Written by Mary Buffett
Now that pundits have moved beyond the recent government shutdown, there are some lessons that can be learned so we don’t go through this again—or at least for another generation. In these 16 days of governmental confusion and mixed signals, we have managed to create a number of self-inflicted wounds that both time and short memories might heal.
Aside from the laughable Zimbabwean columnist who wondered if the United States should now be considered a failed state, serious questions emerged from equally serious voices whether or not the Chinese Renminbi (Yuan) should replace the American Dollar as the global or perhaps the regional standard for South East Asia. Irrespective of the Chinese economic juggernaut, there are those who feel that the currency valuation is kept artificially low in order to drive greater exports. Until that perception is gone, the US dollar should remain safe as the global standard; however, the current shutdown has exposed some new cracks in our armor.
Five years into his presidency, Barack Obama gained a backbone. He finally shed the mantle of a politician who was more than willing to bend over backwards, undercut his legislative program, and give away the store in order to say that his programs were bipartisan. By simply saying “no,” Obama showed that he could silence the toughest of congressional bullies and that is the kind of leadership that resonates with the American people. In many respects, The Tea Party gave President Obama a valuable gift—an unreasonable opponent who made the President look Presidential.
Government shutdowns are like an exploding cigar. A past government shutdown was something that undid Newt Gingrich in the mid 1990’s but Bill Clinton used it to strengthen his position in the run-up to the 1996 elections. Gingrich wanted to take a major bite out of Medicare and other entitlement programs. Two years later, Gingrich was ushered into retirement by members of his own party.
I’m still unsure how Republicans felt that they could win. This was always a “Hail Mary” play opposed by many supporters within their own party. Perhaps they hoped Obama would simply cave, like he did when it came to extending the George W. Bush tax cuts. This time, he was resolute. People might be suspicious of the motives and actions of our government. They might feel uneasy about our federal largesse or our ability to snoop into the lives of others. However, holding governmental programs hostage only gets people upset. While Medicare and other programs might have been exempt this time around, this was still a resounding failure for Republicans, no matter how Ted Cruz attempts to spin his logic. In these situations, even a tie goes to the President but this time, he won hands down.
Since 1980, each new generation of the Republican Party has gotten more conservative than the next. Looking back today, Tea Partiers must find people like Senator Charles Grassley and others like squishy liberals. The difference between now and then is that there was no Fox or conservative talk radio hosts like Rush to serve up talking points to movement conservatives. Social conservatives were still a nascent force in American politics back then, so much so that Pat Robertson even supported Jimmy Carter in 1976.
However, those who yell the loudest or sound the most obnoxious get the lion’s share of today’s airtime. There was time when Pat Buchanan sounded—well, dangerous. Today, he is part of the fading mainstream and has been eclipsed by others, like Michelle Makin or Anne Coulter, whose scathing pronouncements can own the airwaves for an entire news cycle. When you add the goofy congressional trio of Michelle Bachmann, Louis Gohmert, and Steve King into the mix, they become the voice of the current Republican Party.
Back in 1980, these were the people who voted Republican, but were kept at the kiddie table, far away from the real levers of power. However, they have now risen into places of great prominence and the former Reagan Republicans, who ran things, have either retired or have been put out to pasture. Absurdist Theater like having a Tea Party gun rally in Dealey Plaza, where President Kennedy was gunned down a half century ago might excite a certain narrow minority but it offends the rest of us. Suggesting that teachers should wander around schools armed accomplishes the same.
However, Republican Tea Party overreach is a gift to Democrats. In 2010, as Tea Party Republicans were beating mainstream conservatives in primary battles, they became easier candidates for Democrats to beat in the general elections. Senators Harry Reid of Nevada, Chris Coons of Delaware, and Michael Bennet of Colorado owe their political survival to outlandish Tea Party candidates. They won when they would have normally lost against mainstream Republicans and that would have turned the Senate upside down.
By pushing the Republican Party further to the right, it opens up the political center for moderate Democrats to win in historically conservative states like Virginia, where Terry McAuliffe is slated to beat Ken Cuccinelli by 6 to 7 points. This means that Democrats gains are increasing in Border States, which is a big turnaround from a generation earlier.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Democrats faced this problem too. The Anti-War crowd forced Democratic candidates to embrace The New Left and they started losing national elections. I am proud that we embraced Civil Rights, the Woman’s Movement, and many of the changes that came into the Democratic Party as it went through its own transition, but it was painful to lose presidential elections that Democrats should have easily won.
However, the difference is telling. Members of The New Left cut their hair, entered the workforce, and built families and careers. They found themselves dealing with a number of middle class issues faced by their parents and returned to the political center. With members of the Tea Party, they have done all of these things but show no signs of returning to the political center anytime soon.
For Republicans, as long as talk radio and basic cable drives the partisan narrative, you will see more of what we experienced in these past weeks. This means more threats of shutdowns, more mayhem over the debt limit, and a more obstructive approach to governing.
For Democrats, on the other hand, it means more winning elections.