After 16 days of anxiety, grandstanding and acrimonious finger-pointing, the experiment in American democracy that was the government shutdown has been run, and for the Republicans, the results were devastating.
With the immediate crisis over, amid a prevailing mood of exhaustion and contempt for those who precipitated it, Republican minds now turn to question of long-term electoral fallout. Immediate polling has suggested that association with the shutdown debacle has the potential to do damage to Republican hopes of winning a Senate majority, and some have even argued that it may lead them to lose the House of Representatives.
How realistic is the prospect of a Republican electoral blowout in 2014 as a legacy of recent events? Well, if it does happen, or even if the House numbers swing substantially towards the Democrats, it will certainly be because of recent missteps. The polling makes clear that an incumbent’s association with the shutdown can nudge voters to vote against them, making the strategic play during the campaigns a no-brainer for Democrats. A Republican loss of the House was considered a pipe dream only a few weeks ago, so the very existence of the debate suggests the severity of the recent error.
The path of moderation
Two points should be borne in mind, however. The first is that election day is more than a year away, meaning that much depends on what happens between now and then. Given that they were unconvinced of its wisdom in the first place, and it has now ended in ignominy, it might seem a reasonable prediction that the (relatively) moderate leaders of the Republican caucus will refuse to countenance any re-run of recent brinkmanship when the next set of budget and debt deadlines arrive.
They are seasoned enough operators to know the difference between tough negotiating and self-immolation, even if not all of their colleagues are. During some of the arguments to come – on the role of government, “entitlement” (health and welfare) spending and taxation – the GOP may be able to retain greater party unity and win more favour with the median voter, so long as they steer clear of flirting with nuclear options.
A successful Republican regrouping may rely, however, on the radical right being more chastened than they appear to have been by recent events, and accepting the need to rein in their more outlandish instincts, as opposed to mounting a renewed assault on the moderates in their own party. If, on the other hand, the radicals choose to interpret this latest defeat as a stab in the back by their own side and become even less controllable by the party leadership, all bets are off. We may yet find out where the party’s rock bottom ultimately lies.
Lest we forget, even when staring down the barrel of the gun on Wednesday night, a majority of Republican members of the House – 144, or 62% – voted against the deal which ultimately won the day. The difficulty involved in steering the Republican house majority onto the path of moderation should not be underestimated.
Saved by the gerrymander
Bleak as that may sound for the party’s electoral prospects, it is important to remember a second point: there is a structural safety net limiting how far the party can fall, least in the short term. If the Republican goal is ultimately to reclaim national power, then the shutdown circus may well have done them grievous harm, since the electorates for marginal Senate seats have tended to punish extremist candidates in the general election. Those voters show all the signs of responding badly to the recent burst of radicalism.
In the House, however, where the drawing of constituency boundaries usually lies in the hands of partisan state legislatures, dislodging the Republicans in 2014 will be a far taller order. Because they won big in 2010, Republicans were able to lock in advantageous boundaries for themselves for the next decade. Combined with other factors, such as the increasing geographical clustering of like-minded voters and the tendency of Democrat voters to be concentrated in urban districts, this helps explain why Democrats failed to win a majority of seats in the house in 2012 even though they won 1.4 million more votes nationwide.
The number of uncompetitive seats that this creates also helps explain why Congressmen fear a primary challenge from their own extreme flank as punishment for compromise far more than a backlash from the general electorate for adhering to doctrinaire positions.
Plumbing the depths
The story is more complicated than gerrymandering alone, but it is evident that the problem is real. Current arrangements make it unduly difficult for Democrats to translate national victory with the voters into a House majority.
Unless the misjudgements of both leadership and radical fringe continue to mount such that the Republican party plumbs catastrophic new depths of unpopularity, it seems highly likely the party will remain entrenched in their majority position in the House, even as their Senate and presidential aspirations falter.
President Obama will no doubt seek to press his advantage to maximum effect in the weeks ahead, as any politician worth his salt should. But so long as the electoral system remains as dysfunctional as it presently is, and so many of the participants within it so averse to the very idea of compromise, divided government seems all-too likely to continue after 2014. Sadly, with that comes the sort of government-by-crisis that has embarrassed America and horrified the world over recent months.
Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.