As an anarchist, I don’t believe in representative government as most of us understand the term, or even in the validity of a “state.” I don’t vote in most elections because of these beliefs (sometimes I vote for third-party candidates for federal offices; other times I vote on state ballot measures or in local elections). Still, living in the messy, un-ideal present, I took an interest in the recent shutdown of the federal government because it affected the lives of many Americans adversely, and might have had an adverse effect on me had it continued. Most important, it’s not over — the whole thing will start up again in January.
Two recent articles in “Rolling Stone” magazine explained what’s behind these crises so well that I thought I’d share my slightly edited versions of them with you. The first, “A House Divided,” is by Princeton University professor of history Sean Wilentz. The second, “The Suicide Machine” is by political writer and commentator Tim Dickinson. Together they make for some lengthy and concentrated reading that in my opinion is well worth your while.
A House Divided: Right-wing Extremism and the Lessons of History by Sean Wilentz, Rolling Stone, 10-10-13
This latest episode in the endless Republican reality show is not chiefly about the incompetence and incessant squabbling of ideologues and petty politicians. Nor is it the outcome of the intense partisan polarization that has Washington in gridlock, as if Democrats and Republicans are equally at fault. Least of all is it about rescuing the economy from the Democrats’ profligate deficit spending, as Republicans claim – not with the deficit shrinking to its lowest level since the financial disaster of 2008 and the economic outlook improving. This crisis is about the radicalization of the Republican Party, its stunning lack of leadership, and its disregard for the Constitution.
The Republicans have now joined a relatively small number of major American political parties that became the captive of a narrow ideology and either jettisoned or silenced more moderate elements. The Democratic Party suffered this fate in the 1840s and 1850s, when Southern slaveholders took command of the party’s levers of power. So, temporarily, did the Republicans in 1964, when Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign claimed the party for extremists on the right.
As with earlier declines into dogmatic politics, the Republicans descended gradually, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s departure from the White House in 1989. Reagan had governed shrewdly. While getting his way on what he thought was important, including dramatically lowering tax rates and combating the Soviet Union, he knew how to compromise. He also knew how to exploit the culture wars, paying lip service to causes like the “pro-life” movement without risking political capital on them. Reagan kept his supporters in line even as he raised taxes no fewer than 11 times, raised government spending by 57% in current dollars, and nearly tripled the national debt. Yet while Reagan’s success continued to shape national politics for decades after he left office, he alone proved capable of holding together the conservative coalition that had swept him to power.
With no clear-cut successor on the right, the GOP turned to a scion of the old GOP establishment, George Herbert Walker Bush. Deepening divisions between center-right Republicans like Bush and a new crop of Republican right-wing firebrands like Newt Gingrich contributed heavily to Bush’s ouster in 1992. Bill Clinton’s innovative center-left politics revived the Democrats, and he won re-election in 1996, but his coalition didn’t hold. With George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, engineered by a one-vote majority of the conservative Supreme Court, the post-Reagan GOP reached a new and more radical phase.
After an unsteady start, the new Bush administration won enormous popular support following 9-11. In time, his popularity diminished, but it proved strong enough to narrowly secure his re-election in 2004. Despite the thinness of the president’s margin of victory, Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove spoke of a “permanent Republican majority” that would last for a generation or more. Four years later, the administration was in its death spiral. The economy was on the brink of collapse in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis traceable to the lack of oversight and regulation of an out-of-control financial sector. Anger over the Iraq war, the government’s passive early response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and more, had caused the president’s public-approval ratings to plunge. Two years earlier, the Democrats had regained a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in more than a decade, giving them virtual control of both houses of Congress.
The anti-Bush backlash wasn’t confined to Democrats and independents. Bush had stirred resentment on the right during his first term with his unfunded Medicare prescription-drug reforms, which many hardline conservative Republicans viewed as a big-government betrayal. Early in his second term, Bush tried and failed to advance the privatization of Social Security, which might have gained some credibility among the hardliners. Then he enraged much of the Republican base with his efforts to liberalize immigration policy. But it was his drastic interventions in the wake of the financial crisis to bail out the floundering banks that most offended the right wing of his party. Protests about it on the right (there were left protests, too) sparked the Tea Party phenomenon.
Battered and discouraged, the GOP nominated Senator John McCain, the last major national Republican whose career stretched back to the glory years of Ronald Reagan, for president, even though his reputation for irascible independence made right-wing Republicans squeamish. In desperation for party unity, McCain chose the inexperienced and ignorant, but unassailably far-right Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate, momentarily exciting the party base but, in the long run, damaging his hopes with the rest of the electorate. Senator Barack Obama won handily, the greatest Democratic presidential victory in nearly half a century.
The Tea Party uprising helped the Republicans regain the House in 2010, in the wake of Obama’s legislative victories in enacting a large, if insufficient, economic stimulus package and a diluted but historic national health care law. Yet the Republicans’ apparent rebound was actually dismaying to party politicos who had historic connections to the party’s more traditional and less dogmatic conservatism. In last year’s presidential election, it took Karl Rove and his favored candidate, Mitt Romney, until late in the primary season to fend off a bewildering gaggle of conservative hardliners. To secure the nomination, Romney had to adopt positions popular inside Tea Party circles but fatal in the general election, including naming Ayn Rand-admiring congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate.
For their part, the Democrats – and, in particular, the Obama White House – actively resisted understanding how much the rightward push had radicalized the Republican Party, especially its caucus in the House of Representatives. Disappointing his ardent left supporters from the 2008 campaign, Obama, acting as if he believed his own campaign rhetoric about a new post-partisan spirit, failed to do so. Not a single House Republican and only three in the Senate voted in favor of the administration’s stimulus package in 2009. When, after almost a year of bargaining and stalling, Congress finally passed a watered-down version of the president’s health care reform bill early in 2010, not a single Republican in either house of Congress voted aye.
