Roving thoughts and provocations

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The New Battle for Congress

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Senator Ted Cruz, Arlington, Texas, October 22, 2013; Senator Mitch McConnell, Washington D.C., September 24, 2013

Of late there’s been a rash of stories proclaiming that, given the public’s negative reaction to the Republicans’ foolhardy blundering, led by the Tea Party, into a government shutdown, the Democrats now have a chance of taking back the House of Representatives. Injecting a note of caution, the political analyst Charlie Cook warns that “People are getting a little over their skis” and puts the possibility of a Democratic takeover at this point at 10 to 15 percent. A month ago most analysts would have dismissed the idea altogether. So, Cook says, the fact that it’s even conceivable is a big change.

A common flaw in political analysis is the tendency to think stasis: projecting from the moment, as if nothing will change. But elections are predictably unpredictable, especially when a large number of contests are involved. A “wave”—in which one party sweeps an election—isn’t the usual, and it has become less so. The excited headlines, pumping up a possibility into the likely in order to draw readers’ attention are something entirely apart from analysis. The polls showing an abysmally low approval rating for the Republican party are of little portent in regard to what may happen on November 4, 2014. By the time of the midterms the shutdown will have happened over a year before. Projections from point don’t allow for the possibility—actually the strong likelihood—that other events will occur before an election that could also affect it, perhaps in an entirely different way.

What kind of event can galvanize Americans to vote in defining numbers is becoming if anything more unpredictable. A bill passes that energizes people, led by cynical forces, against it. Thus emerges what appears to be a spontaneous grass-roots movement made up of a large segment of essentially uninformed voters who have been convinced of the horror stories they’ve been told—by people whose motives have little or nothing to do with that bill. And all of this results in the transformation of American politics. (Or so it seems.) Can such a “movement” last for four years?

To get to a majority in the House, the Democrats have to win a net gain of seventeen seats. As of October 22, the Cook Political Report rated forty-three districts as competitive between the two parties, and in order to win the House back, Democrats had to win forty-one of those forty-three. This is a daunting prospect but the numbers keep changing; a little over a month ago, it was widely believed that thirty-five seats were in play. Starting recently, the Cook Report has been updating its projections every couple of days as events occur in the districts: an incumbent retires, a promising candidate is recruited. More Democratic than Republican seats are at risk for various reasons, including that Democrats picked up net seats from Republicans in 2012 in what are by definition competitive districts; also, there are some Democrats whom Republicans have believed to be vulnerable for some time because they’re in essentially Republican districts. Still, the overall number of seats in play is unusually low—thanks to determined redistricting, especially by the Republicans, following their triumph in 2010. (In the past it’s been as high as a hundred or so.) In the Senate, as of now, Democrats have more seats at risk than do the Republicans, who with a net gain of six seats could take over. They may well, but at least as interesting as which party ends up controlling what is the question of whether the Republican lurch to the right will get a pushback.

For the Democrats to take back the House, another series of events would probably have to occur: the unexpected recent retirement of Republican Tim Griffin of Arkansas, for example, created a competitive district, but Cook says that the Democrats would need about a half dozen more such retirements. Next, the Democrats need strong candidates to run for the possibly winnable Republican seats. Before the shutdown, there were not that many Democratic candidates with sufficiently impressive credentials who were willing to run; now some are giving off signals that they’ll sign up. Finally, it’s said around town, sotto voce, that the Democrats could use another shutdown or two—or some other colossal mistakes by the Republicans. But the Democrats have to be discreet and not look gleeful about a situation that’s harmful to the country. Nevertheless, during the shutdown, some White House aides couldn’t resist crowing to reporters that the situation was working to the President’s benefit.

Another way the midterms could loosen the grip of the Tea Party on the House would be through challenges to it from within the Republican Party. Most members on the far right reflect the views of their constituents. But there are some districts where a primary challenge to a highly conservative Republican might be successfully mounted from someone “to the left,” what in Republican politics means an “establishment” candidate: not a liberal, not even a moderate in the old nearly liberal sense, but a John Boehner kind of Republican—a Conservative who is realistic and responsible. Whether such candidates can stir up the same intensity as their far-right counterparts is a real question. One way to curb the recent trend of sitting Republicans, often conservatives themselves, being knocked off by the far right is to put a stop to having the nominating take place in state conventions. Conventions are conducive to being rigged by the most ideological forces. The embarrassing Republican ticket for this November’s election in Virginia was chosen in a state convention rather than the usual primary.

But the most potentially effective way for Republicans to be rescued from fearing the far right is to stop fearing the far right. The forty Tea Party members in the House managed to paralyze much of the federal government because enough other Republicans gave way to their fear of being “primaried” by the far right in the next election. These “mainstream” Republicans tend to transform prematurely a possibility into a fact. To be sure, they were receiving threats—in the form of robocalls, television ads, or at town meetings—from far right outside groups, in particular the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, the Heritage Foundation’s overtly political adjunct, which reports to former Senator Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, who left the Senate in January to lead the foundation. DeMint’s judgment had been in question since he led the failed effort to back embarrassing Tea Party candidates for the Senate in 2010 and 2012, which collectively blew the opportunity for the Republicans to control six additional seats—and gain a majority. Most politicians are pragmatic in the end. The Tea Party determination to hold the government hostage until it got its way suffered from the ultimate flaw: it didn’t work.

