Oct 17th 2013

Why Did the GOP Miscalculate So Badly in Shutdown Battle?

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.

After his disastrous loss in the government shutdown battle last night, Republican Speaker John Boehner said, “We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win.”
But the Republicans did not simply lose a tough fight that they knew was a long shot.   Much of the Republican leadership fundamentally miscalculated their odds of success – and underestimated the consequences of defeat.
Massive miscalculations of this sort generally stem from one of two factors:
·      A failure to understand the self-interests, capabilities and assets of your adversary, or;
·      A misalignment between the self-interests of decision makers, and the group for which the decisions are being made.
In this case both were true.
First, let’s be clear, the Republicans were not “defeated” by the Democrats in this battle.  They self-destructed.   As Congressman Zoe Lofgren said last night, this was not so much a homicide as a suicide.
And let there be no mistake, the shutdown battle has been an unqualified political disaster for the Republican Party.  Some Republican pundits claim that “both parties” have suffered.  Maybe.  But in the political context that can’t be true.  The outcome either benefits one side or the other.  In this case, the relative damage to the Republican Party was massive.
Public support for Republican candidates plummeted, and its chances of maintaining control of the House and gaining control of the Senate decreased. 
Fewer Americans now have a favorable view of the Republican brand than at any other time in the history of polling. 
While a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 53% disapproved of the way President Obama was handling the budget crisis and shutdown, and 61% disapproved of Democrats in Congress – almost three-fourths  --74% -- disapproved of the Republicans.  Republican disapproval extended to 76% of independents and 47% of self-identified Republicans.
Worse, for the GOP, the shutdown has jeopardized the Party’s control of the House, and its hopes of retaking the Senate in next year’s elections.
Recently, Public Policy Polling (PPP) conducted surveys for MoveOn.org in 36 swing Congressional districts with Republican incumbents and found that, after the shutdown, Democrats could easily win at least 29.  Democrats only need 17 seats to take control of the House.  In virtually every district the shutdown was highly unpopular and messaging about the shutdown increased the Democratic lead in the survey.
Republicans have to take at least six seats to take control of the Senate next year.  But another PPP poll released yesterday in six key swing Senate races -- this one sponsored by Americans United for Change -- found that voters were extremely unhappy with the shutdown and as a result Democrats led in five and are tied in a sixth.   That is particularly true because many of the GOP Senate challengers are currently members of the House majority that helped lead the shutdown effort.
But that’s not all.   The shutdown battle exploded divisions and disunity in the GOP.  It exposed a civil war in the Republican Party between the Tea Party and the Party’s establishment, the business wing that provides its financial base.   And it created greater unity in the Democratic Party and progressive movement than at any other time in the last half century.
Unions, community groups, religious organizations, women’s groups, vets and progressive organizations all worked with passion and complete harmony to mobilize everyday people across America.  They generated tens of thousands of calls to Congress, produced TV spots, conducted press events, attended town hall meetings, and generated robust digital programs.   The progressive base was inspired by the resolution and clarity of the President and Congressional leadership.
The Republicans started the battle intent on “defunding ObamaCare.”  When it ended, ObamaCare was practically unscathed.   In fact, the technical glitches associated with its launch had been completely overshadowed by the shutdown but the program was off and running. 
True, the Continuing Resolution that passed Congress extended the low sequester levels of government spending that inadequately fund critical public services for several more months.  But that had been true before the shutdown began.
In fact, the Republicans got virtually nothing substantive as a result of the pain they inflicted on million of Americans, tarnishing America’s reputation abroad, and squandering massive amounts of political support.
And they lost large amounts of leverage.   In the end the GOP refused to go through with their threats to send the country into default if they didn’t get their way.  When a hostage taker with a bomb demonstrates that he is unwilling to actually go through with his threats to blow up himself and his hostage, his leverage is gone.
Why did the GOP miscalculate so badly?  Four reasons:
     1). First, they mistakenly believed the President and Democratic Leadership would fold.   They had used similar hostage taking tactics during the last debt ceiling crisis in 2011 and succeeded in getting the sequester that did indeed cut spending on important programs (and by the way cut economic growth by at least 1.4% per year according to many economists).