These outcomes should have been obvious to anyone with a glimmer of understanding of what the Republican Party had become. The Republican right mounted vicious personal attacks against Obama – not only on his health care plan, but on whether he was really an American. This character assassination, along with high unemployment and the continued sluggishness of the economy, fueled the Republicans’ recapture of the House in 2010. The new Congress brought to the fore a fresh crop of leaders, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan. Dubbing themselves the Young Guns, they made no pretense of their discomfort with the new speaker of the House, John Boehner.
From the start, it was clear that the younger leaders would try to make the federal debt limit the focus of controversy, though Boehner demurred. “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults,” he lectured the incoming Republican freshmen about the impending debt-limit debate. “Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations.” But the Young Guns, Cantor in particular, would have no truck with such timidity. Neither would the freshmen elected with Tea Party support, most of them well to the right of the Young Guns. Throughout, the upstarts made it clear that if their demands weren’t met, they wouldn’t hesitate to force the nation, disastrously, to default on its debts.
The Republicans either believe, or would have you believe, that the debt ceiling limits the size of the national debt and thus limits government spending. Raising it, Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina has remarked, is just another way of saying, “Well, you’ve got a little bit more credit – keep spending.” The words “debt ceiling” or “debt limit” certainly sound as if that’s what’s involved. But these assertions are false.
The debt ceiling dates back to America’s entry into World War I. Contrary to a widespread misimpression, it came into existence not as a constraint on congressional spending, but in order to make government fiscal procedures less cumbersome amid the pressures of mobilizing for war. It had – and has – nothing to do with authorizing spending; Congress does that as part of the normal legislative process. Nor does the ceiling have anything to do with annual deficit levels, which explains why even today, with the deficit shrinking, Congress still needs to raise it. The ceiling is just an artificial cap, determined by Congress, on the amount the government can borrow to cover obligations already made.
Through the era of World War II, the limit looked to some like it might act as a check on government borrowing. But over the decades that followed, as the size of the nation’s economy – and with it the national debt – grew exponentially, the debt limit became a vestige of a bygone era. By 1974, when Congress passed a new law compelling it to approve a budget and thus set borrowing levels annually, it was truly obsolete.
The implication by the Republicans that raising the ceiling will enable the government to spend the nation into bankruptcy is utterly phony, a pseudo-crisis rooted in no real problem, a fraud manufactured and stage-managed by the GOP to frighten the public and score political points. Indeed, it’s the Republican radicals, not the Democrats, who are threatening to throw the government into bankruptcy unless they get their way over other issues, above all defunding (basically repealing) Obamacare.
You don’t have to be Paul Krugman to understand all of this. Since the 1950s, economists have called the debt ceiling an experiment that failed long ago. Addressing Congress in 2003 as the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan disparaged the debt ceiling as “either redundant or inconsistent with the paths of revenues and outlays you specify when you legislate a budget.” Eight years later, as the House Republicans threatened, Greenspan called the debt-limit problem “unnecessary” and said flat-out that the debt ceiling “serves no useful purpose.”
For decades Congress has raised the debt limit as a mere formality – every year from 1941 to 1945 to accommodate the accumulating costs of World War II, and 78 times since 1960 under various administrations. Occasionally members of both parties have voted against raising the ceiling as a symbolic gesture to focus attention on various issues.
If the debt limit isn’t raised when necessary, the federal government would immediately default on some of its obligations. That, in turn, would disrupt its ability to pay its creditors, from bondholders and defense contractors to recipients of Social Security and Medicare. A default that lasted for just a single day – and perhaps even the threat of such a default – would have dire effects, causing every credit agency to downgrade the nation’s credit rating while presenting to the rest of the world the bizarre spectacle of the richest and most powerful nation on Earth willfully damaging both its economy and its international credibility. A default that lasted more than a few days could trigger a catastrophic global financial crisis. Until now, no member of Congress, from either party, has seriously entertained wreaking such havoc.
Early in 2011, in keeping with Cantor’s plans, the Republicans threatened a government shutdown and in a last-minute deal with the White House forced cuts in discretionary spending that amounted to $79 billion more than the White House had wanted. Gearing up for his re-election campaign, Obama tried to put a good face on the outcome, but the Republicans, particularly the Young Guns and the more volatile Tea Partiers, were only getting started.
That summer, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used fiscal gimmicks to delay the necessity of raising the debt limit while Obama and Boehner held secret negotiations that they hoped would produce a “Grand Bargain.” The deal, which included cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits, would have reduce projected deficits by $4 trillion over the coming decade, but Cantor publicly undermined the talks, and on July 9th, Boehner backed out. Negotiations resumed a few days later, with the speaker extracting concessions from Obama that would have damaged the president badly with the Democratic base. But Boehner, pressed again by Cantor, who was in turn being pressured by Tea Party members like Jim Jordan of Ohio, shied away again, blaming Obama.
On August 3rd, the government was scheduled to default unless Congress raised the debt limit. Legal experts as well as Democratic leaders implored the president to head off a Republican-manufactured disaster by invoking or at least citing Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States,” including payments for government pensions, “shall not be questioned.” The explicit purpose behind the amendment, framed and ratified in the aftermath of the Civil War, was to prevent Southern rebel sympathizers returning to Congress from using the public debt to extract political concessions – precisely what the leaders of the current Southern-based Republican Party were now doing. But the president’s lawyers weren’t persuaded that that was a winning argument, and Obama pursued a last-minute compromise.
In the nick of time, on August 2nd, Obama signed the Budget Control Act, which he, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had worked out with Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky days earlier. This was the disastrous sequestration bill, which mandated that on January 2, 2013, unless Congress approved the recommendations of a bipartisan “supercommittee” on cutting billions from the budget over the ensuing decade, massive across-the-board cuts in mandatory as well as discretionary spending, including for defense, would take effect.
