Old Conservatives Can't Learn New Tricks

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

If President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats wanted to maximize the political advantage they're getting from the shutdown/default crisis, they'd agree to at least one part of the short-term deals Republicans have offered, raising the debt ceiling for only six weeks at a time. Then we'd have one default crisis after another, and the standing of the GOP would keep on its downward trajectory until—let's just pick a date at random here—November 2014. But Republicans won't do that; they're now insisting (and good for them) that the deal has to extend at least a year into the future so we don't have to keep going through this. If they get that deal, though, the issue will fade and voters could start to forget how reckless Republicans have been.

They could forget, but I'm guessing Republicans won't let them. It isn't as though the ultimate conclusion of this crisis is going to result in a chastened GOP, ready to be reasonable and assure the public it can govern responsibly. The Republicans are falling fast, but their problems could be just beginning.

That's because the people driving this crisis are still going to be the loudest voices in the party even after it ends. They won't get what they want, and when that happens they'll make sure everyone knows that they were right all along. It's critical to understand that for them, tactics and ideology are inseparable. You don't compromise with Democrats because that means you've taken a position that is impure, contaminated with the stench of liberalism. Even a drop is too much, just as you wouldn't put just a little rancid meat in your stew. And regardless of the substance of any issue, you don't compromise because compromise is by definition betrayal, and compromise is failure. Taking the maximal position on everything, they sincerely believe, doesn't just produce the best policy, it produces political victory.

Imagine it's a few months from now, and a Republican representative running for re-election gets asked by a reporter whether he thinks the shutdown/default crisis of 2013 was a good idea and whether his party ought to use the same tactic again to try to achieve its policy goals. If he says no, there are people just waiting to charge him with being a traitor to the cause of conservatism, with the inevitable primary challenge from the right to follow. If he says yes, he's just made his general-election opponent's first television ad.

The Republican Party is in a bad place right now, as a series of polls released last week showed. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed the party with a 24 percent favorability rating, an all-time low in that poll. Gallup has it at 28 percent, a record low in that poll as well. A poll from Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner has the party at 26 percent. Among independent voters, the numbers are even worse.

This shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone. But in an echo of the "unskewed polls" nonsense from the 2012 election, Senator Ted Cruz has been telling conservatives to ignore it. He assures them that his own private polls show that Republicans are winning and will triumph if they keep "standing strong." This is just what conservatives want to hear, which is why many of them are likely to believe it. So if and when a deal is struck, almost regardless of what it contains, they'll still be convinced that complete victory could have been theirs if only their leaders had held out a little longer. You might have thought that unlike previous Tea Party leaders like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, the Princeton- and Harvard-educated Cruz is no dummy. Yet tactically, he turns out to be just as foolhardy as the rest of them. He told Republicans to jump off a cliff, and they did.

To them, the tactical formula will always be the same. Was shutting down the government a disaster? It would have gone better if we had only been firmer in our demands and held out longer! Did a Democrat win the White House? We would have won if we had nominated a "true" conservative! Did your Senate candidate lose the general election? We'll win next time if only we nominate someone more conservative!

They can't learn from their mistakes if they don't understand them. It isn't hard to imagine that these activists and voters, who are so incredibly hard to satisfy, could produce a never-ending churn within the party. Believe it or not, the current Republican caucus is even more conservative than the one that swept into Washington in 2010. With a sufficient number of conservative states and congressional districts in no danger of falling to Democrats, the next election inevitably will see a new group of primary winners who are hailed as heroes, then eventually branded as traitors, to be replaced by a new cadre of even more doctrinaire right-wingers. Just look at what happened to Marco Rubio, who swept into the Senate as a Tea Party star but was cast out once he tried to achieve immigration reform. The personnel will keep changing even as the basic dynamic—a GOP establishment cowering in fear of newly minted members of Congress delighting in blowing up the system—remains the same.

A party can evolve in only one of two ways: It changes its people, or its people change. The first doesn't seem likely. It's hard to imagine a wave of Republican moderates winning over Tea Party candidates in primary elections. The second doesn't seem likely either, since the people driving the Republican Party are the truest of true believers.

Anything can happen, of course. The Democratic Party turned to the right with the nomination of Bill Clinton in 1992 and won two presidential elections. On the other hand, Democrats also won control of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008 while being firmly opposed to an unpopular Republican president; no trimming of ideological sails was necessary. But those Democrats were capable of rationally assessing their political prospects. It's possible to be ideologically extreme and still be careful about the fights you pick. Today's conservative Republicans are both ideologically and tactically extremist; indeed, they see them as one and the same.

Comments

I wish we could think of a better term than "conservative." They're really a bunch of wild-eyed radicals -- and there's nothing less conservative than tha.

How about "THE NATIONAL SOCIAL DARWINIST RICH PEOPLE'S PARTY"?

How about "Handmaidists" after the Margaret Atwood novel set in an America (or Gilead) under their rule?

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