Belmont Club

Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall

Henry Kissinger, pressed to root for a side on the Iraq-Iran war memorably remarked “it’s a pity they can’t both lose.” Barack Obama, who counted on blaming the Federal Government ‘shutdown’ on the Republican Party, has succeeded in making Kissinger’s impossibility come true. He lamented that it was a pity both parties — especially his — were losing.


In particular the president regretted that too many people were blaming both sides for the event. “When this gets reported on, everybody kind of thinks, well, you know, both sides are just squabbling; Democrats and Republicans, they’re always arguing, so neither side is behaving properly”.

Gallup’s latest poll says its actually true. “Among top U.S. political figures, there are no winners in the budget standoff, at least in the early days of the shutdown. The public sees Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, as well as the president, more negatively as a consequence of the budget impasse. … A majority of Americans, 57%, say they now view President Obama more negatively as a result of the shutdown, while 28% see him more positively.”

Nobody is covering himself with glory because the shutdown opens the door to the discussion of unseemly issues better left under rocks. The public sees it’s all about money. The more astute realize, after a moment’s thought, that it’s about how to spend more of their money. Public money.

Obama’s shutdown calculus was predicated on its likely effect on GOP vs Dem polling, which is turning out to be more of a tossup than he bargained for. But even if the blame fell more heavily on the Republicans, it was the wrong metric to watch. He was measuring blood pressure when he should have been looking at blood sugar. Thus his pollsters neglected to reckon on the shutdown’s effect in another metric: the contest between incumbents versus challengers.


By this metric the incumbents are definitely losing. Readers will recall from Storming the Castle the idea that there is really one party in Washington, the Party of Incumbency and that people like Harry Reid and Charlie Rangel are as permanently ensconced in office as officials in any one party state; that Leo Linbeck’s PAC controversially attempted to support any challenger against an any incumbent, regardless of party in this belief, to break up the monolith.

The shutdown is now operating like a wrecking ball on the incumbent’s popularity. The Economist warned that a disgust of the GOP did not mean that voters thought better of the Democrats. “Things have in fact been moving in the opposite direction: Polltracker’s congressional generic-ballot poll average, which Democrats had led since last year’s elections, is now about even for the two parties, not because Republicans have improved—they have spent the entire period hovering at 38%—but because Democrats have dropped to meet them.”

As Daniel Drezner pointed out, the standoff has had the unanticipated effect of terrorizing the incumbents. Because congressional districts are largely gerrymandered into so many safe Republican and Democratic seats, the sitting congressmen fear being upended by factions within their own party than by the rival camp. If the GOP is holding more firmly in the standoff than predicted it is because they fear an outraged conservative challenge so intensely that they will not risk an open surrender.


Perhaps the Democrats are holding fast for the same reason. Obama can’t surrender to Boehner because he fears the tar and feathers from his own left wing. So it’s over the cliff he goes. That he never anticipated it would come to this was predicated on the belief that the Republicans would fold like a cheap suit as they have so often done.

But Ross Douthat insightfully notes that an unlooked-for awakening within the Republican party which has led to a kind of grim determination everyone assumed was never there.

So what you’re seeing motivating the House Intransigents today, what’s driving their willingness to engage in probably-pointless brinksmanship, is not just anger at a specific Democratic administration, or opposition to a specific program, or disappointment over a single electoral defeat. Rather, it’s a revolt against the long term pattern I’ve just described: Against what these conservatives, and many on the right, see as forty years of failure, in which first Reagan and then Gingrich and now the Tea Party wave have all failed to deliver on the promise of an actual right-wing answer to the big left-wing victories of the 1930s and 1960s — and now, with Obamacare, of Obama’s first two years as well.

“They didn’t dare,” Frum wrote of the Intransigents’ Reagan-era predecessors, “and they realized that they didn’t dare.” Well, this time, no matter the risks and costs and polls, there are small-government conservatives who intend to dare — because only through a kind of wild daring, they believe, can the long-term, post-New Deal disadvantage that the cause of limited government labors under finally be overcome.


The result is that this is turning out to be fight, not between “Republicans and Democrats” — as the press likes to view it. The shutdown is assuming aspects of a struggle between insiders and outsiders; between the Beltway and the Beyond. Obama had calculated on winning the fight. But even if wins the fight, it will be the wrong fight.

Perhaps the most interesting possibility to emerge from the current struggle — which is only a prelude to the debt ceiling limit battles to come — is that the Washington elite is mortal. The outsiders from both camps are knocking at the party doors. Obama has unwittingly played the role of Humpty-Dumpty. Whatever happens “not all the Kings horses nor all the King’s men can ever put Humpty together again.”

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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