The sequester plan did nothing to relieve mounting anxieties in the bond markets. On August 5th, three days after Obama signed the bill, Standard & Poor’s, having issued warnings for months, announced that it was stripping the United States of its AAA credit rating. “The fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the administration recently agreed to,” S&P’s announcement read, “falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.” But even that ominous embarrassment didn’t move the Republicans, who refused to bend their solemn oath never to raise taxes and thereby killed any chance for a broader agreement. On January 2nd, the sequester bill’s doomsday, the president had to sign emergency legislation to keep the country from falling off what had become known as “the fiscal cliff.” But that only delayed the sequestration and did nothing to prevent future debt-ceiling crises down the road.
Sometime in the midst of these battles, Obama seems to have begun to grasp what he was up against in the Republican Party. Instead of repeating the old paeans to post-partisanship during his re-election campaign in 2012, he forcefully defended positive government and drew a clear line between his progressive political philosophy and that of his plutocratic opponent, who, at a secretly videotaped fundraiser of Republican donors, riffed on how 47% of the American people were parasites on government welfare. Republicans were dumbfounded when Obama won re-election by 5 million votes and by a landslide in the Electoral College, while the Democrats dominated the overall vote in both the House and Senate elections. In fact, the Democrats won 1.4 million votes more than the Republicans did in House elections nationally. Republicans retained the House only as a result of having gerrymandered congressional districts in the states they’d won in the 2010 midterms. The voters had clearly repudiated the anti-government, pro-big-business politics that have driven the GOP for decades, and Republican vulnerability with key constituencies became clear over a host of issues, from women’s reproductive rights to immigration reform.
For a brief time, Republican officials acted chastened. The Republican National Committee called upon the party to change its public image as the callous party of the rich and improve its links to blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Such sober second thoughts, though, never made a dent in the minds of congressional Republicans who, in 2013, have doubled down on their strategy of undermining the executive branch in any way they can. In the Senate, where Republicans remain in the minority, they’ve launched more filibusters than ever before in history, blocking Obama’s appointments to virtually every position, from federal judges to Elizabeth Warren as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Now, having been completely overrun by a radical faction within their ranks, they’re practicing a variation of the subversive politics of nullification first elaborated in the 1820s by John C. Calhoun, the Southern slaveholding arch-reactionary. Controlling just one half of one of the three branches of government – and having won that control only because of rigged, gerrymandered districting – they’re out to nullify laws they don’t like, in part by blocking otherwise uncontroversial appointments of the officials required to execute them. The law they hate the most is the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare. The conservative-dominated Supreme Court, to their disbelief and horror, failed to declare the law unconstitutional in 2012, so the Republicans are hellbent on nullifying it by any means necessary, including paralyzing the government and, if need be, destroying the nation’s financial credibility and throwing the economy into a catastrophic collapse.
How has a faction consisting of no more than four dozen House members come to exercise so much destructive power? The continuing abandonment of professional responsibilities by the nation’s mainstream news sources – including most of the metropolitan daily newspapers and the television outlets, network and cable – has had a great deal to do with it. At some point over the past 40 years, the bedrock principle of journalistic objectivity became twisted into the craven idea of false equivalency, whereby blatant falsehoods get reported simply as one side of an argument and receive equal weight with the argument of the other side. There’s no shortage of explanations for the press’s abdication: intimidation at the rise of Fox News and other propaganda operations; a deep confusion about the difference between objectivity and counterfeit neutrality; and the poisonous effects of the postmodern axiom that truth, especially in politics, is a relative thing. Whatever the explanation, today’s journalism has trashed the tradition of fearless, factual reporting pioneered by Walter Lippmann, Edward R. Murrow, and Anthony Lewis.
A press devoted to searching for and reporting the truth, wherever it might lead, would have kept the public better informed of the basic details of the government shutdown and debt-ceiling showdowns. It also would have reported the hard truths of the Tea Party “insurgency,” including how it was largely created and has since been bankrolled by oil-and-gas moguls like David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, and by a panoply of richly endowed right-wing pressure groups like Dick Armey’s Freedom Works and Jim DeMint’s Heritage Foundation. It also would have reported on the basic reason for the hard right’s growing domination of the Republican Party, which has been the decay of the party at every level, including what passes for its party leadership. No figure exemplifies the problem better than the GOP’s highest-ranking official, Speaker John Boehner, whose background and politics have largely escaped scrutiny.
Boehner owes his position to little more than stolid longevity. A self-made, chain-smoking, run-of-the-mill Ohio Republican, he arrived in Congress in 1991 and rolled with the rising conservative tide. Three years later, after the Republicans won their first majority in the House in four decades, he rose as far as the lower end of the House leadership, mainly because he was pliable and came from an important swing state. His chief assignment was to raise funds, and he was delegated to serve as a party emissary to the K Street lobbyists. His most publicized moment came in 1996, when he was exposed distributing checks from the tobacco lobby to fellow Republicans on the floor of the House. Two years after that, in the internal bloodbath that cost Newt Gingrich his job as speaker, Boehner, too, was deposed from his leadership position.
With a lock on his congressional district, Boehner returned to the House and even managed to sit as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee from 2001 to 2006 – not an especially powerful or prestigious assignment. How, then, did such a lackluster figure come to be named speaker of the House? Only because the more prominent and able veterans were guillotined, one after another, and his was the only head left intact.
First, Gingrich was booted from the House – his fellow Republicans removed him from his speakership in 1998 after a disastrous midterm election cycle. Then, in 2005, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the malicious power behind the inert Speaker Dennis Hastert, was indicted on felony charges (later dropped) involving corporate campaign contributions and resigned his post in disgrace. In a surprise win over another unexceptional wheeler-dealer, Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, Boehner took over as majority leader, partly because he was so unthreatening. Finally, in the Democratic sweep of 2006, Hastert lost his leadership role in the party. Boehner became minority leader, which put him in line to become speaker when the Republicans regained the House in 2010.
