry right, Ted Cruz. But it’s not the raging ideological extremists at the table who are the real problem; it’s the whole family hitting the same hooch and maintaining a good steady maintenance drunk day in and day out.

Lizza reports that John Boehner began the January House GOP retreat by leading the solons in reciting that staple of A.A. meetings, the Serenity Prayer. That may have been his most appropriate act of leadership in years.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on February 25, 2013 1:11 PM:

    "Drunk Uncles," my @$$!

    They're more like a combo Fraternity/Sorority, whose only reason for getting together, is alcohol consumption - Tappa Kegga Liquor!

  • AMS on February 25, 2013 1:29 PM:

    It's not just the Uncle Ralphs in elective office that are the problem, it's the Uncle Ralphs in the electorate. The Uncle Ralphs are their most reliable base. As current demographics stand, the GOP needs the vote of every one of them and cannot afford to stand up to them.

  • Christiaan Hofman on February 25, 2013 1:34 PM:

    No, the divide is not between those who say it's the policy and those who say it's the marketing. The divide is between the form of the marketing: whether it should obfuscate the content of the box (the moderates), or whether it should accurately describe it (the Tea Party). The ones who admit the problem is the policy (like Frum) are completely ignored, within the GOP they're known as RINOs.

  • Kordo on February 25, 2013 3:10 PM:

    Jeebus, after reading that New Yorker piece I need a "good steady maintenance drunk"...

  • David Martin on February 25, 2013 3:20 PM:

    My congressman's agenda is mainly balancing the federal budget, immediately. He wants a constitutional amendment, but I suspect the debt ceiling might suffice. There seem to be plenty more like him in the House.

  • Snarki, child of Loki on February 25, 2013 3:28 PM:

    That description fits Bill O'Reilly to a 't'.

    Drunk, opinionated, loud, racist, sexist, can't be argued with, can't be shut up, can't be disinvited.

    Just fill up his glass again, and hope for cirrhosis to do it's work.

  • Col Bat Guano on February 25, 2013 3:41 PM:

    Yeah, the problem is that Uncle Ralph (or Joe) is no drunker than anyone else at the table. No one really disagrees with his racist, homophobic slurs, he's just slightly more obnoxious about it.

  • LAC on February 25, 2013 3:51 PM:

    The GOP problem is deeper than that: not only is uncle Ralph drunk and rude again, Aunt Lee and Uncle Ron are hardly speaking, cousin Martha is fluffer in adult movies, and the kids are doing wine enemas in the family room. And Fox News is blasting too loud in the living room.

  • buddy66 on February 25, 2013 8:22 PM:

    As the Drunk Uncle at too many Thanksgiving dinners I object to this stereotyping. I like the old version better. It was racism, homophobia, and war-mongering that we loudly denounced each year. (My mistake was that I quit drinking, damn my eyes!) Surely there are a few old Red Uncles left out there. We were once ubiquitous and reviled as radicals.

  • J on February 25, 2013 10:20 PM:

    'All in the Family'

    As many of previous commenters have pointed out, it isn't just the drunk uncle:it is the whole family! The current GOP is doomed and cannot be saved in its present incarnation. Joe Scarborough recently remarked that BO was demagoguing the GOP over the sequester as part of 'the permanent campaign' in order to destroy the GOP in 2014. Sounds paranoid but I hope he is right!

    It is increasingly clear that the only way to get anything useful done is for the Democrats to retake the House. 1-party rule may lead to abuses, but it would be infinitely better than the current situation. Of course, in response to inevitable Democratic Party excesses, a new conservative party will eventually return to power.

    However, the current GOP just ain't it! They have no policy and no talent. Ideas will eventually win the day and the GOP just doesn't have any.

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