For the past 20 years, American politics has been defined by Republican revolt. The rightwing radicalism that now worries the whole world first emerged in response to Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. It is not that Republicans were never extreme before that time; their challenge to the legitimacy of federal authority traces back to proslavery attempts at nullification and segregationist assertions of states’ rights. But it was 20 years ago that the Congressional wing of the Grand Old Party, led by Newt Gingrich, adopted belligerent non-co-operation as its defining stance.
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It was Mr Gingrich who turned bipartisanship from Washington’s greatest virtue to its most reviled vice. Under his leadership, congressional Republicans refused any quarter on healthcare reform and supplied no votes for the economic plan that spurred the long boom of the 1990s. In their new mode, Republicans refused to vote on presidential nominations and buried the White House in investigations and subpoenas. It was Mr Gingrich who, in 1995, invented the tactic of refusing to raise the debt ceiling as a cudgel to get Mr Clinton to agree to outsized spending cuts. It was Mr Gingrich who invented the tactic of shutting down the government for the same end.
Mr Clinton’s view was that the Republican refusal to be reasonable was all about him. Because he was elected in a three-way race without an absolute majority, he thought Republicans never accepted him as legitimate. An alternate view is that the radical Republican style was largely a matter of incentives and rewards. Abandoning traditions of responsibility and civility won the GOP control of both houses of Congress in 1994. Rejecting any compromise brought Republicans the perks and power of majority control for the first time in 40 years. Thus did the politics of total resistance become their path of least resistance.
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In subsequent years, the conservative movement built up an elaborate incentive structure to favour extremist views and tactics by individual politicians. State Republican parties redrew maps to create safe congressional districts where appealing to swing voters would no longer be required. Groups such as The Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform targeted Republican moderates for political extermination, recruiting primary challengers to run against them, scripting their attack ads and funding their campaigns. (No Koch brothers showered their millions on moderates.) The Tea Party emerged partly out of inchoate anger at social and economic change, and partly in response to these incentives.
In his first term, Barack Obama did his part to encourage the GOP hostage-taking. When Republicans demanded lopsided budget cuts in exchange for a debt-ceiling increase in 2011, the president was too willing to negotiate, giving them a victory in the form of the budget sequestration that took effect this year. By the time of his 2012 re-election campaign, however, Mr Obama had learnt the lesson that compromising with bullies only fuels their aggression. This time, he refused to negotiate, sending a message that the debt ceiling could not be used for leverage.
The unconditional surrender by John Boehner, the GOP speaker of the House of Representatives, was a watershed because it points to a change in the incentives that have favoured two decades of Republican recklessness. The party’s Senate elders are embarrassed. Mr Boehner’s unwillingness to stand up to the Tea Party has made them look ridiculous. It has a driven a wedge between the GOP and Wall Street, which was appalled by the calculated flirtation with default. It has reduced Republican chances of recapturing control of the Senate next year, which looked like a real possibility before the latest crisis. They are not going to try this tactic again.
But for many Republicans, the incentives remain unchanged. Texas senator Ted Cruz has done great harm to his party by instigating the showdown over “Obamacare”, the Affordable Care Act, but he made himself into a celebrity and the darling of the right. Many House Republicans will be home in their districts this weekend, bragging that they voted against the sellout. In the midterm election of 2014, no ultraconservative Republican is likely to face a moderate primary challenger with interest group support and outside funding.
What the GOP needs to become a serious governing party again is a set of countervailing incentives and rewards to support what were once its cardinal virtues: respect for tradition and process, aversion to radicalism and willingness to compromise. For the moment, however, the Tea Party remains its dominant force – soundly beaten in this round to be sure, but unbowed, unrepentant and still deliriously irresponsible.
The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group