Boehner is a remainderman, the last figure from the Gingrich revolution left standing. In the absence of anyone with flair or talent, he rose to the heights with no virtue greater than his ability to hang around. Now, as speaker, he finds himself thrust into the middle of a momentous political crisis.
The speakership, historically, has offered an excellent opportunity for creative lawmakers to shape the politics of their times. Between 1811 and 1825, Henry Clay, the greatest speaker of all, transformed what had been essentially a rule-enforcer’s job into a position second in importance only to the president, concentrating power in his hands by appointing his allies to the most important committees. Having put political pressure on pacific President James Madison, Clay helped lead the nation through the War of 1812 and then through the early implementation of a sweeping national economic plan, which he devised and called the American System. He also brokered the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that calmed sectional furor over slavery for more than 30 years.
Several powerful men have followed in Clay’s footsteps. “Uncle” Joe Cannon sternly ruled the Republican-dominated House for eight momentous years between 1903 and 1911, greatly augmenting the power of his “Old Guard” Republican faction and stifling legislation proposed by Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressives. Sam Rayburn, the Democrat of Texas, held the job for 20 years with two brief interruptions under presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. With a firm but generous hand, he worked effectively with conservatives as well as liberals. Most recently the affable old-time Massachusetts liberal Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill held the House Democrats together during the lean years of the 1980s and struck up a strong and productive relationship with Ronald Reagan.
As a matter of history, Boehner is the most pathetic figure ever to serve as speaker of the House. Questioned last month about why he let right-wing members of his caucus overrule his own crucial – and publicly announced – decision to keep Obamacare out of the budget negotiations, Boehner could only reply that there were many points of view inside the Republican caucus and that “the key to any leadership job is to listen.” Henry Clay, who could not only listen but also speak eloquently, would scoff at Boehner’s definition of leadership.
If Boehner is the saddest speaker of the House in American history, the current Congress is also among the lowest of the low, comparable to the 46th Congress in the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction. The Democrats were the Southern conservative party at that time, but otherwise, the similarities between now and then are striking. So are the lessons that an old and mostly forgotten history can teach the present about how the executive branch should deal with a tightly organized extremist faction in Congress.
A financial panic in 1873 had led to an earthquake in the midterm elections the following year, costing the Republicans control of the House for the first time since the Civil War. Lacking an effective leadership, the Democrats had few ideas about how to combat the country’s economic difficulties – their entire agenda amounted to rousing their white Southern base’s resentment against the Republicans’ efforts to protect black voting rights.
In the so-called Compromise of 1877, Republicans won a disputed presidential election by agreeing to remove all but a token number of federal troops sent to guarantee civil rights – but even that mostly symbolic presence, along with the presence and power of U.S. marshals, continued to infuriate Southern Democrats. In the spring of 1879, with the Democrats still controlling the House, Congress passed routine appropriations bills to fund the army and the rest of the federal government for the coming fiscal year, beginning July 1st. Seeing their opportunity, Southern Democrats attached riders to the bills that forbade the use of troops and U.S. marshals to keep order at Southern polls. The sitting Republican president, Rutherford B. Hayes, didn’t care much about protecting black voters in the South, but he and his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill recognized the Democrats’ blackmail for what it was, an attack on the fundamental American system of checks and balances. Five times the Democrats passed offensive bills, and five times Hayes rejected them, using the full powers of his office and denouncing the doctrine behind the Democratic threats – a doctrine, he said, that would “make a radical, dangerous and unconstitutional change in the character of our institutions.” After a legislative impasse of more than three months, when public opinion moved sharply against them, the Democrats backed down.
According to the usual workings of the American political system, success demands building diverse coalitions that contain swings too far to the right or the left. But historically this hasn’t always been the case – not in the movement for Southern secession that provoked the Civil War, not in the paranoid politics of Senator Joseph McCarthy early in the Cold War, not the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign that openly courted extremism and took over the Republican Party, and not in the George Wallace campaigns against civil rights.
The current Republican Party is the latest angry exception to the rules of normal consensus-building politics, and it’s unlikely that the GOP will function as a normal political party again anytime soon. The GOP’s long rightward march – deeply rooted in the revolt against the New Deal headed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and accelerated by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s – has devoured the party’s once strong “moderate” and even “liberal” wings. All that remains as a tempering force are Republicans so conservative that they can’t really be called tempering, and so inept and on the defensive that they can’t be called a force. If John Boehner is the last man standing against extremism in the party, there’s really nothing to bar the door.
Many experienced Republican politicos know their party’s at risk of dying. With the systematic removal of moderates from its ranks, the party’s become based, more than ever, in the Deep South and Mountain states – the least-dynamic regions in the country. Its base is also aging, with the shift of young voters toward the Democrats since Reagan. In 2012, Republicans ran worst among those national constituencies that are growing the fastest – from Latinos to youth – and in democratic politics, demography is pretty much destiny. One reason for the Republicans’ ferocity is their sense that their time is inexorably running out.
Institutional reform could provide constraints that the Republican Party has long since lost. Changing the Senate rules to curtail filibustering and expediting the nomination process, for example, would halt some of the most outrageous obstructionism we’ve seen since 2008. The rise of a different kind of mainstream press, devoted to telling the plain, unvarnished truth, without fear or favor, instead of propping up a false equivalency and calling it objectivity, would also be a great improvement.
