Like all good soap operas, our recent shutdown fiasco did not fail to entertain. While it made some of us cry, some of us laugh and some of us pull out our hair, the surreal circus atmosphere of Washington has some important insights into the future of House Speaker John Boehner and the Republican Party.
Although conventional wisdom would promptly conclude that the shutdown will be the final nail in Boehner’s coffin, the reality is that Boehner is likely to remain speaker for the foreseeable future. Boehner’s choice to adopt the Tea Party’s message during the shutdown and pay lip service to its mantra reflects a tactical choice from the speaker rather than an unfortunate spout of dementia caught from his Tea Party colleagues.
For those of you who remember back in 2012, when Boehner was re-elected speaker by the GOP caucus, Boehner faced a substantial behind-the-scenes revolt from a majority of Tea Party Republicans who hoped to install Rep. Eric Cantor as speaker. While the revolt ultimately failed, it undoubtedly left Boehner shaken and sharpened his focus on securing the allegiance of his GOP majority for the next speaker election. While most of us imagine Boehner’s leadership over the GOP to be something akin of a small girl hopelessly trying to walk several Great Danes, it is undeniable that the shutdown fiasco has given him legitimacy with the Tea Party and secured his authority as speaker.
Some may disagree. I’m sure there are many who stand behind forecasts of the speaker’s impending doom. But before you start salivating at the thought of Boehner being ousted, contemplate who would replace him. Assuming Boehner would be ousted in a GOP caucus vote with the GOP still controlling the House, the almost certain successor would be House Majority Leader Cantor, who is leagues more partisan, pro-Tea Party and pro-shutdown than Boehner.
Looking at the Republican Party as a whole, the shutdown fiasco is undoubtedly one of the greatest PR farces in modern political history. Evidenced by the media and the public’s belief that Republicans were responsible for the shutdown — not just an opinion, but a polled and numerical fact — the GOP’s failure to even partially convince some of the middle electorate warrants serious concerns about their ability to hold the House and take the Senate in 2014. The PR “shellacking” the Republicans received has decimated the GOP’s public image and has reinvigorated the stereotype that it is the party of “no.”
It was this same characteristic of being the party of “no” during the Gingrich-versus-Clinton shutdown that led to the decimation of the GOP’s relatively strong hold on the House in the 1998 elections. I strongly suspect the GOP’s hold on the House will be substantially weakened, even with the effects of Republican gerrymandering, in 2014 due to the overwhelming backlash from the public against Republicans as the party of “no.”
The long-term future of the GOP has an even worse forecast. Unlike the House leader, who exercised calculated politics, the GOP’s message is disorganized, and its ideological statesmen are in a state of civil war within the party. The House’s 60-member Tea Party caucus that forced the shutdown provides a perfect illustration of the hardliners in the Republican Party who advocate a brand of ideological-purity politics and completely reject the idea of compromise. Spurred on by cheerleaders such as Sen. Ted Cruz whose skills end at waving pompoms, this inexperienced faction of the party will eventually cause the GOP’s loss of the House and hopefully, in the aftermath, create major rebranding of the party that will eliminate these hardline ideologues.
Combined with the growing diversity of the United States, which will bring major states such as Texas into play, the majority of the GOP will simply arrive at the calculated conclusion that the party’s era of loud-mouthed bigotry must end in order for it to survive and compete with Democrats.
As the Republican National Committee so eloquently put it, the GOP can no longer afford to be seen as the party of “stuffy old white men.” While unexpected future events could certainly unfold after you read this, the party’s current trajectory is doomed for extinction if it continues to practice the irresponsible brand of ideological purity politics exhibited in the shutdown. Only through responsible Republicans (which many are) can the party pull itself out of the sinkhole it is currently in and become a productive force in American politics.
Seth Zawila is a junior at UC Berkeley.