President Obama’s victory this week was as complete and devastating as Sherman’s march through the South. But there is no early sign that the zealots of the anti-government far right have learned the lessons of their defeat — which means that more battles lie ahead.
House Speaker John Boehner was not being honest Wednesday when he explained the GOP surrender as, “We fought the good fight; we just didn’t win.” This was not a good fight. Republicans picked an objective that was never realistic — forcing Obama to nullify the Affordable Care Act, his biggest achievement — and tactics that amounted to self-immolation.
Boehner knew from the start that the GOP would be blamed for shuttering the government and that he could never really allow the Treasury to default. So what on earth was the point?
Apologists say that Boehner had to go through with the shutdown and go down to the wire on the debt ceiling to show the hard-core tea party members of his caucus that “we control one-half of one-third of the government,” as the speaker has said — that a slender House majority has limited power.
But come on, really? Can these people not count? Or have they such blind faith in their own wisdom that they think they are divinely ordained to prevail, whatever the odds? That is the mind-set of crusaders, not legislators.
By standing with his troops in a lost cause, Boehner won respect and admiration from the most conservative House Republicans, including the tea party caucus. But I doubt this enhanced authority goes very far or means all that much.
Boehner’s headstrong charges have shown that they will follow him obediently — as long as he charts whatever nonsensical and counterproductive course of action the radical right demands. They’ll follow him into a box canyon of their choosing. But will they follow him into any sort of meaningful compromise with Obama, whom they so ardently demonize? I doubt it.
More likely, they’ll listen to the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz. Whatever else you think about the guy, he is some piece of work. Having persuaded House Republicans to jump off a cliff, the Canadian-born Texan and apparent presidential hopeful now blames the inevitable result — splat! — on the fact that Senate Republicans didn’t come along for the plunge.
GOP senators were like an “air force bombing our own troops,” Cruz said in a radio interview. This alleged bombardment came in the form of sensible warnings that Obama was never going to kill Obamacare and that the party was jeopardizing its chances of capturing the Senate and keeping its majority in the House.
There are some who see Cruz for what he is. “The fact is, if you come up with a strategy that’s going to shut down the government of the United States, and you have no way of winning, you’re either a fraud or you’re totally incompetent,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told CNN. “We are not going to allow Ted Cruz to hijack this party.”
Many House Republicans — perhaps a majority — would agree. But few will utter such sentiments out loud, what with powerful right-wing pressure groups such as Heritage Action still sounding the battle cry.
I doubt the GOP will be eager to threaten default or another shutdown anytime soon. But the agreement reached between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calls for wide-ranging budget talks aimed at the kind of “grand bargain” that Boehner and Obama tried to achieve two years ago.
Even on a day full of hope and possibility, I remain skeptical that the party is ready to budge from its basic demands — to focus on deficit reduction, not economic growth, through tax and entitlement cuts, with no new revenue. Unless Republicans are willing to compromise and accept Obama’s “balanced approach” of both cuts and revenue, there will be no grand bargain or even a middle-size one.
Instead, we may get a series of small, discrete fiscal deals that do little good but no real harm. That’s actually progress. We may also see the sensible, non-suicidal wing of the Republican Party take Obama up on his offer to tackle immigration reform. To put it mildly, the GOP needs a popularity boost.
What we won’t see is the old pattern of the GOP smashing the crockery and getting its way. Obama has shown that even the most irrational of tantrums can be stilled by the power of no.