What has made the current partisan standoff in Washington so chaotic, dangerous, and compelling is that it is, first of all, not a standard one-on-one showdown, but a more complex game between three players: Democrats, Republicans, and the tea party. The struggle between two parties is overlaid on top of a struggle for control within one of the parties. Compounding matters is that the terms of the internal struggle between the Republican Party and its ultraright party-within-a-party are themselves almost completely irrational. The party is suffering deep damage to its public standing — last night’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows Republicans dropping while President Obama’s approval remains intact — and neither side has any plausible way to stop it.
Conservative activists and the party’s pro-business Establishment have split more deeply and rapidly than anybody expected. It is startling to see the head of the National Federation of Independent Businesses — a group so staunchly partisan and conservative that liberals had to form a competing small business lobby — deliver quotes in public like this: “There clearly are people in the Republican Party at the moment for whom the business community and the interests of the business community — the jobs and members they represent — don’t seem to be their top priority.” The mutual recriminations run in both directions, with figures like the conservative organizer Erick Erickson muttering threats to form a third party.
Intra-party schisms have a long history in American politics. But they are usually rooted in policy — the Republicans splitting a century ago over progressivism and the role of government, the Democrats slowly rending a half century later over white supremacy. Mainstream Republicans and the tea party have fallen out almost entirely over political tactics. Tea partiers and conventional Republicans alike want to abolish Obamacare, cut taxes, eliminate Dodd-Frank, stop any regulation of carbon emissions, and impose cuts to social programs for the poor.
The tea party arrives at its shared Republican policy vision through the lens of an apocalyptic culture war. (The polling firm Democracy Corps closely surveyed base conservative voters, and found they believe they are “losing control of the country” and “Obama has imposed his agenda,” as opposed to passing it through legitimate democratic means.) The tea party’s logic runs as follows: The start-up of Obamacare will fundamentally change America, and therefore Republicans must shut down the government to prevent that.
The defunders believed that shutting down the government would stop Obamacare from coming online. Outsiders have lost sight of the fact that support for the shutdown is rooted in a simple failure to understand legislation. The defunders were clear about this misconception at the time. Here are some sample quotes from a July article in the Hill newspaper on the defund-Obamacare movement:
• “'This is the last stop before ObamaCare fully kicks in on Jan. 1 of next year for us to refuse to fund it,' Lee said Monday on 'Fox and Friends.' … "
• “'If Republicans in both houses simply refuse to vote for any continuing resolution that contains further funding for further enforcement of ObamaCare, we can stop it. We can stop the individual mandate from going into effect,' he said. … "
• “'You want to delay implementation? Don’t fund it,' Rubio said … "
• “'Any Republican who votes to give Obama a single penny to implement ObamaCare is part of the problem and should be defeated. Any Republican who votes to fund ObamaCare should have a primary challenger,' said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund."
The defunders have since realized that shutting down the government doesn’t stop Obamacare. At that point, it was too late to alter the strategy. Republicans had to keep shutting down the government — they had already printed up the T-shirts.
The defund movement has, fairly, absorbed the brunt of the opprobrium for the straits the Republicans find themselves in. But it’s not as if the party Establishment has charted a prudent course. The Republican House leadership disdained the shutdown strategy all along, but instead wanted to stage a confrontation over the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling is orders of magnitude more dangerous, economically and politically. The tea party may have the more apocalyptic vision, but the “responsible” Republicans have chosen the more apocalyptic weapon.
The curious internal political logic expressed itself yesterday. While Republican leaders have been signaling their intent to raise the debt ceiling for six weeks — putting down the doomsday weapon — the defund movement mostly accepted it. The implacable ultraconservative Erick Erickson was, for the first time in memory, placated (“I think this is wise”). Within the House leadership, the move was seen as a capitulation by the leadership to the defunders. (“When the decision came down from Boehner Wednesday night to embrace the short-term debt ceiling increase, some Republicans close to leadership were furious. ‘Death Star is blowing up,’ deadpanned one Republican member, calling it the ‘Erickson plan.’”)
The tea partiers have demanded the party charge into a shoot-out it can’t win. But the respectable mainstream Republicans, the Paul Ryans and Charles Krauthammers, have urged it to stage a nuclear confrontation it can’t win.