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October 17, 2013 11:03 AM What Lesson Was Learned?

By Ed Kilgore

So if the end of the fiscal crisis represents, as Ross Douthat calls it, a “Teachable Moment” for the GOP, what would that lesson, exactly, be? It mostly appears to be about strategy and tactics, not goals or ideology (or “principles” as ideologues like to say in their endless efforts to ascribe dishonesty and gutlessness to dissidents).

Even for Douthat, who clearly wants the memory of the Tea Folk (or to use his term, “populist”) failure in this incident to be seared into the collective memory of Republicans, it’s mostly about the how rather than the what and the why:

The mentality that drove the shutdown — a toxic combination of tactical irrationality and the elevation of that irrationality into a True Conservative (TM) litmus test — may have less influence in next year’s Beltway negotiations than it did this time around, thanks to the way this has ended for the defunders after John Boehner gave them pretty much all the rope that they’d been asking for. But just turn on talk radio or browse RedState or look at Ted Cruz’s approval ratings with Tea Partiers and you’ll see how potent this mentality remains, how quickly it could resurface, and how easily Republican politics and American governance alike could be warped by it in the future.
So for undeluded conservatives of all persuasions, lessons must be learned. If the party’s populists want to shape and redefine and ultimately remake the party, they can’t pull this kind of stunt again.

The problem was “the stunt,” not the violent antipathy towards a pale version of universal health coverage or the conviction that the New Deal/Great Society legacy is fatal to America or the belief that nearly half the country is composed of satanic blood-suckers and baby-killers.

Eric Cantor stressed this distinction between strategy and tactics, on the one hand, and ideology on the other in his speech to yesterday’s doomed House Republican Conference:

“We all agree Obamacare is an abomination. We all agree taxes are too high. We all agree spending is too high. We all agree Washington is getting in the way of job growth. We all agree we have a real debt crisis that will cripple future generations. We all agree on these fundamental conservative principles… . We must not confuse tactics with principles. The differences between us are dwarfed by the differences we have with the Democratic party, and we can do more for the American people united,” he told them.

In fact, I’m beginning to get the sense that the more loudly a conservative denounces the tactics of the fiscal fight as idiotic, the more he or she can be counted on to insist on agreeing with the ideology that motivated the idiocy in the first place.

One of my favorite characterizations of the whole “defund Obamacare” crusade was by the conservative blogger Allahpundit:

If “defund” was more likely than repeal, it was more likely in the sense that an 85-yard field goal is more likely than a 90-yard one.

But don’t confuse that strategic argument with any broader sense that conservatives or Republicans should rethink their entire militant opposition to the Affordable Care Act. No, it just means recognizing that getting rid of this law—as opposed to obstructing it and making sure the number of people benefitting from it is as small as possible—must await the kind of victory in 2016 that eluded the party last year.

Don’t get me wrong here: there’s great value to the nation in convincing one of our two major political parties to respect the results of elections and eschew wildly disruptive legislative strategies and tactics. But even if that “lesson was learned,” and the jury’s still out on that proposition, it’s not the same as a serious reconsideration of today’s radical conservatism, which may well emerge from this incident as strong as ever.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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