The defunders convinced themselves, however, that those shutdowns had gone much better than any conservatives at the time had thought. In the months after those shutdowns, they observed accurately, Republicans enacted welfare reform and lost only a few House seats. Newt Gingrich, who led the Republicans at the time, has been happy to highlight that part of the record, since it puts what has generally been considered the low point of his career in a flattering light. What this retelling of the story leaves out is that the shutdowns ended conservatives’ political momentum and Republicans spent the next several years running away from the limited-government conservatism that was associated with the debacle.
Conservatives committed to defunding, finally, thought that the unpopularity of Obamacare would buoy them politically. Here they made a double miscalculation. While Obamacare is unpopular, the public is more wary of it than hostile to it (something that may change as it takes effect). And while some defunders claim that their campaign drew public attention to Obamacare’s deep flaws, the reverse is true: It at least temporarily drew attention away. The unpopular shutdown itself was bound to take precedence in the public mind over the unpopular law that had occasioned it. Besides tanking Republican poll numbers, the main effect of the shutdown ended up being a paid vacation for part of the federal work force.
Republicans — both those who were truly committed to the defunding strategy and those who felt compelled to go along with it — did make some smart tactical moves. They sent the Senate bills to reopen parts of the government and publicized the administration’s petty determination to make the shutdown unnecessarily painful. Shrewd tactics were unable, however, to rescue a flawed strategy.
The press covered the shutdown as a disaster for both the country and the Republican party. The damage in both cases was overstated. The shutdown did impose some harms on the country that should have been avoided, but most people’s lives do not depend on non-essential federal employees. Although two major polls showed the party’s image to be at a low ebb during the shutdown, the political damage may not be long-lasting.
Its legacy depends on what lessons conservatives draw from this episode. Its odd end does not augur well. The House Republicans punctuated their humiliation with a standing ovation for Speaker Boehner. They were not applauding him for trying, though failing, to keep a fractious caucus together and undamaged — a score on which we have some sympathy for the man. Instead they congratulated him for having “fought the good fight.” Objectively, all he had done was make it possible for legislation to pass over the “no” votes of most of his Republican colleagues so that they could claim to have nothing to do with it. It was applause for theoretical purity, regardless of legislative results.
The same impulse was on display at the start of the year. The tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush were about to expire, and taxes were going to rise on everyone. The parties were haggling over which of the tax cuts would be extended. Boehner tried to get the House to vote to renew the tax cuts for everyone making less than a million dollars a year. Many Republicans refused to back him because they did not wish to be seen as favoring tax increases for anyone — even tax increases they had not voted for and could do nothing to stop. The result of their decision was that taxes went up more, and on more people, than they might have otherwise.
The need for greater purity, the ever-present danger of betrayal: These have been long-standing themes on the right. When our people get power, they immediately stop being our people, the great conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans quipped decades ago. Yet this assessment of what ails conservatism has grown less and less true with time.
The Rockefeller Republicans who once ruled the party have long been vanquished. Today’s Republican party has a bolder plan to rein in our fastest-growing entitlement program, Medicare, than Ronald Reagan did, and that plan has the support of such establishment Republicans as John Boehner and Mitt Romney. What they don’t have are the votes to enact it. Today’s Republican party is more committed to confirming judicial conservatives and blocking judicial liberals than it has ever been. (Compare the confirmation votes on Robert Bork and Samuel Alito, or Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.) It just isn’t in a position to win those fights. Replace Mitch McConnell as Senate Republican leader with Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who led the defunding brigades, and that would still be true.