Ted Cruz, the Texas Senator who led the Tea Party insurgency, was aware all along that his strategy was substantively and logistically off-base. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told him last July that it would never work to tie the ending of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” to a resolution to continue to fund the government. The Republicans didn’t have the two-thirds majority they needed in the Senate and the House to override the inevitable presidential veto. “It was a matter of simple math,” a Senate leadership aide told me. Moreover, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a true fiscal conservative, explained again and again to fellow Republicans in their regular Tuesday lunches that it wasn’t in the Congress’s power to “defund” Obamacare. The new health care act is an entitlement and therefore spending for it is mandatory. This basic truth was said over and over. Cruz, no dope, couldn’t have missed it. But he had other purposes: he was using Obamacare, the issue that the far right is most passionate about, the one that the Republicans had ridden to triumph in 2010, to raise money for the far right and to enhance his stature within the movement—and in the presidential nominating process in which it’s influence is disproportionate. The unlikelihood of a candidate from the right fringe winning the presidency was of no interest to Cruz: he had defied odds before, and anyway, what a ride it would be.

The idea among many Republicans that Obama might fold and agree to a compromise in order to keep the government functioning wasn’t without foundation: he had done so in the past, in the process falling into the Republicans’ austerity trap; and he had either failed to get a deal or proved himself a poorer negotiator than House Speaker John Boehner, who in one round of bidding took him to the cleaners. But when Obama indicated this fall during the weeks before the shutdown he might again try to seek the elusive “Grand Bargain,” the much underestimated, wiry-tough Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid firmly told the president, “Nothing doing.” Reid believed that the President had been too pliable in the past and he objected to the Democrats being bullied into negotiating under threat of a shutdown. If they gave way now, there’d be no end to it. Obama consented and adopted this argument; White House aides said he was protecting future presidents. Reid later told Sam Stein of The Huffington Post, “The time had ended to be taken in by these crazy people.” It may be that at this point the deepest differences between the two parties—over taxes and entitlements and the role of government—aren’t negotiable.

The disregard for history and facts by Cruz and some of his followers began to shake business groups out of their complacency about the Republican Party. Loony disquisitions by some Tea Party members that there was nothing to be concerned about if the debt ceiling was breached woke up some of these people from the reverie that all was well as long as there was a Republican party to block tax increases, kill regulations, and help them toward their longtime goal of shedding their obligations under entitlement programs. It took business people a while to recognize the dangers toward which the party was drifting—dangers that affected them directly if the country were to declare bankruptcy.

That Cruz’s campaign against “Obamacare” had nothing to do with Obamacare apparently didn’t penetrate the minds of his followers. In mid-October, during the shutdown, he was the runaway victor of the straw poll for the 2016 presidential nomination taken at the convention of Values Voters, religious conservatives then meeting in Washington. Most of the conservative stars had turned out. When the Senate went on recess after the shutdown had ended, Cruz was greeted in Texas as the returning hero—even though he had nothing to show for his efforts. Washington is a platform for promoting his presidential ambitions. In Cruz’s world, the fact that he’s roundly despised in the Nation’s Capital is a badge of honor. He blamed Senate Republicans—members of his own party—for failing to deliver Obamacare on a platter. He’d long had a reputation as something of an unguided missile; it cost his candidacy for a job he sought during the Bush presidency and he landed up in a minor position. He won his Senate seat by waging an insurrection for the nomination.

Cruz says that he will continue to bring “relief to the millions of Americans who are hurting because of Obamacare”–a group he has yet to identify, apart from his unfounded assertion that the program is costing millions of jobs. (In fact there are few indications that business is engaged in large-scale laying off workers or relegating them to part time because of the Affordable Care Act.) In any event, the employer mandate has been postponed. The health care act’s opponents got a boost from the disastrous rollout of the federal exchange, which was a breach of faith on the part of the President. This calamity also added to the sense among those who support the act that he had failed them—first by losing the argument to define what the new law would do and now by appearing to validate those who had said that it wouldn’t work. The damage could easily spread beyond the Affordable Care Act, feeding the widespread view, held not just by radicals, that government is by definition incompetent.

What happens next? Will Cruz and his allies continue to threaten the very workings of the federal government while they pursue a lost cause? The whole matter of the continuing spending resolution comes up again in mid-January. Both McConnell and Boehner have declared that there will be no more shutdowns—but Cruz has pledged to carry on his crusade. Can he be stopped the next time? The large majority of Republicans in the Senate and the sizable bloc in the House who voted in the end to stop the shutdown will have to decide that it’s too costly to curry favor with the Tea Party; business groups and the US Chamber of Commerce will need to demonstrate by deeds that they’re no longer content to leave the dominant influence over Republican nominations to Congress to such groups as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth. Or, perhaps, such groups, and—possibly even more important—large PACs such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads will decide to try to stop the Tea Party from taking the Republican party over the falls.

But can anything be done in Washington to curb Cruz’s popularity with his base, which has given him what influence he’s had on Capitol Hill? “Look at all those votes against him in the end,” the Republican leadership aide said to me. “How often can you go home without having accomplished anything?”

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