As a national sigh of relief greeted the end of the government shutdown, and the narrow averting of a national default, the question lingers: is the crisis over? Or will we go through the same political brinksmanship in a few months, when the debt ceiling is reached again in February? The answer lies within the Republican Party.
The compromise which ended the shutdown depended on Democratic votes. Every Democratic Senator and Representative voted for the bill to avert a default. But most congressional Republicans voted against it. Although a majority of Republican senators voted for it, 28 to 18, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly against it, 144 to 87. Nothing had changed among Republican ranks during the shutdown, except that Speaker John Boehner finally allowed such a bill to come to a vote at all, during which, as had been predicted from the beginning, enough Republicans voted yes for it to pass. Despite the billions in damage to our economy that the shutdown caused and the unanimous warnings from economists across the world that a government default would create much worse damage, Republican politicians did not budge.
Many Republicans in Washington not only sought the shutdown and default, but they now want to make that position a defining characteristic of true Republicanism. John Boehner said on WLW radio in Ohio, “We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win”. Veteran Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, and national business groups, like the US Chamber of Commerce, argue that the shutdown strategy was a failure. McConnell said, “It was not a smart play. It had no chance of success.” Scott Reed, political strategist for the Chamber, agreed: “The need is now more than ever to elect people who understand the free market and not silliness.”
But the leaders of that “silly” effort are now seeking to purge the GOP of anyone who voted to reopen the government. Tea Party conservatives are gunning for their fellow Republicans, planning primary challenges in 2014.
The ideological splits within the Republican Party align with geographical differences. Five of the six House Republicans from Illinois voted to end the shutdown, while all 24 Texas Republicans voted no. More generally, House Republicans from below the Mason-Dixon line, from North Carolina across to Texas, voted for default by 75 to 17. Republicans from the rest of the country voted 70 to 69 to end the shutdown.
The conservative plan to attack all Republicans who showed any signs of moderation may continue the geographical narrowing of the national party. There are no longer any Republicans in the House from New England. Half of the New Jersey House delegation is Republican, but that might shift in 2014. Twice as many New Jersey voters blamed the Republicans in Congress for the shutdown as blamed Democrats. In Virginia, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s run for governor against Democrat Terry McAuliffe has been damaged by popular anger at the shutdown, where a majority of voters blames Republicans for the disruption.
Across the nation, voters hold Republicans responsible for the shutdown, a judgment they have earned by their votes and words. Mitch McConnell, leader of Senate Republicans, says it won’t happen again: “Shutting down the government, in my view, is not conservative policy.” No, it isn’t, it’s not policy at all.
The government shutdown demonstrates the bankruptcy of Tea Party politics. Tea Party politicians have pursued only destructive policy ideas. Their economic plans don’t get further than shutting down public programs. They offer no coherent foreign policy to deal with a complex and unpredictable world. They appeal to angry and ignorant voters by making them angrier and more ignorant. Many of the darlings of the Tea Party, like Sharron Angle, Michele Bachmann, and Ted Cruz, are themselves remarkably ignorant, are consistent public liars, and don’t care. Now they have vowed to destroy their own party, as their public approval ratings drop, even among Republicans.
But mainstream Republicans, like McConnell and Boehner, created their own monster. By demonizing government, they successfully angered their own supporters. By calling global warming a hoax, they tarnished science and urged their voters to make up their own facts. By pretending the Affordable Care Act was some socialist plot, instead of a Heritage Foundation idea supported by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, they encouraged conservatives across America to look towards the most radical and simplistic political ideas. Now their Frankenstein has turned against them. Ted Cruz’s hometown newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, regrets its 2012 endorsement of him. Too late.
We may not have another shutdown soon, but we will continue to have political crises, until the Republican Party decides again to participate in governing, recognizes that compromise is necessary in a two-party system, and stops pretending that Obama is a socialist and Democratic politics are treasonous.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 22, 2013