I have heard many of my friends on the right suggest that the Tea Party has destroyed GOP credibility through the obstinacy of certain far-right senators and congressmen during the government shutdown and debt ceiling battle. Based on my own observations of the ordeal, this analysis just doesn’t sit right with me.
First, is it a certainty that the shutdown will hurt the GOP politically? Sure, as the litany of national polls seem to suggest, the public does not view the GOP favorably, and most blame Republicans for the shutdown. However, as Nate Silver pointed out in a recent article, the importance of most issues and current events quickly diminishes in the public eye:
Remember Syria? The fiscal cliff? Benghazi? The IRS scandal? The collapse of immigration reform? All of these were hyped as game-changing political moments by the news media, just as so many stories were during the election last year. In each case, the public’s interest quickly waned once the news cycle turned over to another story. Most political stories have a fairly short half-life and won’t turn out to be as consequential as they seem at the time.
Also, there is no evidence that Republicans suffered from the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns either. In fact, Republicans gained Senate seats in the 1996 election, and retained their majority in the House. This occurred even though President Clinton’s approval ratings were rising (though, as Silver points out, Clinton’s climb in approval may have been part of a long-term trend anyway).
Even if we grant, however, that Republicans will not be significantly hurt in 2014 by the most recent shutdown, the GOP moderates/establishment types may still assert that the particular position of the Tea Party during the shutdown was ultimately untenable, and that there was nothing to be gained from dragging America through a government shutdown. In answering this claim, it should be first broken down into two parts.
First, was the Tea Party’s position during the shutdown truly untenable? From a philosophical perspective, it was certainly not: Virtually all Republicans agree that Obamacare is an abomination which will deprive Americans of their freedoms and hard-earned wealth, and that it should be stopped. That said, was the position untenable from a political/electoral standpoint? The consensus among moderate/establishment Republicans appears to be that it was, but what is their evidence for that claim, besides the fact that the GOP eventually did cave and pass the Democrats’ continuing budget resolution? I have not yet come across any such evidence. It is, of course, easy to fail at something if you do not try.
I don’t own a crystal ball, but maybe the shutdown battle could have ended differently. Perhaps it would have been possible to win this fight if the Republicans were unified in an effort to block Obamacare. It is true that the media and their incessant polling put a disproportionate amount pressure on conservatives, but the media are never going to side with conservatives. If Republicans are doomed to be ruled guilty in the court of public opinion, it is better that they be so having stood on principle, because it is those conservative principles that this country so desperately needs right now. The national debt just screamed past $17 trillion, and Obamacare will only add to that while destroying jobs. America needs relief now, not later. There is no time to worry about public relations, image, and re-election.
The moderate/establishment wing of the GOP would consider this poor political strategy, but the vile, relentless attacks on Tea Party Republicans by their moderate counterparts were themselves poor political strategy for two reasons: First, they completely undermined the Tea Party’s position from the beginning by demonstrating to Obama and the Democrats that the Republican Party did not have the resolve to challenge them. It’s like playing poker and telling your opponent from the outset that you will fold regardless of how much they bet—a guaranteed losing strategy. Second, the resultant implosion of the GOP’s bargaining stance gave the impression that the Tea Party’s opposition to funding Obamacare was never a principled endeavor, because who would go to such trouble—shuttering the government and bringing the country to the edge of a so-called “default”—just to retreat and abandon their principles, unless their claims about the detriments of Obamacare and the soaring national debt were mere exaggeration to begin with? Such an impression will hamper efforts by the Tea Party, or anyone else, to implement conservative reforms well into the future.
Was the position of the Tea Party untenable? Maybe. But there is one (non-)strategy that was a guaranteed loser: the one put forth by the moderate/establishment Republicans. We don’t need a crystal ball to know that. In actuality, it was their tactics which have done most to harm GOP credibility, not the Tea Party’s.
Looking back, the Tea Party’s strategy was not without potential gains. At best, the Tea Party might have successfully defunded Obamacare. Even though they did not succeed in that regard, they have brought national attention to the the train-wreck that is the new health care law. Hopefully their efforts will lend courage to other like-minded Republicans to stand and fight in future battles.
Now look closer at the strategy put forth by the moderate/establishment GOP—which is not really a strategy at all, but rather a veiled retreat: They say that we should “let Obamacare implode,” that its implementation has proven so outrageously bungled that the American people will quickly comprehend the law’s shortcomings and reject it. This assertion is mere fantasy, and it carries absolutely no weight with me for two reasons. First, the leftist media in this country will never allow any narrative to develop which does not favor Obamacare, and those who are ignorant of its problems shall remain so. As we now see, the mainstream media have already started parroting the White House’s assurances about the soundness of Healthcare.gov and the Affordable Care Act as a whole.
And just what does it mean to say that the Obamacare rollout is going badly? Our best points of comparison are the other giant federal transfer programs and their rollouts (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, AFDC, TANF, SCHIP, food stamps, et cetera, et cetera). Their initial implementations may have been smoother, but the programs themselves were, by their very nature, unsustainable from day one. Unfortunately, if history has shown us anything consistently, it is not that the inefficiencies of government programs create the political will for reform—in fact, just the opposite is true: Every new transfer program creates an entrenched electoral constituency made up of financial beneficiaries, making it virtually impossible to repeal or even make the most marginal reforms of those programs. Moderate/establishment Republicans should know this, so exactly what do they expect to gain by allowing Obamacare to “implode?” I thought the whole point of reforming and/or repealing these programs was to prevent this! Our main assumption has always been that the implosion of the welfare state (which is literally running on borrowed time) will spell the implosion of the United States’ fiscal integrity, the American economy, and American society generally. There is no political victory to be reaped from that, so what are the Republicans waiting for?