There are two schools of thought about how the Republicans who tried to limit the damage or who supported the shutdown strategy but then retreated to the shadows will fare. Some say that pols like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) smartly escaped the worst fallout from the fiasco. Others can argue that being complicit in an inane scheme and then abandoning ship is no way to build a following.
The problem is most acute for Rubio, who once fancied himself as a figure who could appeal to hard-line conservatives and mainstream Republicans. That image frayed as he put off anti-immigration reform right-wingers. He then shocked mainstream Republicans by diving into the ill-fated Obamacare defunding plan. That he seemed so earnest in doing so only contributes to the unease that he was conned by the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his former mentor Jim DeMint. It’s not an advertisement for higher office (or even reelection) to say, “Well, I didn’t think it through” or “I put too much faith in right-wing attack groups.” His best bet now would seem to be to return to the hard work of being an effective senator, win reelection and hope this episode fades with time as he matures.
For Rand Paul, his critics would argue that he opposed the defunding scheme, then supported it and then disappeared. Not a profile in consistency or courage, they’d argue. That’s true, but there is a more fundamental problem for him. He’s never been a senator able to make deals, pass legislation or accomplish anything concrete. He’s an aspirational politician with a dramatic vision of a pre-New Deal federal government and an anti-interventionist foreign policy. In the wake of the shutdown debacle and the administration’s Syria and Iran bungling, aspirational pols with little or no executive experience may not be so appealing to the large swath of Republican voters. What would he do if the country neared a default? What would he do if faced with an Islamic revolutionary regime on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons? Suddenly, his throwaway lines that default isn’t necessary when we hit the debt ceiling or containment of a nuclear-armed Iran may be feasible seem not just off-beat, but frightening. It’s one thing to be a lone crank in the Senate spewing this stuff; it’s quite another to be auditioning for chief executive and commander in chief.
Then there is House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who had the right instincts in opposing the shutdown and trying to broker a House deal, but who lacked the power and influence to keep his party from going over the cliff. This is a dramatic example of why it’s so difficult to run for president from the House. Ultimately, you are one of 435 members and can’t shape the agenda of the House or the direction of the party. If Ryan wants to change Congress, he’d do well to plan his rise to chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and perhaps speaker of the House. If, however, he wants to change the party and the country, this episode suggests he will need to separate himself from the body now associated with chaos and dysfunction.
Leaders emerge in crises and in overcoming circumstances not of their own making. For now, the last place you’d look for them is in the Congress.