You could spend all day reading news and commentary about the federal government shutdown, but little of it is about the 2016 presidential race. In a way, that’s a relief. (It’s three years away! Can’t we take a break from the never-ending campaign?) It’s also key to why the Republican Party seems to be on such a self-destructive course.
At right is a photo tweeted yesterday by U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a Republican from Georgia. It shows the eight Republicans selected to represent the House in a conference committee that would meet with Senate Democrats to hammer out a deal to end the shutdown. House and Senate Republicans have balked all year at such a conference committee, fearing that it would weaken conservative proposals (like defunding Obamacare) that passed the GOP-controlled House. As David Weigel explains, at the eleventh hour, Republican leaders in the House decided that it would make good theater to assemble on their side of the conference committee table while Democrats stayed away. (Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray said that her party opposed going to conference “with a gun to our head that says we’re shutting government down.”)
Weigel says the sliced-lengthwise view of the conference committee is “largely about optics.” Now take a good look at the photo: Eight clean-shaven white guys over 40 in nearly identical uniforms.* Apparently, there was a memo telling them to take off their suit jackets but keep their cuffs buttoned and neckties in place.
This is not a photo that’s been vetted by party leaders concerned about winning the next presidential election. The message, consciously or not, is that the Republican bargaining team is Tea Party-approved, untainted by RINOs or squishes… or women, or racial or ethnic minorities, or long-haired, freaky people.
In terms of presidential politics, the optics are terrible for a party that is dangerously dependent on old white men. They’re not great for Republicans running statewide in most of the country. (See Weigel on how the shutdown may be dragging down this year’s Republican nominee for governor in Virginia.) But they’re fine for the Republican Party that’s based in anti-Obama congressional districts. None of the men in the photo are likely to lose their seats over the shutdown or a refusal to raise the national debt limit. (RollCall.com does not include any of them among its “competitive” races for 2014, and none are from districts that voted for Obama.)
This split between what’s good for the presidential GOP and what’s good for the congressional GOP is related to Mark Schmitt’s argument that there’s not enough partisanship among Republicans in Washington now—if you define partisanship as loyalty to the whole, not to fiefdoms and factions:
The current Democratic Party, which trims and disciplines the aspirations of its core progressive activists, is a good example of a fairly strong party, which is why it’s consistently frustrating to the left.
But the modern Republican Party is not strong. It’s something more like a loose association of independent forces, including Tea Party–backed members, those with their own sources of campaign money from ideological backers, many with seats so safe that they can happily ignore all their non-conservative constituents, and outside agents like Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, who Businessweek recently described as the de facto Speaker of the House.
Schmitt likens DeMint and Tea Party leaders such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to “corporate raiders,” maximizing their careers "with little regard to the long-term future of the Republican Party and its shrinking demographic base.”
TheWashington Post’s Ezra Klein recently interviewed Robert Costa, the Washington editor of The National Review (which has been trying to enforce some discipline in the conservative movement since William F. Buckley was its editor), and Costa also alluded to the insular world of House Republicans:
…so many of these members now live in the conservative world of talk radio and tea party conventions and Fox News invitations. And so the conservative strategy of the moment, no matter how unrealistic it might be, catches fire.
When you hear members talk candidly about their biggest victory, it wasn’t winning the House in 2010. It was winning the state legislatures in 2010 because they were able to redraw their districts so they had many more conservative voters. The members get heat from the press but they don't get heat from back home.
Costa may be overstating the role of the gerrymandering process here. (As Jonathan Bernstein writes, “current districts help Republicans, but that appears to be primarily because of where Democrats and Republicans live, not because of cleverly drawn lines.” That is, Democrats are concentrated in big cities, and many of their votes are “wasted” on congressional candidates who win with 80 or 90 percent.) But his comments underscore how little motivation most House Republicans have to rehabilitate their party’s image so that it appeals to a national electorate. They know that the Old White Guy Party is going to be at a disadvantage in 2016, and being responsible for a government shutdown isn’t going to broaden its appeal. They just don’t see a reason to care.
* They are Majority Leader Eric Cantor, 50, (R-VA); Rep. Chairman Dave Camp, 60, (R-MI) chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee; Rep. Hal Rogers, 75, (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; Rep. Paul Ryan, 43, (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee; Rep. John Carter, 71, (R-TX); Rep. Ander Crenshaw, 69, (R-FL); Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, 67, (R-NJ); and Rep. Tom Graves, 43 (R-GA).