On October 1 the U.S. government shut down because Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to pass a budget without limits on the Affordable Care Act. The GOP made this decision despite overwhelming public opposition. Why have Republicans abandoned common sense?
Interestingly, not all members of the GOP establishment supported the House action. Influential strategist Karl Rove opined the House GOP strategy is "self -defeating... it is an ill-conceived tactic, and Republicans should reject it." Arizona Senator John McCain observed, "I can tell you that in the U.S. Senate, we will not repeal or defund Obamacare. We will not. And to think we can is not rational." New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte added, "I don't believe they should shut down the government to [defund Obamacare], and I don't think that is a strategy that is good for America." Even the conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal wrote, "Kamikaze missions rarely turn out well, least of all for the pilots... The kamikazes could end up ensuring the return of all-Democratic rule."
The conservative editorial board of the Arizona Republic went farther by calling the House Republicans "stupid." "You accomplish nothing by holding your breath and insisting it's your way or no way. That's the stupid approach to governing." The editorial board was repeating what many mature Republicans have been saying for months, most notably Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal who, in January, told the Republican National Committee:
We've got to stop being the stupid party. It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults. We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments.
Republican misbehavior and intransigence shouldn't come as a surprise to Americans. A recent Gallup poll showed that most Americans thought Republicans were doing too little to compromise. In fact, the number one thing that Republican poll respondents thought about their own party was that it was "Inflexible/Unwilling to compromise" (26 percent).
Nonetheless, the House GOP has continued its dogmatic inflexibility. Why?
Because it's their strategy. Political commentator Jonathan Chait reported that in January, in response to Obama's reelection, House Republicans formulated "The Williamsburg Accord":
The first element of the strategy is a kind of legislative strike. Initially, House Republicans decided to boycott all direct negotiations with President Obama, and then subsequently extended that boycott to negotiations with the Democratic Senate... The way to make sense of it is that Republicans have planned since January to force Obama to accede to large chunks of the Republican agenda, without Republicans having to offer any policy concessions of their own.
The Williamsburg Accord produced the March budget stalemate. First the Senate passed its budget plan. A few days later the House passed its budget, authored by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. The next step should have been to form a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the two bills, but, consistent with the Williamsburg Accord, Republicans refused to cooperate.
As veteran Washington reporter David Rogers observed, the Republican boycott produced the government shutdown:
The lure was always to push Obama back against a debt ceiling backstop. But the sort of entitlement reforms and long-term savings that Republicans want are far better dealt with in a budget reconciliation bill. Now, after blocking the Senate from going to conference, the GOP is left with two time-sensitive vehicles -- a [continuing budget resolution]and a debt ceiling bill -- to try to effect change.
... generally fearful of losing their way of life in a wave of social change... [are] willing to undermine long-established norms and institutions... for them compromise is commensurate with defeat.
At the moment the House of Representatives has 432 members: 232 Republicans, 200 Democrats, and three vacancies. The New York Times reports there are roughly two dozen Tea Party conservatives representatives who are leading the House GOP:
Their numbers may be small, but they are large enough to threaten the speaker's job if he were to turn to Democrats to pass a spending bill that reopened the government without walloping the health law. Their strategy is to yield no ground until they are able to pass legislation reining in the health care law; if the federal government stays closed, so be it.
At some point, the traditional conservative members of the House will have to regain control of their caucus before their Tea Party colleagues drive the U.S. over a financial cliff. At some point, Republicans have to disavow the Tea Party anarchists and regain common sense.