Should it happen, a unilateral delay might make the Republicans’ behavior during the debt-ceiling debate look a touch more reasonable in hindsight, distilling the disorganization, desperation, and inconsistency of their inchoate push into one politically beneficial memory: “They really wanted to stop this, huh?” The inevitable election-season commercials painting Republicans as extremists prepared to shut down the government would be easily rebuffed, too, allowing those accused of resorting to desperate tactics to respond, “You’re damn right we did. Do you remember the disaster? Have you seen your premiums?” Extremis malis, extrema remedia, and all that.
Journalists and political commentators are correctly observing that, in all likelihood, Americans will be treated to another budget fight early next year. This time, if they are sensible, Republicans will be presented with a solid opportunity to block the president’s fiscal agenda — and to do so using his own tactics. All told, Democrats hate sequestration, and they remain desperate to raise its spending caps. Republicans, on the other hand, are generally much less worried about the law, and the tea-party contingent is the least bothered of all. This means that maintaining the status quo is considerably more appealing to conservatives than it is to progressives.
It also means that, early next year, the House can simply pass a “clean” debt-ceiling raise and a “clean” continuing resolution and then go on vacation — perhaps after raising a middle finger to Harry Reid on the way out of D.C. Meanwhile, John Boehner can go to the nearest microphone and, deliciously, parrot the president’s own message. “We have today passed clean bills to fund the government and to ensure that the country pays its bills,” Boehner can say. “We hope that the arsonists and terrorists in the Senate and the White House will not choose to manufacture a crisis during which they allow extremists to take the country hostage. If they do demand ransoms, we will not pay them.” “Sequestration,” Boehner can say, “is the law of the land — passed by Congress, and signed by the president.” And then he can drop the microphone and go golfing, secure in the knowledge that conservatives will keep spending caps at their current levels and that, a few months away from an important election, he has publicly dared Harry Reid and Barack Obama to attach a deeply unpopular spending increase to an unpopular increase in the debt ceiling.
And what of that important election? Well, it looks as if it is going to provide a real opportunity. Democrats are defending 21 Senate seats, a considerable number of which are in conservative-leaning and swing states. Meanwhile, 13 of the 14 seats that the GOP is looking to hold onto are in conservative-leaning states. Montana and South Dakota look likely to go Republican and, whatever national polls show, the shutdown does not appear to have significantly affected the close races in Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, or West Virginia. While the Democratic incumbents in those four states are all leading by slim margins, the Republican party is 12 points more popular than the Democratic party in West Virginia, ten points more popular in Alaska, four points more popular in Louisiana, and three points more popular in Arkansas. The sabermetrician Nate Silver predicted in July that “Senate control in 2014 increasingly looks like a tossup.” There is little evidence to suggest that this has changed. If conservatives can resist their usual habit of finding the least likeable candidates in all of America, they really do have a shot.
Counterintuitive as it might sound, the moment the shutdown ended, the horizon brightened for the Right. As a fellow radical, I understand the causes that impelled the hardliners: a crippling frustration with the ever-increasing size of government; disgust at the seeming inability of anybody to do anything concrete about the Obamacare train wreck; and a righteous irritation at an intransigent progressive movement whose philosophy appears to be that when the economy is good, well, there’s excess money to spend, and when things are bad, well, then we need to spend more. I also understand that irritation and frustration do not a strategy make.
One of the key insights of conservatism is that moral vehemence and actual political advancement are not synonymous. As Ronald Reagan argued in his famous 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech, “anytime you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we’re denounced as being against their humanitarian goals.” The intentions of the Right in the past 16 days were spot on. The scheme? Not so much. This can be a strong year for conservatism and its goals if conservatives will just think. Don’t blow it, guys.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.