Conservatives are still fighting to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act, passing on Friday a budget resolution that would cut all funding for Obama’s signature health-care law.
This despite the fact that—in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s words—any bill that defunds Obamacare is “dead” in his chamber. Bowing to right-wing demands, however, House Speaker John Boehner says he expects his Senate colleagues “to do everything they can to stop this law,” while Texas Senator Ted Cruz has signaled his willingness to stage a “talking filibuster” to block any government spending bill that funds the president’s health-care law.
But it’s an easy step for Cruz to take. Neither he nor his supporters will face the political damage that comes with provoking a government shutdown. Instead, it’s his opponents—the more mainstream members of the Republican Party—who are certain to bear the brunt of the damage. And that fact means we should expect even more shenanigans from the nihilist wing of the GOP.
Yes, the public isn’t thrilled with Republicans—a 44 percent plurality holds an either “somewhat negative” or “very negative” view of the party, according to the latest survey from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal—and yes, a majority of Americans have already said they would blame the GOP in the event of a shutdown. But for the most conservative members of the House, this is irrelevant. “All that really matters is what my district wants,” said Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky in a comment to the Washington Post. “And my district is overwhelmingly in favor of my position.”
The public might hate Tea Party politicians and their budgetary brinksmanship, but next year, when the House of Representatives is up for reelection, the most absolutist Republicans—the Louie Gohmerts of the world—are almost certain to keep their seats. After all, they represent voters who want a showdown with Obama, and—likewise—would rather crash the economy then raise the debt limit.
The same isn’t true of members like Mike Coffman of Colorado, who has stayed away from the shutdown effort. They represent more moderate voters (his district is only slightly Republican) who value compromise and constructive action. But they lack elbow room in the GOP. If they buck the right too much, they risk a conservative opponent in the primary. But also can’t sign on to every conservative crusade; sooner or later, they’ll face a strong Democratic challenger.
Indeed, when voters turned against the Democratic Party in 2010, conservative Blue Dog Democrats were the first to go. Likewise, if the same happens with Republicans next year, it’s the Mike Coffmans of the party who will suffer the consequences. For anything more to happen, there needs to be a wave strong enough to knock out extremist Republicans. But that requires extraordinary circumstances. Democrats need a net gain of 17 seats to reclaim the majority, which amounts to winning the overall House vote by 13 points or more. If the latest generic ballot is any indication, that’s far out of reach.
If a shutdown happens, and the consequences carry over to next year’s elections, the worst case for Republicans is that they lose a handful of House seats—no more than ten, most likely—and a shot at winning the Senate.
It’s stasis, but not quite the status quo. If a smaller GOP majority is one with fewer moderate members, then the Republican caucus that emerges from next year’s elections is almost certain to have less regard for responsible governance than the current one. Far from “breaking the fever,” losing seats—but not the majority—will spark a downward spiral of extremism, as the remaining members buckle down with their absolutism.
Which means that there are few options left for those of us who want a healthy, functional Republican Party. Either someone takes control from outside of Congress—an outspoken governor turned presidential candidate, perhaps—or the GOP suffers defeat after defeat until it finally collapses under the weight of its unpopularity.
Of course, that’s the optimistic view. Odds are best that the Republican Party carries on, bolstered by just enough victories to justify its behavior. Crisis governance is here, and in all likelihood, we’ll just have to get used it.