Shutdown Mess

Michael Steele on the ‘I Told You So’ Caucus Getting the Shutdown Right

Among the loudest GOP voices predicting the blowup of Cruz control in the shutdown fight was Joe Scarborough—and the former RNC chairman. Steele tells Lloyd Grove why we’re due for a repeat in three months.

10.21.13 9:45 AM ET

As Republican activists and office-holders survey the wreckage of the past week—including historic lows in public approval and alarming highs in public revulsion (a perilous 74 percent in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post survey)—they might remember the dire premonitions of the “I Told You So” Caucus.

Former Republican representative Joe Scarborough, whose Morning Joe program on MSNBC is a coffee klatch for opinion leaders on both sides of the TV screen, is the voluble Cassandra of the caucus. For weeks now, on television and in print, he has been warning that Texas Tea Party Sen. Ted Cruz’s quixotic attempt to thwart the implementation of Obamacare—by shutting down the federal government, and by threatening the full faith and credit of the United States through a refusal to raise the debt ceiling—would result in political catastrophe.

And so it has.

“In terms of folks outside of politics, I think Joe has an incredible influence because of his very precise way of framing the arguments, and I think that has helped crystallize some of the finer nuance points that often get lost in the discussion, particularly when you’re dealing with the arcane measurement of debt and the fiscal alchemy that goes into putting together the federal budget,” says former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele, the ex-chairman of the Republican National Committee and a frequent panelist on Morning Joe. “He has been in the room. He’s been a part of shutting down the government before, so he knows whereof he speaks. He brings a certain quiet intelligence to the discussion, and it’s not about stirring up the base, it’s about moving an agenda on important issues that the party is not talking about.”

But Steele, a member in good standing of the “I Told You So” Caucus, makes a distinction between ordinary citizens across the nation and Washington politicians. “In terms of the political intelligentsia inside the Beltway”—“political intelligentsia” being Steele’s polite phrase for “stupid idiots”—”their hubris often gets in the way of reason, and this last episode is an incredible example of that.”

Scarborough, 50, comes by his insight painfully. As a right-wing freshman House member from Florida in 1995, swept into office on a wave of anger at Bill Clinton, he favored a government shutdown and other brass-knuckled measures to gain leverage on the president, only to watch Clinton perform jujitsu on many Republican office-holders who lost seats during the subsequent two election cycles while Clinton resoundingly won a second term. Don’t let it happen again, Scarborough has repeatedly pleaded as he saw President Obama lay the same old trap for House Republicans determined to follow Cruz over the cliff. On Sunday in his hometown paper, the Pensacola News-Journal, he invoked “an old Southern saying: ‘There is no education in the second kick of a mule.’ “

Scarborough, who didn’t respond to an interview request, has been joined in the “I Told You So” Caucus not only by Steele but also by credentialed conservative pundits such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer, elected officials such as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and such bulwarks of the GOP establishment (assuming it still exists) as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers, who all have been predicting that Cruz control would inevitably end in tears.

Scarborough has argued that the Republican Party’s image has been “shattered” by the latest imbroglio. “The costs have been pretty big to the GOP,” he wrote in Friday’s Politico. “This shutdown drove the Republican brand into the ground…That may not hurt conservative senators from Alabama or Texas, but it is a nightmare for Republicans representing states like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. More troubling is just how divided this episode left us. I’m not sure how it happened, but the Grand Old Party is now divided in two camps over something as grubby as legislative tactics.”

Steele, like Scarborough, agrees with Cruz and his Tea Party allies on the policy substance—that Obama’s Affordable Care Act is an unaffordable mistake—but he says the madness in their methods was predictably self-defeating: “The tactics suck. It’s not even tactics. This is basically throwing stuff against a wall.”

Indeed, if the Republicans had simply allowed the president and the Democrats to assume ownership of the problem-plagued rollout of Obamacare, instead of distracting the media and the country with a debt ceiling/shutdown battle, the GOP would have been in a much stronger position. “And then expose the lie, the strategy of [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid and [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi and Obama,” Steele says. “Their end game doesn’t resolve any of these problems, either, and at some point folks are going to be honest about that.”

Reid, who has a decidedly unsenatorial tendency to hurl personal insults at his adversaries—suggesting the other day, for instance, that Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) has a screw loose—could have been left alone to damage his own side. “Just put Harry out there and the let the brother go and run his mouth,” Steele says. “He’ll make the case for you.”

But House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor essentially did what they frequently accuse Obama of doing: they led from behind. “It’s Boehner, it’s Cantor, it’s [Senate Republican Leader Mitch] McConnell,” Steele says. “McConnell is afraid of his own shadow because he’s got a primary to worry about [in his 2014 reelection campaign in Kentucky] and a general election which is going to a lot closer than he wants it to be. And everyone is jockeying to be the next speaker of the House behind Boehner. All of that is politics instead of sitting down and putting the interests of the country first and worrying about your own personal agenda later.

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“The bottom line,” Steele continues, “is that when a vacuum is created in leadership, something or someone is going to fill it. And because there was no strategic plan going into this fight, and there was no idea of what we should do on the other end to come out of it, Ted Cruz filled it.”

The former Republican Party chairman adds: “For voices like Joe Scarborough and [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie and Michael Steele, it’s kind of like being in a wind tunnel. I’ve given up talking to this intelligentsia inside the Beltway because they don’t get it. I rely on the folks outside the Beltway to send a message at the ballot box or, as we’ve seen, in polls, and impress upon the members their responsibilities to get this Congress off their ass and to do their jobs.”

Surely, then, the GOP has learned its lesson and, three months from now, when the budget agreement expires, and three weeks after that, when the debt ceiling looms again, there won’t be a repeat performance of posturing and brinkmanship. Or will there?

“Yes, there will,” Steele predicts, “because the same people who brought us this fine production are still in charge. Where is the incentive? The incentive didn’t exist before to avoid this crap we just went through…So what’s changed?”

To which he and Joe Scarborough can safely answer: I told you so.