The Republicans' Desperate Shutdown
By Nayyer Ali MD
The House Republicans have shut down the government over Obamacare, and are now threatening to have the US default on its debt by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. The political system still does work to some extent. This fight would not be happening in an election year as the Republicans would quickly realize they are playing with fire. Polls show they are taking the blame, and if the election were today they would lose 30-40 seats in the House. They are hoping that by November 2014 this will be a distant memory, so that can take their chances with this fight now.
I don't think the primary system per se is the problem. The Republicans nominated their most reasonable candidate in 2012 for President, and were punished in Missouri and Indiana for nominating crazy people for the Senate, losing seats they should have easily won. At the House level there is a problem in some of the large states where gerrymandered districts lead to Republicans who only fear being challenged from the right and not the center or left. This has created the "Tea Party" faction in the House made up of a hard core of 30 or so with another 70-80 following along out of fear of being targeted in a primary for not being conservative enough. Nationally, the gerrymander in the House is so bad right now that Democrats won the popular vote by 1.5% in 2012 for the House but failed to win the majority of seats. Gerrymander does not apply to Senate races as they are statewide or obviously to the President.
This does raise the obvious question, why are we really in this climactic struggle between the House Republicans and the rest of the Federal government, less than a year after Obama easily won reelection? Why have they shut down the government and threatened to default on the debt at this point in time? Don't forget the central demand the Republicans were making, which was that Obamacare be dismantled.
The real reason we are having this fight is that Republicans see their future as a national party, one that can win the Senate and compete for the White House, very much at risk. The Supreme Court, which is now 5-4 Republican, has 3 Republican seats that could come open in the next 10 years, flipping the court to the Democrats for a generation. The stakes are immensely high.
The 2012 election, where a Black man with a Muslim name during a lousy economy easily beat the Republican candidate, taking states like Florida and Virginia and Ohio, put the fear of God into the Republicans. Romney won 60% of the White vote, and still only got 47% of the overall total. In 1988, Bush the elder won 60% of the White vote and got 54% of the total. The demographics of the country have changed so much that the Republicans cannot win with White votes alone.
Some Republicans acknowledged that reality and called for a "rebranding", but the party is built to a significant extent on White resentment of having to pay for the welfare benefits of minorities. For the party to try to really appeal to minorities would poison its standing with core current voters. Which is why the Senate was able to pass immigration reform, but Boehner won't even allow it to come to a vote in the House.
A different faction of the Republicans, and one that is currently dominant, still believes that the Republican party is viable as a White Man's party. They think that the party can win enough White votes to win the White House in 2016, but that would mean winning over 60% of the total. That is a very tall order. The other demographic shift is that the population is becoming more educated. 20% of voters in 2016 had postgraduate degrees, and these hyper-educated voters (mostly White) went 55% for Obama. The Republican vote base is elderly Whites, who are dying off, and middle-class and working-class Whites who are susceptible to their appeal to racial resentment of the "undeserving" with their hand out.
This is where Obamacare comes in and why it is such a line in the sand for the Republicans. Their real objection to Obamacare is not that it will fail, or that it is bad for the country. The real issue is their genuine fear that it will succeed (and it has been in place in Massachusetts for 7 years and worked well), and it will destroy the Republican party as a result. There are millions of White Republican voters that will either get health insurance, or will no longer live in fear of losing health insurance if they lose their job, as a result of Obamacare next year. When they realize this system actually works, it is going to move a small but significant fraction of White voters to the Democrats. If the Republicans can only take 55% of the White vote in national elections, they will be trounced repeatedly, and will lose the Supreme Court in a few years. They will have no viable path to being a relevant opposition party at the national level, reduced to a rump regional party representing the South and Mountain West.
So they are not really stupid. The Republicans picked this fight because for them Obamacare is an existential threat. Unfortunately they are going to lose. Obama holds the best cards, and Boehner cannot at the end of the day, allow a default. The paymasters of the Republican party on Wall Street will not tolerate it. The Republican defeat will trigger recrimination, but ultimately, the Tea Party will keep its grip on the party.
I do not envision the Republican fever breaking until they get crushed in another Presidential election, if Hilary Clinton were to take 56% of the popular vote and win 400 Electoral votes, the party elders will finally begin the process of coming to grips with the new reality of America.