The GOP is Still Chained to the Base

Everyone thinks the GOP’s plan to shut down the government is insane—especially the American public. So why are they doing it? Jamelle Bouie on why the party still fears its die-hards above all.

Mark Peterson/Redux

Almost everyone agrees that the Republican Party’s debt-ceiling brinksmanship is dangerous to the economy. That includes economists, who agree that it could derail the recovery and plunge the country into a second recession; former GOP officials, who call their party’s behavior irresponsible; and House leaders like Speaker John Boehner, who agrees that Congress needs to lift the debt ceiling and protect the economy.

Despite this, Republicans are prepping demands for their consent. According to the Washington Examiner, House Republicans are set to deliver a ransom note of conservative policies that range from construction of the Keystone pipeline and expansion of off-shore energy production to Medicare means-testing and GOP-friendly tax reform. It’s hostage taking, plain and simple. Either Democrats concede to the GOP’s extortionist demands, or Republicans blow up the economy.

The GOP’s plain hope is that this will yield them a policy win and do lasting damage to Barack Obama’s presidency. But there’s no reason to believe this is true. Yes, when Republicans tried this two years ago, they won substantial spending cuts, and, yes—in the aftermath of the debt-ceiling crisis—Obama looked vulnerable. But it wasn’t long before the president regained his popularity and hammered Republicans for their behavior. The GOP’s popularity sank to new lows, and it’s not a stretch to think that the party’s failure in last year’s congressional elections—where it lost seats in the House and blew a shot at winning the Senate—has a lot to do with its brinkmanship.

But if Republicans know that a debt-ceiling standoff will harm the economy and hurt their image, then why have they committed themselves—for now, at least—to retreading the same ground? The easy answer is their supporters. Republican voters—and Tea Partiers in particular—are categorically opposed to any compromise with Democrats, regardless of the situation. A series of recent polls on a prospective government shutdown is illustrative.

Forty percent of Tea Party supporters, according to a recent Gallup survey, say it’s more important to stick to beliefs than to compromise, compared with 33 percent of self-identified conservatives and 36 percent of self-identified Republicans. Likewise, according to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Tea Partiers say lawmakers should stand by their principles even if it results in a government shutdown. And in a CNBC poll, the only people who demand defunding of the Affordable Care Act—even if it results in a shutdown—are Tea Party Republicans, with nearly 50 percent in favor of such an approach. In a speech on the Senate floor yesterday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz—who has alienated the Republican establishment with his defunding crusade—aligned himself with the “Americans all over this country” who are “suffering because of Obamacare.” He continued, “It is our obligation to our constituents to do everything we can to prevent the majority leader from funding Obamacare with 51 votes.”

His “constituents” are exactly these people. And indeed, when you consider that they have no problem attacking incumbents to get what they want—see the current primaries, from the right, against Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, and Lindsay Graham in South Carolina—it’s no surprise that GOP lawmakers are moving forward with this debt-ceiling stunt. Their voters demand it, and at the moment, they’re more worried about alienating their uncompromising base than crashing the economy.