But the GOP leaders failed to understand that three things were very different than they were in 2011. 
The President and his advisers believed that the economic recovery was so fragile in 2011 that it could not sustain the threat of a default, so they were much more willing to deal.  It is less fragile today. 
The President was up for re-election in 2012.   This time it is the Republicans in Congress who will alone face the voters in 2014.   President Obama is not running again.  He was much more willing to risk his political standing today than he was then.
Finally, the President and Democratic leadership vowed after 2011 that they would never again allow themselves to be extorted by the threat of default the way they were in 2011.   They had seen that movie and it did not end well.  This time they vowed – months in advance – that they would never again negotiate with the hostage takers.   In the end they didn’t.  The negotiations last night were not about the terms of a deal.  They were about the terms of surrender.
     2). The Republicans forgot that while many Americans don’t like “the Government” that is not the same as not liking “government.” 
You have to wonder what some of these Republicans think the government actually does.  They seem shocked that when they shut down the government, the national parks and monuments close, cancer trials come to a halt, people get laid off and don’t have money in their pockets to spend at local stores and businesses, and applications for veterans benefits don’t get processed.
Almost every day for the last two weeks, they would come with a bill to reopen some segment of the government that they had discovered was very popular with the voters.
Then they faced the prospect that their refusal to raise the debt ceiling might mean that there would be no money to pay Social Security checks, pay Medicare benefits, fund education and pay the police and military.
Turns out people like the things that government does for them, and when they begin to disappear, they stop taking those things for granted.
     3). The GOP completely ignored the data – the facts that their own pollsters were telling them about public opinion and the lessons of history.  Cognitive scientist tell us that when new data conflicts with the value frame through which you see the world, people are more prone to disregard the data than they are to discard the frame.   But for decision makers this is a serious problem.
In the last election, the GOP high command simply refused to believe the data that told them who was likely to turn out.  They actually believed until the night of the election that all of those minorities and millennial voters simply would not come out to vote.  They were wrong.
Many Republicans simply refuse to believe that human activity is changing the global climate – no matter how much scientific evidence is presented to the contrary.
Last night Senator Ted Cruz said: “Unfortunately, the Washington establishment did not listen to the American people.”  No matter that all of the public opinion research – from both parties – showed that the public opposed using the shutdown and threat of default to defund ObamaCare. 
And of course they completely ignored that when Newt Gingrich shut down the government in 1995, the 1996 election was a disaster for the GOP.
     4). There was a complete disjuncture between the self-interests of the people driving GOP decision-making and the interest of the party as a whole. 
To put it in a nutshell: the Tea Party lead the GOP down a blind alley and it got mugged – by the American people.
In many respects the GOP was hoisted on its own petard.  The redistricting that had gerrymandered so many Congressional districts that the GOP could maintain control of the House even though they lost the popular vote for Congress by over two million votes, also meant the creation of many solidly Red seats. 
That empowered the most radical elements in the Party to elect Members with extremist views that do not care so much about swing voters and general elections as they do about the threat of primaries from their political right.
But if the GOP is to maintain its hold of Congress – or win the Presidency -- in the face of major demographic shifts (growing numbers of Latinos, Asian Americans, single women voters and millennials) it has to appeal to the majority of Americans – it has to appeal to swing voters and independents. 
And then there was Senator Ted Cruz.  Cruz had only one interest: to raise his profile and build his fund raising base among the ultra right of the Party in anticipation of his run for President in 2016.
The interests of Tea Party activists and the GOP as a whole simply do not coincide.
Speaker John Boehner needed to pander to the Tea Party to maintain his Speakership – at least in the short run.  But that allowed the Party to veer off into the netherworld of right wing fantasy and led to a horrible defeat.
The question is whether wiser heads in the Party – those whose own interests actually coincide with those of the Party as a whole -- and who are capable of understanding the self-interests of others without the interference of an ultra right wing value frame – will grab control of the yoke before it is impossible for the GOP to recover from its spiral dive.
A good start would be for the House to pass immigration reform.

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