Like children straining to behave in anticipation of Santa’s arrival, Congress capped off a year of acrimony by agreeing, with uncharacteristic civility, to a modest $85 billion budget deal this past week that eases the automatic sequester cuts and avoids another government shutdown.
This news has generally been greeted as a sign that the parties may finally be ready to lay down their arms and move beyond the hostility and dysfunction that has characterized national politics for the last five years.
Call me Scrooge, but I’m not not buying it. There’s something else going on that will play a big role in determining whether or not this fragile truce endures.
What paved the way for the budget deal was House Speaker John Boehner’s outbursts at right-wing groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth that have consistently undermined his leadership and set the Republican agenda. “They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Boehner told Republicans. “They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it.”
Boehner’s caucus often treats him the way the other reindeer treated Rudolph. They do this because they fear these outside groups and the voters they claim to represent. This fear led Boehner and House Republicans to go along with the ill-conceived effort to “defund” Obamacare and the shutdown that ensued.
So Boehner’s attack was a big deal, if only because he was finally striking back. At least in the short term, it had the desired effect: Most Republicans voted for the budget deal.
It’s tempting to imbue that outcome with more significance than it deserves. The rosy view is that Boehner has discovered unexpected reserves of strength, and can now, having beaten back the tea party, move onto bigger items like immigration reform.
Boehner certainly wants to overhaul immigration laws and realizes he’ll need to marginalize the right-wing groups to have any chance. But that’s a risky proposition, and the budget deal is only a tentative first step. To pull it off, Boehner will basically have to carry out the same strategy as hardline conservatives – but he’ll be pushing in the opposite direction.
Conservatives like those at Heritage Action have a long-term plan to shift the Republican Party to the right. They believe the party establishment, Boehner included, has accepted the permanence of the welfare state and scared Republicans out of acting on their conservative beliefs by telling them they’ll lose their seats if they do so. But if those lawmakers can be forced to take tough votes and then win re-election, their inhibition will vanish, and the party will move further rightward.
There’s something to this. When Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan first introduced his budget, he drew only a handful of co-sponsors because the cuts it imposed were considered career-threateningly severe. But conservatives pushed and made Ryan’s budget an ideological litmus test, and eventually Republicans voted for it en masse. Nearly all have survived.
Boehner and the GOP establishment believe that the party has moved so far right that it will have trouble winning national elections. He was able to exploit conservatives’ overreach in shutting down the government by pushing through a budget deal that avoids another one.
But even the modest spending increase enshrined in that deal has put some incumbent Republicans at risk – not from Democrats, but from conservative challengers in GOP primaries. To push his party back to the center, Boehner and his allies will have to force Republicans to take a different kind of tough vote – the kind that upsets conservatives – and hope they survive their next primary election. Only then can he steer the party back to the center.
Immigration, tax and entitlement reform are all important tests of whether or not this is possible. On these issues, as on so many others, the party establishment is at odds with the conservative rank and file.
In July, Pew Research conducted a broad study of Republican voters. By and large, their views aligned more closely with right-wing groups like Heritage Action than with party leaders: 54 percent wanted the party to become more conservative and only 40 percent more moderate.
These views endured, even during the shutdown. An October Pew poll showed that a majority of Republicans still held a positive view of the tea party.
The Republican dilemma is that most of the measures the party must take to broaden its appeal pose an existential threat to the lawmakers who’d have to vote for them. For all the good it accomplishes, the budget deal hasn’t changed that.
Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.