After their devastating defeat and humiliating surrender in the fight over the government shutdown and debt ceiling, many Republicans, instead of engaging in introspection or even self-criticism, have resorted to sharpening their long knives in an inevitable bout of fratricide.
Welcome to the strange world of the Tea Party, where ideological purity, self-righteousness and moral indignation are mistaken for political strategy. What is astounding about the debacle of the extreme right in the Republican Party is that those who led the charge, and have the scars to show for it, are not willing to admit that they went to battle without a plan, and/or an exit strategy. It is still not clear why the Republican establishment in the U.S. Congress allowed a band of Tea Party zealots not only to frame and dominate the debate before and during the confrontation with the Obama Administration, over the future of the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare, but also to lead the quixotic charge when they should have known that it would lead to a disaster.
What is clear though is that the Tea Party’s crusading knights have dealt the Grand Old Party (GOP) its worst shellacking in recent years. The debacle showed the deep fissures within Republican ranks, and the astonishing inability of the leadership in the House to deliver the votes. Only 87 out of the 231 Republicans followed speaker John Boehner of Ohio. And no sooner had the Republican establishment in Congress, represented by minority leader in the senate Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and speaker of the House Boehner, waved the white flag of surrender and signed a deal with the Democrats that gave them no concessions, than the internecine sniping began among Republicans of different stripes. Some observers spoke of the coming “civil war” among Republicans.
Still fighting the Civil War
From the beginning of October when the Republicans, led by Tea Party firebrand Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, as well as Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky and others decided to defund Obamacare which is already the settled law of the land. It was clear that the objective was all or nothing. This wing of the Party in as much as it is striving to deconstruct anything and everything the Obama Administration has achieved so far, particularly Obamacare, is equally bent on cleansing the Republican party of “centrist” leaders and members who are willing to reach solutions based on compromise. For this group, many of whose new members are not familiar with the ways of Washington, negotiating with the Obama Administration means accepting the dreaded concept of compromise. What makes compromise anathema to this band of flamethrowers is the fact that they have yet to fully accept the very legitimacy of President Obama when they still question his commitment to the core American values. For some Tea Party members, who waive the old Southern Confederate flag in their rallies, the American Civil War is not over yet and the fight against the “evil” of centralized power should continue. To them the cry of “State Rights” is still used to mobilize white support against what they claim are Federal programs like Obamacare that are designed to help minorities, and to push the U.S. onto the path of Socialism. To them President Obama is the embodiment of these policies.
To fight or not to fight
In the aftermath of the shutdown showdown, many conservative commentators and bloggers criticized the Republicans’ recklessness in waging a battle they had no realistic hope of winning. Most of them explicitly blamed the Tea Party for fighting for the sake of fighting. The American public spoke loudly and clearly. An Associated Press-GFK poll showed that 70 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of the Tea Party. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll showed that 24 percent of Americans only have a favorable view of the Republican Party and a bleaker picture of the Tea Party whereas only 21 percent have a favorable impression of it. For their part, some members of the GOP establishment began to pick up the pieces and ask some questions bordering on soul-searching. Senator McConnell vowed that he will not allow another government shutdown in January if negotiations with Democrats reached a dead end.
To the hard-core right wingers there were no lessons learned or any need for contrition or soul searchingHisham Melhem
McConnell admitted that his party has learned a painful lesson. Of the freshmen members of Congress who caused the setback he said: “I think we have fully now acquainted our new members with what a losing strategy that is.” Senator McCain who once described his new Republican nemesis Ted Cruz as a “wacko bird” said the whole campaign to repeal Obamacare was a “fool’s errand” and added that “we have to assure the America people that we are not going to do this again.” Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah was critical of the way the some Tea Party members of the House have undermined their leader, speaker Boehner, saying he “bitterly resent[s]” their tactics.
To the hard-core right wingers there were no lessons learned or any need for contrition or soul searching. Instead they went on the offensive with Senator Cruz saying” “Unfortunately the Washington establishment is failing to listen to the American people.” Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas said: “We took a shot at it and we fell short, and I think we are waiting around for another battle over Obamacare.” To some diehard Republican members of the House, the fight was more important than the results. For Representative Massie nothing will be achieved without a fight; “I don’t see any credence to the argument that we would have been better off without the fight.” Not to be outdone, Representative Michel Bachmann of Minnesota said the shutdown was worth it regardless of the failure. “Absolutely, I think it is worth it! It’s been worth it because what we did is we fought the right fight.”
RINO’s (Republican In Name Only)
It wasn’t only that the Tea Party and those groups that support it such as Heritage Action For America, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation, were unapologetic. They declared war on those Republican members of Congress who are seen as not sufficiently conservative enough.
Threats and insults were hurled at the 27 Republican Senators and 87 House members who voted for the resolution to end the shutdown, with promises of financial aid to those who will potentially challenge them in the upcoming primaries. The website TeaParty.Net described these members of congress as RINO’s (Republican In Name Only) which is the ultimate insult in the Republican lexicon against a fellow Republican. These names were put on a “hunting list” for the 2014 mid-term elections. Other Tea Party and conservative fundraising groups announced that they will endorse and financially support businessman Matt Bevin the candidate who is challenging Senator McConnell, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin issued oblique threats against some well-known senators, when she posted on her Facebook page” “Be energized, we’re going to shake things up in 2014… We must focus on important House and Senate races. Let’s start with Kentucky –which happens to be awfully close to South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi.” This was a clear call for supporting those who will wage primary (party elections) challenges to Senators McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Lamar Alexander and Thad Cochran. In recent years, the Tea Party and other extremists in Congress and beyond have been successful in intimidating those members of Congress who might contemplate voting against the wishes and views of the hard-core right, by threatening to support a challenger in the primaries who represent views to their right. Hence the new concept in American politics: “to be primaried.”
In anticipation of the next round of negotiations between the Republicans and Democrats over the debt ceiling and the budget, and in the wake of the criticism leveled at the Republican hardliners from the American public to Republican luminaries such as former Secretary of State James Baker and former governor of Florida Jeb Bush, many are asking obvious but urgent questions. Have the Republicans drawn the right lessons from their bitter setback, especially when some members of congress continue to say “we are going to live to fight another day?”
Have they been chastened by an embittered public? Will the GOP establishment be able to steer the Republican ship away from violent squalls? Or will the enchanting music of the conservative sirens lure the ship to its doom on the rocky coast? Norm Ornstein, an astute observer of American politics, sees that the antagonism against the Federal government on the part of the new crop of members of Congress is especially toxic and “represents a phenomenon that is not new but is really awful: the radicalization of so many lawmakers who don’t want limited, but good, government but instead want to blow then whole thing up. The may know not what they do, but sadly, they have the weapons to do it.”
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem
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