Politics, as Otto von Bismarck famously said back in 1867, is the art of the possible.
This means that a good politician knows that what is needed is the ability to craft a policy that enough people can be persuaded to sign on to so that it can be implemented. But one of the things that can prevent this is when the issue being fought over shifts subtly from the original one that can be bridged by political compromise to a new, and more difficult, one that is based on intangibles that are hard to negotiate over.
For example, in the case of the threat to bomb Syria, the issue shifted from one of what to do about chemical weapons in that country and their use (a concrete issue that is amenable to negotiation and compromise) to president Obama’s and the US’s ‘credibility’, with the war hawks saying that unless he carried through on his threat to bomb Syria, he and the US would be perceived as weak and ineffective. Fighting over credibility is harder to do than fighting over substantive issues with measurable outcomes because it is so intangible and largely in the eye of the beholder. A diplomatic approach eventually prevailed mainly because Obama was willing to ignore the credibility question.
In the case of the current government shut down, we see again how the issue has shifted from the original one of the Republicans trying to defund the Affordable Care Act to a new one of seeing who in the Republican party is pure and true in their opposition to it. It is no longer enough to say that one is opposed to the ACA because all of them fervently swear that they are. You now have to prove that you are opposed. One is not believed to be truly opposed to the ACA unless one is willing to shut down the government and also have debt default over it.
So now the battle has become a test of Republican ideological purity, even though there is little disagreement on the ideology itself. And it is threatening to tear the party apart. This should come as no surprise to those with long memories of left-wing politics in the previous century where fierce fights over ideological purity led to the repeated splintering of political parties. It was those fights, incidentally, that spawned the phrase ‘politically correct’, used ironically back in the day to denote what the party line was. Fights within political parties are often the most bitter and most vicious, like fights within families.
As has been reported widely, there are only about 30 or so of the 232 Republican members of the House of Representatives who are truly pure in this way with another 30 to 50 strongly influenced by them. This leaves at least 150 Republicans who strongly oppose the ACA but do not believe it should be tied to issues like funding the government or raising the debt ceiling. They would vote for a clean continuing resolution that would re-open the government without touching the ACA, more than enough to join with the 200 Democrats to pass the bill, if such a bill were ever brought to a vote.
But of course John Boehner cannot afford to bring it to a vote because the issue is no longer about the ACA itself but about who is a true Republican. Such purity battles are not only non-negotiable but, as solidly conservative evangelicals like president George W. Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson says, they are fought most bitterly against those who are closest to you.
Like many ideological factions, tea-party activists display a special intensity in fighting the “near enemy” — other elements on the right that don’t share their tactics. President Obama may be their ultimate foe, but conservative pragmatists are their rivals. And rivals are the more immediate problem.
We are no longer seeing a revolt against the Republican leadership, or even against the Republican “establishment”; this revolt is against anyone who accepts the constraints of political reality. Conservatives are excommunicated not for holding the wrong convictions but for rational calculations in service of those convictions.
Few believe any longer that Republicans will be able to defund Obamacare in this session of Congress; it is the fight that counts. This is a word that crops up frequently in tea-party discourse. Not winning. Not strategy. Not consequences. The fight.
The problem for Republicans (as Democrats found in the 1970s and ’80s) is that factions are seldom deterred by defeat. Every loss is taken as proof of insufficient purity.
The realist dealmakers in the Republican party are practically begging for some concession from president Obama and the Democrats in Congress for a face-saving way to vote for the continuing resolution and raising the debt ceiling. But the latter seem to be steadfast in their refusal to do so, perhaps recognizing that support among Congressional Republicans and the public for the shut down is slowly but steadily eroding. Furthermore, Obama and the Democrats seem to realize that caving in to this kind of extortion tactics, even slightly, will only embolden the extortioners to come back again with even more demands the next time a continuing resolution or debt ceiling issue comes up, which nowadays seems to happen every couple of months. It would be intolerable to live in a semi-permanent state of threats of government shutdowns and defaults.
But even if the Democrats do offer some minor concession for the sake of quickly getting out of this mess, the Republican purists will not accept it and the attacks on those Republicans who do will intensify. Because for them there is no such thing as being a little bit impure.