Ten Paces

Will the Government Shutdown Hurt the GOP in the Long Term?

By and From the December 2013 issue

Of Mice and Men

by Wlady Pleszczynski

What Shutdown?” That was going to be my opening line, but without the quotation marks. But now that the Wall Street Journal has asked the question in a headline, credit must be shared, but only up to a point. The Journal was reacting to October job numbers, which showed unexpected growth in private sector employment—despite ominous warnings that an October shutdown would slow the economy. It didn’t happen.

What’s more, and this is my larger point, what has universally been called a “shutdown” was at best a partial shutdown, affecting no more than 17 percent of government employees—“nonessential” employees, as if the remaining 83 percent were in fact essential. Without a bona fide shutdown, how will we ever know how much more less government we can not only survive but thrive under? 

That’s the problem. If words and actions are still to have any meaning, this was shutdown as farce. One side, representing the supposedly victimized, exploited it for all it was worth, imposing martial law on Washington’s most venerable tourist sites. The other, supposedly the party responsible for causing the “shutdown,” was forever in apology mode for allowing a few renegade members to bring it about. Instead of embracing it and using it to their advantage, most Republicans became the panicky characters of The Mouse That Roared, regarding the shutdown as Grand Fenwick’s Q Bomb that no one in his right mind would keep in his hands. The actual bomb of course turned out to be a dud, animated all along by an eponymous mouse. A GOP metaphor ahead of its time.

If there is a culprit in nervous Republican thinking it is Sen. Ted Cruz. He took the lead on all the issues that brought the so-called shutdown about, and as such absorbed all the blows and shots directed at House Republicans of similar disposition who throughout remained unidentified but were still somehow marked as Tea Party extremists and evil folk who were making Speaker John Boehner’s life unnecessarily difficult. Certainly there was more to House conservatives’ efforts to pursue their body’s constitutional responsibilities, but it never registered in the main narrative, which has viewed the Republican House as by definition having no legitimacy. Left to their own devices, the Democrats and the big permanent government culture of Washington would shut down House Republicans for good. 

If the recent contretemps have taught us anything, it is that there are more ways than one to play the shutdown game. If you think about it for even a second, you’ll be amazed at how good the Obama party is in shutting things down. And not only during the “shutdown,” as we saw everywhere on the Washington Mall, at least until it was time for an illegal immigration rally. 

Senator Cruz distinguished himself by holding forth for more than 21 hours in the leadup to the “shutdown.” What’s forgotten is that he was in fact time-limited by Harry Reid & Co. That’s a form of shutdown right there. If he’d had his druthers, I’m certain he could have continued for 211 hours. (I mentioned this to him after his appearance at our magazine’s annual dinner on October 23, and he seemed rather pleased by the idea.) To be sure, that’s when we’d really see the intervention of those whom President Obama calls “responsible Republicans”—Senate elders like Mitch McConnell or Orrin Hatch who continue to speak disdainfully of their younger, principled colleagues. The former, arguably one of the Senate’s greatest parliamentarians, these days falls back on the all-purpose excuse that there’s “55 of them and 45 of us.” No fundraising slouch himself, he joined other establishmentarians to accuse the leaders of Tea Party groups of misleading their followers “for profit.” 

As for Hatch—who appears to have forgotten the lengths to which he went in 2012 to win back Tea Party backing for a new term—he’s blaming Ken Cuccinelli’s defeat in Virginia on the “shutdown” set in motion by Cruz and his ally, Sen. Mike Lee. (So now it’s fashionable for a senior GOP senator to blast the junior GOP senator from his state?) Somehow he neglected to point blame at leading Republicans who withheld funding from Cuccinelli. As for the hapless, abandoned Virginian, so spooked was he by the shutdown paranoia that he declined to appear with Cruz at a key campaign event—the same Cruz whose exposure of the Obamacare atrocity gave Cuccinelli the one issue he could push to tighten his race against his self-enriching opponent. How, to their eternal shame, will establishment Republicans ever explain their preference for victory by a brazenly corrupt Clinton machine operator like Terry McAuliffe over a strong conservative Republican?

Something shut down with Republicans this past fall. This is clearly not a team that wants to compete. One look at ephemeral polls and before you know it they’re pulling for the other side. The Cuccinelli race brought out the worst in most everyone. Take note too that in its final days, the celebrity likes of Chris Christie, on his way to easy re-election at home, declined to appear on the Virginian’s behalf. Nobody was asking him to come to coal country, just to very liberal Arlington County, right across from Washington. Even President Obama, when he did appear for McAuliffe, didn’t dare venture beyond Arlington. Such a gesture by Christie could have helped Cuccinelli immensely in a tightening race.

No doubt Christie was being consistent. Throughout his own re-election he made sure no other Republican could gain advantage. He even declined to appoint a Republican to fill the full 18 months of the vacated New Jersey Senate seat, which would have allowed McConnell to revise his excuse to there’s “54 of them and 46 of us” heading into the 2014 elections. 

