The rowdy, stubborn species of conservatives who forced the 16-day shutdown of government and brought the nation to the brink of default can only see victory in their loss in the debt-ceiling battle.
They’ve got a new rallying cry, and a new moniker for their archenemy of establishment politicians and status quo government: the “Surrender Caucus.”
And anyone who dares think the latest crisis averted will end the cycle of budget battles, debt default threats and assaults on Obamacare should think again.
This renegade band of unconventional politicians already lives for the next fight — which has been kicked beyond the holidays to early 2014. And none of Washington’s traditional levers of influence seem able to divert them from the goal of fighting again.
The threat of being stripped of committee assignments, losing party support for re-election or being blamed in the polls for the shutdown has little effect on the likes of Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul or Mike Lee and their allies in the House.
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“We are getting zero fiscal discipline,” a frustrated Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, explaining why he voted against the budget deal despite hailing from a state that voted for President Obama during the last two elections.
There’s also a misunderstanding in the mainstream media about really motivated these boat-rockers: It wasn’t about actually stopping Democrats from taking the Affordable Care Act across the goal line, nor was it about raising the debt ceiling before Mr. Obama and the Democrats offered any significant spending cuts.
Rather, it was about showing that there were Republicans in Congress who understood that standing and fighting was itself the goal — the endgame that disparaging critics on the left, right and center said was glaringly absent from Mr. Cruz’s crusade.
“He’s done a good job drawing attention to Obamacare and that Obamacare is something that is going to be damaging to people,” Mr. Paul said of Mr. Cruz in a television interview on Sunday. “And, for that, I think he’s done a great service in bringing attention to, I think, something that’s really going to be bad for a lot of Americans.”
The goal-line stand itself would, in the minds of many conservatives, show dispirited GOP rank-and-filers that their party still had hopes and aspirations for reclaiming a relevance lost since the Reagan era.
“Our leaders in Congress have been bent and broken so many times by the Democrats and President Obama that this became a must-do line in the sand for them,” explained Bruce Ash of Arizona, chairman of the Republican National Committee’s Standing Rules Committee and of its Conservative Caucus. “The GOP leadership had its back up against the wall — a bad place to be.”
“It was entirely proper to condition an increase in the debt limit on some measures of fiscal restraint,” said Chicago attorney and Reagan administration official Joe Morris. “Mr. Obama’s demand that Congress raise the debt limit unconditionally and automatically was to treat the debt limit as a meaningless abstraction and to treat Congress as robots, which conservatives in Congress could not let stand.”
Liberal as well as most center-right commentators labeled the Cruz crusaders as hopelessly naive and destructive of their own party. But conservatives beyond the Beltway (and a few inside) saw the Cruz obstinacy as a necessary public rejection of bipartisanship as practiced since the days of President George H.W. Bush’s 1990 budget compromise with the congressional Democratic leaders, when he broke his no-new-taxes pledge and accepted the Democrats’ demand to cut spending by $2 for every $1 in tax increases. The GOP kept their part of the bargain; the Democrats didn’t, but they still got $137 billion in tax increases from 1991 through 1995 that they had originally wanted.
Government grew faster under the elder Mr. Bush than it had at any time since President Johnson’s War on Poverty years.
The GOP rebels in Congress have been doing a slow burn over the failure of their party to block or even slow government growth, which has been faster under Mr. Obama than under President George W. Bush, who increased spending more than any of his six predecessors, including Mr. Johnson. And it wasn’t just entitlements. In his eight years in the White House, President Bush increased discretionary spending by an eye-popping 49 percent.
Some conservative Republican strategists around the country, including some surprisingly prominent ones, have been saying privately that things had come to a head in the last few weeks because the GOP had shown itself to be so weak that it was bordering on irrelevance, even while controlling one house of Congress.
True, two years ago, Republicans staged a mini-showdown over the debt ceiling, today’s GOP House and Senate rebels acknowledge. They wanted the Democrats to agree to a “cut, cap and balance” agenda on spending and the federal deficit. The Republican got some cuts and caps. It was not what they considered enough, but certainly more than if they had not used their leverage.
Since that modest accomplishment, they had done nothing to block what they see as the Democrats’ ongoing drive to socialize the economy and increase dependency on the government.
The boat-rockers among the House GOP’s majority and the Cruz-Lee-Paul faction among the Senate GOP’s minority decided that with Obamacare about to be implemented, they better at least try to do something. They knew they could not win, but it would at least show they understood the nation was about to pass the point of no return in another major advance toward what they called European-style socialism by funding the Affordable Care Act.
The problem from these GOP rebels’ viewpoint was that the majority of the Washington GOP establishment had no fight in them. Those moderate GOP leaders were warriors in the cause of limited government no more — if they ever were.
That left some rebels torn over strategy, inclined, as one of them put it privately, “to cruise with Ted” but at the same time thinking, “It would be nice to walk out on a limb and not have the surrender caucus behind you sawing it off before you even get started.”
Act 5 of the shutdown drama this week leaves unclear just what was accomplished. Do enough GOP voters see the party as having reasserted its relevance, at least somewhat, to win in 2014 and in 2016?
However worthy Mr. Cruz’s goals, Republicans close to the action on Capitol Hill say the freshman Texan’s tactics have annoyed beyond redemption almost all his GOP colleagues with what they see as his grandstanding in preparation for a 2016 presidential nomination bid.
Many of these same Republicans say Mr. Paul, also a probable 2016 nomination contender, did not desert Mr. Cruz in holding out for significant concessions from Democrats. At the same time, the Kentucky Republican made it clear he thought a government shutdown was bad for his party and his country — and he refrained from attacks on the leadership. How that plays with donors in 2016 is not knowable at this point, partisans of each man say.
A surprisingly number of prominent Republicans are saying that if the GOP loses the 2016 presidential elections, the party will go the way of the Whigs — or formally split into a moderate party and a conservative party.
“Those Republican rebels in Congress may have demonstrated, at least until the shutdown ended, that there are some GOP leaders still standing for principles and understanding spending and Obamacare are moral issues of the day,” Solomon Yue of Oregon, a founder of the RNC’s Conservative Caucus, wrote in an email.
“If we are not willing to fight on those issues, Republicans could become Whigs,” Mr. Yue said. “Therefore, the shutdown drama not only re-energized our demoralized base but also preserved our GOP army for the fight in 2014 and beyond as far as our grassroots are concerned.”
Reality, however, may be what the masters of perception in the GOP and Democratic leadership and in the Fourth Estate say it is — a debacle for Mr. Cruz and his party’s image. That wasn’t the case with Ronald Reagan, depicted by the political and press establishments as a trigger-happy cowboy and intellectually handicapped B movie actor, or George W. Bush, also depicted as intellectually wanting.
That was then; today, polls show the GOP took the biggest hit among the public in the spending and debt showdown. Some conservatives insist, however, on putting principles over polls, in part because doing so can lead to eventual victory rising out of apparent defeat.
“If the Founders made their decisions based on poll numbers: 33 percent for revolution, 33 percent for King George and 33 percent in the middle, we would not have America,” Mr. Yue said.
• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at email@example.com.
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