If you want to know why the Republican Party does so many crazy things these days, just follow the money.
In case you missed it, we are on another collision course over the federal budget that could end in a government shutdown by the end of the month. Much like two years ago, Republicans in the House of Representatives have decided to provoke an unnecessary crisis over federal spending to try and extort concessions from President Obama. And while these recurring crises may embody everything that a whole lot of Americans hate about Washington, they are helpful to show why the GOP is increasingly such a dysfunctional political party.
Due to a summer wasted on gridlock and posturing, if Congress doesn’t pass a budget by the end of September the federal government will shutdown, much like it did in the winter of 1995-96. Republicans in the House are trying to get President Obama to agree to defund or delay his signature health care bill in exchange for not shutting down the government. President Obama for his part is refusing to do any such thing. And much like the shutdowns from 1995-96 it’s quite possible that the public will react to a shutdown by blaming Congress and not the White House. So why are the Republicans engaging in such potentially disastrous brinkmanship? The answer is to follow the money.
As Robert Costa pointed out yesterday in the National Review Online, the GOP is being led down this path by conservative activist groups that are benefiting hugely from the showdown:
[A]s the deadline to fund the federal government nears, Republican leaders are struggling mightily to come up with legislation that can pass the House. Over the weekend, leadership staffers fired off anxious e-mails and uneasy veteran House members exchanged calls. Both camps fear that a shutdown is increasingly likely — and they blame the conservative movement’s cottage industry of pressure groups.
But these organizations, ensconced in Northern Virginia office parks and elsewhere, aren’t worried about the establishment’s ire. In fact, they welcome it. Business has boomed since the push to defund Obamacare caught on. Conservative activists are lighting up social media, donations are pouring in, and e-mail lists are growing.
One of the main reasons that Republican politicians do crazy things like threaten to drive the US into default or close the government is because of the influence of perverse personal incentives on GOP politicians. Over the last few decades the conservative movement has set up a huge infrastructure of money making ventures that conservative figures and Republican politicians can tap into to make a fortune. Opportunities like books deals, TV jobs and cushy think tank positions that are yours for the taking as long as you tote the conservative hard line. In some ways, a lot of the conservative movement functions not so much as an ideological or political movement, but a private industry that creates conservative “products” to be sold to a vast market of older, white suburbanites with large amounts of disposable income. Think of Glenn Beck’s show which juxtaposed his ranting about the oncoming economic collapse of America, with advertisements staring none other than Glenn Beck hawking gold coins to invest in to “protect” your money.
When Sarah Palin decided to resign as governor of Alaska a lot of pundits expressed bewilderment over the move. And it was a very foolish thing to do if she was interested in continuing her political career, but it was a very smart move from private equity stand point. The job, and its constraining ethics rules, was getting in the way of cashing in on her status as a conservative icon. As journalist David Bernstein pointed out in a great article in the Boston Phoneix:
There are at least 10 million people who could be called true “movement conservatives” in America today — perhaps twice that number, including conservative and libertarian independents, along with “base” Republicans. They are not only reading and tuning in — they are contributing to conservative nonprofit organizations and political-action committees; they are attending conferences; they are buying paraphernalia; and they are signing up for e-mail newsletters and online publications.
All this adds up, according to his 2009 calculations, to a two billion dollar a year industry, at least.
The problem for the Republicans, and thus for our country as a whole, is these groups don’t sign up members or make money by preaching political compromise and accommodation. They do it by hawking worst case scenarios and dire predictions of doom. Conservative groups also can’t raise cash with appeals to keeping an open mind or having a big tent for a political party. They do it by provoking the emotional wrath of conservatives to purge the GOP free of RINOs or other secret moderate politicians. The result is a political movement where the current political battle is always one where compromise is impossible and the real enemy is Republican politicians looking to sell out “true conservatism.”
So while a savvy and experienced politician like John Boehner may know he’s not going to get President Obama to surrender on his signature achievement, he can’t convince his caucus to do the sensible thing and cut a deal on the budget. Because if they do they could find themselves facing a tea party primary challenge in 2014, or get kicked off the gravy train. And who wants to lose their meal ticket over some lousy government shutdown?
Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP