Is it really going to be curtains for the Republican Party as we know it? Will they - or can they - survive a wrong-footed pitch to use a government shutdown and a refusal to raise the debt ceiling as levers to gut the Affordable Care Act - the signal achievement of the Obama presidency? Well, maybe yes, and maybe no. One thing is certain, though. The Tea Party bitter enders have made their struggle with their party’s establishment wing and party leadership the issue in the public eye - largely pitting House of Representatives conservatives against more establishment Republican senators - and the public doesn’t seem to be buying their fight as a struggle worth having. Once again, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at some useful word clouds for a sense of the movements underlying those headlines.
For years, it seems, we’ve been pointing to a variation of the famous adage attributed to the German chancellor, Count Otto von Bismarck, that people with weak stomachs should never watch sausage or diplomacy being made. Americans, it now seems, have also decided they don’t much care to watch the intra-party feuding infesting a larger policy dispute they have been privy to watching over these past several weeks.
Using the popular word cloud application (the bigger the word, the more frequently it was used), in the most recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll (no fair screaming about that dastardly mainstream media, especially when the WSJ was a full partner), people were asked what one word or short phrase would they use to describe how Republicans have acquitted themselves in this current face-off. They were similarly asked the same question of their appraisal of President Obama. Below is the Republican word cloud that resulted from the survey:
“Childish”, “poorly”, “selfish”, “stubborn” and “terribly.” Ouch.
And below is the one generated for the respondents’ judgement of the president’s actions so far. Yes, “poorly” figures there as well, but “standing strong for what he believes” gets in its licks too, and the word “childish” doesn’t rear its embarrassing head for the president. Overall, many of the negatives attributed to the president came in less frequently than for Republicans.
Commenting on this, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote, “there’s some tough news for Republicans in the word clouds. While “standing strong for what he believes” is commonly mentioned in relation to the President, it comes up far less for Congressional Republicans – evidence that they have lost the fight over who is acting on principle and who is playing politics. And, the most mentioned words/phrases for the GOP – “poorly”, “terribly”, “childish” and “not very well” are something short of encouraging for the GOP.” That’s for sure, and it hasn’t even gotten to the really gory parts yet. That would probably come if a measure to raise the debt ceiling becomes a second hostage to the Tea Party’s intransigence.
Over the weekend, The Financial Times, hardly a bastion of soft and fuzzy, pro-Democratic Party, lefty feeling, had as its banner headline, “Republicans Blink First in Debt Battle”. The story reported, “A public backlash against the political logjam in Washington has pushed Republicans to moderate their hard-line stance on the budget, raising hopes of a deal with the White House ahead of next week’s deadline to raise the debt ceiling.” But such hope for a deal, of course, presupposes the forty-plus Tea Party Republicans (along any other Republicans in the House of Representatives members that they can gather to their stance) would ultimately be prepared to back away from what sometimes increasingly seems like a legislative suicide charge on their part.
A deeper look at the full data set of the NBC-WSJ poll offers even more bad news for the Republican Party – and hints at why they are being smacked around in the blame game sweepstakes over the shutdown and debt ceiling issues. That answer takes us right back to Bismarck’s realpolitik judgement.
Based on the data, the American public seems to have made up its mind (just as it did in Newt Gingrich’s rumble with Bill Clinton seventeen years earlier). The public now views the Republican Party’s motives in the shutdown as both overwhelmingly and overtly political. The problem is that overtly looking political (as opposed to carrying out such behaviour behind a curtain of inscrutability) is just about the worst thing that can befall a political party.
Specifically, 70% of people surveyed agreed with the statement that Republicans are “putting their own political agenda ahead of what is good for the country”, while just 27 % said the GOP is “demonstrating strong leadership and standing up for what they believe in.” Some really bad juju, that.
Now, put that against responses when those same people were asked where the president stood on the same points. 46% said he is “demonstrating strong leadership” while 51% said he is putting his own political agenda first. True, that is not a rousing roar of approval for Obama (presumably the public has judged that there is blame enough to spread around), but it is a world away from where they rated the Republicans.
Seen in this light, the very strategy pursued by the Tea Party – over the initial internal party objections of the GOP’s leadership – has allowed Obama to portray his opponents as ideologues (or, worse, perhaps, being led by a yelping pack of out-of-control ideologues), hell-bent on achieving their political goals, regardless of the real consequences for the country as a whole. Moreover, after the shutdown had actually begun, the internal debate over the GOP’s strategy and tactics – with Texas Senator Ted Cruz as its poster child for the lack of any evident reasonableness – became the primary public squabble, focusing increasing attention on the party’s sausage making, rather than any real policy objectives or principled disputes with the Democrats in Congress and the President.
