Columbia prof: Blame the RINOs, not tea partiers, for the shutdown

So says John Huber in a guest post at WaPo’s nifty new Monkey Cage blog. Same basic point that I made myself two days ago: For all their grumbling about tea partiers, centrist Republicans in the House are strikingly reluctant to vote against them even when they’re doing something that moderates think is frankly nutty.

None of this would have happened if more moderate Republicans had not caved to extreme pressures within their party and instead had exercised their procedural rights to force a more centrist outcome in the House.

Although there was much hand-wringing about the direction of the Republican Party after the 2012 election, in this era of polarization, many would argue “moderate House Republican” is an oxymoron. But in fact there are moderates in two respects. First, there are House Republicans who are “ideologically” moderate in the sense that they represent relatively moderate districts. There are 28 members representing districts where Obama received more than 48 percent of the vote in 2012, 18 where Obama received more than 49 percent, and 13 where Obama received more than 50 percent of the vote. All of these members are badly out of line with their district sentiment if they pursue anything but a moderate agenda, and one would think they risk losing their seat to a Democrat if they move too far to the right. Second, there are “process” moderates. These are Republicans of various ideological persuasions who understand that American institutions are designed to require compromise between three branches of government. In early October, 22 such House Republicans committed publicly to supporting a “clean resolution” – that is, to allowing an up-or-down vote on whether to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. Of these, eight were in rather safe Republican seats (where Obama received less than 46 percent of the vote) and one other was in a district where the president received less than 48 percent of the vote. So no matter how one counts, there were plenty of Republicans with which the Democrats should have been able to work. But these Republicans never bucked Speaker Boehner or the majority caucus. Instead, they let the House wreak havoc, and they are the ones who truly deserve the blame, because they could have marshaled the votes for a sensible solution but did not.

They hated the shutdown but they hated the thought of losing their jobs in a primary challenge more, and they voted accordingly. That in itself is an interesting gauge of how little serious political damage even the doomsaying centrists in the caucus think the GOP will suffer from closing down the government for two weeks. After all, you don’t worry about a backlash in the primary if you’re worried about a bigger backlash in the general. Whether they would have behaved differently and crossed the aisle if hitting the debt ceiling, a much greater risk, looked like a real possibility on Tuesday night, we’ll never know. (Although we may find out in February.) I know which way I’d bet, though.

I’d also bet that if you asked the centrists in the caucus about this privately, they’d tell you that occasionally going along with a tea-party adventure, however quixotic, actually helps keep the caucus more centrist than it would be if they resisted. If, say, 30 RINO House members declared on September 30th that they’d vote with Pelosi to block a shutdown, tea partiers would be scrambling to primary them. As it is, despite the complaining from people like Peter King and Devin Nunes, it’s not the RINOs in the House who are the main lightning rod for grassroots upset. It’s higher profile people like Mitch McConnell, who are better funded and better able to repel a challenge. If the RINOs end up getting primaried, you’re left with a bunch of districts that will end up either much redder — which increases the odds that tea-party brinksmanship in the next Congress might force the Speaker to hit the debt limit — or suddenly bluer after a moderate Democrat defeats a tea-party nominee who defeated the RINO incumbent in the primary. I think the Kings and Nuneses ultimately figured that, given how low the stakes are in a shutdown and the odds that failed brinksmanship right now would discourage any more of it for awhile, they were doing not just themselves a favor by sticking with tea partiers but doing a favor for the cause of centrism too.

The bottom line for anyone who wants RINOs in the House to stop grazing and start charging is that they need assurance they won’t be easy prey in a primary. That’s why you’re suddenly hearing murmurs about business interests backing primary challengers to libertarian types like Justin Amash. If grassroots conservatives successfully primary a few RINOs but big-money Republicans successfully primary a few tea partiers, that’ll change everyone’s calculations about the balance of power in the House.

“I don’t know of anybody in the business community who takes the side of the Taliban minority,” said Dirk Van Dongen, longtime chief lobbyist for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, who has known Boehner since the lawmaker’s first election.

In the hallways of the country’s leading trade associations, there is talk about taking on tea party Republicans in at least three states.

The first is Michigan, where Rep. Justin Amash, who had been challenging Boehner during the debt-ceiling fight, is facing a possible challenge from a business-backed candidate. Business lobbyists also talk about funding a challenge to another tea-party-backed Republican incumbent, Rep. Kerry Bentivolio.

Another area for possible combat occurs in a special election next month in the 1st District of Alabama, where former state senator Bradley Byrne, a self-described business-oriented Republican, faces off against Dean Young, a tea party-endorsed candidate who says he’s “against homosexuals pretending that they are married.”

The fourth possible race is in Idaho, where business groups are talking of lending support to Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican incumbent. Simpson faces a tea party challenger who has pushed the eight-term House veteran to support the “defund Obamacare” strategy adopted by the tea party.

Says Politico, “Donors and business leaders, whose words used to carry great weight with candidates ever worried that the money spigot might be turned off, now face a new reality. It’s a Frankenstein syndrome of sorts, in which the candidates they’ve helped fund, directly or indirectly, don’t fear them, and don’t think they need them.” Solution: They’ll start backing more loyal candidates. In other words, they’re going to try to do for business interests in Republican primaries what Mike Bloomberg’s trying to do for gun-control interests in other elections. If they win a few races, that’ll offset tea-party victories in other primaries and preserve a rough status quo; even if they don’t win, by pouring money into select challenges against tea partiers, they could bait grassroots conservatives into pouring money into those races too, which would leave the tea party on the defensive instead of the offensive. End result: The GOP’s reputation as the “party of big business” will be even more entrenched than it is now, despite the best efforts of populists to make headway against Beltway “crony capitalism.” Not good.

Exit question via Ross Douthat: Why aren’t House conservatives angrier at Boehner for getting nothing from the shutdown saga? Boehner himself allegedly told Obama the day after the shutdown began that he’d been “overrun,” which is all you need to know to see how reluctant he was to follow through on the “defund” strategy from the beginning. I’ll leave you with this from Douthat:

If Boehner’s strategy was so obviously the biggest problem here — if he really was just a terrible dealmaker who failed to figure out what his members were actually willing to sign off on and then negotiated with himself — it seems like this would be a moment ripe for a Gingrich-in-1998-type revolt. But the fact that both conservatives and moderates have mostly rallied around him after this ignominious showing suggests that at some level, they understand the impossibility of what was being asked of him, and recognize that the caucus rather than the Speaker bears the primary responsibility for this fiasco.

This, again, doesn’t let Boehner off the hook for blame. But it’s evidence that the problem here runs much, much deeper than the House leadership, and most everybody involved knows it.