Were Mainstream Conservatives To Blame for the Shutdown?

The post-mortem of the McConnell-Reid deal to open the government and avoid a default has focused a lot on who is to blame on the Republican side. Many have laid the blame at Speaker Boehner’s feet – something I have pushed back against a number of times. House Republicans blame Senate Republicans. Senate Republicans blame Ted Cruz and Co. The Tea Party blames the establishment. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Bernstein has narrowed it down more, specifically focusing on mainstream House Republicans:

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the shutdown and debt-limit fiasco, but any account which focuses mainly on Boehner is probably letting both the moderates and the mainstream conservatives — in other words, most House Republicans — off far too easy.

Bernstein has named this group the ‘Fraidy Cat Conference:

These 175, too, are mostly paranoid about renomination, even if they want reporters to know that they’re not actually nuts. They’re the ones who drive what Boehner does. They’re the ones who have to bear the brunt of the responsibility for this shutdown. They’re the ones who are the ‘fraidy cat conference — so paranoid about renomination, and more broadly about allowing any distance to appear between themselves and the “conservatives” who they probably honestly have contempt for, that they’re willing to run their party right into a ditch.

The problem with this argument is that the ‘fraidy cat conference is right to be afraid. They have seen the power of the Tea Party and how tough primaries can be. They’re right to be paranoid about renomination.

This gets to a larger problem with diagnosing who is to blame for the shutdown. It’s important to look at the incentive structure for all of the actors involved.

Mainstream conservatives – the ‘fraidy cats – have an incentive to put as little distance as possible between themselves and the right wingers. Many are part of the “hope yes/vote no” conference that is glad the shutdown is over with and a clean CR passed, but couldn’t vote for the legislation themselves for fear of conservative blowback. I imagine that for many, this was an easy decision. Stick with the Tea Party through and through.

Like Boehner, these members had the power to end the shutdown anytime they wanted. Like Boehner, they had both individual and group incentives to keep the shutdown going until the 11th hour. Supporting the shutdown reduced the chances that these mainstream conservatives would face a primary challenge while also keeping the party unified. This point cannot be repeated enough: the GOP cannot allow a civil war to break out between the establishment and the Tea Party. It must do everything in its power to avoid that.

The reason that Boehner and the mainstream conservatives are incentivized towards making extreme demands and shutting down the government is because the Tea Party sets those incentives. The far-right members are the ones willing to jump ship from the Republican Party and commit political suicide. In doing so, they would take the Republican Party down with them. That gives them the power to set the framework of the House Republican strategy. If the Tea Party wants to fight, then Boehner and mainstream conservatives must listen. They have every incentive to do so. These are rational decisions.

The Tea Party is being irrational. They chose a strategy guaranteed to fail, forced their fellow Republicans to use those futile tactics, and caused needless suffering and economic harm. Their incentives are shaped not by outside forces, but by themselves. Yet, they decided on this radical plan to shut down the government if the president did not make drastic alterations to his greatest legislative achievement. It was bound to fail and blow up in their face. Yet, the Tea Party irrationally chose to take this route anyways.

Ultimately, they are the ones to blame.

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Take a Bow, Mr. Speaker

Speaker John Boehner
Speaker John Boehner

Last night, Congress passed the McConnell-Reid plan to reopen the government and avoid a default. It also includes an income verification requirement for Obamacare and sets up a bicameral committee that will attempt to come to a large budget deal by December 13th. In return for a 16 day government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship, Republicans received a cosmetic change in Obamacare that does nothing substantial.

It’s easy to look at that and lament the wasted time and needless suffering that was caused by it. It’s easy to wish that John Boehner had decided on September 30th to break the Hastert Rule and pass a clean continuing resolution and clean debt ceiling increase. It’s easy to look for blame and settle on the speaker. But it’s wrong.

It’s wrong, because it ignores the internal political dynamics that exists in the Republican House conference and it holds Boehner to a standard that no politician should be held to. If Boehner had brought to the floor a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill, he would’ve faced a revolt amongst his members. They would’ve lambasted him in the media and challenged his speakership. It would’ve been ugly.

But it wouldn’t end there. It would have created a deep fissure in the GOP. Anyone who voted for those bills would’ve faced a primary challenge. It would’ve pitted any conservative in favor of a quick retreat against those wanting to fight. The Tea Party would have gone to war against the establishment. It would eliminate any chance that the House could pass legislation until 2015. It would also put the Republican House majority in jeopardy. Imagine a year of Republican-on-Republican attacks, nasty primaries and voters choosing to stay home. This is what journalists are asking Boehner to do when they ask him to cut the Tea Party loose. They are asking him to tear his party in half.

For Boehner, this was never about defunding Obamacare or extracting policy concessions from the White House. He knew the first was never going to happen and the second was highly unlikely. The White House was looking to end debt-ceiling hostage taking and wasn’t going to negotiate. Boehner wasn’t going to let the U.S. default so he always knew he was going to surrender.

Instead, this was all about party unity. The longer Boehner postponed the day of surrender, the more he could keep his conference unified. The Tea Party can’t survive without the Republican Party and the Republican Party can’t survive without the Tea Party. Over time, the extreme tactics of the Tea Party may disappear as the political and policy consequences of their actions slowly build, but that take elections. It takes establishment candidates defeating Tea Party candidates in primaries. A Republican civil war reduces the power of both. It’s easy to see why liberals would love that outcome – it would give Democrats immense control of the legislative process. But it would be terrible for the Republican party.

This is political dynamic that John Boehner has to deal with. He must lead members that vary widely across the conservative political spectrum, who are overeager to make an impact and are willing to use extreme tactics to get what they want. He must deal with a newly invigorated grassroots base that attempts to undermine and replace him at every turn. And he faces all of this in a time when the speakership has fewer powers than ever before.

The past three weeks were his greatest challenge. He had to build up as much credibility with the Tea Party as he possibly could, knowing he would have no choice but to betray them in the end. That meant listening to them and letting them guide his actions. His strategy was to do whatever the Tea Party wanted. His moderate members were always going to support him and have his back when the debt ceiling vote came. The right-wingers were the ones he had to court.

After the deal last night, the results are in: His strategy was a huge success.

His members gave him a standing ovation during their conference meeting Wednesday – the same meeting where he announced that he was surrendering. One supporter of the #DefundObamacare movement said that Boehner’s speakership is “more secure than ever.” Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the most conservative members of the House, said he’s “really proud of Speaker Boehner.” Another hard-line conservative, Rep. Phil Gingrey, said yesterday “Speaker Boehner’s got more courage in his little finger than most of us do in our entire bodies.” These are the same members who would have challenged his speakership if he attempted to pass a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill.

This is Boehner’s greatest accomplishment. He kept his party unified in the face of overwhelming odds. The fact that they split on the vote yesterday is meaningless. The Republican House stands as one, even if it doesn’t always vote that way. Anyone who thinks this was an easy feat for the speaker hasn’t been watching the internal dynamics of the Republican conference. John Boehner has the toughest job in politics and he’s performed it masterfully.

Take a bow, Mr. Speaker.