For the foreseeable future, though, the prolonged death throes of the Republican Party will lead from crisis to crisis, with little chance that leading Republicans, even if they fail to get their way, will learn any lessons in moderation and self-control. So the acceleration of radicalism and the political crises will continue. Even Mitch McConnell – a notoriously conservative partisan, the party boss behind the obstructionist Senate filibusters and a man often openly contemptuous of President Obama – is the target of a primary challenge from the right in his 2014 re-election campaign. Sadly, frighteningly, after the 2011 debt-limit deal was struck, McConnell observed that “it set the template for the future,” and threatened that soon “we’ll be doing it all over.” And so, all too soon, we will, in a reprise that ought to alarm Americans across the political spectrum: the Constitution unheeded and endangered, the nation’s history blithely ignored, and the security of the American people put severely at risk by an extremist political faction.
Sean Wilentz is George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University. His books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, which won the Bancroft Prize for American history and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
Inside the Suicide Machine by Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone, 10-9-13
It’s open warfare within the Republican Party, and all of America is caught in the crossfire.
The day before Congress broke for its August recess, on an afternoon when most of official Washington was tying up loose ends and racing to get out of town, Senator Ted Cruz was setting the stage for the chaos that’s consumed the nation’s capital in recent weeks. The tall Tea Party-backed Texan – the state’s junior senator, with less than a year in office – worked his mischief in a windowless Capitol basement, where dozens of the most radical members of the House had gathered for a meeting of the Republican Study Committee. Once a marginal group known for elevating anti-government dogma above party loyalty, the RSC now counts among its members 174 of the 232 House Republicans.
“Father, we thank you,” said Representative Michele Bachmann, opening the meeting. “You are the most important presence in this room.” In a pinstriped suit and yellow tie, Cruz sat at the center of a long conference table, flanked by RSC chair Steve Scalise and the group’s most powerful member, former chair Jim Jordan of Ohio – who’s routinely marshaled House rebels into battle against leadership. Jordan flashed the visiting senator a conspiratorial smile.
Soft-spoken but passionate, Cruz insisted that “as scary as a shutdown fight is, if we don’t stand and defund Obamacare now, we never will.” With those words, Cruz fired the first shot in a struggle that threatens the legitimacy of the Grand Old Party and the stability of the global economy. The fight has little to do with policy, or even ideology. It pits the party’s conservative establishment against an extremist insurgency in a battle over strategy, tactics and, ultimately, control of the party. The establishment believes the insurgents’ tactics are suicidal; the insurgents believe the establishment lacks the courage of its convictions, and are so convinced of their righteousness that they compare themselves to civil rights heroes like Rosa Parks. The establishment is backed by powerful business concerns with a vested interest in a functioning government. The insurgents are championed by wealthy ideologues who seek to tear down government. Both sides are funded by millions in unregulated, untraceable “dark money.”
America is now careening toward a catastrophic voluntary default on our debt because no one in the Republican Party with the authority to put on the brakes has the guts to apply them, for fear of being toppled from power.
Republicans took control of the House in 2011, fueled by the passion of the Tea Party and the virtually unlimited funding of donors like the Koch brothers, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor and GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy had actively recruited most of the 85 incoming freshmen. “They figured they could ride the Tea Party to a majority, and co-opt all of those people,” says Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative think tank AEI. But from the start, leadership misjudged the new arrivals. Many had come to Washington to fight, not fall in line. “You show up in the fall,” says Representative Tim Huelskamp, a self-described Young Turk from Kansas, “and they say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, and everybody follow.’ And we said, ‘We’ve got a bunch of folks who don’t very much like the direction you’ve been wantin’ to go.'”
As leadership struggled to corral the class of 2010, a fellow congressman from Boehner’s home state of Ohio seized the advantage. Third –tern congressman Jordan, the RSC chair, recruited 78 freshmen into his fold. The RSC suddenly comprised a majority of the majority party, and Jordan found himself in a position of tremendous power and leverage. Speaker Boehner soon suffered two stinging defeats at the hands of Jordan and the RSC.
The first came during the 2011 debt-ceiling battle, when Boehner shut out his conference to negotiate with President Obama a $4 trillion “grand bargain” that combined modest tax increases with draconian spending cuts. By any objective standard of Washington deal making, Boehner had extracted extraordinary concessions from a sitting Democratic president. Believing the old rules of Washington still applied, Boehner was confident that where he led, House Republicans would follow. But Jordan’s RSC wouldn’t abide any deal that raised taxes, and more than 170 members were united against the speaker. If Boehner pressed ahead, the Grand Bargain could only pass with a majority of Democratic votes, so Cantor spiked Boehner’s deal. Jordan’s intransigence forced Republican leaders and the president to settle on a smaller, cuts-only package that cost America its AAA credit rating and created the across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester. Jordan and more than 60 House radicals opposed even that final deal, but he claimed victory.
Jordan beat Boehner again a year later during the fight over the expiring Bush tax cuts. In December 2012, the speaker introduced a compromise measure to preserve the Bush rates for incomes of less than $1 million. “We’re going to have the votes to pass,” Cantor declared, and Grover Norquist – the keeper of the Republican Party’s anti-tax pledge – gave his blessing. But Jordan and his loyalists locked arms against it.
With Boehner bowed, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell crafted a compromise that sailed through the Senate on a vote of 89 to 8 – an astonishing display of bipartisanship in the chamber of Congress that people used to think of as the broken one. In a public rebuke of his House’s right flank, Boehner brought the bill to the floor and joined a minority of Republicans and Nancy Pelosi’s majority bloc of Democrats in voting for it. The message was clear: The Capitol was uniting against the destructive House partisans. Jordan fumed at the passage of what he called a “classic Washington deal.”
Seeking to restore discipline to the House, Boehner tried to play the tough guy, kicking four Tea Party troublemakers – including Huelskamp – off their favored committees. But once again, Boehner misread his opponents. Far from backing down, the backbenchers mounted a January coup that came close to toppling Boehner. Huelskamp cast his ballot for Jordan. The speaker realized that he needed to stop feuding with his fellow Buckeye, a politician with almost zero national profile, who’s emerged as the commander the House GOP’s opposition bloc of 40 to 50 members.
