But don’t give yourself away
(Lyrics from “Surrender“ by Cheap Trick)
In his first (and last) appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) immediately and repeatedly agreed with Leno when the now-retired host suggested that Republicans were to blame for the October 2013 government shutdown.
That perspective is more agreed with than disagreed with among the electorate, the media, and perhaps even much of the GOP. But the almost gleeful way in which Mr. Boehner implicitly blamed the conservative wing of his own party rather than castigating President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) for their tyrannical “we will not negotiate” approach has many Republicans, especially those affiliated with the Tea Party, less inclined than ever to cooperate with House leadership and more cynical than ever about its true goals.
On Wednesday afternoon, the United States Senate, by a 67-31 vote, gave President Obama his much desired “clean” debt ceiling increase just 48 hours after the House of Representatives had passed the same measure. The Senate shenanigans included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) voting in favor of the bill after most other Republicans had voted “No.”
As the Washington Times reported:
After he voted, his top lieutenants, who had already voted against the debt increase, switched — and then went to other rank-and-file Republicans and asked them to switch too, trying to present a united front. “Alright, let’s go — come on down,” Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who had earlier switched from “No” to “Yes,” told his colleagues on the floor. But few of them followed their leaders, leaving the dozen Republicans who backed the debt increase on a precarious political ledge.
It is in this context, one of remarkably public disunity, that one must consider both the “clean” debt ceiling passage — in which only 28 Republicans voted with nearly unanimous Democrats to pass the bill in the House — as well as the implications for the GOP going forward: How can a group with such deep divisions claim to be a credible governing party, or win enough seats to prove it?
The Washington Post called the debt ceiling vote a “Republican surrender,” as did dozens of other media outlets along with blogs and opinion sites across the political spectrum. And how could it seem otherwise?
There is a saying regarding my people: “Two Jews, three opinions.” It seems that far more House Republicans than I knew are in fact Jewish.
In interviews for this article, two senior staffers to two House Republicans offered insights into how this week’s debt ceiling debacle came to pass and what it suggests for the GOP’s future.
The differences even between these two gentlemen, themselves both principled conservatives, highlights how much work the Republicans have ahead of them if they aim to develop anything like the unity and discipline shown by House and Senate Democrats. (Neither of the Representatives the staffers work for is a member of House leadership, and both voted against the debt ceiling bill.)
First, the chief of staff for a Tea Party conservative:
AmSpec: Why did so many conservatives refuse to support a debt ceiling increase tied to at least a modest Republican policy priority, such as eliminating Obamacare’s bailout of insurance companies?
Staffer 1: For a conservative who wants to actually reduce the debt, you need something fundamental, something that begins to address underlying causes of our debt. Attaching something small, even if we like it, doesn’t fix our real problems.
AmSpec: Still, it seemed like it might have been going in that direction until suddenly we learned that leadership had given up — basically blaming conservatives — and have now allowed Democrats to pass a clean debt ceiling increase. How does that happen?
Staffer 1: The leadership has a playbook. They pooh-pooh conservative suggestions for real reforms — entitlement reforms, structural reforms, and so on — and then pass a “show bill,” like a debt ceiling increase tied to a small conservative policy goal which they know Harry Reid will reject, because Reid knows the House leadership will surrender. Then leadership waits until we’re right against the deadline, the media starts attacking Republicans as threatening to cause a national default, and then the GOP caves and leadership gets what it actually wants — a clean debt ceiling while punishing conservatives.
AmSpec: I still don’t understand. Wouldn’t attaching a popular and modest conservative policy goal at least have put Harry Reid and President Obama in a difficult political position, forcing them either to give Republicans something or to refuse a debt ceiling bill whose only other provision is widely supported by voters? Why do you think that a debt ceiling with a modest conservative policy goal was not passed?
Staffer 1: We don’t have 218 people in the House that would fight for even minor “victories” attached to a debt ceiling increase. Democrats know it. Republican House leadership knows it. So we get a clean debt ceiling increase in the end. The question then is whether we play into the theater, create drama over a few weeks, and allow leadership to blame conservatives for the mess, or whether we stop playing their game and require them to reveal their true position (which is that they’re comfortable with a clean debt ceiling increase and they’re unwilling actually to fight for anything more).
AmSpec: Sorry if I keep asking the same question here, but why wouldn’t a Tea Party conservative have voted for that bill (repealing the insurance company bailout, also known as risk corridors), or is it more about being on record saying that our debt is out of control and that that, rather than the smaller issues, should be the goal of the conversation?
