This was inevitable the moment they shut the government down in pursuit of an unrealistic goal. This put all of the pressure on themselves, and none on President Obama, who understood that he could let the shutdown go on forever, and Republicans would suffer far more than he would.
It remains to be seen just how much this whole episode will help Democrats in the next election — the polls available so far indicate maybe not as much as people expected. But the whole thing highlights an enormous problem on the Right that has to be resolved quickly. The problem is a lack of leadership, both within the party and the movement.
1) Republican leaders failed last decade. During the Bush era, government grew at an astounding pace under unified GOP rule (exceeded only by its growth over Obama). No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D created very legitimate gripes. And Bush’s Big Government Conservatism” went out with a bang with TARP in 2008.
The resulting distrust has borne horrific and bitter fruit. For many of the rank-and-file on the Right, the assertion that the sky is blue now becomes suspect if Republican leaders say it. Can you blame them? I don’t.
But this means that every deal that Republican leaders cut — and they have to cut deals when they don’t control all the levers of government — is automatically viewed as a sell-out, no matter what. This includes deals that worked out very well for conservatives, such as the one that created sequestration, and the one that limited the automatic tax increases at the beginning of this year. Many conservatives won’t be convinced that these were relatively good in context, simply because they feel like they’ve heard this tune before in 2005 and 2006.
2) Conservative leaders are failing now. Even if conservatives can’t trust GOP leaders, the conservative movement requires trust in someone to function. Conservatives have jobs and families and lives — they can’t watch C-Span all day or study every single policy issue. In acknowledgment of this reality, conservatives developed institutions that conservatives could trust, and thus the movement grew in influence to the point where today, it has enormous sway over the GOP.
One organization in particular — the Heritage Foundation — has amassed an incredible amount of good faith from conservatives based on decades of solid conservative policy work. It’s difficult to explain the amount of goodwill the Heritage brand amassed on the Right over the years. There’s nothing like it. When you see their Blue Liberty Bell logo on something, as a conservative, you can pretty safely assume that you’re going to agree with whatever’s in it. It became a much more important brand than, say, that of Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform, which is typically accused (mostly by the Left) of having too much influence.
But of course, ATR only pushes to keep Republicans from raising taxes — a pretty reasonable ask in a day when government is far too large and taxes far too high. “Defund” was something different — an exercise in micromanagement of how Republicans were to approach Obamacare. Because the law passed when they were in super-minority status, there is little they can do aside from chip away and educate the public about its failures until the political will is there for abolition. This is a promising endeavor — even in 2012, exit polls show most voters wanted it repealed — but it requires patience that doesn’t seem to exist within the conservative leadership.
There were lots of other groups involved in the defund push, but Heritage Action — the Foundation’s new advocacy arm — is certainly the most important. And yesterday, it became the focus as conservative leaders demonstrated how they are failing the movement. The intransigent adoption of the “defund” demand was the beginning of a process that culminated in yesterday’s final collapse. When you put the party leaders in a situation where surrender is the only option, what do you expect them to do?
Anyway, as of Monday, negotiations had already deteriorated on the CR/debt limit to the point that Republicans on the Hill knew they’d be lucky even to preserve sequestration. This was because all of the pressure was on them. They had to avoid a default, and they also had to avoid the coming fiscal deadline when the Veterans’ administration was to run out of money at the end of this month, and disabled veterans would lose their income.
Conservative leaders either didn’t understand or didn’t care. Just as House GOP leaders were trying their last-ditch effort to get a slightly better deal out of the CR/debt limit bill, Heritage Action undercut them yet again. The group’s instructions urged lawmakers to vote “no” on the House’s deal because it didn’t defund Obamacare, and as a result all House efforts to remain relevant collapsed.
“Defund” was always a bit pie-in-the-sky, but at this late date is was completely detached from reality. So that’s the state of the conservative leadership — the only people left with credibility among conservatives. Their behavior here did not just harm conservatism first and the GOP second, but it arguably resulted in a worse deal than what the House Leadership would have gotten on its own. As an added bonus, we get a fractured party, a fractured movement, and nothing in exchange.
3) Reconciliation: The Republican Party cannot exist without the conservative movement, and vice-versa. So something here has to give. Either Republican leaders and conservative leaders find a way to work together, or else D.C. isn’t big enough for both of them, and we need someone to fight a duel to see which one can continue to exist.
Because party leadership trashed its own reputation so badly last decade, the conservative leadership is in the driver’s seat now. This is actually a great opportunity. But with all that power comes great responsibility, and the ball has just been dropped.
Conservative leaders need to exercise better judgment about where to fight the party leaders and where to stand with them. It should not be a cozy relationship, but there’s no room in it for gratuitous antagonism. All antagonism must have a purpose, a realistic endgame, and a non-zero chance of advancing the ball. Otherwise, conservative energies are spent destroying goodwill and impotently venting their (often justified) frustrations to no purpose.
If no understanding can be reached between Republican and conservative leaders, then one of the two groups will be destroyed — either the party, or the movement. When I see hard-core conservative lawmakers like Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Raul Labrador, R-Idaho circling the wagons around Speaker Boehner today, that’s a sign that conservative leaders have a lot more to lose. Recall that Labrador wouldn’t even vote for Boehner for Speaker. Yet at this juncture, he seems to appreciate the situation the Speaker was boxed into.
Are GOP leaders also at risk? Yes, but in a much less meaningful sense. They can lose their majorities. (Recall that this didn’t work out so well for conservatives last time, when Democrats took control and passed Obamacare.) Or the leaders could lose their positions within the party. But yesterday’s events proved that they are relatively powerless within the party anyway. Sure, you can topple Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell, but unless the conservative leadership embraces realism, all you get is another group of party leaders you can put into unrealistic positions, whom you can’t work with, who will gradually become less and less willing even to bother trying to work with you.
Consider the gains the pro-life movement has made over the years within the Republican Party, state legislation, the courts, and public opinion. There is no cause I believe more worthy in all the world. Yet where would pro-lifers be today had they instead simply and inflexibly demanded a government shutdown unless and until abortion was abolished? Pro-lifers figured out a way to work within the system and advance the ball.
The reconciliation that’s needed now will be difficult because of the current (and very predictable) bitterness caused by the perceived sell-out on the one side and the moving of the goalposts on the other. But neither the GOP nor conservatism can stand independently of one another. As they once said of the disunity among the colonies, the only option are to “Join or Die.”