Jordan sits on a shadow leadership team, dubbed the Jedi Council, whose other members include Paul Ryan, current RSC chair Scalise, and former chairs Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Tom Price of Georgia. At the beginning of the new Congress, stinging from the loss of the tax battle, Jordan and the Jedi were eager to lead Republicans into a new confrontation with President Obama over the debt ceiling. They’d drawn a dangerous lesson from the previous battle: brinksmanship works. But the first possible moment for such a fight would be in February, right in the middle of Obama’s re-election honeymoon. So the Jedi decided to hold their fire. At a House Republican strategy retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, in January, Boehner accepted their plan, along with a list of other strategic aims, known as the “Williamsburg Accord.”
The hard-liners were firmly in control. In February, the House temporarily suspended the debt ceiling, intending to give the president’s poll numbers three months to come back to earth. In March, Republicans rallied around a new, even more extreme version of the Ryan budget and forced Democrats in the Senate to produce a budget of their own for the first time in four years. The strategy was to showcase the parties’ contrasting visions – a Democratic budget that raised taxes and didn’t balance versus a Republican budget that slashed safety-net programs to achieve balance in 10 years.
In the spring, the House forced the sequester – $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts triggered by the first debt-ceiling deal – to go into effect. The RSC was delighted; they’d feared leadership might lose its resolve on spending reductions that hit defense contractors and other financial backers of the GOP.
But no one saw how radical the party had become until July, when after months of keeping the specifics under wraps, the House unveiled a slate of bills comprising the most reactionary major-party legislative program in a generation. It was calculated to block every facet of President Obama’s agenda, whether halting his executive orders to curb carbon pollution or blocking spending on infrastructure and research intended to jump-start the economy. The bills also punished the GOP’s most hated agencies – slashing the IRS budget by a quarter, the EPA budget by a third, and eliminating funding for public broadcasting.
The strategy wasn’t to turn the debt ceiling into a do-or-die standoff over Obamacare, but an improving economy spoiled the Jedis’ timing. Tax revenues spiked, mortgage giant Fannie Mae repaid $60 billion in bailout money, and Treasury was flush. On August 20th, three weeks after Cruz first made his pitch to House conservatives, the senator took his campaign against Obamacare to the next level, joining his mentor – former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, now president of the Heritage Foundation – for the Dallas stop of DeMint’s nine-city “Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour.” The original Tea Party uprising of 2009 took place in stuffy community centers and church basements. But tonight’s event – which packs a capacity crowd of 2,000 into the grand ballroom of a Hilton – felt less like a grassroots insurrection than a corporate convention. Jumbotron projection screens flanked a large stage decorated with Texas and United States flags. On a riser at the back sat an array of camera-pleasing, demographically unrepresentative audience members – African-Americans, Latinos, and young people.
Just a few years ago, the Heritage Foundation was a stodgy, deeply conservative think tank at the heart of establishment Washington, its main business offering right-wing-policy solutions, not driving government gridlock. In fact, the cornerstone of Obamacare – universal health care based on a mandate for individuals to buy insurance – was originally dreamed up by Heritage. On this night, however, DeMint denounced Obamacare as “the most destructive law ever imposed on the American people.”
If Cruz is the frontman of the defund fight, DeMint is the man behind the curtain, orchestrating the battle through a tight network of outside pressure groups under his sway, including Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth. In Congress, DeMint wasn’t much of a legislator – more like a Super PAC who happened to be a senator. Finding many of his Republican colleagues repulsively moderate, DeMint launched the Senate Conservatives Fund, which raised millions from the Tea Party’s grassroots to elect a new guard of anti-government hard-liners, including Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Cruz in Texas, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Mike Lee in Utah, and Marco Rubio in Florida. SCF also backed a crop of fringe candidates – including Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Todd Akin in Missouri – who won primaries with Tea Party support, but whose oddball views on witchcraft and rape (respectively) sank their general-election prospects.
DeMint holds the religious views of the extreme right, arguing that homosexuals and even sexually active unmarried women should be barred from jobs as teachers. But he’s best known as an inflexible economic conservative and a first-class opportunist: last December, he walked away from the Senate in the middle of his second term for a job that would give him even more power in his quest to revolutionize Republican politics.
DeMint quickly put his stamp on the organization. In the first high-profile study released under his tenure, Heritage warned that comprehensive immigration reform would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion. The math was wildly at odds with the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which calculated that reform would reduce the deficit. And it soon came to light that its top author once claimed to be able to rank the intelligence of different ethnic and racial groups – starting with Jews at the top and blacks at the bottom. “The scholarly quality of Heritage’s work was never up to academic standards,” says Bruce Bartlett, a former fellow at the think tank. “But there was some degree of quality control. That’s gone out the window under DeMint.”
With his defund-Obamacare road show, DeMint marshaled the Tea Party to his side – and against congressional leaders. An online petition at Dontfundit.com gathered nearly 2 million signatures. Heritage Action folded new recruits into its army of 5,600 trained “Sentinels” across Republican districts who parrot DeMint’s talking points. It’s all part of a sophisticated strategy – modeled, ironically, after the Obama campaigns – to turn up the heat on Washington lawmakers. The big idea, says Mike Needham, Heritage Action’s 31-year-old CEO, is to keep members of Congress “enveloped in our message” – both on the Hill, “where he’s hearing it from our six lobbyists,” and at home, “where he’s hearing it from a well-informed Sentinel who is a Tea Party leader.”
