Count me as skeptical that for all of the damage Republicans have incurred from the failed shutdown, the lesson has genuinely been learned. Not when there is an emerging narrative that the House GOP simply picked the wrong fight (allegedly, either draconian cuts to income support programs , or perhaps, a balanced budget amendment would have been more costly for Barack Obama to reject); not when a majority of the House GOP caucus still voted to perpetuate the shut-down; not when critics inside the party are framing the scope of the party’s dilemma almost entirely in terms of one specific faction, and therefore limiting their solutions to well funded primary interventions against the Tea Partiers.
Some of the “what if” shadow dancing mimics the misreading of public opinion that has haunted the right since the successes of the 2010 midterms: conservatives have consistently confused swing voter angst over Obamacare with a broad based rejection of a government “power grab” over healthcare as opposed to a notably specific distaste for aspects of the law: from scaled back coverage dictated by the “Cadillac tax” on high value policies; to diminished consumer autonomy to enroll spouses in employer plans; to the pressure on small businesses to pare their full-time workforce to avoid mandates. And the shift from declaring the Affordable Care Act so toxic that it would validate the shutdown strategy to suggestions that a softer political target like low income groups or a “support that is a mile wide and an inch deep” variation like the balanced budget amendment would have paid Republicans more dividends? The haziness of wishful thinking, overshadowed by a deeper failure to appreciate that shutdown itself validates the obstructionist label, the impression of being too inflexible to govern, that so threatens the party nationally and is even starting to creep into red states like Georgia and Louisiana.
There is a different kind of miscalculation driving the…take your pick..more responsible, more establishment, more centrist…wing of the party (which, as the one silver lining of this fortnight, seems finally emboldened). It is the assumption that mobilizing to downsize the Tea Party is an endgame by itself. The 144 Republican no notes that emerged in the House may be minimized as “throwaways” who were trying to forestall primary contests and could do so with the knowledge that their votes were not essential: but that misses the reality that such a sizable portion of the party’s elected representatives, well more than the 40 to 50 members of the Tea Party Caucus, felt so constrained politically, and evidence that the sensibilities behind the shutdown have much greater currency in the party than Republicans are comfortable acknowledging.
I’ll repeat my observation in these pages that conservatism has been painfully slow to distance itself from the radicalism that has surged in the party and I’ll certainly allow that the tentative response is understandable: both parties are in the habit of overlooking the rhetorical excesses of their most enthusiastic base, and it would have been political malpractice to shunt the 2009-10 activist uprising on the right to the sidelines or a third party.
But given the degree to which that radicalism has captivated the grassroots of the party, the more responsible side of conservatism has a monumental sales task ahead of it. It extends to the concerns I have outlined before about linking conservative values to the ideal of building a more cohesive, upwardly mobile society but it includes notions that are more fundamental. Among them—convincing those same activists that winning elections is the route conservatives used to prefer to overturn policy (hence the right’s resistance to activist courts and civil insurrections); and a civically healthy admission that the country’s divisions aren’t exactly the moral gulf that the left and right routinely make them out to be.