Paralyzed by Polarization
After 12 days of stalemate, conversations – if not negotiations – have started.
But House Republicans remain deadlocked with the White House, its leadership constrained by their own far-Right-wing caucus, announcing to members in a closed-door session this morning that any deal would have to come from the Senate, where Mitch McConnell, the GOP minority leader, declared: “I’m willing to work with the government we have, not the one I wish we had.” This is a significant concession to reality.
Washington is engaged in a war of attrition – not just between Republicans and Democrats, but an increasingly vicious civil war within the GOP between the Tea Party and what remains of the responsible centre-Right.
The battle lines have been hardened over the past half-decade, as poisonous polarisation turned the idea of political opponents into personal enemies. Ideological divisions inside the Republican Party resulted in a hunt for heretics, with Tea Party senators like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee raising activist cash with infomercials to unseat fellow Republican incumbents, accusing them of being insufficiently conservative and therefore collaborators with President Barack Obama.
Fear over these proposed primary challenges led to a collapse of common sense as Republicans backed into a suicidal government shutdown strategy in an attempt to get President Obama to defund or delay his signature health care reform law. This was always going to be a non-starter because Democrats control the Senate as well as the White House. But Cruz & Co raised millions around this base-pleasing fantasy, without a real strategy for success.
Even a professional hyper-partisan like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform felt compelled to criticise Mr Cruz, saying: “He pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away.”
And so the shutdown occurred, despite long-standing assurances to the contrary from GOP leadership. The inmates are now running the asylum and leadership looks impotent.
But the stalemate seemed briefly broken thanks to the looming prospect of hitting the debt ceiling on October 17 – the barrier by which the U.S. government needs authorization to borrow money or default on its debt. Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of being hung, and the big money boys who fund various Tea Party groups as well as senior senators’ campaign coffers started to make their displeasure known: shut down the government over ObamaCare, sure – collapse the entire U.S. economy, no way.
This financial incentive for strategic change was compounded by an unprecedented descent in the polls. Politics often echo lessons from the past, and pundits have been predicting that Republican House members would lose the shutdown fight, citing the example of the 1995 government shutdown that led to Bill Clinton’s re-election. The latest set of polls – most notably from Gallup and NBC/WSJ – show that Republicans are getting the lion’s share of the blame for the current division and dysfunction.
Seven in 10 Americans now say that the GOP are “putting politics ahead of their country”.
Moreover, polls show the Republican Party has the lowest popular approval rating of any political party in the history of polling.
This is not subtle. Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster, told clients in a memo that the data was “significant and consequential” – comparing the political sea change to the September 11, 2001 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. It is accelerated evidence of the alienation between hard-core ideologues and Main Street voters, with repercussions that will impact the midterm elections of 2014 and the 2016 presidential campaign.
You know the problem is real when a strident social conservative candidate like Virginia gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli refuses to have his picture taken with Ted Cruz for fear of offending even more swing voters.
Warned by their donors and the public, the GOP is in now in tightly-controlled panic mode. But as the nervous need for negotiations drove some Congressional Republicans into White House meetings, Tea Party activists howled their faith-based hatred of compromise at the annual Values Voters Summit across town in DC. A handful of House radicals like Representative Louie Gohmert could not help taking shots at fellow Republicans like centrist Senator John McCain – a war hero and former GOP presidential nominee – saying that he “supported al-Qaeda”
Representatives like Michele Bachmann expressed outrage over the closure of Washington monuments and memorials, despite having voted for their closure. Logic left the building long ago.
A bright spot emerged in the GOP split when Representative Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee, proposed a negotiated settlement on overlapping ideas of tax reform and entitlement reform, with an eye toward deficit and debt reduction. But Mr. Ryan’s ambitious proposal drew the fury of Tea Party activists who quickly accused him of being a modern-day Quisling for abandoning the defund ObamaCare.
Faced with a divided opposition, President Obama feels newly emboldened and is refusing to negotiate while the shutdown continues or the debt-ceiling is used as leverage. A House Republican proposal to extend the shutdown while delaying the debt-ceiling default is therefore DOA.
This is itself a dangerous game being played by the White House, running the risk of overreach by rejecting constructive compromise at a moment of maximum influence. But the prospect of simply kicking the can down the road another six weeks in the hopes of achieving a grand bargain later looks like a fool’s errand that could inflict even more damage on the US economy.
This stubborn cycle of governing by crisis must stop. Divided government did not always mean dysfunctional government. But President Obama’s decisive win in 2012 failed to break the fever of hyper-partisanship. Perhaps the pain of this stupid self-inflicted government shutdown combined with the latest looming debt-ceiling debacle might finally shake some sense into our elected representatives. Angry donors and ugly polls might do what reason and patriotism have so far failed to inspire. But even typing those words represents the triumph of hope over experience.
The last time we went through this kamikaze kabuki, in the summer of 2011, the US avoided default but still ended up having its AAA credit rating downgraded by S&P.
Who can say with a straight face that we have learned our lesson?
There is still time for Mr Boehner and Mr Obama to put their legacies and the long-term good of the country ahead of partisan concerns. But the clock is ticking and it is later than we think. Days away from a default that no one wants, there is still no clear path forward despite this stark choice: self-government or self-sabotage.
This piece was originally published in The Telegraph on October 12, 2013.