If you were a betting person, it would have been a safe wager a few weeks ago that the GOP would learn nothing from the shutdown and that we’d be careening toward another debacle in January or February when the latest deal on government funding and the debt ceiling, respectively, expire. After all Republicans have a long history of not wising up, and, in the bubble-wrap era, the far right is more prone than ever to believe it was all an “establishment” plot and its forces are the only thing standing between this administration and the collapse of the United States.
But consider what has happened in the wake of the shutdown. Both House and Senate GOP leaders have vowed not to have another shutdown; the right wing has not pushed back. Staunch conservatives ranging from the National Review editors to Rick Santorum to GOP governors (even gubernatorial candidate and conservative matinee idol Ken Cuccinelli II) have said this was a flop. Two of the original shutdown squad leaders have essentially pivoted away from the mess. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) now talks about delaying the penalty on Obamacare for failure to get insurance individuals can’t access; Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has turned wonk and hall monitor — telling the kids to knock off their antics. Is the purity parade down to Jim DeMint, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and some cranky bloggers and talk show hosts?
Well, let’s not overstate things. There are plenty of people in Congress and, more important, at outfits like Heritage Action, Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project ready to wage war on reasonable Republicans. They are offended by the notion that winning is the point, not fighting. However, the way to quarantine destructive elements is not to get them to give up their ways. Rather, it is to deprive them of respectability and a wider audience.
When the shutdown ended, a GOP leadership aide said the fight was a long time in coming, an inevitable clash dating back to the 2010 election of tea party-backed candidates. Whether you believe that or not, it’s not inconceivable that it would have a cathartic effect, draining some of the bile from the right and encouraging sunnier, healthier elements. That effort will be greatly aided by several factors.
First, the Obamacare debacle has taken center stage. With that comes the understanding that the right’s actual target is not other conservatives, but the liberal welfare state. And, by the way, this highlights why the hardliners feel compelled to attack mainstream Republicans; if they are simply one of many to pillory Obamacare, they are nothing special.
In the shutdown fight, the right wing’s ability to throw sand in the gears inflated their importance. The hard-right cowed a good many mainstream lawmakers. But once the phone stopped ringing off the hook and the hate e-mail generated by the third party advocates of the shutdown stopped, the majority of lawmakers could go back to ignoring them. A right-wing movement fueled on resentment and non-stop fighting shrivels when there is not a fight to be had with fellow conservatives.
Moreover, it is no fun to lose. In defeat the shutdown squad provocateurs could claim martyrdom and replenish the well of anger that sustains their audience. But for the vast majority of Republicans (likely) losing the Virginia governor’s race, losing the shutdown fight and watching the party’s approval numbers crash and burn are a downer.
In addition, the myth that DeMint-Cruz and their band represent the “grassroots” is greatly undermined by polling and anecdotal evidence. No wonder Heritage Action was so wigged out by the appearance in D.C. of hundreds of people from the hinterlands pressing for immigration reform (“a coalition of business executives, evangelical groups and prominent conservatives coming together to urge House Republicans to put broad immigration legislation on the House floor, ideally before the end of this year”). Congressmen now face real people from their home states. (“On Tuesday, the group of more than 600 leaders from roughly 40 states descended on the Capitol for meetings with nearly 150 Republican lawmakers. They are largely taking aim at House Republicans who they think could support a broad immigration overhaul, including some sort of legal status for the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. The leaders are urging the lawmakers to take a more proactive role in pushing immigration legislation to a House vote.”) The influence of a blogger and ginned up angry callers from other states pale in comparison to actual constituents, some of whom are also key donors. The claim to speak for the masses takes a licking when the masses show up — to oppose you.
A grievance-driven group will always invent new reasons to be enraged. They will always find a fringe candidate or two to primary an incumbent Republican. That however is not sufficient over the long haul to sustain and give that group primacy in a national party. To quote Mike Lee, “[H]owever justified, frustration is not a platform. Anger is not an agenda. And outrage, as a habit, is not even conservative. . . . To deserve victory, conservatives have to do more than pick a fight. We have to win a debate. And to do that, we need more than just guts. We need an agenda.” That desire to win, and to win with an affirmative agenda, has been revived thanks to the disastrous shutdown episode. Talk about ironies.