Michael Gerson’s post-mortem on the shutdown

Michael Gerson gives a post-mortem of the shutdown and of the functional implosion of the Republican Party. As usual, he hits the nail right on the head. He writes,

This is a strategic and tactical debate rather than a policy disagreement. But the result is no less bitter. Both sides of the GOP want to get rid of an unpopular law [Obamacare]. One side believes in building a legislative majority and electing a president to overturn it; the other believes in making preposterous demands and blaming their Republican colleagues when these demands aren’t fulfilled. Tea party ideology involves questioning the character of Republican leaders — presenting them as cowards or coopted by the establishment or deceptive about their actual views. Republican leaders, in turn, naturally view the tea party caucus as politically irrational and irresponsible. Boehner has not bridged this gap. Perhaps no one could.

Will the tea party be chastened by recent defeat? Not likely, or not for long. Because tea party leaders inhabit an alternative political reality — sheltered in safe districts or states, applauded by conservative media, incited (or threatened) by advocacy groups, carried along by a deep current of anger and frustration among activists — they have no incentive to view defeat as defeat. In fact, turning against tactical radicalism would involve serious political risk. So every setback is interpreted as a need for greater purity and commitment.

Read the rest here.


  • Paula Bolyard (@pbolyard)

    Sorry Denny, I’m going to have to disagree with you about this being spot-on.

    “Because tea party leaders inhabit an alternative political reality — sheltered in safe districts or states, applauded by conservative media, incited (or threatened) by advocacy groups, carried along by a deep current of anger and frustration among activists — they have no incentive to view defeat as defeat. In fact, turning against tactical radicalism would involve serious political risk. So every setback is interpreted as a need for greater purity and commitment.”

    This is the same old ‘clinging to their God, guns and religion’ tripe cloaked in a stuffy political analysis. Where is Gerson’s criticism of the Democrats? You know, like the government operatives who decided to put barricades up at the war memorials? Or who threatened to hold up funerals at national cemeteries? Or who refused to negotiate until after all their demands were met? The minute some Republicans decide to stand on principle and not back down at the first sign of trouble, the hand-wringing begins and the conservatives are treated like the backwoods redneck cousins.

    The right is now finally starting to catch up with how the game is played. Though McCain, McConnell, and Graham, et al would prefer to govern by back room deals, many of us are demanding more accountability. We’re tired of being told condescendingly by our legislators that “This is all very complicated. You just don’t understand how it all works.” There is a reason millions of Americans supported the Cruz/Lee effort — and it’s not because we were “incited (or threatened) by advocacy groups.” Most movement conservatives I know are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves. In fact, the new conservative movement developed largely as a rejection of the past way of doing things — where you voted for the person with the right letter after their name. No more. We can go online and read the laws for ourselves and see how they voted. We now have alternative media so we don’t have to depend on the local newspaper to tell us which candidates are good or bad.

    The old guard of the GOP are like the Oakland A’s coaches and scouts in Moneyball. They wanted none of Billy Beane’s sabermetrics because it threatened their jobs. Behind all this angst being directed at Cruz and other conservatives is the same fear. There are millions — perhaps billions — of dollars at stake and the establishment will go to great lengths to protect that racket.

    And as for his Republican-governor-as-savior comments, does Gerson realize what Kasich is doing in Ohio? There’s a reason we call him King John here.

    • James Stanton

      “Where is Gerson’s criticism of the Democrats? You know, like the government operatives who decided to put barricades up at the war memorials? Or who threatened to hold up funerals at national cemeteries? Or who refused to negotiate until after all their demands were met?”

      The barricades at the war memorials was a result of a shutdown but you’d think by the coverage in the conservative press that it was the cause. This was undeniably an attempt to “win” the shutdown through optics of WW2 vets being denied the opportunity to visit the memorials. It’s rather simple.. if you didn’t want the war memorials to be closed then you shouldn’t have shut down the government.

      I think we like to live in a world where both sides are equally at fault but that is not really true here. Gerson is admitting that the attempts by the GOP to extract unilateral concessions by shutting down the government and risking a debt default were misguided and unwise. If Democrats had attempted this kind of behavior over the Bush tax cuts or the wars you would have been outraged.

  • andrew marner

    Thank you for saying it well, Paula. Having seen the success of those who believe in building a legislative majority and electing a president to overturn Obamacare, and the undisguised condescension represented here, I’ll take Cruz’s principled leadership for the murky future.

