The GOP Shouldn’t Run a Fool’s Errand

Charlie Cook

With all of the talk among some Republicans in Congress about impeachment and shutting down the government to stop Obamacare or force entitlement-spending cuts, you’d think that they were living in another reality back in the 1990s. Republicans were pursuing similar missions then, and things didn’t work out so well for the GOP. For those in need of a quick history lesson, all you need to know is that Republicans managed to lose House seats in the midterm elections of 1998. It was the only time since World War II that the party in the White House (Democrats) gained seats in a second-term, midterm election. Talk about seizing defeat from the jaws of victory!

Obviously, the people and policy particulars are different now, but the similarities are obvious. At that time, the loathing of President Clinton was so great, the emotions were so high, and the belief was so firm that their cause was righteous that Republicans could not conceive their actions were ill-advised. Blind hatred is a dangerous thing.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that every Republican in Congress today advocates scorched-earth strategies and tactics. House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell don’t; not surprisingly, both men were in Congress during the 1990s. (Boehner was elected in 1990, McConnell in 1984.) They have experienced firsthand the danger of following the party’s right-wing base and congressional hotheads over a political cliff. Both leaders clearly take a less-than-favorable view of the more extreme GOP rhetoric today, but neither is quite in a position to make those feelings known and to publicly declare how stupid this talk is. Boehner lives on ice that’s not quite thick enough to support such boldness. McConnell, meanwhile, is threading a 2014 reelection needle in Kentucky: satisfying conservatives enough to avoid losing his primary to a tea-party opponent, but not veering too far right to jeopardize winning what is shaping up to be a tough general-election challenge.

Talking to Republicans around Capitol Hill these days is very interesting. Members of one group seem well aware that their brand is badly damaged and desperately needs rehabilitation. Maybe they noticed the Fox News poll in which “Republicans in Congress” scored approval ratings of 24 percent in March, and 23 percent in both June and August, with disapproval ratings of 69 percent, 67 percent, and 66 percent, respectively. (By comparison, the same Fox polling showed Democrats with bad, but not quite as horrible, numbers: 29 percent approval, 63 percent disapproval in March; and 32 percent approval, 60 percent disapproval in both the June and August polls.)

Republicans in the second group, however, seem oblivious to the fact that their party has a problem. The feeling among these members seems to be, “How can the Republican Party or Republicans in Congress have problems? I got elected (or reelected) easily.” Many don’t appear to realize they represent districts that Democrats are unlikely to win under any circumstances. They assume that because they got elected to the House of Representatives, their districts must be, more or less, representative of the country as a whole.

Unlike the second group, the first group gets the joke. These members fully understand their party has real problems with swing voters—more precisely, with self-identified moderates and young, female, and minority voters—and that these groups, taken together, represent an enormous majority of the electorate. Nationally, the GOP is underperforming among all of these groups. However, these head-in-the-sand Republicans fear that acknowledging the party’s electoral problems would incur the wrath of the GOP base, which considers such talk heretical.

The same toxic factors pervaded Washington in the years after the 1994 Republican wave election, culminating in the 1995-96 shutdowns of the federal government, the 1998 House impeachment of Clinton, and the ill-fated 1999 Senate impeachment trial. Republicans came out on the losing end of all of those catastrophes. Voters blamed them more than Democrats for the government shutdowns, and while the public didn’t think much of Clinton’s personal behavior, it wasn’t ready to throw him out of office.

That’s why these fiscal deadlines coming in October—the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1 with no spending bills enacted into law and the need to raise the debt ceiling sometime that month—are scary. I have no doubt that if you strapped Boehner and McConnell down, injected them with Sodium Pentothal, and administered a polygraph test asking whether the hard-line strategies proposed by GOP true believers make sense, each would say, “Of course not,” and pass with flying colors. (For the chemistry majors out there, I know the actual name is sodium thiopental.)

But it’s not clear at all whether these leaders, particularly Boehner, can persuade some of their, say, “exotic” members to take a more pragmatic approach and work toward getting the best deal they can. My hunch is that eventually we will come to a deal, but the country could weather some very interesting and potentially traumatic days, particularly in the financial markets, in the meantime. That is not a good thing when we have a fragile economy and a lame-duck chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Maybe we should all go back on vacation.