Thursday, Oct 28, 2021

The Republican Government Shutdown Debacle And Its Aftermath

The Republican Party fully earned the sobriquet “the stupid party” during the government shutdown confrontation. But the problem was not a lack of intelligence per se. Senator Ted Cruz, the driving force behind the shutdown effort, is likely the smartest member of the Senate. Professor Alan Dershowitz described him as one of his brightest students ever at Harvard Law School - “off-the-charts brilliant.” And he was a phenomenally successful Supreme Court advocate as Solicitor-General of Texas.

Cruz demonstrated, as have countless others before him, that intelligence and wisdom are not necessarily on the same continuum. His brand of ideological purity does not lend itself to the give-and-take of democratic politics. Middos, or the lack thereof, also played a role. Cruz became a little too enchanted with all the attention focused on him and the adulation of his Tea Party cheering section.

 

Ross Douhat, the New York Times resident conservative thinker, notes that the shutdown proponents had no remotely plausible strategy for victory. It is not that the shutdown blew up in Republicans’ faces and caused the party grievous (though hopefully not permanent) damage. That would be the judgment of hindsight. Rather, from the start, proponents of the shutdown strategy had no plausible endgame in which the Democrats would just throw in the towel and agree to defund Obamacare, as Cruz and company were demanding.

 

In Douhat’s words, “their strategy was such self-evident folly, so transparently devoid of any method whatsoever, [that] even the shutdown’s ardent champions never advanced a remotely compelling story for how it would deliver its objectives.”

 

A CNN poll this week summarized the short-term results of the Republican folly: 53% of the public blame the GOP more for the shutdown versus 29% who blame the president, and 63% have an unfavorable to very unfavorable impression of the GOP.

 

The entire point of the exercise was to focus attention on the failures and cost of Obamare, but it arguably did just the opposite: The shutdown provided headlines to supplant those highlighting the nightmarish roll-out of the Obamacare health care exchange, which could not have been a bigger disaster.

 

The systemic technical failure of the government-run health exchanges means that people cannot purchase health insurance, which they will be taxed for not having in a few months. But even worse news was bubbling up for defenders of Obamacare: Healthy, young people – the demographic most heavily supportive of the president – were getting their first taste of sticker shock, as they got the news that their premiums would be shooting up sharply in order to keep prices down for far more affluent seniors.

 

The goal of the shutdown was to delay implementation of Obamacare for one-year. Wouldn’t it have been a far better long-range strategy to have let it crash and burn prior to the 2014 elections, and provide the American people with an object lesson of what happens when the government tries to take control of over one-seventh of the entire American economy? Hastily cobbled together in Rube Goldberg fashion, Obamacare can simply not work unless it enrolls millions of young suckers.

 

ANGRY AS HE IS with Cruz and his Tea Party cronies, Douhat recognized that the GOP cannot jettison the Tea Party, who constitute its most activated base. True, the Tea Party likely kicked away Republican control of the Senate by forcing on the party a group of loopy candidates in 2010 and 2012 who lost five or more eminently winnable races. (Of course, a few establishment candidates, like former two-term Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, also went down to defeat.)

 

But Douhat makes another even more important point: The Tea Party movement, in general, has better political and policy instincts. The old Republican mainstream, which captured the last two presidential nominations, is too connected to Wall Street. And what the party needs now is a more populist message that can address middle-class anxiety.

 

Senator Mike Lee of Utah, for instance, has proposed a $2,500 per child tax cut to all parents with dependent children, with accompanying language about the central role of family in the national economy, designed to woo “Sam’s Club” voters. (I would guess that he could woo a few voters in Lakewood as well.)

 

Boston University Professor Angelo Codevilla has emerged as the most articulate defender and explicator of the Tea Party impulse. He divides the country between a “ruling class” and a “country class.” The former includes all those whose lives are primarily oriented towards governments, and include the leadership of both parties, big business, big labor, and big philanthropy. Wall Street is very much part of the ruling class, spending fortunes on lobbyists and lawyers to help it get a leg up on the competition through the regulatory process.

 

For the “ruling class,” economic success is less a function of the classical American virtues of guts, determination and hard work. Rather, it is largely determined by the relation to the government. The proliferation of government regulations, as described by Codevilla, are means by which the government legalizes differential treatment of different types of business by creating rules that uniquely favor particular entities, and for which those entities pay fortunes to K Street lobbyists. The Federal Registrar constitutes thousands of pages tilting the government towards some entities and away from others.

