The GOP Shouldn’t Run a Fool’s Errand

GOP lawmakers who want to shut down the government or impeach President Obama are just plain dumb.

Federal workers hold a demonstration outside the State Department in Washington Wednesday Jan. 3, 1995 to protest the partial federal government shutdown. House Republican leaders dismissed a Senate plan that would send idled federal workers back to work. President Clinton and Republican leaders have scheduled another White House bargaining session Wednesday in their search for a budget-balancing pact. 
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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Aug. 28, 2013, 1:17 p.m.

With all of the talk among some Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress about im­peach­ment and shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment to stop Obama­care or force en­ti­tle­ment-spend­ing cuts, you’d think that they were liv­ing in an­oth­er real­ity back in the 1990s. Re­pub­lic­ans were pur­su­ing sim­il­ar mis­sions then, and things didn’t work out so well for the GOP. For those in need of a quick his­tory les­son, all you need to know is that Re­pub­lic­ans man­aged to lose House seats in the midterm elec­tions of 1998. It was the only time since World War II that the party in the White House (Demo­crats) gained seats in a second-term, midterm elec­tion. Talk about seiz­ing de­feat from the jaws of vic­tory!

Ob­vi­ously, the people and policy par­tic­u­lars are dif­fer­ent now, but the sim­il­ar­it­ies are ob­vi­ous. At that time, the loath­ing of Pres­id­ent Clin­ton was so great, the emo­tions were so high, and the be­lief was so firm that their cause was right­eous that Re­pub­lic­ans could not con­ceive their ac­tions were ill-ad­vised. Blind hatred is a dan­ger­ous thing.

Of course, this isn’t to sug­gest that every Re­pub­lic­an in Con­gress today ad­voc­ates scorched-earth strategies and tac­tics. House Speak­er John Boehner and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell don’t; not sur­pris­ingly, both men were in Con­gress dur­ing the 1990s. (Boehner was elec­ted in 1990, Mc­Con­nell in 1984.) They have ex­per­i­enced firsthand the danger of fol­low­ing the party’s right-wing base and con­gres­sion­al hot­heads over a polit­ic­al cliff. Both lead­ers clearly take a less-than-fa­vor­able view of the more ex­treme GOP rhet­or­ic today, but neither is quite in a po­s­i­tion to make those feel­ings known and to pub­licly de­clare how stu­pid this talk is. Boehner lives on ice that’s not quite thick enough to sup­port such bold­ness. Mc­Con­nell, mean­while, is thread­ing a 2014 reelec­tion needle in Ken­tucky: sat­is­fy­ing con­ser­vat­ives enough to avoid los­ing his primary to a tea-party op­pon­ent, but not veer­ing too far right to jeop­ard­ize win­ning what is shap­ing up to be a tough gen­er­al-elec­tion chal­lenge.

Talk­ing to Re­pub­lic­ans around Cap­it­ol Hill these days is very in­ter­est­ing. Mem­bers of one group seem well aware that their brand is badly dam­aged and des­per­ately needs re­hab­il­it­a­tion. Maybe they no­ticed the Fox News poll in which “Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress” scored ap­prov­al rat­ings of 24 per­cent in March, and 23 per­cent in both June and Au­gust, with dis­ap­prov­al rat­ings of 69 per­cent, 67 per­cent, and 66 per­cent, re­spect­ively. (By com­par­is­on, the same Fox polling showed Demo­crats with bad, but not quite as hor­rible, num­bers: 29 per­cent ap­prov­al, 63 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al in March; and 32 per­cent ap­prov­al, 60 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al in both the June and Au­gust polls.)

Re­pub­lic­ans in the second group, however, seem ob­li­vi­ous to the fact that their party has a prob­lem. The feel­ing among these mem­bers seems to be, “How can the Re­pub­lic­an Party or Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress have prob­lems? I got elec­ted (or reelec­ted) eas­ily.” Many don’t ap­pear to real­ize they rep­res­ent dis­tricts that Demo­crats are un­likely to win un­der any cir­cum­stances. They as­sume that be­cause they got elec­ted to the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, their dis­tricts must be, more or less, rep­res­ent­at­ive of the coun­try as a whole.

Un­like the second group, the first group gets the joke. These mem­bers fully un­der­stand their party has real prob­lems with swing voters — more pre­cisely, with self-iden­ti­fied mod­er­ates and young, fe­male, and minor­ity voters — and that these groups, taken to­geth­er, rep­res­ent an enorm­ous ma­jor­ity of the elect­or­ate. Na­tion­ally, the GOP is un­der­per­form­ing among all of these groups. However, these head-in-the-sand Re­pub­lic­ans fear that ac­know­ledging the party’s elect­or­al prob­lems would in­cur the wrath of the GOP base, which con­siders such talk heretic­al.

The same tox­ic factors per­vaded Wash­ing­ton in the years after the 1994 Re­pub­lic­an wave elec­tion, cul­min­at­ing in the 1995-96 shut­downs of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, the 1998 House im­peach­ment of Clin­ton, and the ill-fated 1999 Sen­ate im­peach­ment tri­al. Re­pub­lic­ans came out on the los­ing end of all of those cata­strophes. Voters blamed them more than Demo­crats for the gov­ern­ment shut­downs, and while the pub­lic didn’t think much of Clin­ton’s per­son­al be­ha­vi­or, it wasn’t ready to throw him out of of­fice.

That’s why these fisc­al dead­lines com­ing in Oc­to­ber — the start of the fisc­al year on Oct. 1 with no spend­ing bills en­acted in­to law and the need to raise the debt ceil­ing some­time that month — are scary. I have no doubt that if you strapped Boehner and Mc­Con­nell down, in­jec­ted them with So­di­um Pentoth­al, and ad­min­istered a poly­graph test ask­ing wheth­er the hard-line strategies pro­posed by GOP true be­liev­ers make sense, each would say, “Of course not,” and pass with fly­ing col­ors. (For the chem­istry ma­jors out there, I know the ac­tu­al name is so­di­um thi­opent­al.)

But it’s not clear at all wheth­er these lead­ers, par­tic­u­larly Boehner, can per­suade some of their, say, “exot­ic” mem­bers to take a more prag­mat­ic ap­proach and work to­ward get­ting the best deal they can. My hunch is that even­tu­ally we will come to a deal, but the coun­try could weath­er some very in­ter­est­ing and po­ten­tially trau­mat­ic days, par­tic­u­larly in the fin­an­cial mar­kets, in the mean­time. That is not a good thing when we have a fra­gile eco­nomy and a lame-duck chair­man of the Fed­er­al Re­serve Board. Maybe we should all go back on va­ca­tion.

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