Once again, the GOP establishment had underestimated the strength of the party’s insurgent wing. Initially, old-guard Republicans seemed to believe they could derail Cruz. But by the time Congress reconvened on the morning of September 10th, 80 radical members – including Jordan – had signed on to an open letter demanding that the budget bill “affirmatively de-fund” Obamacare. Worse, top voices in the Tea Party had turned against House leaders with the kind of venom usually reserved for the president: “If this thing isn’t defunded, it’s Boehnercare!” thundered Mark Levin, the right-wing radio host.
With the speaker in the cross hairs, it was Cantor who was chosen to announce the leadership’s new strategy: He declared that within a week the House would vote to pass a single bill with two parts – one defunding Obamacare, the other funding the government. The bill would force the Senate to vote up or down on Obamacare, before considering the budget. Standing ramrod-straight in a banker’s suit, Cantor flashed unusual vitriol: “It’s time for the Senate to stand up and tell their constituents where they stand on this atrocity of a law!”
No sooner had Cantor’s press conference wrapped than his clever strategy began to unravel. That same morning, thousands of bused-in Tea Party activists from as far away as Tennessee, gathered in the withering heat of the Capitol’s West Lawn, holding signs and shouting slogans. And, one by one, the leading lights of Tea Party Washington took the stage to denounce the Cantor Plan as an empty gesture – and worse. Cruz, who blasted the House leadership for “procedural tricks” to let Harry Reid fund Obamacare, was joined by fellow DeMint loyalists Rand Paul and Utah Senator Mike Lee.
Back inside the Capitol, the anti-Cantor Plan forces already had their hashtag. “I do not support the #hocuspocusplan,” tweeted Rep. Justin Amash. First elected in 2010, Amash recently led the charge to defund the NSA’s surveillance of average Americans. He has a wide following on social media, which he uses to communicate directly with his constituents, explaining every vote he casts, in detail, on his Facebook page. Mostly, Amash votes no – including 136 times against the Republican Party line. He says he’s “voting [his] constituency.”
Thanks to the efforts of groups like DeMint’s to give it a top-down structure, the Tea Party is no longer a ragtag army. Regimented troops can now be marshaled to the barricades in minutes. The group even threatens to “recruit and fund a primary challenger” to House Rules Committee chairman Pete Sessions if he aids leadership. Sessions, who’s served in the House since 1997, has a lifetime score of 97% from the American Conservatives Union, but SCF labels him a “Texas RINO” – Republican in Name Only – adding, “We can’t sit back and let wishy-washy Republicans like Pete Sessions destroy our freedoms.”
A determined minority in the House today can command powers of obstruction far greater than even the filibuster in the Senate. The big, strategic votes in the House are party-line affairs. Leadership needs 218 supporters to even bring a vote to the floor. Less than 36 hours after it was announced, the Cantor Plan was dead. The following week, House leaders conceded to the demands of the defundistas. They put a continuing resolution vote on the floor that affirmatively defunded Obamacare, and the GOP House members passed it with 230 votes..
Americans are used to Republican-led houses running on near-martial discipline. “A couple of years ago, the speaker and majority leader, they had all the power,” said one conservative. “They don’t anymore.” The old Republican command-and-control structure ran on cash. “It was a patronage system,” said a GOP aide. “Raise money for the [campaign] committee, and get put on a good [House] committee that lets you squeeze lobbyists for more money.” Members with the greatest talent at raising cash could hope to be plucked from the back bench and placed on a leadership track. The current House leaders are all products of that old machine. But the system that made these men powerful has been disrupted. “They don’t have the same levers that previous leaders had,” said a GOP strategist, “to intimidate or coerce the conference to move in step.”
The irony is that the Republican Party brought the state of affairs on itself. Boehner gained the speaker’s gavel by agreeing to reforms that weakened the power of the office. In the aftermath of Tom DeLay’s criminal indictment in 2005 for laundering corporate cash to Texas campaigns (his conviction was overturned this fall), Boehner campaigned for minority leader as a reformer. In 2010, Speaker Boehner put teeth to his promises, banning pork-barrel projects in appropriations bills. The reform was logically consistent for a party that had made “wasteful Washington spending” its bête noire. But the speaker himself has bemoaned the loss of leverage on must-pass legislation. “It’s made my job a lot more difficult,” Boehner has said. “I’ve got no grease.”
Back in 2010, old-school Republicans, hungry to return to power, cheered on the Tea Party insurgency. But what was once seen as an electoral blessing is now understood as a governing curse. “Most of these Tea Party folks think that government is obscenely out of control and that the only way to get it back in line is to draw a hard line,” says the GOP strategist. In the past, pressure from the business community could force House hard-liners to embrace ideologically unpalatable compromises like the TARP bailout. But the sway of K Street and the Chamber of Commerce is much diminished among these radicals. “In the past, Boehner could call a lobbyist and say, ‘I need you to lean on this member,'” said a right-wing think tanker. That kind of pressure is counterproductive with new arrivals who got elected by denouncing lobbyists, business PACs and the D.C. establishment.
The partisan gerrymandering of 2012 locked in the Republican electoral gains of 2010. In redrawing congressional districts following the census, the GOP focused its efforts on protecting House incumbents, making their districts as red as possible. Last November, this redistricting effort produced a shocking subversion of representative democracy. In the popular vote, almost 1.4 million more Americans cast their votes for Democratic House candidates than voted for Republicans. But Republicans maintained a commanding majority in the House.
Today, the number of true swing districts in the House is vanishingly small. Only 17 Republicans won in districts that Barack Obama also carried. Meanwhile, the number of what elections-data savant Nate Silver calls “landslide districts” – districts that are 20-plus points more Republican than the nation at large – has swelled to 125, up from 92 just a decade ago. Members from these über-safe districts don’t fear the challenge posed by a mainstream Democrat in the general election – they dread a well-funded primary opponent running to their right. “You’ve got very small numbers of people who vote in GOP primaries,” said a Republican who served in the Reagan administration. “It doesn’t take very many of these Tea Party people to show up to find out you’re on your ass.”
