Yesterday House Republicans voted against a debt limit increase by a margin of 199-28. It was widely interpreted in the MSM and among progressive writers (examples: Molly Ball and Noam Scheiber) as a sign of Republican “pragmatism,” of a thaw in radical conservatism that might lead to other “bipartisan breakthroughs”—perhaps on immigration reform!
There was some disagreement (mainly on Twitter) as to whether the passage of a “clean” debt limit bill confirmed John Boehner’s status as a legislative wizard, or rather the playing out of a weak hand; I seemed to be the rare voice suggesting Boehner’s leadership credentials had been severely damaged.
You will forgive me for an enduring skepticism on this latest “proof” that “the fever” (as the president calls radical conservatism) has broken, the Tea Party has been domesticated, the grownups are back in control, and the storms that convulsed our political system in 2009 have finally passed away. We’ve been hearing these assurances metronomically from the moment “the fever” first appeared.
The evidence for this meme on this particular occasion seems to be that John Boehner felt free to bring up a debt limit bill and pass it with Democratic votes without fear for his political life. Having promised repeatedly that he would not allow a debt default, it is reasonably clear he had little choice but to pursue this course of action. But aside from the fact that he could only secure GOP votes from a handful of leadership allies (though not, significantly, Paul Ryan), committee chairs, and bicoastal quasi-moderates, it is not all that clear just yet that the GOP back-benchers racing to get out of Washington before a winter storm are satisfied with how the deal went down. Their level of equanimity will not improve after puzzled conservative constituents grill them on this “surrender,” and after they are congratulated by everyone else on the political spectrum for their abandonment of “conservative principles.”
In other words, it’s once again premature to read into this development a sea-change in contemporary conservatism or the GOP. Best I can tell from reading conservative media the last few weeks, the reluctance of GOPers to engineer another high-level fiscal confrontation owed less to the public repudiation of last autumn’s apocalypse than to the belief that Republicans are on the brink of a historic midterm victory accompanied by a decisive negative referendum on Obamacare. If that’s “pragmatism,” it’s of a very narrow sort.
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