The recent federal government shutdown revealed a Republican Party ruled by a narrow and unrepresentative agenda, which reified hardened ideology and banished productive political conversations. The GOP’s humiliating failure opens the door to two possible futures – upon which the election in 2016 will hinge.
Reflecting on the sixteen-day saga which saw Republicans attempt to hold the Federal Government to ransom, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a platitude from Kentucky: “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.” Forcing a shutdown hadn’t worked for Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, when Republican zeal created a disastrous perception of their indifference to the plight of furloughed citizens. For Ted Cruz in 2013, history was in danger of repeating itself.
The junior senator from Texas quickly became the public face and moral figurehead of a GOP faction which viewed the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, as an existential threat to American society – an unjustifiable expansion of the Federal Government and a stealthy encroachment of state socialism on constitutional order. Awkward, angry, and prone to creepily tangential outbursts on the Senate floor, Cruz hollered loyally to the tune set for him by his beloved Tea Party base. But, as the sixteen days in October proved, shouting louder doesn’t always win votes.
Political speculation is a risky business at the best of times; the ‘events, dear boy’ of which Harold Macmillan spoke play havoc with carefully crafted calculations, and predications are rarely blessed with anything like true foresight. But, if one were to venture a vision of the future for the GOP, recalling some of the peculiarities of the recent Federal shutdown would be a far from bad idea.
Topping the list has to be the simple fact that this was a political drama which the Republican leadership probably never wanted. By his own admission, House Speaker John Boehner was ‘overrun’ by forces moving beneath his feet. What was initially intended as no more than a show vote against fa unding provision for Obamacare – and perhaps a bargaining chip in future debt ceiling and sequester negotiations – became a point of honour for a narrow minority of grassroots conservatives. The reinstatement of defunding or delaying clauses in the Continuity Appropriations Resolution by the House of Representatives represented a headlong dive into political gridlock, before the leadership of the GOP could even think about slamming on the brakes.
This opening act of Washington’s latest drama set the tone for the contrasts which would emerge shortly. On the one hand, the Republicans, characterised by disunity and factionalism, and on the other, the Democrats, remarkably cohesive and decisively coherent. The battle, in other words, was over before it began. All the President had to do was to wait for the Republican operation to implode.
Implode it did, and in humiliating fashion. For all Cruz’s hyperbole, Republican lawmakers ended up granting exactly the concessions they had refused (and been unanimous in refusing) before the crisis began: a debt ceiling increase until 7th February, funding through to 15th January, and no policy strings attached. Aware that public opinion would rapidly cool towards the party which could not help but portray themselves as the obstructers, the President simply swivelled in his chair as Boehner frantically cycled through the by now well-worn negotiating planks. Reconsideration of the individual mandate and even a ‘grand bargain’ on tax and spending were among the suggestions to be placed before the president; unfortunately for the GOP leadership, Obama had no intention of picking them up off the desk.
“There are no winners here”, insisted the President’s Press Secretary Jay Carney, as the inevitable endgame of the shutdown was played out. Indeed, the sentiment is surely a sensible one; at best, an unhelpful and costly distraction has finally been put away – for now. But, of course, there were political winners and losers. Chief among the former was the President, delivered from the political purgatory of Syria and relieved – for a moment – from a barrage of criticism over the technicalities of the Obamacare rollout. But the reactions of the losers are quite revealing, and speak to the possibilities for a Republican Party of 2016.
The man whose career should have been in tatters in the wake of his humiliating mismanagement – John Boehner – was perhaps the first to leap aboard the spin machine. Giving an interview the day after the government reopened, Boehner insisted that the GOP had ‘fought the good fight’ and remained true to its core values. The idea itself is an accurate portrait only of the GOP of recent years, but the implication – that Boehner was an architect of the Republican strategy – is simply a fiction. He was caught unawares by an electoral faction which increasingly controls the policy agenda of the GOP, and from which he still feels imperilled.
Behind that threat is the influence of Republican gerrymandering, last seen in 2012. With an increase of safe seats constituted by a redrawing of district boundaries, the Republican leadership has become focused on its internal standing, rather than its image in the broader political landscape. The result is undue deference to fringe elements of the party, and the artificial amplification of special interests and narrow agendas. Hence the grip of demagogues like Cruz on the GOP leadership in Washington, and the arms race of policy madness, in which compromise has become a profane and unacceptable word.
One vision of the GOP’s future, then, could be depressingly similar to its antics in the recent past. Ever more extreme, the Republican Party would consign itself to the fringe of popular politics, but retain a nightmarish capacity for political destruction and havoc-making. ‘Politics by ultimatum’ is increasingly symptomatic of democratic disappointment and failure, and the mobilisation of marginal voices hell-bent on political revenge. Should the Republican Party become defined by its Tea Party base, to the exclusion of anything like a moderate perspective (hard enough to find even now), such will be the destiny of US politics.
But, perhaps, a brighter horizon might be glimpsed. Two words of Senator Mitch McConnell frame a more optimistic perspective: “Never again”. The Republican Party of Ted Cruz is unelectable, as the poll damage inflicted on the GOP immediately following the shutdown showed. But the tables have turned – at least in the public eye – on those extremists whose supposed disdain for Washington politics led to the worst gridlock for a decade. Republicans articulating a more moderate position are able to reposition themselves as hard-working pragmatists whose political vision is grounded on the good of America, not unreasonable ideology. By so doing, Republicans open the door to genuine political conversation and productive debate, both of which have been banished since the rise of the Tea Party in the early 2000s.
This is a vision of ‘partisanship’ closer to that of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil, whose diametrically opposed political convictions were underpinned by a deep love of democracy and public service. The prioritising of the good of the people – and responsiveness to the realities of the America they represented – cemented a trust either side of the aisle, which broadened the possibilities of Washington politics. Of course, this is a romanticised notion – political realities in the 1980s were as grizzly as they are in 2013 – but the dramatically different vision of political disagreement, debate and compromise casts the recent failure of America’s democratic institutions in a shameful light.
This is a vision that the Republican Party can choose to buy into, if the eccentricities of demagogues at its fringes can be tamed. If the GOP takes to heart the message that ‘no-one is a winner’ in a game of political ransom, and that such tactics are a slight to the trust placed in them by the people they serve, then change is possible. With the retirement of Olympia Snowe and ousting of Richard Lugar, we may have mourned the last of the ‘old-fashioned moderates’, but such a sad reality does not rule out the public’s attitude for more. The shutdown drama may have been the very public unveiling of the Tea Party’s true colours, and a glimpse of the political reality to come, if current trajectories are allowed to run their course. If so, it has to be admitted that most Americans did not like what they saw; a simple but incredibly difficult fact for a GOP nominee to confront in 2016.
Machiavelli considered fortune to be elusive – a female figure to be seduced by princes and rulers, in fact. Whilst we might have departed from the classical republicanism of Florence, the point about the nature of politics has surely stayed with us. A day is a long time in Washington, and any miscalculation from the Obama administration could yet put the dampers on the Democratic run for the White House in 2016. Public political memory is notoriously short, and though the 2013 shutdown will have to be tackled head on by any GOP candidate, time enough exists for the Party to turn its image around and redeem its electoral credibility. Two visions of the Republican Party’s future stand side-by-side as America enters 2014; for the sake of the world’s most reputable democracy, one has to hope that the 2013 shutdown was the beginning of a renaissance of a truly representative political organisation.
This article was first printed in the Foreign Affairs Review Magazine, January Edition.