A Civil War with Two Winners
On Thursday, December 12, 2013, something remarkable happened in the history of current American politics. To be more accurate, two remarkable things happened. The first -- and most obvious -- was that the United States House of Representatives came dangerously close to passing a budget for the first time in recent memory, though precisely how recent is up for debate as well. There was a rather large, multipart omnibus bill in 2009 which certainly resembled a budget in many regards, but it wasn’t really a budget per se. In the opinion of others, you might have to go all the way back to 1997 to find the passage of an actual budget. But no matter how you define Thursday’s agreement, it was still rather historic in that the least productive Congress in recorded history actually accomplished something, for better or worse.
Inside the Republican big tent, the accomplishment in question was met with a less than enthusiastic response in some quarters. Whether it was the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage, Club for Growth or any other of a number of groups striving to drive a conservative spending agenda, there was clearly something not right in Whoville this season. Everyone was “scoring the bill” and ready to put a checkmark in the naughty list column for any Republican who dared vote to pass the agreement crafted by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray. The reaction was perhaps best summed up by a spokesperson for Tea Party Patriots, who pulled no punches and flatly announced that war had been declared.
Tea Party Patriots said Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has “declared war on the Tea Party” with his “smug and pretentious rant” against certain right-wing organizations.
The group made the charge in a fundraising email to supporters, seeking to win donations over the public feuding.…
The letter quotes Boehner's statement that “outside groups” were “using our members and ... the American people for their own goals.”
“The last time we checked, we are the American people,” the letter said.
But that was not the second remarkable thing to occur. This is a cycle which has been repeating for some time now, dating back far past the partial shutdown of October, which the White House and the Democrats used to whip the Republicans mercilessly to the delight of the media and DNC strategists. At that time these same groups demanded -- and achieved -- the support of the leadership in taking the battle to the edge of the cliff and beyond, requiring either an end to the president’s signature health care law or significant delays and changes.
Nothing measurable came from this effort in terms of return on investment aside from a growing consensus among voters that the GOP shouldn’t be trusted with running anything much more complicated than a fruit stand. Bitter feelings were sowed, with “establishment type” donors vowing to mount a counteroffensive against a Tea Party run amuck and grassroots conservatives promising primary challenges all across the landscape. But the law of unintended consequences was in play as it often is in American politics, and the second remarkable thing took place as if Charlie Brown was witnessing the Christmas Miracle early.
Obamacare continued its steamrolling path forward, rolling out per its original schedule with no impediment by Congressional Republicans. And in some ways, that turned out to be the greatest Christmas gift of all. The launch of the web site was a disaster to be sure, but that was only the frosting on the cupcake. Insurance companies began to announce that the plans Obama promised you could keep would be cancelled. Those “lucky” few who managed to navigate the web site found that the available plans were more expensive than previously described and the coverage was generally worse. Working stiffs with group plans through their employers saw their premiums rising to pay for the new demands of the federal government master. As the machine began to buckle under its own malfunctioning weight, the message started to clarify: conservative policy groups were not the greatest threat to Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act was its own worst enemy. The popularity of the plan -- and the president --plummeted to new lows and Americans slowly but surely began to forget about the government shutdown which had been all the rage just a few weeks earlier.
Names such as Mary Landrieu, Kay Hagan and Mark Pryor crept into the news, not for their unlikely popularity, but as the most endangered Democrats in the 2014 Senate elections, dragged down almost entirely by the weight of the Obamacare albatross around their necks. Apparently the House leadership was paying attention to this lesson, and when the time came for another deal, the “civil war” was on. Paul Ryan himself spoke the fateful words during the run-up to the vote, saying, “We are going to have to win some elections, and in the meantime let's try and make this divided government work."
Unfortunately, in the opinion of a number of Republicans and conservatives caught in the previous paradigm, this was still akin to heresy. But that number was smaller than many observers feared, with the final tally on the GOP side coming in at 169 to 62 in favor of the agreement. And yet 62 was enough for the media to continue raving on their favorite genre of news stories… GOP domestic violence. Talking about Republican Party infighting is still all the rage among cable news talking heads, far preferable to stories about the potential of the Democrats losing the Senate in another mid-term lambasting.
But if a modicum of time is allowed to pass and the Democrats are given sufficient rope, the media will run out of other material and be forced to focus yet again on the true story of the day. This will require a bit more work on the starboard side of the political ship, however. More of the GOP needs to drag themselves out of the sweat lodges, put away the peyote, and breathe the fresh air. The idea that John Boehner, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are all part of some top secret cabal of deep cover liberal moles who hold clandestine meetings in the southern part of France, plotting an agenda to raise taxes and expand the federal government, is too far into tin-foil-hat territory to discuss.
The differences between the so called “establishment GOP” and these outside groups are found in tactics, not purpose. If the leadership is signaling anything here, it’s simply that they’ve concluded that this is a battle best fought when there are more weapons in the armory rather than perishing today with the last few grenades in the ammo bag. And to do that, they are seeking to bank some public support by conducting the public’s business now and carrying that into the mid-term elections.
The possibilities of the Republican Party controlling both chambers of Congress for Barack Obama’s final two years may seem foreign to those who find it difficult to remember as far back as 2005. The experience of it, however, might turn out to be preferable to a continuing series of battles where the only goal seems to be selecting which hill to die on next. Rather than vilifying them, it’s time to recognize that both sides of this debate are working toward the same goals, and in this civil war, both sides could come out winners starting in January of 2015.