Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The 'Fraidy Cat Conference

OK, all through this thing, and all day yesterday, I thought that a shutdown was relatively unlikely. Not impossible, but below 50/50.

Why? Because it was pretty obvious that only a small group of Congressional Republicans thought it was a good idea. To some extent because it really isn't a good idea for them; to some extent because everyone has massively overlearned the lessons of 1995-1996 (Sean Trende is the latest to look at the minimal electoral effects).

Indeed, Byron York reports that the true believers are somewhere around 30 to 60 House Republicans -- and, reporting last night, that "175 GOP lawmakers, are willing, and perhaps even eager, to vote" for a clean CR.

This kind of reporting pins the blame for the shutdown squarely on Speaker Boehner -- who, as Brian Beutler puts it, "is a powerful person with agency and a conscience." If in fact 175 House Republicans were actually eager to end this thing without a shutdown, and Boehner refused to bring it to the floor because he feared that the 30-60 would cost him his job, then the responsibility lies mainly with him (see also Greg Sargent's similar numbers).

But I just don't believe it.

Oh, I believe that the bulk of the Republican conference thinks this shutdown is stupid strategy.

But "eager" to vote for a clean CR? Look, if the bulk of the conference wanted a clean CR and Boehner was resisting it because of fears about his job, then he's the stupidest man in the world...because no one keeps that chair for long if 175 of 233 disagree with a major decision like this. Yes, technically a handful of Republican defectors can prevent Boehner's re-election on opening day of the next Congress...but in reality there's not much they can do if the rest of the conference is happy with the Speaker. Just empty, noisy, protest. But if 175 think that Boehner is betraying them by not letting them vote on something they're "eager" to do, then they'll defeat him in the conference after the 2014 election -- or, more realistically, ask him to resign immediately and replace him with someone who will do what they want.

They aren't "eager" to end this thing with their own votes. They're eager, perhaps, for the whole thing to go away. But they aren't eager, and very well may not have been willing, to vote against the crazies.

Which we know, because when they had the chance they didn't do it. At any point along the way, those 175 Republicans could have simply voted no -- on the rule, on the amendments offered on Saturday night, on final passage to any of their offers to the Senate. I'm sorry to keep hitting on this same point, but in this matter the truth is that for all we can say about the Speaker being responsible for his own actions, it's more to the point that each individual Member of the House is responsible for his or her own actions. The Speaker is elected by Republicans to do what they want -- and as far as I'm concerned he's probably doing just that.

Oh -- it's not just their votes. It's also the reporting of what's happened in GOP conference meetings, and generally what people, York included, are reporting. There's been plenty of reports that "conservatives" are about to walk away from various potential CR offers, but virtually nothing about mainstream conservatives being unhappy with how Boehner is handling things. Because, most likely, they are not unhappy. He's doing what they want.

What it comes down to is that while York counts about 30 true believers and another 20-30 who might be willing to deal except for their fear of a primary, and then 175 or more who are "willing" or "eager" to vote for a clean CR, I see a very different math. I see 30 true believers; another 20-30 who are so paranoid about primaries that they are externally no different from the true believers, and than another 150 to 175 who are "willing" or "eager" to make it known to smart reporters that they aren't really crazy at all and are perfectly aware of how self-destructive this strategy is for their party...but almost in all cases without their names attached, and without any action to back that up. Which leaves somewhere below 20 who are actually willing to end this thing.

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.

Perhaps the Speaker could have given this group a more forceful shove. Perhaps he could have reminded them that this thing eventually ends with a GOP surrender, and so they might as well get it over with now. Perhaps it's his responsibility to force the issue by bringing up the clean CR, even if they didn't want him to. I'm not disagreeing with any of that, and certainly not the first two of those.

But the main responsibility here is the bulk of the Republican conference. Not the guy acting on their behalf.


  1. Or the adminstration could throw Boehner a bone and rip up the memos that force a shutdown. Just keep the goverment open.

    1. Wouldn't that cause a constitutional crisis?

      Plus, it'd be horrible politics, handing over the talking point "See, the Democrats won't stop spending even if we vote in Congress to stop them!" Why must Obama take the hit to save the GOP from their own crazy? That's a totally unreasonable expectation. However, with the debt limit, this might be his best option.

    2. No, it would just go back to the pre 1980s.

      I mean, the R could then try and impeach Obama or various other executives, but good luck on that.

      Everybody loves a crisis. Great fundraising. Christmas in October.

    3. Maybe Boehner should throw Obama a bone and fund the government. If House Republicans want to fund the government, they can do that in a way that doesn't involve provoking a constitutional crisis.

    4. @charlie

      That truly would be throwing Boehner a bone. Doing him a solid. A huge favor. That's why it will never happen.

      The main problem, as theBitterFig intimates, is that the debt ceiling issue would still be there for the GOP to use as a tool of extortion.

