Conservatives, and Republicans in general, have been accused of having “no strategy” in the showdown with President Barack Obama and the Democrats over Obamacare, the government shutdown, and the debt ceiling. It might be argued that the Republicans only adopted their strategy by accident, but they do have one, and it is both necessary and long overdue: win back disenchanted voters by fighting for their interests–hard.
The conventional wisdom in Washington, DC, repeated ad infinitum in the opinion pages and on the weekend news shows, is that Republicans blundered by allowing President Obama to cajole them into a government shutdown. Now, the thinking goes, Democrats have a way to shift the weight of policy failures, scandals, and the Obamacare disaster: they can blame Republicans for causing fiscal and economic chaos–and warn of more.
It is true that the public blames Republicans for causing the shutdown–and well they might. It is also true, however, that the public understands that President Obama has been inflicting as much pain on them as possible in an effort to win a political fight. His refusal to negotiate, and his willingness to use petty tactics such as closing open-air war memorials, have caused his approval ratings to drop to nearly unprecedented levels.
Had Republicans followed the conventional wisdom on Obamacare and waited until 2016 to fight the issue, none of the above would have happened. Meanwhile, millions of Americans would have faced the daunting prospect of losing their health insurance or their jobs to a new, unfamiliar, unwieldy, and ultimately more expensive policy. They would have looked to Washington, only to see no one–at all–fighting to protect them.
Amidst the many competing versions of what a new Republican strategy should look like after 2012, the one common theme was that the party needed to learn how to relate to the concerns of ordinary people. There is nothing more basic, no issue more “kitchen table,” than the cost of health insurance. Symbolic votes against Obamacare may look good on campaign literature, but voters are smart enough to see through those tactics.
Another repeated exhortation was the need to reach out to Latino voters. And yet it has gone virtually unnoticed that the man leading the revolt against Obamacare on Capitol Hill, the man who shifted the GOP out of its torpor, is a Hispanic Republican–easily now the most recognizable Hispanic leader in America. For his trouble, he has been vilified by the wiser heads in his own party, who think appealing to Latinos means amnesty.
The major strategic challenge facing Republicans prior to the shutdown fight was the fact that millions of core GOP voters stayed home in 2012 and looked likely to do so again after the party leadership became consumed by debates over immigration reform. With few swing districts at stake in 2014, and Democrats vulnerable in key Senate races, the task–though many GOP leaders ignored it–was to reach out to the base.
Yes, the shutdown exposed Republicans to possible defection by independent voters. But President Obama, who evidently believes that the shutdowns of the 1990s foretell victory today, has missed one of the key lessons of that battle. President Bill Clinton won largely because he cast himself as a savior–of health care, education, and the environment. President Obama, in contrast, has auditioned for the role of executioner.
And so, ironically, Republicans have been able to cast themselves as the protectors of popular government programs by passing “rifle-shot” bills to fund each of them alone. At the very least, the GOP has prevented the damage from being worse. They do not look mean, as Gingrich did in 1995-6; they merely look irresponsible. And in that category, the president is giving them stiff competition by taking an ill-advised hard-line position.
All year, the Republicans’ clear–if quiet–legislative strategy has been to use the Full Faith and Credit Act as a backstop against default, strengthening their position in debt ceiling talks with the president. The only immediate political effect of the shutdown was to move that fight forward a week. But the strategic effect was great, and profound: the GOP is now back on course to connect with its missing voters–just in time for 2014.