Dumb Republicans are depriving the right of victory

The only thing standing between conservatives and cuts to Social Security and Medicare right now is conservatives

Published October 9, 2013 7:01PM (EDT)

Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz                                      (AP/Steven Senne/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz (AP/Steven Senne/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

There is a possible end to this current ridiculous farce of a government meltdown that would be an unqualified victory for conservatives, if they are smart (and disciplined) enough to pursue it. There are signs, today, that some Republicans realize as much, and are attempting to nudge their peers accordingly. There is one large obstacle: Conservatives need to agree on what "victory" would look like before they can proceed.

Many congressional conservatives support the shutdown -- and even look forward to a possible default -- just as a tangible expression of visceral hatred for "the government" and the concept of governance itself. There is no conceivable satisfactory endgame for this bloc beyond a situation in which survival seed vaults become useful investments.

For other conservatives, the problem is simply that they've now come this far, and can't back down without having something to show for it. That's basically what John Boehner has been openly saying for a while now. For an entirely self-fixated glory hound like Ted Cruz, all that matters is the televised fight, and his only end goal is to not be seen as having capitulated when this all collapses in defeat or default. The marginally more party-oriented conservatives are now looking for an acceptable "victory." They need to convince conservatives to pursue more realistic goals, without abandoning activist-approved tactics.

Which brings us to the Op-Eds from the two top conservative "brains" in the House. As Jonathan Chait says: "The subtext of op-eds today by Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan is a promise to ratchet down their ransom terms." Ryan, in particular, annoyed conservatives by not mentioning Obamacare in his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed. Only in the incoherent and self-contradictory world of the modern conservative movement can permanent cuts to retirement programs be considered a "ratcheting down" of terms from the (ostensibly) temporary delay of the Affordable Care Act. Ryan's proposal is "structural reforms to entitlement programs" in exchange for "relief" from sequestration -- they'll trade ending a purposefully destructive policy for slashing social insurance programs.

But ... that proposal might actually go somewhere, if Republicans fall in line behind it. As Chait also notes, Ryan isn't actually interested in negotiation or compromise. What he is seeking to do is make it acceptable for conservatives to demand a more realistic concession. If we assume that Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor care more than Ted Cruz (or John Boehner) about implementing the conservative agenda (whatever that even is anymore), then at some point they're going to wise up and actually take advantage of what President Obama has already repeatedly offered them -- "chained CPI" and "means testing" a couple of other longtime right-wing/"deficit hawk" goals.

People like Chait and Jonathan Cohn are doing their best to explain that Ryan is still practicing extortion instead of negotiation, but his Op-Ed has already been called an "olive branch" by the Beltway press, which is in full we need leaders to lead us out of this crisis with leadership mode. There are some signs that the savvier elements of the movement might coalesce around a slightly more reality-based strategy on the shutdown. Heritage Action, the scorecard-keeping activist arm of Heritage, has endorsed raising the debt limit and continuing to fight on funding the government. A short-term debt limit increase could allow Republicans to "negotiate" a non-grand bargain -- one involving the "entitlement" cuts but not so much of the revenue-raising -- with the implicit, as opposed to explicit, threat of intentional default.

As Conor Friedersdorf writes today, Republicans have repeatedly sabotaged what could've been substantive policy victories, in favor of a series of meaningless and ultimately counterproductive symbolic victories. Cantor and Ryan have both been at the forefront of that strategy. Ryan has repeatedly turned down very conservative compromise budget proposals from the president in favor of just bumbling toward an exploitable crisis. The crisis is here, and the only thing standing in the way of exploiting it is more Republican self-sabotage.

Liberals were spared a "Grand Bargain" -- a conservative policy goal branded (to its political detriment) as "centrist" -- thanks almost entirely to Republicans. Ryan knows he has to demand concessions that border on unreasonable in order to get conservatives on board with any end to this crisis. The problem, as ever, is that any concessions Republicans can realistically extract from Democrats and the president run the risk of being seen as insufficient specifically because they are achievable, and trolls like Cruz and his enabling organizations will be happy to make that case. Republicans are a few steps away from using a government shutdown to get a Democratic president to cut Social Security and Medicare, and Republicans are the only people standing in their way.

Once again, liberal Democrats have to hope that congressional Republicans are too dumb to take advantage of the opportunities that their obstruction and brinkmanship actually created for them.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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Gop Government Shutdown "grand Bargain" Medicare Paul Ryan Republican Party Social Security The Right