The Republicans’ Waterloo?
“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.”
—T.S. Elliot, “The Hollow Men”
And so as the curtain comes down on ‘The Great Shutdown of 2013’, many Americans are left mulling over one simple question—why? A few months back in this column I noted the efforts of prominent Tea Party Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah to launch a nationwide campaign to defund ‘Obamacare’, the president’s signature health care reform law. I thought it was significant at the time and would resonate all the way to the Republican presidential primaries in 2016. I still do.
What happened these past few weeks in Washington is the result of the rise of the Tea Party movement beginning in 2009. But it’s also the culmination of decades of growing political polarization in the United States and a hardening of attitudes in both major political parties, especially among the Republicans.
Many will now wonder if this latest confrontation will lead to a cooling off period between the two parties that could lead us away from the perpetual struggle over debt, deficits and the size of government. Most of the experts say that’s not likely and they’re probably right. But I do think the way this latest donnybrook ended is going to give more mainstream Republicans pause before they sign up for another cruise to nowhere on the Tea Party Express.
Some of the Winners
President Barack Obama: This is not a universal assessment, by the way. But the president stood his ground and didn’t blink, something a number of his Democratic allies were nervous about given the last time he went toe-to-toe with Republicans over the debt ceiling in 2011. Mr. Obama needed this badly because the clock is ticking on his second term and we all know that second term presidents lose steam pretty quickly, especially after the midterm congressional elections.
Does this mean he can simply return to pushing his agenda in Congress, especially immigration reform in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives? Ah, no. But it may mean that as the never-ending budget deliberations resume he may face a slightly defanged Tea Party caucus and a lot more mainstream Republicans reluctant to go over the cliff in a futile attempt to undo Obamacare.
The president also benefits from the fact that while the rollout for Obamacare has been plagued by problems, all of that has been overshadowed by the weeks of political skirmishing on Capitol Hill. In these divided and highly polarized times, a win is a win. It doesn’t mean you will prevail next time. But it should make your adversaries think twice about how far they are willing to go to fight for what they want.
Senator Ted Cruz: The Texas Republican has emerged as the standard bearer for the Tea Party in Congress. That’s a plus if you are thinking about running for president in 2016 and want to solidify a base of support made up of Tea Party activists and no-surrender conservatives.
It looks like the Cruz game plan is to seize the spotlight at every opportunity and champion Tea Party causes like defunding Obamacare. Cruz recently won a straw poll of social conservatives at a Values Voters summit in Washington and all of this activity should help him with conservative voters in the Republican presidential primaries in 2016 looking for a no-compromise, true-blue conservative Republican out to change Washington from the bottom up.
Congressional Democrats: Democrats were upset with President Obama in previous negotiations over the debt limit and budget with Republicans because they felt he gave too much away. This time they insisted that he hold firm and he did, so they feel vindicated. How this plays out in the upcoming budget deliberations is unclear, however. Democrats often suffer from the same political malady that afflicts Republicans—a propensity to overreach. And it’s not clear how the end of the shutdown helps them in any way prod the House to move on immigration reform, a top priority for Democrats looking to reward all those minority voters, especially Hispanics, who helped in Mr. Obama’s re-election victory last year.
And Now a Few Losers
Tea Party Republicans: The best description of this group early on came from Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, emerging as one of the effective moderates on the Republican side of the Capitol. Corker tweeted that the Tea Party led defunding effort was the equivalent of heading into a “box canyon.” You find these long and twisty canyons out in the western U.S. that lead to—wait for it—a dead end. Another image that comes to mind is the idea that Tea Party Republicans were peering over the edge of the cliff when the ground came up and hit them in the face. That’s because they didn’t realize they had already fallen off the cliff.
Tea Party activists claim the shutdown has energized their followers like nothing else since the inception of the movement in 2009. They say fired up Tea Party followers will come out in droves for conservative candidates in next year’s congressional midterms. But something tells me the large group of silent majority Republicans in the House who want the Tea Party support but don’t want to share the blame when their tactics backfire will be more cautious in upcoming budget fights not to get too close to any cliffs. Or at least insist on a safety railing.
Senator Ted Cruz: Hey wait, I thought he was a ‘winner’? Well, he’s both. Cruz may have solidified his status as a rising conservative star and presidential hopeful in 2016, but being the face of the shutdown will not endear him to moderates. Cruz has made his share of enemies in the Senate in a relatively short time, and I’m referring to fellow Republicans who rate him high on ambition but short on an ability to get things done or get along with others. Cruz no doubt has established a claim to winning conservative voters in the 2016 primaries. But the question is will moderate Republicans find him an acceptable, plausible nominee in the long run given that one of his rivals could be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who likes to tout his appeal to independents and conservative Democrats. The political fallout from the shutdown could easily resonate well into the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Republican Party: The party is badly divided right now on both tactics and what is should stand for. Republicans and their brand took the biggest hit in public opinion polls as a result of the shutdown, and the vote in the House showed that 87 of the 233 Republicans in that chamber were willing to vote with Democrats to end the shutdown. House Speaker John Boehner will have to reassess going forward how much leeway he will continue to give conservatives in the House to take the lead on both legislation and strategy in the upcoming budget battles. Most Republicans believe they can repair their brand by the time next year’s elections roll around. But that may involve more confrontation with the Tea Party than they so far have been willing to risk.
The U.S. Image Abroad: This latest confrontation did not instill a lot of confidence around the ability of the U.S. to keep its governing house in order. The world may have to get used to the instability and volatility that is a byproduct of divided government. In the long run that might not be good news for the U.S. The U.S. system of government is already seen as too complicated and inefficient by many around the world and it will take the Congress and the president finding more common ground than they have so far to turn that image around.