Conservatives Learned The Wrong Lessons From The Shutdown Debacle

AP
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Sahil Kapur contributed to this report.

For a certain block of House conservatives, the ones who drove Speaker John Boehner toward a government shutdown and near-default against his will, the lesson of the last few weeks isn’t that they overreached. Not that they made unachievable demands, put their leadership in an impossible position, damaged their party’s position with the public and left a deep uncertainty about whether the GOP conference can recover and legislate.

No, what they’re taking away from the 2013 crisis is: They didn’t go far enough.

They aren’t angry with Speaker John Boehner for ultimately capitulating to Democratic demands. They’re frustrated with their more mainstream colleagues who put him in that position.

“I’m more upset with my Republican conference, to be honest with you. It’s been Republicans here who apparently always want to fight, but they want to fight the next fight, that have given Speaker Boehner the inability to be successful in this fight,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) told reporters Wednesday. “So if anybody should be kicked out, it’s probably those Republicans… who are unwilling to keep the promises they made to the American people. Those are the people who should be looking behind their back.”

Polarized politics have become the norm in the United States, and the first government shutdown in 17 years is its most extreme manifestation. But long-time Congress watchers don’t see the fever breaking any time soon, even after the debacle of the last few weeks. Rather, as these early responses from the House GOP’s right flank indicate, we might instead see conservatives become even more entrenched in their positions when the same drama plays out in early 2014.

“I think we’re going to see a drumbeat out there that our spineless leaders caved,” Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told TPM. “If we had held on, we would’ve defaulted, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. Obama would have caved, and we would have gotten what we wanted.”

Ornstein had one specific piece of evidence to back that point. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a favorite of the conservative wing who fell out of favor with his support for immigration reform but still harbors 2016 presidential aspirations, quickly said that he wouldn’t be supporting the bipartisan deal to re-open the government and avoid default.

If conservatives had really learned their lesson, Ornstein theorized, you wouldn’t have high-profile conservatives like Rubio taking that stand.

“Here is a guy who’s not dumb. He’s putting his finger to the wind, trying to figure out how to maneuver to run for a presidential nomination,” he said. “If the fever were broken and the boil lanced, I would guarantee you that the Rubios of the world would be voting for this deal.”

It was reflected in the way that conservative members explained away their pending surrender before the votes were taken Wednesday. The problem wasn’t that they’d taken an unpopular, strategically questionable position, they said. It’s that they didn’t effectively communicate their position to the American public. The firm belief that the American public shares the same view of Obamacare that they do, that it is a disaster that needs to be stopped, remains omnipresent among hard-line conservatives.

They might have lost the battle, but they’ll win the war. They just need to find a way to get people to listen.

“We’ve been talking amongst this group for the last four weeks about fairness. … That is a winning argument for us,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) told reporters. “Somebody asked whether it would be different next time, in January or February, whenever we take this up again. The natural inclination is to say ‘No, it will be exactly the same. But if we can figure out a way to drive that message home, that this is about fairness … then the outcome may well be different.”

Equally telling was the reaction of the more moderate House Republicans, those who opposed the strategy urged by the party’s right wing. TPM asked Rep. Peter King (R-NY), one of the more outspoken critics of the shutdown, if conservatives have learned their lesson. He paused, then laughed, then said: “Uh, I don’t know. Hope springs eternal. I don’t know.”

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