Staffer 1: Even assuming counter-factually that we had 218 who would fight to the end for some minor reform, do we want to trade $1 trillion in more debt for such a minor reform? The reason the debt ceiling was created was to force Congress to make real changes to prevent the necessity of future debt increases (or at least to slow the increase of debt). It’s “breaking the glass”; it’s how we require Congress to stop what it’s doing and deal with its fiscal balance. I don’t think we’ve scored a victory by, for example, requiring the President to review another report on the Keystone pipeline in exchange for another year of shocking debt.
Similar questions asked of another senior House Republican staffer elicited a very different perspective:
AmSpec: The House passed a “clean” debt ceiling increase this week. How did that happen?
Staffer 2: Leadership presented option after option after option (of items to attach to the bill), and were continually gauging if there were 218 votes. They started with Keystone, then it was risk corridors (Obamacare insurance company bailout), then it was an SGR patch (reforming part of the Rube Goldberg Medicare funding formula), and so on. Leadership wanted to attach a policy reform to a debt ceiling increase, but there were never 218 for any option.
AmSpec: But isn’t passing a clean bill an unnecessary gift to Democrats?
Staffer 2: House Republicans were boxed into a corner because Dems won’t negotiate, so it came down to how many Republicans would abandon a bill with a modest conservative policy goal attached. If there were only going to be a few Republicans who would not support such a bill, leadership could probably get enough Democrats to pass it. But if you’re talking about 50 or more Republicans who just say no, there’s no way to get that many Democrats, and leadership did not want to put something on the floor that wouldn’t pass. To specifically answer your question, Boehner laid out 4 or 5 options, any of which would have been preferable to where we ended up. This was a missed opportunity.
AmSpec: Some conservatives are blaming John Boehner. Tea Party groups want to oust him as Speaker. The base is demoralized. Liberals and the media want to blame conservatives for Republican infighting, though they are happy with this week’s result. Who is really to blame here?
Staffer 2: I don’t care who the Speaker was. It’s hard to see how this would have gone down differently, given all the different factions. But here’s what we really need to be talking about: Democrats have absolutely checked out in terms of fiscal responsibility. It’s one thing to say you won’t negotiate on a debt ceiling increase. It’s another thing to blindly increase our nation’s debt by trillions of dollars.
The problem for the Republican Party is that these staffers’ answers, although different in focus, tone, and even implicit blame, are both fundamentally correct.
Conservatives are magnifying the view most succinctly put forward by Bob Novak that “God put the Republican Party on earth to cut taxes. If they don’t do that, they have no useful function.” In these days of greater government overreach than even the cynical Novak, known as the “Prince of Darkness,” might have imagined, the GOP could be useful in other ways. But giving President Obama a clean debt ceiling increase is certainly not one of them.
And claiming a victory on a relatively minor issue such as the Keystone XL pipeline or risk corridor repeal while Democrats are bankrupting our children could make one seem like the love child of Nero and Pollyanna (and could invite a primary challenge from the right, a fear of many House Republicans.)
On the other hand, politics is the art of the possible, and it was possible to get something here for all Americans, not just Republicans. For that reason, this week’s outcome indeed represents a missed opportunity of the largest order. Not only does it make Republicans look like they should replace French soldiers in surrender jokes, but it gives President Obama a much-needed political victory just as the GOP has him, and his Senate lackeys, on the ropes going into the November elections.
What was surrendered was not so much the debt ceiling increase as it was the Republican Party’s momentum in trying to reestablish itself as the “party of ideas” or, as Speaker Boehner recently put it, “it’s important that we show the American people that we’re not just the opposition party, we’re actually the alternative party.” The GOP looked like neither this week.
If there is any silver lining to the debt ceiling farce, it is that it prevents the media from moving voters’ focus away from the disasters that are Obamacare and the Obama economy.
If we may end on a slightly more positive note, a final question and answer:
AmSpec: With such public divisions within the Republican Party, how can the GOP expect to succeed in the upcoming elections where a relatively unified message is important?
Staffer 2: Nothing brings a party together like an election cycle, especially a mid-term election cycle. We have to get back to Obamacare, to the economy, to pro-growth ideas we can all get behind. That’s where agreements do exist.
Let’s hope so.
Speaking of mid-term elections, another few words of wisdom from Cheap Trick’s “Surrender“ seem in order:
Whatever happened to all this season’s
Losers of the year?
Every time I got to thinking
Where’d they disappear?
On November 5 we’ll have much better answers — and we can hope that some of the losers will be named Landrieu, Begich, Pryor, and Udall.
Until then, with the GOP having a real chance to retake control of the Senate, House Republicans must disband their circular firing squad, focus on the issues that will unite their caucus, and never, ever, ever again gratuitously hand President Obama and Harry Reid a political and policy victory which harms not only Republicans’ electoral prospects but, more importantly, our entire nation.