Tuesday was the first day of the government shutdown, a term that simply means funding to government agencies expired, and no replacement appropriations bill was passed. Much finger pointing, tweeting and name-calling ensued. I could use this space to lay out who I feel is to blame, but that would require more of a full volume rather than a single page, so I will have to settle for a different narrative. Instead I will focus on how the Republican Party came to this impasse over the last five years, and what the new Republican Party means for the future of conservatives.
2008. The end of the Bush Presidency. John McCain wages a futile battle against a country sick and tired of Republican leadership. Unsurprisingly, the young and energetic Barack Obama was elected in a sweeping victory. The following months heralded the beginning of the Great Recession. In a move widely accepted as necessary, President Obama begins numerous programs of government spending in an attempt to mitigate economic stagnation. It was these programs coupled with the disorganization of the Republican Party post-2008 that laid the groundwork for the 2010 elections.
Like most moderate independents, 2010 was the year I wish I could have stuck my head in the sand. The Tea Party movement exploded onto the political scene without any clear message except that government was too big and had to be scaled back any way possible. The Republican Party, still recovering from the damage done by the Bush Presidency, welcomed these new conservatives, undoubtedly seeking to capitalize on their energy. This was a mistake. The Republicans likely thought they would be able to assimilate these new conservatives into the existing structure of politics in DC. After all, weren’t they told that they had to play along to get along? Instead of assimilation the Republican Party invited a lion into their den. In 2012 that lion would rear its head for the first time.
The argument over the budget ceiling in 2012 was the first time the Republican Party really had to come to terms with their new membership. Tea Partiers refused to raise the debt ceiling, which limits how much money the government can borrow, unless democrats agreed to trim the budget. Again there was lots of name-calling and finger pointing. Ultimately the agreement that was reached resulted in the sequestration, a series of automatic spending cuts across a wide swath of the government. Sequestration was the golden child of the Tea Party, but was widely criticized as being an idiotic way of trimming spending. The 2012 fight also set the stage for our current dilemma.
By triggering a government shutdown the Republican Party has created leverage for the coming budget fight. On October 17th the government will run out of money and default on its debt for the first time in history. The effect of this default would be calamitous and neither party will let that happen. In order to play such a high stakes game of brinkmanship the Republican Party had to trigger a shutdown in order to leverage the Democratic Party into a weaker negotiating position. This is precisely the crux of the problem. The Tea Party did not assimilate into the Republican Party; they instead became a party within a party. Now, that subunit has taken the Republican Party hostage, as the current government shutdown clearly portrays. Speaker Boehner could introduce a simple bill to resume funding for the government, using both Democrats and a minority of Republicans to pass the measure. Such a bill would easily pass, but would fracture the Republican Party right before the budget battle. Because Boehner is beholden to the Tea Party conservatives in his party he has been unable to pursue this bipartisan solution. This has been the case in pretty much every piece of major legislation since 2010, resulting in historically high levels of partisanship in Washington. This cycle of partisanship must come to an end. To end it,Boehner must also end the Republican Party as we know it.
The rationale behind such an extreme decision is simple, but tough to swallow. Right now the approval rating of Congress is the lowest it has been in its history (~10-20%). This atrocious approval rating is a result of the complete lack of progress in passing any kind of legislation. Every bill becomes a fight between ultra conservatives and the Democratic Party. As a result only highly partisan pieces of legislation are passed. For Boehner to break this cycle and restore the political system he must cut a deal with the democrats over the shutdown and the budget simultaneously, and use the less conservative minority of his party to bypass the Tea Party by joining the Democrats. As explained earlier this action would fracture the Republican Party and would undoubtedly end with Boehner losing his position as Speaker, if not his seat altogether. However, it is the only way to preserve the Republican Party.
The Republicans have been struggling to connect with the majority of the country since 2012 and the government shutdown and looming budget battle threaten to sound the death knell of the Republican Party. If the Republicans wish to survive in 2014 and beyond, they need to begin transforming their party by neutralizing the power of the Tea Party and embracing a more moderate position. The first step is to make deal with the Democrats that ends the shutdown, avoids the budget battle, and begins to address the issue of long term spending. Then the Republicans, led by Boehner, need to begin a campaign of restoring their moderate brand of conservatism, unencumbered by the irrationality of the Tea Party. Without the Republican Party to leech off of, the Tea Party will be unable to prevent this new moderate coalition from sidelining them. This newly built Republican Party can then approach voters in 2014 confident that they can offer a new vision of a party that is actually able to pass legislation that works and is bipartisan.
These are extreme views. But I am not alone in how fed up I am with government right now. The Republicans should keep in mind that nothing lasts forever.It is time they decided to make a change, lest they collapse as a political party.