Political combat is a zero-sum game, so it’s tempting to say that—if Republicans lost—Democrats must have won. But that’s not as right as it sounds.
As President Obama noted in his address this morning, the public is frustrated with everyone in “this town.” Americans don’t blame Obama and congressional Democrats for the shutdown, but they hold them responsible for some of the dysfunction in Washington. It’s why, in the most recent Washington Post poll, only 42 percent of Americans approved of President Obama’s conduct, and only 33 percent said the same of congressional Democrats. And the same NBC News poll with abysmal ratings for the Republican Party also had congressional Democrats with a 36 percent approval rating. The Democratic Party escaped the blast of the GOP’s self-destruction, but it wasn’t unharmed.
The only victor in this melee—if scuffed, dirty, and covered in broken glass—was the United States and its political institutions. After all, this wasn’t a fight over policy as much as it was a battle for the norms of American governance. Can a minority of the minority direct the conduct of the entire government? Can it threaten economic disaster to win concessions?
The answer, for now, is no. Or, as President Obama said in his address this morning, if “You don’t like a particular policy or president, then go out there and win an election.” Legislative hostage taking has no place in our system.
With that said, it’s also true that we’re just three months from another budget deadline. Still, the painful experience of the last three weeks should be enough to keep right-wing Republicans from creating another manufactured crisis. Remember, before the stand-off, the National Review’s Jonathan Strong asked House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan if he thought President Obama was serious about his vow not to negotiate. Ryan scoffed, “Oh, nobody believes that. Nobody believes that…I think most people believe he’s just posturing for now.”
Now that this fiasco has ended with complete surrender to Obama and congressional Democrats, Ryan and his allies should feel chastened, and aware of one thing: When the stakes are high enough, Obama will not bend.
It’s worth noting that some conservatives are trying to claim this outcome as a victory. “We saw first of all, millions of millions of American people rising up across this country, over two million people signing a national petition to defund Obamacare,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in a press conference following last night’s vote, describing his new email list as a victory for conservatives. Likewise, Slate’s Dave Weigel scored this incredible quote from South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who thinks this was a success for the conservative movement: “We believe we did it for the right reasons. We believe it was good policy. We believe good policy makes good politics.”
But there’s no reason to take this rationalization seriously. Republicans chose...poorly, and now they’re trying to minimize the sting of defeat. Even Erick Erickson—the right-wing activist who has dedicated his life to rooting out conservative apostasy, whether or not it exists—has turned his focus to elections, and not the next confrontation. “Grassroots upset about this fight should be encouraged,” he writes, “We’d have never gotten this far with the GOP before 2010. Imagine now the possibilities in 2014 if we make examples of a GOP that refused to fight Obamacare.”
What can we expect for the next few months? In his address, Obama issued a to-do list for Congress: A “balanced approach to a responsible budget,” comprehensive immigration reform, and a farm bill that preserves funding for food stamps. But the odds that any of this will happen are low. As long as John Boehner insists on holding a majority of the majority for all policy, the ideological gulf between the two chambers is too large to find common ground. Just look at last night’s debt ceiling vote: 144 House Republicans voted to continue the shutdown and default on the nation’s debt. For these right-wing Leninists, there is no compromise, only total victory. And, absent a sea change in the behavior of the Republican base, they’ll retain a huge amount of influence in GOP caucus.
As long as the Republican Party controls the House of Representatives, Washington can’t work. Worse, the procedural radicalism of the GOP threatens to cause another crisis at some point in the future. The Democratic Party isn’t perfect, but at this moment in American politics, it’s the only coalition with the wherewithal to govern responsibly. I don’t expect voters to remember the details of the shutdown, but with any luck, they’ll at least remember that much.