Fighting Just Enough to Lose

In an appearance on Fox News, Senator John McCain continued what he’s been doing with some regularity lately. McCain attacked the wing of the Republican Party that had followed Senator Ted Cruz into the government shutdown after his 21-hour “filibuster” arguing for defunding Obamacare. In response to the host’s question whether the administration is to blame for the negative consequences of the shutdown, McCain said “Let’s have a little straight talk…[The administration] wouldn’t have had the opportunity to handle it that way if we had not shut down the government on a fool’s errand that we were not going to accomplish.”

While McCain hasn’t tried to disguise his contempt for the group he has called the “Whacko Birds,” he has been consistent throughout the entire political episode of the government shutdown. McCain has (very loudly) maintained the entire time that shutting the government down over Obamacare was a fool’s errand. And last week, it seemed he was proven to have been right.

Last week a NBC/WSJ poll found that 53 percent of Americans blame the Republicans for the shutdown while only 31 percent blame the president. The Republican Party as a whole saw their approval rating drop to a historic low, with just 24 percent having a favorable opinion of them — compared with just 39 percent for the Democrats. The low approval can be slightly explained away with the fact that the internal party squabbling leaves neither wing of the party happy, but it is still something that needs to be addressed.

The Republicans find themselves in familiar territory, having been here during the fiscal cliff and the payroll tax extension among other times and are now eager to negotiate their way out of the hole they have dug for themselves. The president, seeing this, is refusing to even offer them a shovel, as he rejects every attempt they make to negotiate with him in good faith. This only serves to prolong and deepen this manufactured crisis.

It really is frustrating for conservatives to watch, as the Cruz/Lee wing of the party pushed the more mainstream majority of the caucus into a government shutdown without planning an exit strategy. All the while this is going on, the liberal wing of the party, led by McCain in the Senate and Peter King in the House, frustrated by their loss of influence with their colleagues, takes every opportunity to tell anyone who will listen that it is a grave error to shut down the government. All this leads to is incoherent messaging, which is partially to blame for the quagmire in which the Right currently finds itself.

If the Republicans had coordinated their message in the days leading up to and after the shutdown date of October 1, they would’ve had every one of their members out talking about the absolute disaster that the Obamacare rollout has been as a justification for the GOP demand for a delay. When the White House took unprecedented measures to amplify the effects of the shutdown, a synchronized messaging campaign would’ve had a real effect on public opinion. The ineptitude of Congressional Republicans on this front is partially due to the fact that they have no clear leader, but that there was no effort on the part of anyone to make this an issue is borderline malpractice.

What really is of no help to anyone is the bulk of the Republican caucus in Washington. These are the members of Congress who feel at every turn that it is in their best interest to align themselves with the forces that challenge the administration — but abandon whatever cause they are fighting for at the first sign of blowback. This “strategy,” which has played itself over time and time again, ultimately leads to the Right fighting a war up until the point wherein they suffer as much negative consequences as would be possible, at which point they panic and give in to the Democrats’ demands. One has to wonder if they wouldn’t be better served by seeing things through to the very end, as Cruz/Lee are advocating in the current “crisis,” seeing as they have already maxed out on the negativity that can come with it. With a little hard work, maybe they’ll even fix the messaging problem that dooms them in every confrontation with the Democrats.

At this point, conservatives have the option of following the Cruz/Lee path of no return, or the more familiar path of surrender when the going gets tough. There is another option, however, and that is to respect the political genius of a man they have grown accustomed to hating, for no other reason than the fact that he is a masterful tactician — one who doesn’t enter into battles that he cannot win. The man they should listen to now is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell is the man responsible for pulling a win out of what was seen at the time like a huge cave by GOP leadership in Washington. In the case of the fiscal cliff, it was only the masterful work of McConnell, in delaying the sequester to a future date when it could be allowed to vest, that prevented a deal that raised taxes from being a total loss. McConnell’s ability to remain a few steps ahead of everyone else was best described by Daniel Foster when he wrote “if you ever want to know where to find the rightward-most, feasible position for Republicans to take in a given political … look for Mitch McConnell. He’s usually sitting there in a folding chair, waiting for everybody else to show up. McConnell’s disposition on a given issue can be either heartening or disheartening but it almost always represents the right flank of the politically possible.”

If Republicans had accepted the McConnell plan in 2011 for dealing with the debt ceiling — one which made it easier to raise but put all the responsibility on the president to get it done, they likely would not be in the predicament they find themselves in now. But then again, McConnell’s detractors — many of whom are the same people who got themselves into this mess without thinking of a way out — called his plan at the time “the worst possible political strategy for Republicans.”

And when it comes to political strategy, there’s no way they could ever be wrong.