The ugliness of the GOP schism will probably have a long half life, as various parties feel the need to point fingers and shout “I didn’t do it!” But if at all possible, I think conservatives and Republicans would be well-served by putting these disagreements behind us, like family fights at a Thanksgiving table that are best forgotten. If this were a very special episode of a 1980s TV show, we could resolve all of this with a simple break-dancing competition. But as that is not a viable option at this juncture, neither is any other emotionally or intellectually satisfying settlement to this argument. Last night on Twitter, I got into a wholly civil disagreement with our friend Hugh Hewitt who, I gather, sees Ted Cruz as the unalloyed and blameless hero in this drama. He says:
The House leadership spent the summer silent, and arrived without a plan or a message. Cruz filled the void they created.
Question set for Cruz critics: 1. Is Obamacare as bad as he said it was? 2. Does public understand that more or less now?
I agree with much of that, and my answers to the two questions are “Yes” and “Yes.” But these strike me as silver-lining rationalizations. The core promise of Ted Cruz and Mike Lee wasn’t “We’re going to fill the leadership vacuum in a branch of Congress we weren’t elected to!” Nor was it, “We will educate the public on how bad Obamacare is!” Their core promise was that they were going to defund Obamacare (without needing Democratic votes!) and that their legislative brinksmanship was worth the risks because after October 1, there was no chance of getting rid of it. I bring this up not to relitigate the fight, but to be simply honest about where I am coming from.
But here’s the thing: Hugh may be right. Perhaps raising awareness about Obamacare alone was worth it. I certainly think the prognostications of GOP doom are almost as overblown as the Beltway hysteria over the government shutdown was in the first place. So maybe hammering home the message that the GOP is foursquare against Obamacare — and that Obamacare is a disaster — is a sufficiently valuable long-term message that it was worth going through all of this. Or he may be wrong. Obviously I have my hunches.
But here’s the important point: It’s all unknowable, certainly in the short term and probably in the long term as well. If the Obamacare program crashes as badly as its website has, public outrage will be sufficiently broad and deep that Republicans will benefit enormously from being able to say “We told you so!” How much of that benefit will be thanks to Cruz & Co. simply can’t be quantified. I would bet that the shutdown plays a relatively minor role in the 2014 and 2016 elections. But even if the shutdown plays a big role, that would be all the more reason for Republicans to find the best and most unifying way to talk about it. Endless internecine screaming about what went wrong is exactly what Obama wanted out of this. Why give it to him if it won’t produce anything worthwhile? As an intellectual or historical question, I think it’s a great thing to debate. As a political touchstone, it’s poisonous.
The House will likely vote on whatever crap sandwich (to borrow a phrase from Speaker Boehner) the Senate sends over and it will probably pass with more Democratic votes than Republican ones. And then this chapter will be over. After which, the wise course would be to say, “What happened happened” and move on to finding a coherent strategy everyone on the right can more or less get behind. An argument based entirely on the phrase “Well, if you listened to me” — as Ben Howe rightly puts it here – would be entirely unproductive.
Of course, this is one of those areas where the self-interest of individuals, groups, and factions may be at odds with the collective interests of the Republican party or the conservative movement. Politicians need to justify themselves to their constituents. Interest groups need to get right with their donors and keep the money coming. Nobody wants to be the one left standing when blame is passed around. More important, a lot of people are just really pissed off and really worried about not just the party but the country. When emotions run that high, lashing out is only natural. What happens next matters a lot; what just happened may matter as a historical question. But as for the political question of who is to blame, maybe the best course would be to repeat after me, “It just doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter.”