JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 23, 2011
It has been fascinating to watch the Republican House hurtling toward a government shutdown. Republican leaders remember well the 1995-1996 shutdown, and understand that it was a devastating setback. And yet they seem unable to avert a recurrence. From a sheer strategic standpoint, it's captivating. It's as if the American military was preparing in 1980 to send troops back to Vietnam.
Why are they doing this? The primary driving force is obviously the Republican base. Republicans rehabilitated themselves from the Bush administration disaster by crafting a narrative in which the party veered from its conservative roots, and now a new grass roots movement would purify it. This was useful in suturing the party off from Bush's legacy and re-invigorating the base, but one side effect was to stoke the already-strong suspicion that the party leadership was prepared to sell out conservative principles.
Conservatives expect major spending cuts and believe the public supports them, but Republicans can't actually enact their agenda because Democrats control the Senate and the White House. Republican leaders have to show that they're fighting for their agenda, which leaves them no room to come out with a compromise. Conservative Republican voters, unlike moderates or even liberal Democrats, oppose compromise even in the abstract.
Indeed, Republican leaders -- rather than trying to put on even a facade of reasonableness -- have openly signaled their hostility to compromise:
Boehner: We have to govern. That's what we were elected to do.
Stahl: But governing means compromising.
Boehner: It means working together.
Stahl: It also means compromising.
Boehner: It means finding common ground.
Stahl: Okay, is that compromising?
Boehner: I made it clear I am not gonna compromise on my principles, nor am I gonna compromise…
Stahl: What are you saying?
Boehner: …the will of the American people.
Stahl: You're saying, "I want common ground, but I'm not gonna compromise." I don't understand that. I really don't.
Boehner: When you say the word "compromise"…a lot of Americans look up and go, "Uh-oh, they're gonna sell me out." And so finding common ground, I think, makes more sense.
That's a horrendous message to send to the general public, which adores compromise. But it's necessary for leaders like Boehner to maintain their standing with a distrustful base.
You likewise see various Republicans attempting to convince each other that shutting down the government will redound to their favor this time. Here's former House leader Bill Paxon saying that this election is different because Republicans ran on cutting government:
Republicans have less to fear from a government shutdown now than they did when they endured the blame 15 years ago — at least that’s the thinking in some GOP circles.
“The context is dramatically different,” said former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), who was one of Gingrich’s top lieutenants. “We didn’t run on an agenda of the kind of fiscal reform that the Republicans talked about last November. I don’t think anybody is surprised or taken aback by the fiscal agenda that congressional Republicans have pursued.”
Was Paxon not alive in 1994? What does he think the party ran on? It was exactly the same thing -- Republicans ran against government in 1994, claimed a mandate to slash it, and then found that actual government programs are highly popular.
Fred Barnes suggests today that Republicans gin up some polls showing support for their agenda:
[Paul] Ryan insists that he won't be deterred by bad poll numbers. But better poll results, from asking good questions, would be reassuring. Instead of asking about Medicare cuts, ask if reforms rather than tax hikes and borrowing should be used to make Medicare sustainable. Ask if billionaires should get the same Social Security benefits as the middle class. Ask if bigger deficits and more debt should be incurred to protect every individual program.
Right, if you load polling with leading questions, you can produce congenial results on nearly any position. The bizarre thing is to see Republicans like Barnes not only engaging in but openly advocating self-delusion. There's logic in coming up with a bunch of bullshit to fool the public. It's dangerous to do it to yourself.