 

Codevilla’s “country class” – i.e., those who do not look to government to guarantee their success but merely want to be left alone from government regulation – are those to whom Douhat would have Republicans direct a populist appeal.

 

IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE 2012 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, David Horowitz published an insightful piece analyzing Republican political failure, even in a political climate that should have been highly favorable to them. Democratic strategists understood that if the election were a referendum on President Obama, they would lose. They used everything in their arsenal to distract voters and the Republicans let them get away with it.

 

The Obama campaign spent $300,000,000 on early ads demonizing Mitt Romney as a ruthless job destroyer and even indirectly responsible for the death of a female worker who lost her health insurance (in a manner that had no connection to Romney or Bain Capital). And the Republicans let them get away with it, unable to believe that anyone could take such claims seriously. After all, Romney’s wealth was based on saving failing companies and nursing them back to health, thereby saving jobs.

 

If only Romney could have mustered some of the righteous indignation of counsel Joseph Welch during the McCarthy hearings at being falsely accused of indirectly causing someone’s death – “Mr. President, have you and your campaign team no sense of decency?” – perhaps the Democrats would have learned that lying and demonization also have their costs. But he didn’t.

 

On the issue of who is a “Strong Leader,” “Shares Your Values,” and “Has a Vision for the Future,” a CNN exit poll showed Romney leading Obama by over 54% to 46%. But on the question of who “Cares about People,” Obama had a huge lead, 81% to 18%. And most people vote on the basis of who cares for them.

 

On the face of it, that chasm is a joke. Romney has probably done more chessed shebegufo for others in the average week – not to mention giving away millions of dollars annually to charity – than the narcissistic and aloof Obama has done in his life. But Romney was successfully portrayed as a rich plutocrat, aloof from the common man.

 

Democrats, Horowitz argues, are simply more willing to engage in the politics of defamation and demonization and to play on people’s emotions. For them, politics is a moral crusade animated by a glorious vision of government guaranteed health care, housing, and incomes for all. “Fundamental transformation” of society through government, as the president put it, is the goal. If reaching the utopia requires lying, voter fraud, or demonizing opponents as racist, selfish and uncaring, they deserve it because they are evil people standing in the way of progress.

 

Republicans, by contrast, see politics as a realm for tinkering over some technical solutions, not as their essential life-calling or the proper sphere for societal or individual redemption. For them, Democrats are mistaken, not evil.

 

All the Republican policy arguments about budget deficits and their impact on growth, or how the regulatory state drains all entrepreneurial spirit and business creation were dismissed by President Obama in his 2012 acceptance speech with one witty riff: “All [Republicans] have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years: Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high? Try another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.”

 

In response, Republicans are going to have to start learning to tell emotional stories and personalizing the issues. They have to use the power of fear to counter charges that they are warring on the middle class.

 

As Horowitz puts it, “Thirty-five percent of Detroit citizens are on food stamps. Democrats destroy jobs and make people poor. Why hasn’t there been a $300 million Republican campaign making that point?” Detroit and all the other big cities heading in the same direction have been under continuous Democratic control for thirty years or more. Both the cities and high-tax Democratic states are caught in a downward cycle from which there is no escape. Higher taxes to pay for generous entitlements drive out those in high tax brackets, necessitating even higher taxes on remaining businesses and other high-tax individuals, which, in turn, drives out even more of them. Until the city is left with huge pension deficits, no jobs, especially no jobs for poorly educated minorities, and no one left to pick up the tab for all those on welfare. Just watch New York City under Bill di Blasio.

 

Republicans must take the battle to the Democrats. Let them show how a lost generation of youth who can’t find jobs or develop the skills and experience for later success results from destroying small business or making it ruinous to hire anyone other than part-time employees. And personalize the story.

 

It’s time to show minorities, who have suffered by far the worst in the non-recovery since 2008, that they are being played for suckers. Let them hear how Democratic politicians in cahoots with teacher unions fight to prevent poor and minority kids receiving vouchers and thus access to the type of education that those politicians provide their own children.

 

It’s time to defend victims and name the culprits.

 

No one is advocating a return to the days of Lee Atwater and the Southern strategy. But Republicans have got to be prepared to get their hands dirty, to fight fire with fire, and to scare voters about the future awaiting them in Democratic hands.

 

Whether they can learn to do that again will in the end be more important than the folly of the just ended government shutdown.

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