Picking apart the shutdown and radical individualism in politics

Attention conservation notice: There is no Republican majority in the House, at least not one that knows what a majority is for. Radical individualism sounds sort of awesome in books, but it’s pretty ugly for legislative strategies.

So this is going to be a wonky post, but I’m rather tired of people saying that “both sides are at fault” for the shutdown. Um, no. There are actually more than two sides here, and that’s rather the problem. If we had more than two parties in the US and parliament, we could deal with fringe elements in either party and coalitions could form and reform. Certainly it’s possible to form coalitions, but John Boehner rather epitomizes the problem that Republicans have had for the last two elections. President George W. Bush was seen as sufficiently rural, Christian, fundamentalist, down-to-earth, and conservative* that he appealed to the Rush-Limbaugh-listening rural bases of the GOP as well as the party’s more moderated, urban, and affluent mainstream. As a result, he could run with a Washington long-time deal-maker, Dick Cheney. John McCain and Mitt Romney didn’t have that luxury: they were pressured to appeal to TEA party types in their vice-presidential picks. Center lefties like me could live with President McCain or Romney, but there was simply no way we could handle the prospect of President Palin or Ryan, even though there are things I very much like about Ms. Palin. (Her policy stances are not among those things; I really don’t see much there there to Paul Ryan except that he actually did try to construct a plan for something. However, the plan rather stunk on everything but ideological grounds.)

Center-right folks fall on various stripes from people who will go along and vote with these fringe running mates to people who defect to the left since Barack Obama does do quite a bit to appeal to the center-right–think, for example, how hawkish he has been on matters of security. And there are center-right Republicans who have actually left their home counties and who go to many countries where state-sponsored health programs and note those places are….fine.

The problem for the Republicans is that like any party, they would prefer to control the legislature, and they worked hard to redistrict the House so that they could lock in those rural seats and assume, correctly, that a yellow dog Republican could run in those districts and guarantee them enough seats to form a majority.

But TEA party Republicans actually have less little in common with the center of the party than previously thought, so that the Republicans don’t actually have a clear majority. They do have enough ‘moderates’ (the meaning of that word is in flux because of the TEA party) to vote over the TEA party group, but they don’t want to do that too much because they think, rightly, that this vocal group of TEA party folks will desert the party, or that their failure to support this group will be perceived as ‘deal-making’ amongst the very, very conservative funding base.

I don’t see this being a particularly good strategy, largely because while major donors may be ideological, they are also practical to some degree. I see no reason to keep catering to the far right any more than the Dems should cater to the far left. The TEA party folks are not going to vote Democrat no matter what. The worse they will do is stay home on election day, which I don’t see them doing anymore: Karl Rove became rather famous for energizing this group of voters and securing Republican wins by getting them to the polls over gay marriage. Whee.

But you can’t keep ’em down on the farm, as they say, and Ted Cruz rather epitomizes the mindset. They don’t make deals because they see themselves as fundamentally right–a deal with a Democrat is a deal with devil, and the moderates brokering those deals are part of the problem. This group of far-right politicians thinks that the GOP should line up behind *them*–not the other way around, and they are willing to throw moderates under the bus. Olympia Snowe called it a year ago when she retired. The legislature pivots on making deals.

Ted Cruz’s grandstanding in the Senate for 20 hours rather illustrates it. That 20 hour speech was simple self-promotion as he wasn’t filibustering anything, and having seen the attention Wendy Davis got for her attempt, it was a tempting thing to do. And he could inject some gee-whiz Reagen-type family values schmaltz in there with his Green Eggs and Ham for his widdle kiddies schtick. By taking up a whole bunch of the Senate’s time with his all-about-me strategies (this speech and a bunch of other time-wasting maneuvers), Cruz did two things: 1) he made himself the darling of TEA party types because he clearly wants political celebrity status and 2) he hamstrung Boehner who might have been able to patch together a budget bill, given the leverage he had, that involved delaying the implementation of the ACA and force the president’s hand. Such a delay would have been invaluable to the GOP: they could have forced Democrats in red states into a recent vote, likely to be unpopular with their constituents, and gained more seats in the Senate by taking down some more Democrats next year.

But Cruz and his TEA party peers have made that largely impossible, and worse, from a party perspective, they’ve targeted incumbent Republicans in favor of people like Steve King (he of cantaloupe calves fame.) While Boehner and his old school GOP partners are trying to gain both legislative control, El Cruz is making a political celebrity out of himself. American individualism. How swell. (I’m not convinced he can run for president, but political celebrities don’t need the presidency; in fact, it’s rather a low-paying job, and political influence can be had elsewhere.)

In terms of the shutdown, the TEA party folks approached this last self-created ‘crisis’ with the attitude of give us what we want a) repeal/defund the Affordable Care Act or give us what we want b) a shut-down of the federal government. They aren’t losing here in their minds. So why not? Again, these sissy party strategies aren’t for great visionaries like El Cruz. Visionaries like El Cruz tell themselves that like Ronald Reagen, voters will be so swept into the rightness of their vision that they will control Congress by virtue of their magnificent, sweeping coat-tails. Who needs cooperation when you are that high-caliber?

We’ll see what happens over the next few years. The strategy that has proven helpful to the TEA party agenda–that of moving the official GOP platform farther right–appears to be raveling, and it could go either way: the way of El Cruz, or a backlash, or more muddling between the two that clears the way for Democrats in both 2014 and 2016.

*The down-to-earth reputation that President G.W. Bush possessed baffled me. His mother is hardcore old money northern elite, straight through. And his father was never viewed as particularly down-to-earth.