Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: The GOP shutdown surrender and what it means for Barack Obama, John Boehner, and viability of the radical right.
The sixteen-day government shutdown is over. The debt ceiling has been raised. Obamacare is still intact. Will this hurt the Republican Party? Or will this apparent total defeat yield unexpected fruits of victory?
After Barry Goldwater was buried by LBJ and the Democrats in the most lopsided presidential popular-vote landslide in history, the leading Washington pundit of the day, James Reston, wrote in the Times that the radical-right GOP standard bearer “has wrecked his party for a long time to come.” Richard Rovere, the similarly esteemed Washington columnist for The New Yorker, agreed: “The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction.” This triumphal consensus by the Establishment press of 1964 was, in the words of the historian Rick Perlstein, “one of the most dramatic failures of collective discernment in the history of American journalism.” And it was being repeated during the GOP’s Waterloo this week. To quote just one example (in The New Republic), Boehner’s attempt to rally his troops was “the final spasm of a still-fresh corpse, the corpse being the GOP’s legitimacy as a political party.” From the philosophical point of view of liberals — which I share — the GOP is illegitimate: a nihilistic, hostage-taking, anti-government fringe that wants to bring down government by any means necessary, no matter what the damage inflicted on either constitutional government or the American people’s well-being. But it remains a legitimate party however much its ideological opponents may despise it; it’s lavishly funded, boasts a sizable (if minority) number of loyal adherents, controls a majority of statehouses, and is run by a radical core protected in safe congressional districts. And it has a will to keep fighting no matter what. It has pushed the country further to the right ever since Goldwater’s defeat. As I write in my current piece in New York, this insurgency has been fighting to bring down the federal government for almost 200 years. Whatever temporary electoral setbacks might come in 2014 or 2016, whatever its inability to win national elections, it is hardly going to turn back now because it lost this foolhardy battle — any more than it turned back after the shutdowns and Clinton impeachment debacle of the nineties. It will always fight another day.
The Treasury will hit the debt ceiling on February 7. That’s 114 days away. Should we expect a sequel?
Perhaps a low-key replay, but my guess is the revolutionaries will be cooking up new strategies for destabilizing the federal Leviathan, many at the grass roots of state government, now that this coup failed and its failure is still fresh in the public mind.
After Newt Gingrich agreed to end his Clinton-era shutdowns, he began to lose the support of his revolutionary rank-and-file. House hardliners have so far refrained from criticizing John Boehner, choosing instead to blame their moderate colleagues. Will Boehner emerge from this fight weaker or stronger?
Whatever lip service the GOP right is paying to Boehner after this fiasco is spin. It’s easy to be patronizing to a guy who has no power, and Boehner has none. He’s a convenient front man who, as we learned unequivocally in recent weeks, will do as he is told by his party’s base (and its duly elected Representatives) right up until the final hour of surrender. The important fact to remember the morning after is that all four potential GOP presidential candidates in Congress ignored the entreaties of both Boehner and Mitch McConnell to the very end and voted against the bill reopening the government and extending the debt ceiling — not just Ted Cruz, but also Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Paul Ryan. They did so because they know that the real power in the party in the future remains the unchastened radical-right base. One of the great fictions of this whole episode has been that the GOP is rife with closet moderates who might have joined with Boehner and McConnell to thwart that base — the supposedly tiny group of House members who precipitated the shutdown. Where were these moderates? Who are they? As far as I can tell, this silent centrist majority consists of Peter King, Chris Christie, Susan Collins, John McCain, Charlie Dent, Bob Corker, and the handful of other Republicans who cycle in and out of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. They have no more power than Boehner. It’s Ryan, Paul, Rubio, and Cruz (and their deep-pocketed donors) who have ruled and will continue to rule, no matter what sweet nothings they say about the impotent speaker of the House.
A month and a half ago, President Obama was widely viewed as waffling on the issue of a Syria invasion. Now, he’s stared down the GOP’s “suicide caucus” and won. Obama has already said he’s going to make a fresh push on immigration reform. Is this win going to help the president enact any of his agenda?
Obama’s firm stand in this showdown was admirable. He ignored all the “wise” Beltway voices saying that he could have managed the crisis more effectively by inviting the opposing parties in for a drink or to Camp David — governance by schmooze. He at long last recognized that he has been dealing with a band of revolutionaries who don’t want to compromise and are happy to bring the government down to achieve their goals. However, let’s be clear: What he achieved by standing firm in this battle was not a furtherance of his agenda but the removal of an extralegal impediment to the enactment of a key piece of his agenda that was already the law of the land. It’s admirable that he now will turn to another agenda priority, much-needed immigration reform, but the same GOP base that tried to bring down Obamacare will easily block any law that would seriously address immigration. The radical Republicans have lost this week’s battle, but they have not surrendered their power to stall Obama’s agenda — even when that agenda would seem to be in the national interests of a GOP that desperately needs Hispanic votes if it is to win the White House.