      What the Dems need to do now is to give the GOP a taste of its own medicine - refuse to pass a clean CR that does not also get rid of the debt ceiling issue (either by abolishing it, or, more likely, by giving the President unilateral authority to increase it).

      At this point, people are going to blame who they will blame for the shutdown - it's locked in. Further shenanigans, by either side, will do nothing to change the dynamic. If a few weeks of shutdown is the price to be paid to finally end this recurring fabricated crisis, that would be a satisfactory outcome for the Dems and Obama, I think.

  2. You say that the 'fraidy cat conference is "willing to run their party into a ditch" yet earlier in the post seemingly endorse the idea that a shutdown would likely have "minimal electoral effects." If electoral effects would be minimal, in what sense would this behavior risk running the party into a ditch?

    You say that "to some extent" "it really isn't a good idea for them" so perhaps you have in mind some other (non-electoral) negative effects. But the way you put it there doesn't make these other effects sound too worrisome (from the party's perspective at least). Put this way, it seems more like the risk is of getting a flat tire than of running into a ditch.

    1. Don't wanna speak for JB, but there's a difference between the electoral risks to any particular member and the risks to the party as a whole (indeed, that's the center of the Republican Party's problem right now). At least in 2014, individual members are mostly safe; the electorate will be favorable to them, they have well-drawn districts, etc. But the party as a whole may be at risk, which won't really come up until there's broader (statewide or national) elections in 2016.

    2. Thanks for clarifying, Colby- that makes sense. I guess I was assuming that the claim about electoral effects applied at all levels, probably (in part) cos I had in mind the rule of thumb that general election results tend to follow economic indicators. That makes me wonder: is there evidence that this kind of behavior grounds an exception to that rule? Or, if not, is it just that the behavior is so egregious that it's reasonable to expect negative general election effects nonetheless?
      I'm behind (or forgetful) in my JB (and other) blog reading so I've probably missed what he (or others) would likely say about that. Time to catch up.

  3. Nailed it, JB. There may be only 20-30 "true believers"... but if the other 200 are too scared of being primaried to push through a clean CR, then they are also "true believers" for all intents and purposes.

    The bottom line is that every single GOP member of congress (other than the two NYC RINOs, King and Grimm) thinks a shutdown is in their personal (read: electoral) best interest.

    Now, only their constituents can prove them wrong.

    1. Not exactly true. There are other party players besides their constituents, and part of the Democratic strategy is to "hope" that these players will step up. Groups that provide support to military bases will not get their pay; nor will defense contractors; financial types might get nervous if the markets start tanking; bankers, etc.

  4. Yeah, it's pretty obvious that the majority of the House Republican caucus:

    1. Isn't crazy enough to think this will work


    2. Doesn't want their voters to know that they aren't completely insane.

    Perhaps they're planning on a cave after a few days because they hope that this will prove to their voters that they really were willing to fight.

    Of course, no matter how long they hold out before giving up, the crazy caucus will say that if they held out just a little longer Obama would have completely surrendered.

  5. What's the final vote look like?

    Do the moderates vote present, or otherwise absent themselves so the Dems can provide enough votes to pass it? Do they pass it on voice vote?

    What is the path out of this for the 'fraidy cats that doesn't involve that painful vote?

  6. Look like all those times you insisted the republicans weren't actually evil have come back to bite you.

    Meanwhile, just over 2 weeks until default.

  7. It's important too that the "fraidy cat conference" hasn't managed to get together amongst themselves and with major conservative media outlets to quietly organize more vigorous messaging efforts to shape their base's sense of the possible and rally less tactically extreme Republicans. That's the sort of thing that the GOP politicians alongside other significant party actors used to be much better at, even when they didn't have the presidency to serve the "pope" function. Now it's ridiculous: Demint's Heritage Action, Ted Cruz, and Michelle Malkin-types are managing to drive the party's tactical and strategic agenda.

  8. So far this is playing out as I thought it would. But I still have no idea of what happens after this week. JB makes a convincing case that ALL the Republicans in the House are responsible, but the Speaker surely is as well. Given the stakes, the debt ceiling and the always present possibility of something else major happening while these guys are playing their insane games, this could soon be approaching a Constitutional crisis.

  9. An interesting perspective, but another dynamic is entirely possible, if not probable: the Not-So-Crazy Caucus is accustomed to toeing the line, even if its members may grumble about it to reporters.

    According to some reporting, when a group of about 25 of them agreed to vote against Plan C or D or whatever Monday night, Boehner went back & talked all but two of them out of it. He said he knew what he was doing, & the Not-So-Crazies took him at his word & voted as he wished. It's what they do. They're conservatives, you know. They don't like to go out on a limb.

    This bit of evidence suggests that Boehner is a leader in fact as well as in name. He is leading these malleable guys around by the nose.

    Whatever the actual dynamic, Boehner's refusal to allow the House to vote for a clean CR is unconscionable.

    The Constant Weader @ www.RealityChex.com

    1. Do you have a source on Boehner talking them down?


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