In October we witnessed the leadership of an entire political party operating out of fear -- of its own members. More than anything, the recent government shutdown and debt-ceiling debacle revealed how Republican congressional leaders let a noisy and scary contingent on the right cloud their judgment.
To be sure, the reasons behind that fear are real. Last summer a Tea Party strategist told me that Republican lawmakers should be forewarned: Those refusing to support their futile strategy to defund Obamacare by threatening a government shutdown would pay the price with well-funded primary challenges. "You will own [Obamacare]," he said ominously.
That's exactly what's happening now to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other pragmatists. The Senate Conservatives Fund blasted McConnell, who is facing a primary challenge from the right, for negotiating a "humiliating" Republican surrender. (That would be the "surrender" that opened the government and raised the debt ceiling temporarily.)
But here's something that should make GOP leaders even more afraid: Their actions -- when they appeared to be toying with crashing an already fragile economy -- have left Democrats riding the wave of what might be a perfect storm going into the 2014 elections. That wasn't the case six months ago, when history and the map favored Republicans holding onto the House and possibly taking the Senate.
Now, many of the demographic barriers that were clearly evident in the 2012 presidential election have worsened, with the GOP further alienating minorities, women, and educated white voters. Add to that a disengaged business community, with many major donors standing on the sidelines and even being courted by gleeful Democrats. With all that, losing the House of Representatives has to be treated as a distinct possibility.
The disastrous launch of the Obamacare website is the only lifeline left for the GOP to grab at the moment. It may not be enough. The Republican image is crashing nationally. Not only has voter perception of the party dropped to a record low in modern times, but 70% of respondents in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll accused the Republicans of "putting their own political agenda ahead of what is good for the country." Ouch.
"This was a very consequential event," says GOP pollster Bill McInturff, co-director of that survey. "The brand has been damaged." But, he added, the final chapter has not been written for 2014, and there's still time for positive legislative action that would help his party regain lost ground.
That should start with compromise. In the coming months, Americans will want to see deals brokered on immigration, on spending limits, on tax reform. The Cruzites and Tea Party Republicans -- most of whom are new to Congress -- will loudly resist, drawing more checks and applause from supporters in their bright-red districts.
Which raises the question: Which fear will shape the GOP strategy going forward? Fear of the minority Tea Party right, or fear of more damage to the party's national electoral prospects, even the possibility of losing the House? Facing this vexing choice, Republican congressional leaders might consider the words of liberal-leaning Warren Buffett. "Fear is incredibly contagious," Buffett told Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit a day before the shutdown ended. Success, he notes, comes from confidently looking at long-term horizons. The GOP would do well to apply the Oracle's rule to its own political health -- and stop running scared in the moment.
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