Now oddly Christie’s insisting he’s not moderate but conservative. He apparently does want to win his party’s presidential nomination in 2016. By then, as one hopes against hope, it may dawn on the GOP’s nervous nellies that the only shutdown that’s mattered is the one the Obama party imposed on our country: on its economy, its recovery, its health care, its foreign policy, its political culture, its freedoms, its future. 

Search and Distract

by Daniel McCarthy

Over the last 25 years the conservative movement has thrown itself out of balance. Instead of combining a philosophy of growth with a critique of excessive government—Ronald Reagan’s winning formula—the Republican Party has emphasized one side to the exclusion of the other. Which one gets emphasized and which gets excluded depends on whether the GOP holds the White House.

With Barack Obama in the Oval Office, the critique of liberal government is all that matters—hence the ludicrous spectacle of the federal shutdown in October. There was no chance this tactic would achieve its stated aim. Nothing short of a national crisis would have compelled the Democrat-controlled Senate to defund or delay Obamacare, and Republicans were not prepared to risk a 2008-style market meltdown to stop the president’s scheme. A 16-day government shutdown was one thing; hitting the debt ceiling and discovering what lay beyond was altogether another. 

If the shutdown is understood as a means to ending Obamacare, it was foredoomed to fail, and every Republican on Capitol Hill—from Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to Ted Cruz—knew it. But that’s not what the shutdown’s purpose really was. Its point was to reassure the Republican base of the right-wing bona fides of its representatives. And on that level it may have succeeded. Tea Party activists are convinced this was a heroic effort, and they’re ready to show their gratitude in 2014. Speaker Boehner knows who gave him his House majority in 2010. Senator McConnell has reason to think that same grassroots force will help him to a Senate majority next year—even if he’s personally disliked for his role in brokering an end to the shutdown. 

As Obamacare crashes and burns, the fallout from the shutdown no longer looks so dire for the GOP—in the short term, at least. In October, it had seemed like a disaster: The party’s popularity plunged to a record low of 28 percent in Gallup’s polling. Tea Party leaders took a hit even in safe red states like Utah, where Sen. Mike Lee’s ratings tanked—a Brigham Young University poll put his approval at 40 percent and disapproval at 51 percent. But exit polls in Virginia’s statewide races a month later suggested that the real damage wasn’t so severe—Republicans received only slightly more blame for the shutdown (48 percent) than Democrats (45 percent). If that’s the worst Republicans face, they may well think it a small price to pay for a more enthusiastic base a year from now—when other voters will have forgotten the whole thing. 

The long run is what counts. But in the very long run—beyond next November—putting on fireworks displays for the base is sure to be self-defeating. Getting a serious conservative into the White House becomes impossible if the GOP defines itself by a succession of protests and publicity stunts.

Look at the lessons of the 1990s. The GOP-controlled Congress fought two government shutdowns with Bill Clinton in 1995 and impeached him in 1998. Republicans lost all those battles, both at the policy level—the shutdowns failed to wring many concessions from Clinton, and impeachment failed to remove him—and at the political one, with Republicans losing ground in the 1996 and 1998 elections. Yet the gravest harm that Republicans suffered was philosophical: They had spent so long defining themselves in opposition to Clinton and his initiatives that they steadily lost sight of any conservative policy aims of their own. In the absence of a positive agenda—who needed one as long as thwarting Clinton revved up the base?—a rather less-than-conservative agenda from George W. Bush filled the vacuum. So when the Texas governor made his bid for the White House as a “compassionate conservative,” promising to expand the Department of Education, Republicans in Congress were happy to go along. Once he was president, they signed on with No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and a decade of nation-building in Iraq.

This was the real conservative crack-up—not the infighting the right had indulged in during the early 1990s, but the unworkable synthesis of big-government, Bush-style “conservatism” and anti-Clinton, symbolically anti-government, congressional “conservatism.” This Frankenstein’s monster was kept on its feet for a few years by the jolt of 9/11, but as the charge faded, the cadaverous limbs came rotting apart. 

And now the cycle repeats. The grassroots right, encouraged by leaders in Congress, is defining itself in relation to Obamacare and Benghazi and deficit spending, and once again this doesn’t add up to a philosophy. Not only is it uncertain to defeat big-government progressivism at the ballot box, it leaves the way open for big-government conservatism as the only practical alternative to Hillary Clinton in 2016. By overemphasizing a critique of progressive government—by not only voting against its bills but by making public spectacles of resistance—the Republican right lets its own policy strength and philosophy atrophy. 

The opposite approach, Reagan’s approach, is the correct one: While resisting and critiquing progressive government is essential, it must take second place to an emphasis on the good that conservative policies can do—not “compassionate conservatism,” if that is understood as expanding federal departments, but serious, skeptical, yet optimistic conservative policies. The shutdown is a distraction from designing and selling that agenda, yet the right is so hypnotized by its own ritual protests that it cannot see the opportunity it’s losing. 

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About the Author
Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director of The American Spectator and the editor of AmSpec Online.
About the Author

Daniel McCarthy is editor of the American Conservative.