  • Adam Gupton

    I just watched the Mohler documentary and there was a line in there that he was elected to the Presidency of SBTS to “turn the ship around or sink it.” I think that line is appropriate here.
    What has the Republican Party accomplished over the past century? Any lasting victory? Even the Reagan Revolution was merely a speed-bump on the steady road to a progressive America.
    We are seeing a great shift in American politics from the citizens to its elected representatives. Less and less are people devoted to “party” and more and more are aware of the ideologies that the parties are grounded upon.
    Pragmatism, the Great American Philosophy, is dying. It’s not going to go quietly…but its going.

    Dont just do something: Stand there.

    • Chris Ryan

      “Turn around the ship or sink it”…Yeah, that pretty much sums up what Cruz was trying to accomplish. I’m just a simple American, though, and I don’t want to see my ship sunk. 🙂

      Would we really rather sink this country than see ppl who lack health care get health care? I lived in TX when that state’s worst-in-the-nation Medicaid policies meant my nephew couldn’t get Leukemia treatment. If Cruz wants to sink the ship, he should do it getting kids health care, not taking it away.

      Cruz is a Reactionary: If Obama said the sky was blue, Ted Cruz would say its green just to disagree. So, yeah, I’m not surprised that Cruz did what he did, but I’m sure disappointed. But just like Reagan fired the air traffic controllers & proved Coolidge’s principle that no Union could strike against the public interest, hopefully Obama has proved that no Party can take this country hostage.

  • buddyglass

    Gerson’s not the only voice in the right-leaning Christian community who’s disgusted. Dreher has been a pretty vocal critic lately as well. I don’t find a lot to disagree with.

  • Patrick Duncan

    Why is it unreasonable to expect some minor spending restraint and concessions to be implemented when we blast through one credit limit after another?

    If Michael Gerson and many others in DC had been forced to deal with that question and our out of control spending, then people would be asking about Obama’s intransigence, not the people crying out for fiscal sanity.

    • James Stanton

      Patrick, I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all but because both parties built up the debt they will need to come to mutual agreement on a long-term strategy for fiscal corrections. Unilateral concessions are not going to be acceptable and both sides will make painful sacrifices in terms of ideology or else we will continue to kick the can down the road.

  • Ronnie McMillan

    I’m a both/and kind of guy. I believe the shutdown was all political theater like everything else out of Washington and that Republican leaders are “cowards or coopted by the establishment or deceptive about their actual views”–actually all three.

  • Matt Privetttt

    Gerson’s logic makes sense if your worldview is that the of the GOP establishment, whose capitulatory practices instead of principled states, particularly in the last twenty-five years, helped get us where we are today. Where is the Republican standing up and saying wrong is wrong? It’s not Boehner. It’s certainly not McConnell. It’s those like Cruz and to a lesser degree Rand Paul who are then marginalized by the Gersons of the world who call attempts to dismantle the abomination that is Obamacare preposterous. The current GOP leadership has enabled the Obama Administration at practically every turn.

    • Denny Burk

      It’s not the ends that are the problem. It’s the means to those ends that are threatening to give conservatives a permanent minority status. The bottom line is this. If conservatives want conservative policies to carry the day, then they have to win the presidency and a majority in congress. This recent spectacle has made that less likely.

      • Patrick Duncan

        Denny, if people like Michael Gerson showed backbone and a measure of fiscal restraint when they did have power, that would be one thing. But Gerson is like so many Republicans who would rather have temporary “power” or office while exhibiting no meaningful awareness or urgency about the impact of ObamaCare and wreckless spending on the next generation and on religious liberty. Plus, if we listen to Gerson, then we would be content to let the House majority mean nothing while Obama just rolls over a milquetoast majority who is more afraid of the Washington writers and gum flappers.

        One other thing that Gerson does not understand – in 13 months when people vote in the midterm elections, there are at least 5 or 10 things that will matter much more than this particular episode, which will be long in the rear view mirror. Most Washington insiders also recognize this, which is one among many reasons why conservatives shouldn’t be wringing our hands with anxiety over public opinion polls.

        • buddyglass

          I forget the exact numbers, but House Republicans in “close” districts voted to re-start the government by a overwhelming margin. They seemed to think continuing the shutdown would hurt their chances of reelection. The opposite was true of House Republicans in strongly partisan districts; for them, voting to end the shutdown probably represents a disadvantage in their next Republican primary. Different incentives = different results.

