The Reckoning the Republicans Need

The government shutdown exposes the party’s failure to learn from its mistakes
Illustration by Bloomberg View

The debate over the proper role and size of government never ends—nor should it. It’s part of the essential give-and-take of American politics. But the debate hasn’t amounted to much lately, in part because Republicans haven’t been holding up their end of the argument.

Instead, a vocal minority of Tea Party Republicans forced a government shutdown over its opposition to Obamacare, which passed a milestone on Oct. 1 when the first websites offering health insurance went online. It’s worth dwelling, yet again, on the quixotic nature of House Republicans’ demands that the White House and Senate Democrats defund or delay the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans lost the legislative battle against Obamacare in Congress in 2010, then lost the political battle when President Obama was reelected in 2012 (along with a Democratic majority in the Senate). Like Medicare and Social Security before it, Obamacare is offensive to some conservatives on principle and to others on political grounds. The law’s conservative origins aside, that’s hardly surprising: Obamacare intrudes on the health-care and insurance markets and creates new bureaucracies to boot. If successful, it may also, as some Republicans fear, create new Democratic voters.

Yet Republicans have never grappled honestly with the law, resorting to hyperbolic denunciations without offering a viable alternative for public consideration. When the House majority leader calls a law to extend health insurance an “atrocity,” it’s hard to ignore the signs of panic.

The cyclical nature of politics is not new. It was only a few decades ago that some Democrats were calling for a federally financed living standard or were making other “principled” demands that proved a bridge too far for U.S. voters. As a result, Democratic candidates suffered, and the party’s power waned. Either the voters had to change or the Democrats had to.

Republicans are now articulating their principles—loud and clear—and some are proving similarly unpopular. In many districts, the Republican message was embraced. But in the nation at large, it was not.

The 2012 loss in the presidential election should have encouraged the party to do what it has successfully done throughout history: reexamine its policies and retool for the next competition. Just after the election, there was a buzz of commentary about Republicans seeking ways forward on immigration policy, health care, and even declining wages and inequality.

Rather than engage such issues in the public arena, however, the party retreated, opting instead to bide its time until the crisis points of the new fiscal year and the debt ceiling arrived. This has suited the Tea Party faction. But it has been counterproductive to the Republican Party as a whole, postponing an internecine fight over policy and tactics and displaying a lack of nerve that neither the party nor the nation can long afford.


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