Does the Government Shutdown Reveal the Parties' Strengths or Weaknesses?

Well, how do you define strengths and weaknesses?
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Well, how do you define strengths and weaknesses?


On last Friday's Slate Political Gabfest, during a discussion about the government shutdown and the general challenges of divided government, there was this wonderful exchange between John Dickerson and David Plotz:

Dickerson: "Our parties are weaker than ever now."

Plotz: "No. They're incredibly strong."

Exactly! This is what I love about the study of parties, but it's also what makes the study so frustrating. Parties are very difficult to define and describe, and, as in the case above, two intelligent observers from the same online magazine with similar worldviews can review the exact same information and come to precisely opposite conclusions.

Part of the disagreement in this case was definitional. Plotz was referring to the mass electorate, saying that voters have sorted themselves neatly into opposing teams, meaning that any elected officials that represent them will be forced into partisan behavior. Dickerson, however, was focusing more on the elite level, suggesting that party leaders once had the ability to quash factions and rebellions, but now they are more easily bullied by fringe groups like the Tea Party into irresponsible behavior.

This is less about party strength or weakness than it is about a serious factional rift within the party. And that rift appears to be less about ideology than about acceptable tactics.

But let's focus for a second just on the elites in Congress. Does the shutdown reveal the parties' strengths or their weaknesses? Well, on one level, the party caucuses are showing tremendous resolve. The Democratic caucus is about as united as its ever been; no Red State Democrats appear to be abandoning the party line or offering concessions on the Affordable Care Act. Some Republicans, meanwhile, have made no secret of their anger toward Tea Partiers, and Senator Ted Cruz in particular, for provoking this confrontation, but they still haven't actually moved against their party. While a few dozen House Republicans claimed they would back a "clean" continuing budget resolution that contained no conditions on the Affordable Care Act, none of them are willing to support a discharge petition that would actually bring that to the House floor. So in this case, the parties are looking pretty strong.

But what brought House Republicans to the point where they provoked a government shutdown to achieve their policy goals, even thought a) they tried something very similar 17 years ago and the results were broadly considered catastrophic for their party, and b) most of their caucus appeared to not want it. Well, that's where the Republican Party starts to look weak, in the sense that they're being goaded into potentially self-destructive activity by a minority faction within their ranks.

But again, this comes down to your definition of party. Who is the Republican Party? Are we talking about the more experienced Republican members of Congress who are trying to pacify a Tea Party insurgency until it dies out? Or is the Republican party, as E.E. Schattchneider would have said, whoever determines the Republican nominees for office? If it's the latter, then the Tea Party insurgents are every bit a part of the party as the other Republican officeholders who chafe at their presence. (So, by the way, is the network of funders and activists who helped precipitate the current crisis.)

This is less about party strength or weakness than it is about a serious factional rift within the party. And that rift appears to be less about ideology than about acceptable tactics. Congressional Republicans all pretty much agree about taxes, health insurance, abortion, guns, etc., and where there's any doubt there, they pretty much agree that they are against whatever President Obama is for. What they disagree on is whether it is OK to threaten the health of the world's economy to achieve their policy goals. Or, as Jonathan Bernstein says:

[T]here's a strong chunk of [the GOP] that seems to be dedicated not to normal politics, but to making money by fleecing the rubes and easy marks that appear to have an enormous appetite for purchasing cultural/partisan products. And that, indeed, produces all sorts of perverse incentives.

(And see Matthew Green's post for a deeper examination of party splits.) This rift is making the party, in Bernstein's words, dysfunctional. It's not obvious to me what would fix this dysfunctionality or how it will resolve in the long run. In the short run, my impression is that the GOP can regain some of its functionality if it takes a loss from this current shutdown crisis and if the Tea Party caucus is broadly considered to be the cause of it. (John Patty might have found a way forward.) Only then will it be politically advantageous (or at least not dangerous) for party leaders to ignore their demands. In the mean time, I think we should do what we can to keep dangerous toys away from them.