The shutdown debacle has not been entirely useless for conservatives. It did accomplish something — but not, I am certain, what proponents of the shutdown had in mind. Let’s recount, since the downsides are obvious and plentiful, some potential positive developments:
It’s helped to make clear the divide between staunch conservatives and anti-government right-wingers. Gov. Rick Perry, even Jim DeMint would admit (I think), is no squishy moderate. Yet he candidly acknowledged that defunding Obamacare just isn’t happening: “I think that’s a bit of a stretch for us on the outside looking in, but the president of the United States and the Senate hold the cards here. We understand that, and the Republicans are going to have to hold their ground and try to get as much as they can.” As with some rock-ribbed conservatives, such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who opposed the shutdown from the start, the divide is not between moderate and conservative Republicans, but between reality-based ones and those who are unwilling or unable to combine conservative ideology with real-world political strategy. It has been useful to separate the political gadflies and naive followers from the sober, results-oriented Republicans.
The shutdown mess has, as a Virginia Republican and former elected official e-mailed, been “empowering center-right Republicans to separate themselves” from the destructive actors and self-defeating tactics of Republican radicals. The fear factor is much lower among those lawmakers who understand the folly of the far right. They are much more likely to speak up and vote against harebrained ideas. In particular, it has emboldened Senate Republicans, who have to win whole states and understand the need to appeal more widely to voters, to take charge and become deal-makers.
The face-off has also helped to disabuse some Republicans of the idea that simply by driving down the opposition’s approval ratings the party can succeed. Yes, the president’s numbers have sunk, but the Republicans’ have plummeted. If this translates into other contexts and spurs more positive policy proposals, that would assist the GOP’s image and electoral opportunities.
The shutdown strategy’s complete flop should demonstrate to all but those determined to create their own counter-reality that the shutdown squad doesn’t represent the views of voters or even of GOP voters. Certainly mainstream Republicans can’t afford to lose many voters, but the far right wing is powerless without a more broad-based GOP. Likewise, when the far right speaks, it should not be taken as “the Republican” position; the far right really doesn’t speak for the party as a whole.
The shutdown standoff should have disabused Republicans that imitating the Democrats — all rhetoric, no governance — is a winning political strategy. Perhaps they will be more wary of slick political hucksters in the future.
And finally, the standoff does remind conservatives of the consequences of division and excess on the right — we get liberal Democratic government. President Obama was able to pass and keep Obamacare because fringe candidates lost critical Senate elections over several cycles, the GOP lost the 2012 presidential race and the GOP adopted a losing strategy in this latest fight. The Democrats are now the party of the big government status quo. Republicans who think the voters want an anti-government party are mistaken; what they want is a reform party ready and able to alleviate the pain caused by monstrous government incompetency and overreach and to provide alternatives that improve Americans’ lives.
There is reason to believe the shutdown squad will ignore all of this. Theirs is a closed loop of justification and denial. But for everyone else, the shutdown fiasco may serve as a much needed wake-up call.