Russ Douthat makes a very interesting point about those Tea Party Republican legislators who have made sure the government would shut down in a temper tantrum over health care reform: They don’t have a way out. Obama and the Democrats are not going to cave on Obamacare and they know it. This is all posturing. But if it doesn’t actually work, if it doesn’t achieve anything, couldn’t that backfire even with their own base?
But even if you grant that this strategy isn’t entirely unreasonable (which isn’t the same as agreeing that it’s wise – I don’t), the problem for Republicans is that it has become deeply entangled – in part because of deliberate rhetorical choices by figures like Ted Cruz — with the genuinely unreasonable, irresponsible, and self-destructive theory I described above, in which a shutdown is actually a way to get Obamacare defunded now, and all the party needs to do is stick to its guns and eventually the White House will buckle, the health care law will fall, and the republic will be saved. The savvier, saner, “let’s only threaten a shutdown” plan, in which brinksmanship is a tactic to highlight differences and prove commitment, only works if it persuades both base voters and swing voters that the party is absolutely committed to repealing Obamacare without persuading the latter that the party is absolutely bonkers. But if the base has been told true commitment should lead to actual legislative victory (and that this might be the “last chance” to stop Obamacare), then merely threatening a shutdown, or letting one happen for a few days and then cutting a deal, is as likely to disillusion conservative voters heading in to 2014 as it is to mobilize them. And if the G.O.P. doesn’t want to disillusion them, then it doesn’t have an obvious way to back off or quickly make a deal – in which case the party is risking a real debacle with non-base voters, who might forgive a brief shutdown but probably won’t forgive Republicans if it turns into a lurching political and economic crisis.
Right now, then, a kind of sour spot seems like a pretty plausible outcome for Republicans: A shutdown that lasts just long enough to convince swing voters that the G.O.P. can’t be trusted with the reins of government, but also ends with the party’s grassroots convinced that they’ve been sold out by their leaders once again. And because that sour spot is so plausible, and has been for some time, it’s hard to escape the impression that even the “reasonable” case for G.O.P. brinksmanship is only reasonable if the goal mostly just to increase the pro-shutdown faction’s power within the party, irrespective of what that means for either the actual repeal of Obamacare or for Republican prospects in the next few national elections.
That’s because the idea that conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed, extends beyond ideology to its tactical extension, eternal and maximal opposition to Barack Obama and everything he wants to do. Fighting Obama is a strategy that can never fail. If failure happens, it can only be because we didn’t fight him hard enough.
Once this is all over, they’ll be telling everyone the same old story. If only the party had been stronger, if only Boehner had stood firm, if only we had kept the government closed for another week or another month, everyone would have seen we were right, Obama would have been crippled for the remainder of his term, we would have won a smashing victory in the 2014 mid-term elections, and the blow that led to Obamacare’s inevitable death would have been struck. But we were betrayed by Boehner and the other cowards and quislings.
I wouldn’t even be surprised if come 2015, where you stood on the shutdown becomes a key litmus test Tea Party activists apply to GOP presidential contenders.
I think that’s exactly what is going to happen. The extremists are simply immune to political reality, as zealots always are.