Of course, the gang of 80 who fomented this revolt are predominantly white men, and their districts are mostly clustered in the South, the Sun Belt, and the Midwest. But the same could be said of most of the GOP caucus. For Republicans to claim that this cabal of 80 legislators represents a mutant strain—“a small segment who dictate to the rest of the party,” in the words of a prominent GOP fund-raiser, Bobbie Kilberg—is disingenuous or delusional. (Kilberg herself has raised money for Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.) This “small segment” accounts for a third of the 232 members of the House Republican caucus. Lunatics they may be, but the size of their cohort can’t be minimized as a fringe in the context of the wider GOP. And they wield disproportionate clout because the party’s so-called moderates let them—whether out of fear of primary challenges from the right, opportunism, or shared convictions that are not actually moderate at all.
According to Robert Costa of National Review, the go-to reporter on internal GOP congressional machinations, there are more than a hundred moderates among the party’s House ranks. Where are they, exactly? Even Peter King, the Long Island Republican who sees himself as their standard-bearer, has essentially called them cowards. “They will talk, they will complain,” he says, “but they’ve never gone head-to-head” with the rebels. If the recent events couldn’t rouse them to action—assuming they exist—it’s hard to imagine what ever would. Costa’s estimate notwithstanding, the fact remains that until the middle of last week only 24 Republican members of the House publicly affirmed they would vote for a “clean” resolution to reopen the government—a head count even smaller than the 49 who bucked their party to vote for Hurricane Sandy relief. It’s the sad little band of vocal moderates, not the gang of 80, that is the true “small segment” of the GOP.
The radicals’ power within the party has been stable for nearly two decades. The current ratio of revolutionaries to the Republican House caucus is similar to that of the 104th Congress of 1995–96, where the revolt was fueled by 73 freshmen out of a GOP class of 236. For all the lip service being paid this fall to memories of Gingrich’s short-lived reign as the Capitol’s Robespierre, some seem to forget just how consistent that Washington train wreck was with this one in every way. On MSNBC, Andrea Mitchell went so far as to categorize the current House insurgents’ Senate godfather, Ted Cruz, as a rare new pox on the body politic—the adherent of “a completely different strategy than almost anyone we’ve ever seen come to Washington.” Really? The political tactics and ideological conflicts are the same today as they were the last time around. Back then, the GOP was holding out for a budget that would deeply slash government health-care spending (in that case on Medicare) and was refusing to advance a clean funding bill that would keep the government open. The House also took the debt ceiling hostage, attaching a wish list of pet conservative causes to the routine bill that would extend it. That maneuver prompted Moody’s, the credit-rating agency, to threaten to downgrade Treasury securities, and Wall Street heavies like Felix Rohatyn to warn of impending economic catastrophe. The secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, juggled funds in federal accounts to delay default much as his protégé Jacob Lew was driven to do in the same Cabinet position now. Leon Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff, accused the Republicans of holding “a gun to the head of the president and the head of the country” and likened their threats to “a form of terrorism.” (And this was before terrorism became an everyday word in America.) The internal political dynamics in both parties were similar as well. Gingrich has a far stormier temperament than Boehner, but like the current speaker, he could have trouble keeping control of his own caucus and waltzed into a shutdown scenario without having any idea of an endgame, let alone an escape route. President Clinton, like President Obama, held firm rather than capitulating to the House’s extortionists, betting that public opinion would force them to cave.
To fully appreciate the continuity between then and now, one need look no further than the Third District of Indiana. It is currently represented by the most conspicuous goat of the 2013 uprising, Marlin Stutzman, whose declaration in the shutdown’s early going was a ready-made Onion gag: “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” Those who think Stutzman represents a new breed minted in the Obama era would be advised to recall his immediate predecessor in the same seat, Mark Souder. “We didn’t come here to raise the debt limits,” Souder said during the 1995 shutdown, insisting that “some of the revolution has to occur,” for “otherwise, why are we here?” (This is the same northeastern-Indiana constituency, by the way, that gave America Dan Quayle.)