“I am not a member of any organized political party,” the humorist Will Rogers said. “I am a Democrat.”
Even Will Rogers would be shocked at the disjointed and self-destructive congressional Republican Party of today. By forcing a government shutdown and possibly a credit default in a few weeks, a minority of rank-and-file Republican members have run roughshod over the leadership. They are pushing a futile effort to kill President Obama’s health-care law, enacted in 2010, upheld by the Supreme Court and hotly debated in last year’s presidential campaign.
In so doing, this band of proud right-wingers has violated almost every important political precept, including:
HAVE AN ENDGAME: In war, football, politics or other pursuits, it’s incumbent to fight with an endgame in mind; sometimes the goal isn’t achieved and needs adjusting. The Republicans forcing this crisis planned no endgame other than their hope that the president would cave to their demand to gut the Affordable Care Act. Republicans such as Bob Corker and John McCain in the Senate, and Paul Ryan and even Speaker John Boehner in the House, warned this was a fool’s errand, to no avail.
The range of possible endgames now illustrates the chaos or lack of strategy: killing the medical-device tax, which would add $30 billion to the deficit over time; eliminating some government regulations; or mandating approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. This battle was supposed to be about curbing deficits and debt.
There is a sensible endgame: adopt a continuing resolution on the budget and extend the debt ceiling for several years (ultimately, it should be terminated). Congress then could replace the mindless across-the-board discretionary spending cuts under sequestration with a combination of cutbacks in entitlements, including some means-testing and changes to cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other programs as well as increased revenue from modest reductions in deductions for the wealthy, without raising rates.
This would narrow the already declining budget deficits slightly in the short run, more substantially down the road, and leave some money for smart investments in areas such as infrastructure and health research. It’s a good bet that markets and business confidence would soar after such a deal.
With White House pressure, this would command support from a majority of congressional Democrats — but not Republicans.
AVOID ANGER: Many of the core tea party conservatives despise the president and are convinced Obamacare is an assault on freedom. Their stance reflects personal animosity as much as principle. Hard-right tea party types such as Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas, Steve King of Iowa, Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota and Ted Yoho of Florida are in this category and are the face of the House Republican caucus.
Regardless of whether the Affordable Care Act is better than the current system, it isn’t a government takeover, as is often charged; a public option was rejected by the White House and the Democratic Senate. Now opponents say the individual mandate amounts to government coercion. That would be more convincing if the plan weren’t originally a Republican idea and the centerpiece of then-Gov. Mitt Romney’s successful health-care reform in Massachusetts.
KNOW HISTORY: The misinformation about previous conflicts is stunning. Leading the chorus is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Republican leader during the previous major partisan shutdown in 1995-96. Gingrich, always eager to get attention, has urged Republicans to hang tough, arguing that he and his party benefited from the earlier showdown.
In reality, it was a disaster. The Republicans lost two seats in the next House elections, and the deadlock paved the way for President Bill Clinton’s big re-election. What did Gingrich get? Clinton agreed to provide the outlines of a long- term balanced budget, a commitment he relished. The subsequent balanced budgets had little to do with the shutdown.
Gingrich also claims this is nothing new, that shutdowns were routine when Speaker Tip O'Neill, D, was in charge. There were fights, but government kept operating even when budget authority expired; when the attorney general ruled that impermissible, shutdowns occurred for several days, usually over a weekend, and were of little practical consequence — until the Gingrich miscalculation of 1995-96.
PLAYING SHORT BALL: Republican hard-liners insist it won’t hurt politically this time, never mind what the polls say. This showdown arouses the party’s base, they argue, and will help candidates in next year’s congressional elections.
Perhaps, but they confuse short-term gain with long-term damage, as occurred 17 years ago. Another example: In 1994, California Republicans rode a tide of anti-immigration sentiment to electoral victories but alienated Hispanics, which has cost them in elections since.
The shutdown and possible damage to the nation’s creditworthiness are Republican-induced crises. The president isn’t blameless. The Republicans are able to keep the Affordable Care Act in political play because the administration has done such a poor job of convincing and educating voters; compare Obamacare with public attitudes toward Medicare or the prescription drug law three years after they were enacted.
Jack Danforth, the former Republican senator from Missouri, says the president and especially Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “have too often told Republicans to go sit in the corner and be quiet, you’re shut out of this.”
Still, he shakes his head at what he considers the naive and dangerous attitude of tea party Republicans, that “politics is not about compromise, it’s about purity.”
Someone else whose head would shake is Will Rogers. In the Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall, each state gets two statues; Rogers is one of Oklahoma’s. The humorist’s condition for allowing this was that his statue would be on the House side so he could “keep an eye” on them. These days, he wouldn’t want to look.
Mr. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist; follow him on Twitter at @AlHuntDC.