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Posted by on Oct 18, 2013 in Featured, Politics | 1 comment

Lessons Learned

Bob Englehart, The Hartford Courant

Bob Englehart, The Hartford Courant

Even as Senator Ted Cruz warns ominously (In my mind, he says these things as he twirls his moustache and leans carelessly against a host of barrels stacked neatly on a set of train tracks. There might even be rolling sage brush) that he’s not above shutting the government down again in his quest to slay the mighty Obamacare beast, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the eleventh hour engineers of the compromise that prevented disaster, promises no new shutdowns.

Indeed one of the prevailing narratives coming out of the near miss is that after shutting down the government for weeks, and nearly creating a fiscal black hole that threatened to suck in nations across the globe, all the GOP got was… well… nothing. There were a few minor “fig leaf” concessions (I love that phrase, can’t remember where I read it from, but you are NOT taking it away from me, so there!), but the Affordable Care Act remains largely untouched. In truth, the GOP didn’t get nothing, they got something all right, but they don’t really want what they got.

What did the GOP get? Disapproval. Heaps of the stuff. So much so that there are now some rumblings about Democrats being able to retake the house next year, where prior to the standoff such a turn around was highly improbable. Gallup has shown that the current Republican party is the single most unfavorable party since the advent of the poll, while other polling has shown that America’s view of the Tea Party has plummeted.

As it turns out, whether Americans like or dislike the Affordable Care Act, they clearly did not like the idea of shutting down the federal government, nor did they warm to the idea of a fiscal apocalypse. Another revelation (though not much of one for those who pay attention to the man himself and not the charicature painted of him by right wing opinion outlets) is that Mr. Obama is not a push over.

There were plenty of lessons to be learned from this fiasco, but the question is, did the Republican party really learn any of them? Will there be a reasonable budget worked out by mid December, or will we, again find ourselves in the very same situation early next year?

One would like to believe Senator McConnell when he promises we won’t revisit the shutdown again. It appears that a lot of what I have come to view as the Old Guard of the Republican party hold this view. Key people like John McCain and Lindsey Graham have gone on record with uncharacteristic humility to admit that the GOP really screwed this one up, meanwhile there are hints at a civil war within the party brewing as more moderate (or at least traditional) Republicans find themselves at odds with this freshman class of congressmen.

Never mind savvy Republican governors like Chris Christie who have gone a long way to distance themselves from their fellow party members in DC.

But this is what I have always found scary about this entire mess. The shutdown wasn’t good politics to begin with. It never was. If we’re being honest, Newt Gingrich (who, in a fit of irony that borders on self-parody, was one of the louder voices in the chorus cheering for the shut down) tested the shutdown theory with disastrous results when his crucade against then President Clinton pretty much evaporated his career as a legislator.

It was bad politics from the start. Polling showed that regardless of American opinion of the Affordable Care Act, Americans did not want to see the government shutdown over it. Polling also showed that Republicans would shoulder a great deal of the blame if a shutdown happened. We even know Republicans knew this as through much of the shutdown, the messaging coming from the House GOP was carefully crafted to shift as much blame as possible to the president.

Even the approval numbers on the Affordable Care Act weren’t right. The Affordable Care Act is not a popular law, however conservative critics have put a lot of effort into inflating the law’s lack of popularity. A quick look at the aggregate of polls taken regarding the law gives us a better understanding.

Currently, the spread on the ACA is a negative ten and a half points, including a couple of big outliers (one of which, not surprisingly, is from Fox news). Without the outliers the gap is about eight points, without, and this is important, without the unfavorables creeping over the fifty percent mark. Even at its most unpopular the ACA suffered a deficit in the low teens, and that only briefly.

There’s even more to this story, though. As I mentioned, very rarely does polling show that a majority of Americans disapprove of the ACA, and when it does, it is only barely above fifty percent. This might lead one to believe that the American people want the law scrapped, but there are two things to consider.

The first is that those who don’t support the ACA are not unified in ideology or justicifcation. Let’s remember that the ACA was fairly unpopular among liberals, but for considerably different reasons than those of conservatives. Liberals felt that the law did not bring us close enough to a true universal healthcare system. It is reasonable to expect that most of these people would not ally themselves with the Tea Party contingent to defeat the law.

The other thing to consider is that this approval deficit comes after a major national push from conservatives specifically designed to drive down the approval of Obamacare (note, the very term Obamacare is itself part of that push, modeled after the successful negative opinion blitz of Hillary Clinton’s attempt at universal care, then named Hillarycare). You may say to yourself that the mission was accomplished then, and you would be right. Sort of. But the thing is, there is a huge difference between reading the bill and disagreeing with it on a visceral level, and deciding it’s a bad bill because a lot of other people seem really upset about it. The former will of course champion extreme measures to kill the bill, the latter, however, won’t.

So while a ten point gap may seem to suggest a positive environment to take extraordinary measures to undo the law, the story behind the numbers is a little bit different. And the thing is, any half way decent political analyst should know this. There should not have been a single congressman on the hill that has served more than two or three terms that didn’t look at all of this data and say, “Shutdown? Oh no, thanks, but I like my job.” It should have never gotten that far at all.

But it did.

There are two very different composits of Mr. Boehner developing in the aftermath of this nonsense. In one, he is a shrewd Speaker that has given much of his caucus the political cover they needed to avoid being primaried, while at the same time avoiding all out doom in DC. The other (and more realistic) portrait is one of a weak leader, unable to keep his troops in formation, and had his hand forced by a league of extremist newcomers.

Whatever the case, there is a cadre of young Republicans in the House from safe districts that were willing to drive the rest of the country over the brink. They didn’t have to worry about losing their seat to a Democratic candidate, nor did they really have to worry about being primaried. This group was able to strong arm the rest of the caucus who were worried about being challenged for their seat, not by Democrats, but from even more conservative Republicans in bloody primaries.

So the question still remains; have the political lessons from this been learned? Are we safe for the time being, or are we destined to repeat history in a few short months?

For the Tea Party Republicans, I feel safe in saying they haven’t learned a thing. These are congressmen who have actually said things like letting America default on its debt will actually stabilize the global economy (to be fair, this is kind of true. Global markets will stabilize after a default… they will stabilize somewhere in a cheap, dusty cellar a few levels lower than purgatory). Again, these congressmen are not likely to go anywhere as they were sent here from districts that are incredibly safe.

For the rest of the party, I just don’t know. Old hands like McCain, Graham, and even McConnell of all people tried to pound some reason into the rest of their party towards the end, but it is unclear if enough people listened. I don’t see moderate Republicans, or Republicans from less homogenous districts being quite so eager to follow the zealots off of a cliff, but as we see here, they shouldn’t have been from the beginning.

One can only hope that the saner Republicans in DC have learned something from this. Failing that, perhaps our last hope is for an electorate next year to learn where their elected representatives did not.