      • Paula Bolyard (@pbolyard)

        So what now do we do with this groundswell of grassroots support for major systemic change? Do you think this growing movement will just continue to trust McCain, et al to call the shots? It’s not going to happen.

        What Cruz and Lee and a handful of others did was smarter, I think, than many are giving them credit for. Though the media and the Washington elitists are working overtime to mock them (and the values they represent), don’t forget that they’ve spent the last several weeks plastered all over newspapers, blogs, and news shows across the country. You probably can’t put a price tag on that amount of face time. They’ve articulated a new vision for the GOP — a more fiscally responsible position. Cruz in particular has been careful to avoid the trap of being dragged into social issues and has focused almost single-mindedly on how Obamacare is hurting the American people. Millions of Americans have now heard that message — and they’ve heard that there are Republicans who care about more than protecting corporate interests and protecting their own backsides. I think that’s a message that will resonate with average Americans as they find out just how bad Obamacare is as it continues to roll out. But for Cruz and a few allies, nobody would have been making this case.

  • Ian Shaw

    I think the bigger issue is what the self-implosion is doing to those of us that are conservative constituents. These elected officials, whether it be Presidential or below and put up on a pedestal during election time like they will be a (metaphorical) Saviour. While they may get some things accomplished, it is things like this that cause so many Gen Y’ers to be disinterested with being involved with the entire politcal process.

    I’m just being honest. I am almost 30. What I have observed in Washington since I can recall (earliest memories are around the time of Desert Storm) is utter nincompoopery. And I put it mildly. Why don’t conservatives get it together and get a list of say 3-4 things that they want to get accomplished and just get them done? If I or anyone else I know acted like they do while at work, we’d be fired numerous times over! I’m not sure how it is with Gen X’ers or older, but for us Y’ers, we see the disconnect, the arrogance and the (wait for it….) malfeasance in our elected officials, (both GOP and not) and it makes us think, “why do I bother putting faith in these people to execute their jobs properly?” “why do I bother engaging in this process time and time again if this is what happens/this is how they treat those that put them in these positions/this is how they respect their position of authority”

    You have no real leadership for your cause and ultimately, you won’t lose elections because constituents vote for the other side, you’ll lose elections because we will not vote, period.

    • Chris Ryan

      I was listening to Mike Huckabee yesterday, Ian, and he made a similar point as you did. He was saying what distinguished Newt Gingrich and the Contract for America, was that he & those with him stood for a specific platform. They were FOR something while (in Huckabee’s opinion) Cruz just stood AGAINST something.

      I liked Huckabee more when he held office than now that he’s a talk show host, but I thought he made a good point. Politicians are most successful when they talk abt what they want to accomplish, not what they want to repeal. Reagan was pretty popular, and pretty conservative, but he didn’t eliminate a single gov’t agency…not even Medicare which he railed against in the ’60s.

    • Paula Bolyard (@pbolyard)

      I think part of the problem is the postmodern mindset of the electorate. On the one hand, they are quick to complain about taxes, or Obamacare, or the “endless wars.” But the minute anyone tries to take a principled stand against any of these things, they cry “partisan bickering!” and demand an end to the conflict. An entire generation has been taught that all conflict is bad and the highest values are compromise and peace. You can’t have it both ways. When there are two competing, contradictory ideas or policies, one will prevail and the other side will lose. Most often the right goes away quietly without a fight as our country is dragged to the left.

      Looking back three years, Obamacare was an audacious, overreaching venture. By most counts, they didn’t have the votes to pass it and indeed, they relied on legislative maneuvering to shove it through. Sometimes when you swing for the fence you strike out (like Hillary Clinton did when she tried to impose national healthcare on the country during her husband’s presidency). Other times, you hit a home run and get everything you want.

      The difference between the two parties is that the Republicans retreat to the safety of Washington bipartisanship when they lose. It’s safe and financially profitable and the media pundits mostly leave them alone to do what they do behind closed doors. The Democrats never do that. The keep coming back and coming back and coming back like zombies.

      • James Stanton

        Obamacare was passed with a majority in the House and with a majority in the Senate through budget reconciliation. If the Republicans had won the election in 2012 they would have repealed Obamacare using the same “legislative maneuvering” that they themselves have used in the past. They would have then used that same mechanism to pass the other elements of the controversial Ryan budget. This is hypocrisy.

