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Tea Party Republicans fail to learn the lessons of 1995

Looks like a fun party. Sage Ross

Sanity has prevailed in the US, at least temporarily. For now, the threat of America’s first ever debt default has receded. But we may be back in the same territory in early 2014 as the US treasury is only authorised to engage in further borrowing until February.

The Republicans are the big losers in all this, giving in on all their key demands. But have they just run away to fight again another day?

It’s instructive to go back to the last time there was a prolonged shutdown in US government in late 1995-early 1996. The Republicans were in a much stronger position at that time. They had just won a landslide victory in the 1994 midterm elections that gave them control of both Houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. They faced a demoralised Democratic party and a president, Bill Clinton, widely expected to be a one-term occupant of the Oval Office.

But they overplayed their hand in refusing to agree a budget unless the Democrats accepted massive tax cuts funded by unprecedented reductions in domestic spending. This allowed Clinton to portray them as ideological extremists, willing to go to any lengths in pursuit of their ends.

With the party sinking in the polls as a consequence, moderate Republicans in the senate compelled the more ideologically-driven counterparts in the house of representatives to accept a deal (a pattern repeated in 2013). Clinton still had to make some concessions to get across the line, but he emerged the winner.

With his leadership revitalised and the economy enjoying strong growth, he went on to win a second term as president with some ease in November 1996. Nevertheless, the Republicans were still able to keep control of both houses of congress because the moderates within the party had saved its image.

Slow learners

So why did today’s Republicans not learn a lesson from this earlier imbroglio? One reason is that the party is far more conservative today than it was back then and the Tea Party acts as a kind of ideological cattle prod to keep it on the far right. Another is that they looked to capitalise on Obamacare’s lack of popularity. Finally, they thought they could win because Barack Obama had caved in when they precipitated another near debt default in 2011 to get agreement for massive spending cuts. But on this occasion, the odds were against them succeeding.

The immediate outcome of the current stand-off has been much worse for the Republicans than in 1995-96. As an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicates, the public blames them for the shutdown but by an even wider margin than in 1995-96 (50%-31%). The party’s favourability rating with the public has also fallen to 24%, an all-time low. Meanwhile, Tea Party approval is also down to its lowest level at 21%.

Adding insult to injury, the controversy has also boosted the popularity of the Affordable Health Care Act (aka Obamacare). Though a majority is still sceptical, the numbers who view it favourably have increased, even despite serious technical glitches around its launch.

So the rational conclusion the Republicans should draw from this is not to use budget and debt-limitation legislation as a hostage to achieve their broader political ends. But rationality is in short supply in this party at the moment.

After rationality?

The Republicans are unlikely to try again in February because the 2014 congressional midterm elections beckon. However, they are confident of keeping their gerrymandered majority in the house and even have hopes of winning the senate because presidential parties historically do badly in the sixth year of an administration. Even if they only hold onto the house, the Republicans will likely be tempted to use their minority power once more to attack Obamacare through budget or debt issues.

The nature of the American government, where power is shared by different institutions allows them to do so. Of course, this was not the founders’ intent in creating such a system. They expected that the different branches would come together in the spirit of compromise and cooperation to solve national problems through deliberation and negotiation. However, the men of the enlightenment who formulated the US constitution had not encountered the likes of today’s Republicans and Tea Partyers.

The only long-term solution to this problem is via the ballot box. Republicans may be the minority party but they have not suffered an electoral rout of mammoth proportions for a long time, and this encourages them to believe that they will eventually win through with their conservative message.

American voters have to decide whether they want to give the Republican party the power to carry through its very right-wing agenda or whether to give it such an electoral bloody nose that it will have no option but to change course in order to survive as a serious political force.

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