This resulting mess has contributed substantially to the present state of affairs the Republicans now find themselves in. It seems there is a fundamental political law that whenever a party or politician begins talking about an actual policy issue but effectively places it in purely political terms, this becomes the springboard for a political debacle.
Yes, of course, politics obviously is a key element for any debate, but the skill comes in making one’s stance in such a fight spring from a combination of principle and pragmatism – even as one makes the other guy’s effort seem to be an exercise in a purely political mission. This time around, the Republicans seem to have lost that battle, as a function of their relationship to the president, by virtue of their own internal fight in the House, and even as a result of their growing squabble between House and Senate Republicans. Accordingly, it is their brand that is now taking the fire.
As insider politics website “Politico” commented, “The endgame over the 11-day-old government shutdown is now a pitched competition between Senate and House Republicans. Each of the conferences is charting its own course to end the saga and evade a debt limit crisis on October 17. But after two weeks of intraparty turmoil, neither side seems to trust the other about what the way out should look like. Senior senators describe little coordination between Republicans on each side of the Capitol on important decisions like spending levels and how long the government should be funded and the debt ceiling raised.”
And Hendrick Hertzberg, discussing the increasingly muddled strategy and tactics being waged by the House Republicans, wrote in The New Yorker, “The ransom demands kept changing. At first, it was the Affordable Care Act: in exchange for a few weeks of fiscal peace, repeal it; defund it; delay it; dismember it. Then the price ballooned, with some two dozen additional conservative fever dreams: plutocrat-friendly tax cuts, Medicare means-testing, a green light for environmental depredations, financial regulatory rollback, even the end of Internet neutrality. Then it was immediate ‘entitlement reform’ (meaning cuts in social insurance) and ‘tax reform’ (meaning lower rates for corporations and the rich). ‘We have to get something out of this,’ one bewildered backbencher finally bleated, ‘and I don’t know what that even is.’ ” (It was a quote from Indiana Republican Rep. Marlin Stutzman. – Ed)
Throughout the weekend, the back-and-forth negotiations went, well, back-and-forth. And a growing number of congressmen and administration officials began to cast an eye over their shoulder at how financial and stock markets would react to the lack of any solution as the shutdown (and the looming debt ceiling crunch) enters its third week.
Or, as Democratic Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid said, “We haven’t done anything yet” by way of compromise. And, in the House of Representatives, Tea Party caucus leader Louisiana Representative John Fleming helpfully added, there was “definitely a chance that we’re going to go past the deadline” on the Thursday that Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, has defined as the date by which Congress needed to increase the current $16.7 trillion debt limit – or else, cue the doomsday music. (Keep in mind this debt ceiling business is not a plan to ratchet up the debt, but, rather to recognize the need to issue debt obligations to meet spending already mandated by Congress in one way or another.)
The AP added in its reporting, meanwhile, “Amid meetings in Washington of world finance officials, the International Monetary Fund’s policy committee said the U.S. needs to take ‘urgent action’ to address the impasse. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim stressed the urgency for Washington policymakers to reach agreement on raising the debt ceiling before the Thursday deadline set by Lew, saying the economic fallout of failing to act could include increased interest rates, slower global economic growth and falling business confidence.”
As an amusing sidelight, a number of government programs have been brought back to life with local, state and private temporary funding. The Statue of Liberty reopened on Sunday after New York agreed to fund the daily cost of $61,600 to maintain this historic site. South Dakota, meanwhile, announced that the state and private donors have anted up some $15,000 to take care of Mount Rushmore.
Observing all of this, a conservative columnist like Ross Douthat could excoriate the Republican Party’s actions, comparing them to the behaviour of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in the film “Apocalypse Now”! As Douthat had written in The New York Times, “there is still something well-nigh-unprecedented about how Republicans have conducted themselves of late. It’s not the scale of their mistake, or the kind of damage that it’s caused, but the fact that their strategy was such self-evident folly, so transparently devoid of any method whatsoever. Every sensible person, most Republican politicians included, could recognize that the shutdown fever would blow up in the party’s face. Even the shutdown’s ardent champions never advanced a remotely compelling story for how it would deliver its objectives. And everything that’s transpired since, from the party’s polling nosedive to the frantic efforts to save face, was entirely predictable in advance.”
And so we now move forward into the next week of the shutdown, along with the possibility of that debt default, even as the Republicans are carrying out their own multi-sided intra-party civil war. The Democrats, meanwhile, sensing a growing advantage, are now holding fast. And the country – along with the world’s financial markets – is beginning to get distinctly nervous about how this will finally be solved. And when. DM
Photo: Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks at the “Million Vet March on the Memorials” at the U.S. National World War II Memorial in Washington October 13, 2013. The group was organized in protest of the Obama administration’s decision to close the memorial and bar entry to World War Two vets who had traveled to visit it during the partial government shut down. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts