The polls say it, the pols say it, the pundits say it. The government shutdown and the brinksmanship over default -- which may or may not be (temporarily) resolved by the time you read this -- has been an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party. Senator John McCain’s decades-old joke about the popularity of Republicans in Congress --”we’re down to paid staffers and blood relatives”-- is approaching arithmetical accuracy.
All of which tell us...a lot less than it might about the electoral prospects of the GOP.
The party had already begun an agonizing reappraisal of its condition after the 2012 presidential contest, where Republicans lost the popular vote for the fifth time in the last six presidential elections. It might seem
as if the recent damage to the party’s brand, combined with the demographic challenges of a younger, browner and blacker electorate, all but dooms the GOP to years in the wilderness, unless the centrists wrest control from the party’s more militant (or zealous, or screw-loose) wing.
But maybe not. Why not? Consider, for openers, the Power of the Purse. Once upon a time, the big business/Chamber of Commerce wing of the GOP held the key to its finances. It was a big reason why the Midwest/small town element of the party could never get its longtime hero, Ohio Senator Robert Taft, nominated for president. (When Taft lost for the third time, in 1952, he said, “every Republican nominee since 1936 has been picked by the Chase Manhattan Bank.”)
In political terms, that hasn’t been true since Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964. The rise of the party in the South, and its rules that give extra convention delegates to states that vote Republican, have shifted the axis of power in a way that Republicans of earlier generations would have found inconceivable.
More recently, the financial power has shifted as well. With campaign-finance laws now essentially gutted, wealthy ideologues can provide more than enough cash to fuel a cause or a candidacy (as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson did for Newt Gingrich's presidential bid last year). If the pin-striped wing of the GOP thinks it can force Republicans to the center by threatening to cut off campaign contributions, it’s an empty threat. In fact, the more likely threat is that conservative outside groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth will fund the primary challenges to any Republican incumbent who looks to move to the center.
Bottom line: Between the Internet and the deep pockets of the Koch Brothers and company, a candidate of the party’s most militant wing will not lack for resources.
But, doesn’t this mean that the GOP is on its way to nominate a presidential candidate so far out of the mainstream that he or she will go down to a defeat that will make losers to Goldwater and George McGovern look like FDR and Reagan?
Maybe. But consider: the latest shutdown-default farce has had another consequence even more dramatic than the unpopularity of the Republicans; it has made the public even more cynical about the whole process of government. (For the first time, polls have found voters saying they’d like to throw out all the rascals, including their own elected representative).
And if the public moves into the next two election cycles with an intense conviction that government is a cross between incompetent, brain-dead, and malevolent, which political party benefits from that thinking? When government fails, it may not matter in the long term whether the hem was held by Democrats (in the case of the Vietnam war) or Republicans (Watergate). A general sense that government cold screw up a two-car funeral is exactly the belief that is at the heart of the Tea Party movement.
If you add to that the possibility that the flirtation with default may further weaken our still-weak economy, you have a potential political climate where the Tea Party faction can say,“I told you so!”
Is this a prediction? Of course not. Call it simply a cautionary note, and yet another reminder that the political certainties of one year can look awfully foolish three years later.