The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The shutdown is a Republican civil war

We’re used to brinkmanship in Washington resulting from conflict between Democrats and Republicans. But this shutdown is different. It’s a fight between Republicans and Republicans -- or, more specifically, Republicans and the Tea Party.

In 1995 and 1996, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich proudly led Republicans into their shutdown fight with President Bill Clinton. In 2011, Speaker John Boehner was enthusiastic about using a possible shutdown and default as leverage for Republicans to make good on the promises they'd made in the last election.

But Boehner didn’t want this week’s shutdown. He didn’t want to sign onto Ted Cruz’s doomed effort to defund Obamacare. Boehner’s strategy was to pass a clean bill to fund the government at or near current sequestration levels - - a major victory for Republicans, by the way -- and then secure additional spending cuts in negotiations over the debt ceiling.

The dysfunctions of the House Republican Conference are often blamed on the so-called Hastert rule. The Hastert rule, which isn’t an actual rule, is named after former House speaker Dennis Hastert, who famously tried to bring to the floor only bills that had the support of a majority of House Republicans. Boehner has generally followed it, which is why he won’t allow the Senate’s immigration bill on the floor; it may have the support of a majority of the House, but it doesn’t have support from a majority of House Republicans.

What’s strange and fascinating about the shutdown debacle, however, is that a majority of House Republicans were with Boehner: They didn’t want a shutdown. “Two-thirds want a clean CR,” Rep. Peter King told the National Review, using the acronym for a “continuing resolution” to fund the government. “Including some of the people who got elected as tea party candidates from the South. You talk to them, they think this is crazy.”

The White House thinks it’s crazy, too. “One faction of one party, in one house of Congress, in one branch of government doesn’t get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election,” President Obama said this week.

The question that’s puzzling Washington is how a minority of the majority is managing to dominate the House of Representatives.

Robert Costa, Washington bureau chief for the National Review, estimates that there are only “30 to 40 true hardliners” among House Republicans. He says more than 100 House Republicans are solidly behind Boehner. But Boehner’s troops are scared. “Could they stand firm when pressured by the 30 or 40 hardliners and the outside groups?” he asked.

You’d think they could. Or, at the least, you’d think Boehner could. Typically, party leaders protect the mainstream members from the demands of the fringe. They control fundraising and committee assignments and the floor schedule, which gives them substantial power over individual members. And if outside groups want a seat at the table, they need to stay on leadership’s good side, which tends to keep them from going too far off the reservation. But the Republican leadership no longer has the strength to play that role. “What we’re seeing is the collapse of institutional Republican power,” Costa said.

Having previously failed to rally tea party adherents behind him in negotiations over the fiscal cliff, Boehner can no longer serve that function in the House. “Ever since Plan B failed on the fiscal cliff in January and you saw Boehner in near tears in front of his conference, he’s been crippled,” Costa said.

Boehner faces no plausible threat from traditional conservatives in his conference. They believe he’s one of them, they’re comforted that he’s speaker, and they’re generally terrified that a tea partier might replace him if he retires or is pushed out. The threat to Boehner comes from the right of his conference. Consequently, he panders to the fringe; as long as they’re happy, he’s safe.

Members of the Republican establishment are agog. Cruz “pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away,” said conservative stalwart Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. But the real problem is that House Republican leaders didn’t push back.

The reason the establishment has such trouble with the tea party is that the tea party really, truly means it. They don’t want to cut a deal. They don’t want to get the most that they reasonably can. Most represent extremely safe Republican districts and don’t care about positioning the party as a whole for the next election. Traditional politicians such as Boehner have no playbook for dealing with a powerful faction that’s completely uninterested in strategic or pragmatic concerns.

Back in 2011, the Republican establishment was sufficiently in sync with the tea party to harness their recklessness against the Obama administration. Boehner argued that his new members were just wild enough to crash through the debt ceiling and harm the economy, which gave him crucial leverage in his negotiations with the White House.

But then Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, and the Republican establishment began to alter its approach. The tea party, however, didn’t. Now Boehner and other mainstream Republicans dealing with tea party legislators face the same problem Democrats faced in 2011: It’s hard to negotiate with people who don’t care about, or even really believe in, the consequences of burning the place down.

Boehner’s problems aren’t such a surprise to Christopher Parker, a political scientist at the University of Washington and co-author of “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America.” In 2011, Parker began running massive surveys of self-described conservatives in 13 states. He controlled for every demographic characteristic and political opinion he could think of. Tea partiers, he found, were simply different from other conservatives. In one telling example, 71 percent of tea party conservatives agreed Obama was “destroying the country” -- an opinion shared by only 6 percent of conservatives who didn’t identify with the tea party.

On measure after measure, tea party members expressed fear that the country was changing in fundamental ways. They were much likelier to view Obama as a literal threat to the nation. They were more conspiratorial in their interpretation of politics. They viewed politics as less like a negotiation among stakeholders and more like a struggle for survival.

“You’ve got about 52 members of the Republican conference who are affiliated with the Tea Party in some official way,” Parker said. “That’s a bit less than a quarter of all House Republicans. That’s enough in the House. They refuse to compromise because, to them, compromise is capitulation. If you go back to Richard Hofstadter’s work when he’s talking about when the John Birch Society rode high, he talks about how conservatives would see people who disagree as political opponents, but reactionary conservatives saw them as evil. You can’t capitulate to evil.”

The problem for Boehner and the rest of the Republican establishment is that the tea party ethos is now being turned against them. After all, mainstream conservatives will compromise with “evil” (or, if you prefer, “Democrats”). For tea partiers, that makes them suspect, too. In fact, one way tea party Republicans can prove they haven’t sold out to Washington’s ways is by opposing any compromise Boehner proposes.

The conventional wisdom in American politics used to be that Republicans followed their leaders while Democrats were barely unified enough to be considered an organized political party. Today, the reverse is true. Democrats largely follow their leaders while Republicans have splintered into two distinct political groups that uneasily share a single party.

That’s the real challenge complicating the shutdown and the debt ceiling. The problem isn’t that Boehner and Obama can’t reach an agreement. It’s that Boehner and Obama and the tea party can’t.