As this latest bout of budgetary brinksmanship besets Washington, this question occurs. Or rather, recurs: Where have all the GOP grown-ups gone?
The GOP used to style itself the adult party. Is there really no congressional leader of sufficient stature and seriousness to tell Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and their band of Tea Party ideologues that the time has come to cease and desist?
It’s abundantly clear that the GOP establishment, from Karl Rove to the US Chamber of Commerce, feels that way. Former Republican Chairman Haley Barbour, who once served as political director for the Gipper, outlined the political realities in a recent interview with Post TV.
“When you control the House, the Democrats control the Senate and the White House, you can’t exactly cram your stuff down their throat,” he noted.
That should be obvious to everyone. And yet, the GOP’s supposed congressional “leaders” are so skittish about the Tea Party that they aren’t willing to voice commonsensical objections to Cruz & Co.’s demolition derby demands.
Take House Speaker John Boehner. Left to his own devices, Boehner would obviously prefer the role of conservative grown-up. But by now it’s become painfully apparent that he’s following rather than leading the rambunctious right-wingers in his caucus. Thus it was that, after initially saying he didn’t favor forcing a shutdown showdown over Obamacare, Boehner went along with a funding resolution designed to force just such a fight.
On the Senate side, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who faces a Tea Party primary challenge, though not a particularly serious one — has been timid as a church mouse. Rather than take Cruz on directly, McConnell has tried to cast his opposition to the Texan’s kamikaze tactics as evidence of his own even more determined opposition to Obamacare.
A government shutdown or a debt default caused by a fight over Obamacare would be a further blow for the party.
The one high-profile, nationally known Republican lawmaker willing to speak sense to and about Cruz and Lee — and, to a lesser extent, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio — is John McCain. In February, McCain rebuked Cruz for his insidious insinuations about Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearings for secretary of defense. In May, he chastised Lee for his ridiculous objections to establishing a conference committee on the budget. This week, he took to the Senate floor to upbraid Cruz for using appeasement as a point of comparison when talking about those who thought his 11th-hour quest to defund Obamacare was pointless.
Cruz’s comments themselves reveal a zealot’s complete lack of perspective.
“Look, we saw in Britain, Neville Chamberlain, who told the British people, ‘Accept the Nazis. Yes, they’ll dominate the continent of Europe, but that’s not our problem. Let’s appease them. Why? Because it can’t be done. We can’t possibly stand against them.’ ”
When McCain objected, Cruz apparently said he was referring to pundits. To his credit, McCain called that a distinction without a difference.
Now, Cruz is a vexing thing in politics: A man who is intellectually facile, verbally nimble, cocksure, consumed with ambition — and rhetorically bombastic. If history is any guide, his arc will be that of a shooting star; he’s too much the ideological absolutist, too arrogant, and too sharp-elbowed to have much staying power in politics.
That said, he’s capable of doing the GOP tremendous damage. The Republican brand is already badly tarnished. As sensible Republicans realize, a government shutdown or a debt default caused by a fight over Obamacare would be a further blow for a party already suffering the result of its ideological excesses.
But Cruz and Lee and their allies can do plenty of damage short of that. How? First, by driving the GOP even further to the right as establishment figures take votes designed to do little beyond placate the Tea Party. Second, by short-circuiting the GOP’s much-needed ideological recalibration and filling the vacuum with their own offputting brand of high decibel, hard-right politics.
McCain has done his part. But one man is not a party. The GOP’s supposed congressional leaders need to make their own voices heard — lest they be drowned out altogether.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.