WASHINGTON – Amid all the maneuvering and hand-wringing in the government shutdown crisis, one thing remains clear: House Republicans are continuing to grapple unsuccessfully with what it means to be a governing party.
Regardless of what happens in the budget showdown, it will not resolve a contradiction that has bedeviled Republicans in the two decades since they swept to power in the House after 40 years in the minority. The GOP won the majority in 1994 and was returned to power in 2010 on a wave of anti-government sentiment. In the majority, they have often found themselves stymied by the need to produce compromises while satisfying that part of their base that sees compromise as selling out principles.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, knows the political consequences of being blamed for shutting down the government. He was there, as a one-time key lieutenant to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich the last time a confrontation with a Democratic president brought many government functions to a halt in late 1995 and early 1996.
But for the last two weeks, Boehner has been pushed and pulled by the tea party faction in his conference to pursue a high-stakes game of legislative chicken with the Senate and the White House that risks a repeat of that episode from 17 years ago and potential damage to a Republican brand already near low ebb.
Ahead of the deadline, Boehner has operated with what appears to be one overriding goal, which is to keep his divided conference as united as possible for as long as possible. That has forced him to press ahead with a series of amendments to a government funding bill that are all aimed at curbing the president’s Affordable Care Act, major portions of which will begin to be implemented today.
It has been argued that a stronger speaker would have forced party hard-liners to accept the reality that they do not have the votes to accomplish their objectives. Boehner’s choice has been to defy a significant minority of his conference or to accommodate their demands long enough to let them conclude that they must change course. That’s what the last few days, and perhaps the next few, have been about – a weakened speaker with no good choices.
All this raises the larger question, which is what the Republican Party nationally wants to be and do. In Washington, they feel the frustrations of divided government. In response, particularly in the House, they have resorted to symbolic action and often stalemate within their own ranks.
Can Republicans find agreement even among themselves on just how much to spend on various functions of government? Exactly how far will Republicans go in their call to reform federal entitlement programs? Spending issues have split the party predating Barack Obama’s presidency.
Many conservatives were unhappy with the spending that took place during the presidency of George W. Bush, and the reaction among some conservatives has shaped the attitudes of the GOP House members who were first elected in 2010 and 2012.
Republicans in Washington look at the states, where they control many governorships and legislatures, and see conservative governance in action. They would like to be able to do some of the things that their governors and legislatures have been able to do.
But governors recognize the limits of governing and the importance of practicality. That’s why the message to Washington, even from many Republican governors, is a call to govern cooperatively to avoid a shutdown and to raise the debt ceiling peacefully and on time.
A number of Republican governors have been outspoken in warning that a shutdown would a disaster for the country, among them New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Michigan’s Rick Snyder. The party’s presidential nominee in 2012, Mitt Romney, issued a similar warning over the weekend, saying the tactic of forcing a government shutdown was unwise.
At this point, however, House Republicans are being driven more by some of their outside groups, who continue to exhort them to resist any call for compromise, than to many of the party’s leaders who recognize the responsibilities of governing.
Those tensions inside the GOP will not subside even if this moment of dysfunction passes without calamity.