U.S. government shutdown stokes Republican party civil war: Neil Macdonald

While the U.S. government shutdown appears to be an ideological battle between the Democrats and the Republicans, in recent days it has become clear how much of a rift it is causing within the GOP. As Neil Macdonald writes, more moderate Republicans are increasingly speaking out against the Tea Party faction.

House Speaker John Boehner working to fight off Tea Party advances

A couple of years ago, suited up in full revolutionary regalia and ablaze with the fury of the righteous, a Tea Party leader named William Temple appeared before TV cameras in Washington with a warning for Republicans.

Temple was, at that point, chairman of the national Tea Party Convention. Speaking angrily from under his tricorn hat, he singled out House Speaker John Boehner.

To Temple and his musket-waving fellow travellers, Boehner was guilty of two unforgivable sins (one craven and the other unmanly): compromising with Democrats, and his famous inability to hold back tears at emotional public moments.

Just a few months earlier, Speaker Boehner had struck a deal that avoided a government shutdown, but that only cut spending by a mere $38 billion.

With the debt limit approaching later in 2011, Tea Partiers wanted no more of this compromise foolishness from what Temple described as “our tearful House Speaker.”

"It's a cowardly act of treason against coming generations, and we may be able to give Boehner something to really cry about in 2012," declared Temple.

Well, Boehner went on to compromise again that summer, agreeing to raise the debt limit – and avert the catastrophe of a national default – in a deal that eventually resulted in more deep spending cuts. It didn’t rip the guts out of government, though, and Tea Partiers, feeling betrayed, went on the attack.

Thus began the Republican civil war that’s now tearing apart the party, shuttering entire sections of the U.S. government, and maybe propelling the entire economy toward catastrophe.

A party takeover

As it turned out, the Tea Party wasn’t much of a threat to anyone during the 2012 elections. Boehner returned as Speaker, got muscular and stripped some dissidents of committee positions. The Tea Party caucus in Congress actually shrank, and even went dormant for several months.

But under the implacable guidance of Rep. Michele Bachmann, they re-formed, more hardcore than ever, and with deep-pocketed outside help, staged a party takeover.

House Speaker John Boehner has been criticized for compromising with Democrats and for being unable to hold back tears at emotional public moments. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

Their power is the absolute power to obstruct. There are more than 40 of them in the House, and together, they can deny Boehner the 218 votes necessary to accomplish anything in the 435-seat chamber.

They’ve humiliated their Speaker repeatedly, forcing him to abandon compromise positions and withdraw legislation he’d introduced. They’ve questioned his conservatism, and called him “petty and vindictive.”

And now, having brushed Boehner aside, they’ve cut off government funding because President Obama won’t eviscerate his Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – which has been the law of the land for nearly four years.

Boehner, thoroughly whipped, has fallen into line.

With nearly a million public servants effectively laid off, he now travels, often alone, from one microphone to the next, declaring that House Republicans have actually worked to keep government open and that it was Obama and the Democrats who orchestrated the shutdown.

Cracking in plain sight

It’s a ridiculous claim, and Boehner looks undignified and diminished making it.

The party’s establishment regards all this as appallingly stupid politics. And now, the Republican congressional caucus is cracking in plain sight.

Its non-Tea-Party majority, for years terrified into silence by Tea Party threats in their home districts, can still read a poll. And polls say most Americans think it’s wrong to shut down the government, lunacy to force a default on America’s debts.

News websites are now tallying the number of Republicans who have stated they would join with the 200 House Democrats and reopen the government, no strings attached.

On Thursday, the Washington Post had 19 Republicans ready to vote yes and four leaning towards yes. The Huffington Post had 20 in the yes column.

“Enough is enough,” Rep. Jon Runyan told a hometown newspaper, the Burlington County Times.

Pete King, the New York Republican leading the yes-vote crowd, is on TV every day, calling the Tea Party’s tactics “governmental terrorism,” and denouncing one of its leaders, Republican senator Ted Cruz, as a “fraud.”

It’s obvious: if even 20 Republicans are willing to join 200 Democrats and vote yes - never mind all the Republicans who would love to see the shutdown end just as long as they can vote no and protect themselves from Tea Party retaliation - that means the will of a majority in the House of Representatives is to reopen government without conditions.

A miserable position to be in

Conveniently, the Senate has provided the House with just such a bill.

It is the sole prerogative of John Boehner to put that bill to a vote. So far, he’s refused. Obama has taken to pointing that out, declaring that Boehner “is afraid of his own extremists.”

The Speaker, generally regarded here as a courtly, establishment man, is in a miserable position. This is the moment Tea Partiers have sought for years: for the next two weeks, as the debt ceiling deadline approaches, they have the spotlight, and, they believe, leverage vastly out of proportion to their numbers.

But as both Wall Street and the Treasury are already warning, even the prospect of a default will disrupt the economy. Actually allowing it would be calamitous.

If Boehner does call the vote, he effectively declares war on the Tea Party and their powerful, ultraconservative, special-interest allies.

The internecine Republican warfare is widely described here as a fight between “moderates” and the party’s “right.” That’s a dimwitted choice of words.

The Republican party has long since banished its true moderates, and moved further to the right. This is in fact a war between a right-wing caucus and its far-right ideologues.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Michele Bachmann earlier this week, as the clock ticked toward shutdown. “This is exactly what we had hoped for."

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.