Watching the GOP convulse these last few days, I sense that we just might finally be on the cusp of an important and long-awaited moment. Up until now during the Obama era, the Republicans’ scorched-earth politics have harmed their party, but they have always harmed the Democrats nearly as much—or, in the long term, even more. It’s a big reason why they do the things they do—they know cynically that if they bring the government to a standstill, most people will just blame both parties, and indeed might even cast more blame on the party of government, the Democrats.
The gig may be about up. The odds are good that by the morning of October 18, one of two (correct) perceptions will be broadly held by the American public: one, that the Republican Party has collapsed into all-out ideological civil war; two, that the Republicans are a party not merely of obstructionists but destructionists, in ways that will be so evident that even those independents devoted to the idea that both sides are to blame will run up the white flag. All the Republicans’ madness of the last five years is finally going to catch up with them.
If I’m right, it will happen because of three events that the American people could simply not witness without at long last reaching some obvious conclusions. The first was Ted Cruz’s talk-athon. So many adjectives can be attached to it that I hardly know where to start, but none of them are good: self-aggrandizing, arrogant, pompous, windy, irrelevant. And don’t forget phony, since he worked the whole thing out with Harry Reid in advance.
But the real impact of Cruz’s stunt is this. He creates one more purity test, one more hoop of fire for conservatives to demand Republicans walk through. I’m sure you’ve noticed how these have popped up every so often, and that senators who were always conservative but used to be kind of sensible at the end the day would suddenly have to adopt these new hard-line positions, which is how we got, say, Charles Grassley tweeting about killing grandma.
Well, Cruz has now made himself the “death panel” of 2013, but there’s a difference. Republicans embraced death-panel rhetoric because there was no cost to not doing so. But a lot of them just hate Cruz. They won’t embrace him, and he is going to divide the party and the conservative movement into two increasingly alienated factions. It’ll be hard for them to keep the broader public from noticing this.
The second event will happen this weekend, as the Senate and House cast their votes to keep the government funded. John Boehner might have something profoundly clever up his sleeve that nobody else knows about, so if he does, bully for him. But by most accounts, all he’s going to do with the spending bill the Senate sends him—a “clean” bill that will fund the government and Obamacare—is tinker around its edges.
The hot idea as of Thursday was that he’d pursue a repeal of the medical-device tax. Wow! Now that’ll really get the fire-breathers manning the barricades! It’s a huge comedown from the prospect of a defunding of the hated law. But even it won’t fly. Harry Reid will block it (the repeal actually has the support of a strong majority in the Senate, but many Democratic senators say they won’t repeal it as a condition of keeping the government operating, which they see as hostage-taking). So Boehner won’t even get that through, in all likelihood.
Then, he’s stuck with the question of what the heck kind of spending resolution he can get 218 votes for. It’s a good question. We’ll learn this weekend. I feel pretty certain that what we’ll see is the GOP back down, because they know that if the government does shut down, they’ll bear the brunt of the blame (not all of it by any means, but more of it, according to most polls). And if the clock runs out Monday with the ball in the House’s court, they’ll look that much worse. All you need to know is how fearful of shutdown Republicans have sounded in their recent remarks. They certainly seem worried that they’ll suffer most of the blowback.
Which brings us to the debt-ceiling fight, which already started yesterday, when the contents of the GOP’s Christmas list were leaked. In exchange for raising the debt ceiling, Republicans want a hilarious list of concessions and goodies. Some, inevitably, want even more—more spending cuts, more restrictions on late-term abortions.
The Republicans had already decided, back in August, that while they would put up a bit of a fight on government shutdown, they were basically going to put their eggs in the debt-ceiling basket. I can see why, superficially. A government shutdown is easy for people to understand, and more people will blame the party that doesn’t care about government. Whereas the debt limit is hard to understand and can easily be blamed on overspending by the president.
That may be, but there’s another group of people who understand the debt limit very well, and that’s America’s CEOs and financial titans. In the final 72 hours before the October 17 borrowing deadline, you can be sure that they’ll be calling Boehner and Mitch McConnell frantically, saying, “Are you guys out of your minds?”
They’ll almost certainly cave, just like they did on the fiscal-cliff deal. Or maybe they won’t. They lose either way. In the former case, all their big talk came to nothing. In the latter, they’ve driven the country down the sinkhole. And so, like I said up top, they’ll be seen either as in total disarray, or as complete saboteurs.
You can only set so many houses on fire before people finally figure out that this isn’t happening by accident and you must be an arsonist. The GOP is now flirting with that moment. It can’t come soon enough.