House Speaker John Boehner flanked by his House colleagues. Photo credit: Associated Press/J. Scott Applewhite.
Never, ever shut down the federal government again.
– President Bill Clinton, 1996 State of the Union Address
As everyone knows, on October 1st at midnight, the federal government shut down for the first time in 17 years. This event has had and will have lasting, serious, negative consequences for the entire country, and even moreso for the two political parties. This article will explain why, looking from a conservative Republican perspective, shutting down the federal government is the worst idea possible for the GOP, the conservative movement, and the country that my fellow conservatives claim to care about first and foremost. In short, the shutdown is bad policy AND bad politics.
Why it’s bad politics for the GOP and conservatives
Contrary to what many of my fellow conservatives think, nothing good can come out of this conundrum for conservatives or for the Republican Party (regardless of whatever future you wish for that party). This is a battle we simply cannot win, and no amount of throwing the RINO epithet at everyone who disagrees with you will change that fact.
Some have pointed out to polls supposedly showing Barack Obama’s approval ratings as being at 40% or lower, and disapproval ratings going over 50%. Even if these polls are scientific and accurate – and depending on who commissioned them, they might not be – these people completely ignore the fact that Congressional Republicans and the Tea Party have even lower approval ratings in the eyes of the American people.
According to polls commissioned by Fox News – hardly a liberal outlet – Congressional Republicans had only a 23% approval rating in June and August, with disapproval ratings of 67% and 66%, respectively. That means that fully TWO THIRDS of the American public view Congressional Republicans – especially their conservative wing – negatively.
By contrast, Congressional Democrats’ approval ratings, while still dismal, were better than Republicans': 32% approval and 60% disapproval in both June and August.
Moreover, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has the worst ratings of any major party leader in America today: 22% approval, 42% disapproval in October. John Boehner has 27% approval and 51% disapproval ratings (in April, he had 31% approval and only 41% disapproval). Even Harry Reid now does better at 27% approval and 43% disapproval) in the same month. Nancy Pelosi is at 35% approval, 47% disapproval (whereas in April, she was at 31% approval and 48% disapproval, so her image has improved since then).
Barack Obama, meanwhile, while having seen his approval ratings slump somewhat, still enjoys much higher popularity than anyone in Congress. His approval ratings, according to various polls, average at 45%, and range from a low end of 40% (Fox News, 54% disapproval) to a high end of 47% approval and the same amount disapproving.
So no matter what poll you take, Barack Obama, while hardly at the peak of his popularity, is STILL seen far more favorably than anyone in Congress, ESPECIALLY Congressional Republicans, ESPECIALLY their conservative wing.
It is inevitable that this government shutdown will take a heavy toll on the Tea Party’s, the conservative movement’s, and the GOP’s image in the American public’s eyes, and it may well prevent Republicans from retaking the Senate and the White House in 2014 and 2016. Even before the shutdown began, polls were warning that more Americans would blame the GOP than Barack Obama for the shutdown. Now, after it has happened, the veteran political analyst Charlie Cook warns us that the shutdown could cost the GOP future elections.
Despite the garbage that the Tea Party and its allies on talk radio like Rush Limbaugh probably feed you, the reality is that the absolute majority of Americans wants moderate policies from the GOP and wants both parties – including Republicans – to compromise. Gallup has demonstrated this repeatedly over the last several years, over and over again, including here, here, here, here, here, here, and most recently here. In fact, as the shutdown drew closer, Americans’ desire to see the two parties compromise increased.
According to that most recent poll, published just a week before the shutdown, 53% of all Americans (an absolute majority), as well as 56% of moderates, 65% of liberals, 55% of indies, 61% of Democrats, and even a plurality of conservatives (42%) said, just a week before the shutdown, that it was more important to compromise and avert the shutdown than to “stick to principles.” Just 25% of all Americans, and only a third of conservatives, said it’s more important to “stick to principles.”
The two groups most hostile to compromise were Republicans (only 38% supported it) and Tea Partiers (39%). 36% of Republicans and 40% of Tea Partiers said it’s better to “stick to principles” even if it means shutting the federal government down.
This fact is not lost on the American people; by far their biggest criticism of the GOP is that it is “unwilling to compromise.” This is the biggest criticism levied at the GOP by Dems, independents, and even Republicans themselves.
The current government shutdown will only aggravate this problem. The longer it continues, the heavier the toll on the GOP’s and the conservative movement’s image will be.
Contrary to what the Tea Party and the likes of Rush Limbaugh tell you, the GOP is not “Dem lite” or “not conservative enough” and does not want to “surrender” on Obamacare. The GOP is, in fact, criticized by American voters, including a plurality of Republicans, for being too unwilling to compromise. And compromise is not nearly the same thing as surrender – under a compromise, EVERYONE has to swallow unpalatable stuff, Republicans as well as Democrats.
The biggest damage will be in the eyes of moderates, women, youngsters, and minorities – the very voters the GOP will need to win future elections, or to even stay relevant as a party.
Why it’s a bad policy
The shutdown is not only bad politics, it’s bad policy too. The GOP’s objective, as we all know, is to get rid of, or defund, Obamacare. However, that – or any other meaningful policy change – CANNOT come about while Obama is still in office and controls the Senate. Republicans simply CANNOT govern the country from one half of Congress – as the astute Charles Krauthammer, Brent Bozell’s MRC’s latest award recipient, has rightly remarked in a column warning Republicans against the shutdown.
To defund Obamacare, Republicans can do only two things: either shut the entire government down, as they have done, or somehow convince Senate Democrats to pass, and President Obama to sign, a bill defunding Obamacare.
As Krauthammer has warned in his seminal column, there is NO WAY IN HELL Obama will sign into law a bill defunding, or delaying the implementation of, his singular legislative “accomplishment” – the Dems had been waiting for over 50 years to check this item on “FDR’s Unfinished Business List”, as Ann Coulter calls it.
Obama will never agree to anything that defunds his sole legislative “achievement”, the sine qua non of a liberal welfare state, liberals’ Holy Grail. Nor will Senate Democrats, marching in lockstep with Harry Reid, vote for defunding or otherwise gutting Obamacare.
And short of them agreeing to the impossible, the only way to defund Obamacare is to shut the federal government down completely.
Republicans have already tried this, in a way. In 1995, under Newt Gingrich’s leadership, they offered President Clinton a budget funding parts of, but not all, of the federal government; cutting spending faster than he was willing to accept. When Clinton said no, Republicans shut the federal government down – and that killed their chances of winning in 1996. Eventually, Republicans had to agree to a budget on terms not much different from what Clinton offered before the shutdown.
So no, there is no way Republicans can win this shutdown battle – or to defund Obamacare while Obama is still in office.
And let’s use some common sense. Does ANYONE really believe that Republicans can undo ANY meaningful Obama policy – ANY significant part of Obama’s “legacy” – while he’s still in office, wielding a veto pen, a bully pulpit, and a 55-seat Senate majority?
Margaret Thatcher famously said “first you win the argument, then you win the vote.” What she forgot to add is “and only then can you make policy.” Thatcher would’ve never been able to make any policy changes had her party not won a clear majority in the Commons. And that, in turn, would’ve never happened if she had led her party to the right fringe of British politics, alienating the vital center.
Republicans first need to convince a clear majority of Americans that Obamacare still can and should be repealed, then win back the Senate and the White House, and ONLY THEN can they make any policy changes, like repealing Obamacare.
So the shutdown, however it ends, will CLEARLY fail to achieve the GOP’s objective: defunding Obamacare.
The damage to the military
In addition to the damage the shutdown will do to the GOP’s and conservatives’ public image, it will also wreak havoc on the US military, adding greatly to the damage being done by the sequester.
A government shutdown means that eventually, when the money runs out from previous years’ approps, there will be nothing to pay the troops with, no money for their and veterans’ care, and no money for current training and equipment maintenance, operations (like protecting the skies over the US), and the development and acquisition of new equipment, nor to pay DOD civilian employees (the majority of whom are not pencil-pushers but real hard workers, like mechanics at military depots).
Why shut the government down?
The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu advised against fighting on ground, or at a time, disadvantageous to you, or when the enemy is too strong. He further wisely counseled (The Art of War, ch. 12, v. 17):
“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.”
So how did America get into this mess in the first place? If the shutdown won’t achieve any conservative policy objective and will only do damage, why was this stand-off started?
Because the fringe of the GOP, including the Tea Party, which views any compromise as betrayal and anything other than scorched-Earth tactics as surrender, demanded that Republicans shut the government down over Obamacare. And most Republicans in Congress, scared to death of a Tea Party primary challenge, listened to the Tea Party and followed suit – thus driving America over the cliff.
Most House Republicans and many GOP Senators, including Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, come from single-party GOP monopolies where most people are hardline conservatives who see any compromise as treason. These politicians live in single-party conservative cocoons and are thus totally detached from reality and out-of-touch with most Americans (as is the Tea Party itself). Just check the PVI ratings of Raul Labrador’s district (ID-1) and of the states of Texas, Utah, and Kentucky. Their districts and states are no more representative of America than Nancy Pelosi’s SF district.
Thus, they have no incentive to compromise, and far more to fear from a Tea Party primary challenger than a general election Democratic opponent. So they continue pushing the country to the brink, as the Tea Party demands, the consequences be damned.
Sadly, they may well take the GOP, and not just the country, over the cliff with them.