Some Republican donors, consultants, and lobbyists are deeply unhappy with the government shutdown and debt ceiling strategy being pursued by Tea Party-affiliated conservatives like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. Their fear—that it is damaging the Republican party and threatening the economy while having no hope of achieving its original goal of defunding Obamacare—is probably correct. But things are worse yet, for the tactical error of the Tea Party Republicans is only one such mistake made by Republicans in the aftermath of the disastrous 2012 election.
Both the Republican establishment and the Republican insurgents have responded to their defeat by doubling down on their illusions and pointing fingers at each other. What neither side seems able to acknowledge is that they need each other. Even together, the establishment and the insurgents are a minority (and a shrinking minority) of the country. The two sides need to agree on a program that subordinates their particular obsessions to the need to win over persuadable voters.
The political and intellectual errors of the Republican insurgents are more obtrusive at the moment. Senator Mike Lee introduced a family-friendly tax reform plan that would have cut taxes on working parents and improved the work incentives of parents below the earnings median (people who the establishment’s Mitt Romney referred to as parasites who would not take responsibility for their own lives). Lee and his colleague Ted Cruz then obliterated any chance for a sustained public discussion of this tax plan by their counterproductive shutdown strategy.
The combination of hysteria and grandiosity of the shutdown strategy can be seen in the rhetoric of Ted Cruz. Cruz argued that Obamacare had to be defunded by January 1, 2014 or people would become addicted to the “sugar” of Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies. Yet the idea that the public would become addicted to Obamacare was unlikely given Obamacare’s “sticker shock,” even with the subsidies.
But Cruz made an even bigger mistake as to public opinion. In his famous Obamacare speech, Cruz noted that the Senate was not “listening to the people” by refusing to defund Obamacare. Obamacare is indeed unpopular according to the opinion polls, but we should keep in mind some more facts about the people. The people gave President Obama an almost five million popular vote plurality. The people elected Democrats (or Democrat-aligned independents) to twenty-five of the thirty-three Senate seats contested in 2012. The people gave the Democrats a more than one million popular vote plurality in the House of Representatives even as district residency patterns gave the Republicans a House majority. While we are at it, the same “people” who disapprove of Obamacare also disapprove of Cruz’s shutdown strategy.
Ted Cruz’s strategy was to have “millions” of Americans rise up against Obamacare and intimidate Congress into voting to defund the law. Cruz’s strategy didn’t not take into account the intensity of that opposition. Many who had notionally opposed Obamacare voted for Obamacare-supporting politicians in the last election. They might be willing to trade up to a better law, but they were not willing to shut down the government over the issue. When Ted Cruz claimed to be standing up for the people in the Obamacare defunding fight, he sounded a bit like left-wing 1980s college students who would chant “The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated” even as Ronald Reagan won a landslide reelection.
The Republican establishment has better contacts within the mainstream media than Cruz and Lee, so the self-deceptions of the establishment are not as well known to a general audience. The establishment responded to the 2012 election by producing an autopsy with some interesting suggestions. The autopsy suggested that Republicans support “comprehensive immigration reform” and the Republican members of the Gang of Eight duly produced an immigration bill that would sharply increase low-skill immigration even though that is the opposite of what the majority of the public wants. That is a strange outreach strategy for a party that needs more rather than fewer votes.
The establishment’s autopsy also suggested that Republicans should be “inclusive and welcoming” on social issues. As if recent Republican presidential candidates have disdained the support of social liberal-leaning voters or made a point of discussing their social policy views to general audiences. The implication of the establishment’s autopsy was that while the establishment might have to accept candidates with conservative social policy views, those views should only to be articulated at Values Voters Summits that most people will never see and platform statements that most people will never read.
The autopsy curiously chose to leave out one important fact of the 2012 election. According to the 2012 exit poll, 53 percent of the voters felt that Republican (and establishment) presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s policies would primarily benefit the rich. This should hardly be a surprise given the Romney campaign’s tax plan that was oriented to benefitting high-earners, the Romney campaign’s constant references to the high-earners who “built that” and Romney’s famously expressed contempt for the 47 percent who did not have a net income tax liability (a comment that Romney made to an audience of wealthy donors).
The Republican establishment has not learned from the mistakes of 2012. In the course of shilling for the establishment’s goal of increased low-skill immigration, a Marco Rubio aide dismissed unemployed Americans as incompetents who “can’t cut it.” It takes willful blindness to think that the Republican party of 2012 emphasized the social issues. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan only discussed the social issues when asked. It was the Democrats who ran an aggressive social issues campaign, and it was the lack of a Republican social policy message that allowed them and their media allies to define the social policy debate as whether conception can result from rape.
The Republican establishment and Tea Party insurgents would do well to face certain realities. Mitt Romney did not lose because he talked too much about social issues. Rural working-class white voters did not stay home because Republicans would not shut down the federal government until President Obama conceded to the repeal of Obamacare.
Both the Republican establishment and Tea Party insurgents need to give up some of their priorities. The establishment needs to get over its lack of interest in the concerns of the middle-class, its contempt for struggling low-skill workers, and its refusal to recognize that the social issues extremism of the Democrats is an unexploited weakness of the opposition. The Tea Party insurgents need to understand that for many persuadables, it is not enough to oppose Obamacare and support spending cuts. Persuadable voters have legitimate concerns about health care coverage and stagnant wages. If conservatives cannot offer free market and limited government policies to address those concerns, then persuadable voters will continue to either stay home or vote for the Democrats. The good news is that conservative policy writers have produced an agenda to deal with the health care and wage concerns of persuadable Americans. To his great credit, Mike Lee adopted part of this middle-class and family-oriented conservative agenda. It is time Senator Lee went back to it, and it is overdue for the Republican establishment to join him.