The Republican Party, it’s generally assumed, suffered a devastating loss on Oct. 16 when it was forced to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. After it was over, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told National Review’s Robert Costa that when the new budget agreement expires in mid-January, “a government shutdown is off the table. We’re not going to do it.” A chastened Republican Party has learned its lesson.
Or has it? McConnell, after all, knew the shutdown strategy was a loser from the start. The true test of whether the shutdown’s denouement has prompted GOP introspection is whether its reactionary flank, which drove events during the past two and a half weeks, feels at all chastened, and evidence strongly indicates it does not. Indeed, a contrarian meme has entered the national conversation. By losing, the GOP extremists actually won. Failure is the new success. It isn’t, really—failure is, and ever shall remain, just failure—but the currency of this too-clever-by-half conceit does provide some insight into the right’s capacity for self-delusion, and the press’s unfortunate willingness to lend those delusions credence.
“We Won’t Back Down On Obamacare” was the headline on an op-ed by Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation, in the Wall Street Journal, on the day after DeMint’s efforts to block Obamacare’s funding ended in humiliating defeat. “We will continue to fight,” DeMint wrote. As usual, DeMint did not acknowledge that the Affordable Care Act was hatched in large part at Heritage itself—its subsequent rejection by Heritage being nothing but crude partisan politics--and that the people who developed the plan, Stuart Butler and Edmund Haislmaier, far from being tarred and feathered, remain employees in good standing at Heritage. (“The president-elect did not invent the idea of a health exchange,” Butler wrote as recently as 2008. “He came up with his own version of an idea that's been refined by people like us at the Heritage Foundation.”) For Heritage now to take pride of authorship in Obamacare would require it to acknowledge that there is value in bipartisan success. Instead, Heritage’s reflexive opposition compels it to declare the law a miserable failure; to pronounce its own attempt to halt the law’s implementation a glorious failure; and to continue its doomed crusade to repeal Obamacare.
If anybody lost stature in the shutdown wars, you’d think it would be Ted Cruz, the obnoxious freshman senator from Texas who loudly opposed any and all accommodation with the Obama administration (though he did not obstruct its final passage, as many feared he would). Cruz’s punishment? He won the presidential straw poll at the hard-right Values Voters Summit, his 42% plurality putting him well ahead of Dr. Ben Carson and Rick Santorum (13% each), Rand Paul (6%), and Marco Rubio (5%). Meanwhile, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that Cruz’s extremism didn’t really cost him support from big business, because he never had any to begin with, relying instead on a few eccentric tycoons. They pronounced themselves highly satisfied with Cruz’s performance.
Another obvious loser in the events of this past week, one would think, was House Speaker John Boehner. Boehner’s hostage-taking by his party’s reactionary wing, with whose tactics he strongly disagreed, made him look pathetically weak. “John, what happened?” President Obama asked Boehner two days into the shutdown, according to an Oct. 18 account in Politico. “I got overrun, that’s what happened,” Boehner replied. Jeez, how do you recover from a humiliation like that? Making matters worse, Boehner, once he gave in to the reactionaries, was unable to deliver anything for them. He couldn’t even get them to vote for a ludicrously unrealistic final compromise that was never going to go anywhere in the Senate.
So they hate him, right? Au contraire. Politico’s Ginger Gibson reports that the reactionary wing “couldn’t be happier with him” because Boehner had the guts to ride this thing down with them to inevitable defeat. “I’ve been really proud of Speaker Boehner the last two-and-a-half weeks,” Rep. Paul Labrador of Idaho told Politico. (In January Labrador wouldn’t support Boehner’s re-election as speaker.) For this reason, Politico’s John Harris pronounces Boehner a member of the “shutdown winner’s club.” Boehner won because he lost. But a less exuberantly creative interpreter than Harris, observing Boehner’s inability to extract a single meaningful concession from the Obama White House, would be hard pressed not to conclude that, if “shutdown clubs” there must be, Boehner’s rightful place is in the losing one.
A more sophisticated (and more logical) version of the failure-is-the-new-success argument is put forward by Bloomberg BusinessWeek (whose cover headline is “The Tea Party Won”) and Peter Beinart of the Daily Beast (“Why The Shutdown Is A Republican Victory”). Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Peter Coy and Beinart both argue that by shifting the debate from the budget sequester to defunding Obamacare and assorted other ridiculous demands, Republicans extracted from the Democrats tacit acceptance of the sequester cuts. That’s correct insofar as those spending cuts remain in place today, and that we didn’t hear much about them during the shutdown fight. But it’s premature to conclude that congressional Democrats and the White House have given up on eliminating the sequester (and it’s simply absurd to suggest, as Bloomberg columnist Ezra Klein does, that Democrats ought to give up on raising taxes to tackle the deficit). If anything, the GOP’s recent humiliation ought to strengthen Democrats’ hand in future budget negotiations.
Back in 2002, Tim Carvell, now head writer for the Daily Show, wrote an essay in Slate titled “Failure Is The New Success.” The business press had long promoted the not-unreasonable idea that business failure often preceded business success, more or less in the spirit of Jerome Kern’s Depression-era tune, “Pick Yourself Up.” But something new was afoot, Carvell wrote. “The notion of failure as the necessary prelude to success” had “reached its decadent phase.” Dennis Kozlowski, former chairman of Tyco, had left the company under an ethical cloud (he’s currently in prison) on more favorable financial terms than if he’d served out his contract. Bad movies (like Showgirls; a more current example would be The Room) got re-branded as camp. The British journalist Toby Young parlayed his spectacular failure in American journalism into a best-selling book (and subsequent movie) titled How To Lose Friends and Alienate People.
Now the notion of failure as triumph has migrated from the business and entertainment worlds into the political realm, where it is getting sympathetic attention from the press. But let’s be clear. The Republican Party has damaged itself with independent voters and with mainstream political donors, whose support in national elections will matter a lot more than the approval of hard-right fanatics. It may even have hurt its chances of maintaining a House majority. Failure isn’t success. It’s just failure. And what the GOP’s right flank is experiencing right now, in government and the court of political opinion, is failure. Let’s not congratulate them for it.