Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Obamalypse Now: The GOP Civil War

What's So Civil About War Anyway?
The headlines scream that the GOP is embroiled in a Civil War! It's brother-on-brother political violence! Exciting!!

Actually, this isn't news--or, at least, it isn't new news: the above picture is from February (and has nothing to do with the Obamacare drama). The "war" has alternately been about immigration, foreign policy, 2016 rivals Rand Paul vs. Chris Christie (oh, for the cage-match), and now it's about funding Obamacare and shutting down the government.

What IS This Civil War Thing?
In the larger picture it's the same-old-same-old GOP-base vs. The Establishment. In the specific, right now, it's that House Speaker John Boehner has gotten some 60 Republican legislature signatures on a letter demanding that any funding legislation must come with a defunding or repeal of Obamacare. The idea, derided as insane by the GOP Establishment and Karl Rove / Crossroads GPS, seems to be gaining steam.

What's Going On?
There are a few theories. One is that the GOP Base (and their representatives) are simply crazy. One is that the representatives are sane--but are responding to perverse, gerrymandered incentives. We have to throw in there Sen. Ted Cruz's assertion that the 1990's government shutdown didn't cost the Republicans anything anyway--that they're right to pursue this. There's also the possibility that while the Base really wants this, the representatives are sane--but they're making bad newbie decisions about how best to operate.

Which is it?

Let's break it down.

2016 Presidential Primary Positioning
For Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio the drivers are clear: they need conservative cred and that means shutting down the government and not budging on Obamacare. This is especially tasty as (a) both are Senators and (b) the House will absorb most of the blame if this happens. It's a win-win-lose (for the House and the American people). Even if there is massive backlash it won't last until 2016 anyway where these guys will be remembered for leading the charge.

No More Shiny Objects
One of the memes / theories that has been floated in conservative circles is that the GOPe (Establishment) provides "Shiny Objects" to distract the base from their principles and convictions while allowing business-as-usual horse trading to go on in Washington:
Needham first used this term with me while discussing the gun control battle of last spring. Republican senators went back to their districts trumpeting that they had defeated Harry Reid's assault-weapons ban.
"There was no chance that an assault weapons ban was going to pass," Needham tells me. Defeating the assault-weapons ban was a shiny object that Republicans could hold out to distract conservatives, providing cover for mandating background checks.
Conservative congressional aides, current and past, complain that this shiny-object method has been the standard operating procedure.

New power dynamics disrupt this.
The takeaway here is that with some 30-odd votes to "repeal Obamacare" in the House the base is no longer tolerant of symbolic gestures. Having built up a tolerance to grandstanding they now demand (as the article puts it) "scalps." Given that for a lot of the House members they are immune to Democratic challengers but vulnerable to conservative primary challengers, going All In against the hated Obamacare is the way to go.

And boy is it hated. According to a YouGov poll (which did decently in the 2012 elections) if you ask in general if it's okay to shut down the government most everyone believes it's not:
Nobody Loves It But Republicans Are More Friendly Than Most
But when you ask specifically about Obamacare?
That's A Big Blue Pillar Of 'YES' On The Republican Side
Fear Of An Obamacare Success
It's also possible that part of what's motivating a last ditch Hail-Mary effort to stop Obamacare is fear that it might succeed. While the emergent data is mixed and the messaging is furious on both sides it is certainly possible that if Obama simply delays parts that are unpopular or broken and institutes the parts people like that extremely expensive 'grace period' could last long enough for a congressional shift to allow actual tweaking and repair of the bill.

In other words, whatever you think of Obamacare today, a future bill with revisions--but still bearing the same hated name--might actually work. That could damage Republican prospects for a generation (at least, you know, in theory).

The End Game
For John Boehner the question is just how close to the fire can he get without getting burned. With Erick Erickson calling for a third party and Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh going nuclear on the GOPe there is a great deal of impetus to do something. Here is how The Omnivore sees this breaking out:

Muddling Through: 95%
By far the most likely course of action is that there is strum und drang in the political sphere, Senators with an eye on 2016 make rousing speeches. House Republicans in safe, very-red districts make rousing speeches. We get kinda-close to a scary edge condition ... and Wall Street goes "What the FUCK guys!? AGAIN!?" and it all peters out.

I will note that Red State is very, very upset with Obama because it seems unlikely that in the event of a stare-down he would cave:
Obama’s special quality, that causes leaders and followers of the Loyal Opposition to so outnumber those within their ranks willing to pass a budget resolution funding all of the federal government (including raising the debt ceiling) save for Obamacare and daring Senate Democrats and the President to shut down the government, is his perceived willingness to actually wait out any government shutdown until next Inauguration Day; debt defaults, national defense stand downs and post office boxes devoid of Social Security checks, i.e. guaranteed apocalyptic national disaster, be damned.
In other words, America has the equivalent of a Mad Monarch whom the adults in the room (a role that Republican elites are only too happy to play) must coddle and protect us from until he passes from the scene.
So the horrible thing about Obama is that facing an opposition committed to a course of action that would cause debt-defaults, national defense stand downs, and an "apocalyptic national disaster" is that he's mad enough to let the guys proposing it go through with it. Uh ... right. Airtight.

It's also possible that with the GOP as badly fractured as it is it may actually be too divided to have a 'civil war:'
It’s more likely that this is just a rocky time for a rejected and confused party. The conflicts inside the GOP today just don’t line up in the configuration of a classic civil war. There are multiple issues involved, and the lawmakers on various sides of various issues don’t lean the same way on each issue. Republicans who are opponents on one issue are allies on another.
Fi-Pocalypse Now: 05%
Apparently it is possible for the Tea Party base, if they were united, to actually do this. The House can pull the 'Emergency Stop' on Government--and, hey, look at that graph above: their constituency would approve of it!

Almost certainly, if this were to happen, it would be the result of a positioning error or strategic miscalculation Base's part rather than an actual maneuver. Examples of how this might occur could be:
  1. Ultra conservative members over-commit to their positions relying on Boehner to use a coalition of Dems and less conservative House members to stand them down ... and it doesn't work out.
  2. For whatever reason, House members believe Obama to be a 'paper tiger' who will fold in the first few days of a crisis. Perhaps, in the 05% scenario, some mishap in the White House sends a bad message?
This would, of course, be a disaster for both the US and the GOP in general who, despite what the Red State guy says, would rightly take the blame. However that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. Just as the Shiny Object approach eventually wears off so does repeated exposure to fear of a financial cliff. As James F. Dunnigan once wrote of nuclear weapons use, "Familiarity breeds attempt."

Edited To Add: The Atlantic has a great breakdown on the feuds within the GOP.

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