To keep this threat fresh in members’ minds, the Club for Growth recently launched a campaign called “Primary My Congressman!” that seeks to oust centrist Republicans from safe seats – and replace them with the hardest of the hardcore. “The Club for Growth is a cancer on the Republican Party,” said Steve LaTourette, a recently retired moderate House Republican from Ohio. “The only thing that grows when the Club for Growth gets involved is the number of Democrats in office.”
Republicans were also ecstatic when the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision undermined the system of regulated campaign finance. But this boon to the wealthy donor class has become the bane of those trying to forge party unity. Now donors can microtarget the faction of Republicanism that suits them best. “There’s a difference between rich Republicans used to working through K Street and the guy who just sold his plumbing business and happens to be a total libertarian winger,” said the think-tank fellow. The rise of outside money has made a mockery of what used to be the leadership’s biggest stick: “If leadership says, ‘We’re not going to fund you if you don’t vote with us,’ the members laugh,” the strategist says. “‘Keep your $10,000. I’m going to take $200,000 from an outside group.’ Or better yet, ‘I’m going to start my own Super PAC and send out e-mails about how John Boehner is standing in the way of our shared values.'”
In the last election, for instance, John Ramsey, a 21-year-old Ron Paul fan from Texas, used money he inherited from his grandparents to create the Liberty for All Super PAC. He funded the winning campaign of libertarian Kentucky freshman Massie with more than $629,000 in independent expenditures. As a result, Massie – a gregarious, MIT-educated 42-year-old – is a party of one, free to buck GOP leadership. Indeed, in his very first week in office, Massie joined in the coup effort that nearly stripped Boehner of his speakership.
The chaos now roiling the House is, in many ways, a battle between the two most powerful GOP party bosses – Karl Rove and Jim DeMint. For Rove, the activists of the Republican base have always been useful rubes. Republicans in the Rove school campaign on wedge issues that rally grassroots Republicans to the polls. But once these politicians get to Washington, they shift to fight for the interests of the party’s financial backers. In the emerging party of DeMint, however, the base that Rove scorns is everything. Only the daily pressure of grassroots activists, DeMint believes, can force Republicans to deliver in Washington on the smallgovernment promises they make to their constituents back home.
These two schools of governing can’t, ultimately, be reconciled. The DeMint school believes in combat, and in turning every possible government choke point into a high-stakes confrontation: You win by standing on principle, refusing to yield and letting the chips fall where they may. As Cruz put it to activists in Dallas, “If you have an impasse, one side or the other has to blink. How do we win? Don’t blink.”
“The elites have different agendas than the rank and file,” says the former Reagan official. “Your average Tea Party people may be content to have gridlock forever, but the money people – the corporations, the lobbyists – they need stuff.” And people in that camp have a lot riding on John Boehner and Eric Cantor.
Boehner and Cantor have learned to speak the language of the Tea Party – the majority leader more fluently than the speaker – but their real job is to keep the old Republican-patronage machine humming. In their political bloodlines and in their donor networks, both Boehner and Cantor are deeply connected to the politics of Rove. Boehner’s signature accomplishment was steering George W. Bush’s education initiative No Child Left Behind to passage – a law that Needham decries as “a gargantuan federalization of education” and “an anathema to conservatives.” For his part, Cantor was a key member of the 2003 Tom DeLay whip team that twisted arms in an infamous all-night session required to pass the deficit-financed Medicare prescription-drug plan, a Rove-driven gift to Big Pharma and the most sweeping expansion of the program since the days of Lyndon Johnson.
Boehner is renowned as a “Chamber of Commerce Republican” – and the campaign-finance data are unambiguous: In the 2012 election cycle, Boehner was the House’s top recipient of campaign cash from 34 different industries, from hedge funds and investment firms to coal mining, studentloan companies, hospitals, nursing homes, and Big Tobacco. He was also the top recipient of campaign cash from lobbyists themselves, raking in $393,000 according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. In D.C., the speaker’s clubby network of staffers and lobbyists is known as “Boehnerland,” and its members include heavy hitters for Citigroup, UPS, Altria, AmEx, Akin Gump, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
Although he’s positioned himself as a kindred spirit of House insurgents, and has even joined the RSC, Cantor is even more deeply knitted into the Republican establishment than Boehner. His prodigious fundraising talents elevated him to the fast track in 2003, when he became chief deputy whip after just one term in Congress. Married to a former Goldman Sachs VP, he speaks the language of the investment class and is said to sell financiers on the “return on investment” of their political donations to the party. He’s been a fierce defender of the hedge-fund loophole that taxes the income of top investors at less than the rate of their secretaries, and over his career he’s raised more than $2.4 million from the investment community.
Though they used to bicker, Cantor and Boehner now agree on most policy, and share the same benefactor: the Cantor-affiliated Super PAC YG Action Fund received $5 million from casinos magnate Sheldon Adelson last cycle, the same amount that the Boehner-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund got.
New York Representative Peter King, one of the few centrists left in the House GOP, says of the struggle between the old and new guards, “This whole thing has become madness.” House radicals won’t pull themselves back from this brink, but if Boehner sidelines the Tea Party contingent and defuses the debt-ceiling crisis with the help of Nancy Pelosi and Democratic votes, it’s likely to be his last act as speaker.
The men who put this chaos in motion have admitted they don’t have a strategy for the endgame – they just wanted to put the ball in play. Speaking on September 19th, after the House had all but guaranteed a federal shutdown, Jordan invoked the coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots. “Even Belichick,” he said, “doesn’t script out the whole game.”
Tags: another example of a few people having a disproportionate effect, how Congress became so dysfunctional, the artificiality of the "debt ceiling", the Tea Party takes over the House of Representatives, why the US political system is unrepresentative