        As one of those people in the mushy middle I find it interesting that partisans on both sides consider their opposition to be illegitimate. A mandate is defined by winning an election with the votes and political capital necessary to pass legislation. The electorate has given us divided government for two cycles in a row. I think the message is that both sides need to compromise in order to govern in the best interests for all. What we’ve seen is that both parties are trying to impose their agendas at the expense of the nation and political stability.

    • Katie Sayre

      Ian, I am young too and I think part of the problem is the attitude of the “Y’ers”. We think this kind of behavior is something new in politics–it’s not. We shouldn’t expect that any politician would completely live up to his or her campaign platform. And yet we should keep engaging because we are humble enough to recognize the privilege we have to engage in the first place. If we put our current American politics in context of the history of our country and the world, we might moan and groan a little less about the “tone” of politics and just get busy voting and standing for what we believe in, even when we wish we had options more closely aligned with those beliefs. But not having exactly what we want isn’t an excuse to dump the whole thing.

      I agree that there is a sad lack of leadership on the conservative side. Perhaps if we got more involved in the primary level we could change that. Perhaps the demographic of the majority in this country is too far past conservatism in general.

  • bobbistowellbrown

    Why won’t anybody in either party listen to Dr. Ben Carson? He has the solution to health care and it isn’t insurance and taxes. I’d like to see some M.D.’s like Carson and Coburn working on health care instead of the tax and spend people!

  • Ian Shaw

    ^^Carson’s ideas are great and from all accounts he is a very well rounded guy. However, the liberals will tear into him for A)being an outspoken black conservative and for having his faith be such a driving force of his life (remember how they went after GWB for having his faith on his sleeve?). And I’m not saying it’s right, because it’s not. Unfortunately, character assassination lays waste to good ideas from grounded people.

    • Lauren Bertrand

      Ben Carson compared Obamacare to slavery. Those are not the words of a “well-rounded guy”, no matter how talented and ethical he may be. I dislike Obamacare but still recognize that analogy to be lethal hyperbole of the type that alienates more than just 99.9% of African Americans–it alienates the moderates in a way that the liberal media won’t forget, should Dr. Carson run for Prez in 2016.

  • Katie Sayre

    I have to disagree with you Denny. I think this column and supporting comments are one of the big problems….the Republicans can’t say anything considered inflammatory or do anything considered extreme while the Dems rant and rave and are largely not called out. Isn’t politics often a strong, rough, impassioned debate and fight over competing idealogies? If only one side plays that way, it’s not good for anyone. Like others have said, what about the petulant actions of the Senate and administration on completely refusing to negotiate even one little bit and then rubbing the American peoples’ faces in every painful, unnecessary thing they could come up with? I.e., shutting down public memorials, parking lots that serviced private businesses, etc. And yet, Cruz is dismissed as misguided on tactics. I can’t understand why everyone keeps separating tactics and strategy from policy and principle. Why is the only tactic and strategy acceptable to Gerson and others in the beltway to win majorities in future elections? It’s apparent that hasn’t been working. So short of that conservaties should just let the liberal’s tactics and strategies redefine America while they stand there?

  • Paul Reed

    We need to start supporting politicians like Ted Cruz and stop supporting establishment Republicans. God won’t judge our nation because we have an economic meltdown or shutdown. On the other hand, ObamaCare is fundamentally wicked, as is many of the pro-abortion policies of the Obama government. We should worry less about what is good economically and worry more about what is good morally.

  • Scott Tsao

    The Republican Party is on the brink of losing its saltiness, and I pray that people like Sen. Cruz and Dr. Carson will be leaders in an upcoming reformation (cf. Luther and Calvin).

    “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” (Matt. 5:13)

  • Scott Tsao

    To counter Gerson’s arguments, I would highly recommend an alternative analysis by Andrew C. McCarthy. Here is an excerpt:

    To my mind, if the defund plan was delusional, the GOP establishment’s “repeal Obamacare by winning elections” alternative is delusional squared. …it is not an exaggeration to say the GOP establishment is more sympathetic to Obama’s case for the centralized welfare state than to the Tea Party’s case for limited government and individual liberty. And it is not an exaggeration to say that Beltway Republicans are more worried about what the media will say about them today than what the Tea Party may do to them every other year. That is why the GOP establishment’s proclaimed strategy to repeal Obamacare by winning serial elections is not even a Hail Mary pass. It is politics as the art of the impossible.

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