Sixteen days after shutting down the government and less than 48 hours before pushing America into default, Republicans in Congress have finally abandoned their fruitless effort to preempt the lawful implementation of the Affordable Care Act and allowed the government to re-open and pay its bills.
I’m not sure exactly what convinced them it was time to fold; maybe it was their party’s historic plummet in public opinion polls, or perhaps it was the scolding they received from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce–a committed ally–for their intransigence on the debt ceiling issue.
Maybe they simply got tired of being the laughing stock of the Twitterverse, or else God granted Senate Chaplain Barry Black the miracle he had been praying for.
My guess is that Republican leaders didn't want to be left holding the bag when the economy plunged back into recession–which some economists warned could happen if America reneged on its debt obligations.
Whatever the case, we can all breathe a big sigh of relief that we dodged a bullet. At least for now. The bill signed by President Obama this morning only funds the government through January 15th, which means we get to look forward to doing this all over again in a few months. But for all the drama of the ongoing budget battle, the intra-partisan logjam on Capitol Hill is indicative of a bigger problem; and what hangs in the balance is not just the fate of a once-mighty political establishment, founded on the noblest ideals, that has seen its pride shattered by a mutinous band of malcontents. The very mechanisms of our government are at stake.
The Republican Party is now an organization in disarray. Over the past several weeks the cracks that had been growing between the GOP establishment and the fire-breathing freshmen whose enormous hubris caused this mess have widened into a potentially insurmountable rift that threatens to tear the Grand Old Party to pieces.
Before the ink was dry on the new spending bill, angry GOP lawmakers were calling out Sen. Ted Cruz for torpedoing a potentially stable negotiating position with his sophomoric "let's hold our breath until they give in" brand of politics. Cruz may have been the ringleader this time, but he didn't hogtie John Boehner all by himself. Even last night there were 144 Republican nay-sayers in the House who were willing to turn blue with him and run the risk of economic calamity. And they would have succeeded if Boehner hadn't finally balked on the nonsensical Hastert rule and taken the bill to a vote without their support.
But the only thing worse than a sore loser is one with a vendetta. With just months to go before campaigning begins in earnest for the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans are being forced to take sides; and incumbents now have more to fear from their own right flank than their Democratic rivals.
If that's not bad enough, American voters have a lower opinion of Republicans than ever before in the history of polling. Reince Priebus and his RNC have exactly one year to convince the electorate they're not the crazy-talking, irrelevant wankers they're accused of being (and that's just what their own colleagues are saying). Of course, a year is like a century in political time. But what we just witnessed is more than a minor hiccup, and there is more than a single election at stake.
The worst-case scenario for everyone is that GOP leadership fails to rein in its errant and disproportionately influential fringe and we're forced to ride out the remainder of President Obama's second term with a congressional minority that defines itself by what it's against instead of what it's for.
Not much better is what happens if a civil war within the party propels the GOP into an extended period of obsolescence. That may sound like a good thing to some progressives, but the only thing worse than our two-party system is a nation dominated by a single political platform. Polls show a majority of Americans favor divided government, and while not everyone agrees, there is evidence that we get better laws when legislators are forced to grant concessions to advance their programs.
Unlike our parliamentary cousins, America is not designed to be a nation led by a single majority party; our founders saw the wisdom of a system of checks and balances, where compromise and conciliation ensure that laws are balanced and proportional. But the process only works if everyone is willing to follow the rules of play; you can't threaten to pick up your ball and go home every time you miss a goal. The GOP needs to clean house and kick the cry-babies off the playground so we can go back to legislating the way it was intended. The nation is depending on it.