For GOP, the Damage Is Undeniable

by Stuart Rothenberg October 18, 2013 · 10:02 AM EDT

The deal to open the government and raise the debt ceiling may be done, but the damage to the national Republican Party is considerable.

One GOP consultant — who clearly hails from the more conservative end of his party — didn’t hold back recently in slamming the “no compromise” conservatives who led House Republicans off the political cliff with a government shutdown and by flirting with a debt default.

“We will be weaker when we negotiate with Democrats next time, and we proved that President Obama doesn’t need to negotiate with us,” he said on the condition of anonymity.

The problem, of course, is that the Ted Cruz/Ted Yoho wing of the party doesn’t really believe in negotiation, which, at its core, requires compromise. And while they don’t like compromise, they are particularly unwilling to negotiate with a president they regard as illegitimate and at war with fundamental American values.

But as my colleague Nathan Gonzales pointed out to me recently, “keep fighting” is a motto, not a strategy. And a strategy — or at least one that had even a small chance of succeeding — is something that Cruz et al. have never had.

The political fallout from the confrontation is very real. Republicans got almost nothing out of the deal to re-open the government and raise the debt ceiling except, of course, that they lost another 10 percentage points in their favorable rating and looked less like an organized political party and more like a disorganized, confused rabble.

Republican operatives are worried that the showdown will improve Democratic House recruiting considerably for 2014, and it could well damage GOP fundraising, both among small-dollar donors and the party’s bigger hitters.

Small donors will be disenchanted that Republican officeholders caved on both the shutdown and debt ceiling, while the larger donors, who tend to be more pragmatic, are likely to sit on their cash for fear that the GOP will do something else crazy to threaten the economy and the party’s electoral prospects.

GOP insiders point out that while the party clearly has lost some ground in recent years among swing voters because of its position on cultural issues, the party’s great strength — at least up until now — was that it was generally seen by independents as fiscally responsible and prudent on economic matters. Now that argument may be more difficult for Republicans to make.

Ironically, the House Republicans’ suicide mission came at exactly the right time for President Barack Obama and the wrong time for the GOP.

The president had divided his own party over issues like government surveillance and Syria, and for the first time polls showed Democratic support for Obama starting to soften. The normal second-term fatigue seemed to be developing, which might well have produced a more or less “normal” midterm political environment. But all that changed when Republican Sens. Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah egged on House conservatives to oppose anything short of complete surrender by the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Obamacare.

Now, Democrats are united and energized, angry at Republicans’ attempts to destroy Obama’s most important success.

Of course, polls have also shown that Obamacare has become more popular over the past few weeks, in spite of the inept rollout of the program. Instead of being able to capitalize on the snafus, Republicans have talked about the legislative deadlock, robbing themselves of a potentially useful talking point.

As I have previously noted, we won’t know for a while what long-term effects the confrontation will have on the fight for Congress next year. But as one GOP strategist observed, the damage to the Republican brand could hurt the party in 2014 or 2016.

As he noted, “Before the shutdown it wasn’t plausible that Democrats could regain the House next year. It may be plausible now, but we aren’t sure. But a mediocre year in 2014 for Republicans could improve the chances of a Democratic House takeover in 2016, a presidential year.”

“We need to have good years in (what should be) good years, because you know we are going to have bad years in bad years,” he continued, worrying that the last two weeks have turned lemonade back into a lemon for House Republicans.

All of this leaves two questions. First, are we going to see a replay of the last few weeks in January and February, when the current budget deal expires? And second, will a full-scale Republican civil war — which could be played out in Senate races from Kentucky to Kansas and Mississippi — follow?