Base Moves

Ten years ago everyone was trying to figure out what happened the year before. In spite of the mess that Iraq was becoming, and the mess Afghanistan already was, George W. Bush was reelected. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction after all, but in 2004, Republicans used ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage, that they had introduced in state after state, to assure a heavy turnout of conservative voters. Those were the folks that were going to vote for Bush anyway, if they got around to it. Ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage got them to the polls – not a one of them would stay home if the gay folks could be put back in the closet – and while they were there they could vote for Bush. That was really important in Ohio, the state that decided that election.

Any thorough statistical analysis of this is necessarily mind-numbing and actually beside the point. This was the first “base election” – the brainchild of Karl Rove. In 2000, Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative” reaching out to moderates. The idea was to grab votes from the middle of the political spectrum. Be a nice guy. Win over the independents and the undecideds – amass a majority by adding them on your side – but in 2004, Rove and his campaign staff turned to a new strategy. Go the other way. Increase turnout from the party’s conservative’s base – rile them up and get them to the polls – and do what you can to keep the other party’s base demoralized or indifferent or just plain bored. And screw the independents and the undecideds – there aren’t enough of them to matter. Just get your base more excited than the other party’s base, or angrier. Forget the middle and forget compromise. Get enough people really motivated and angry and they’ll outnumber everyone else on Election Day. You win.

This took everyone by surprise. See this PBS panel discussion from ten years ago – this was a new world, politically. See this discussion of how thorough and detailed the effort to “get out the base” was that year. Rove pulled it off, and things haven’t been the same since. Recognize that almost all voters are locked in for life, Republican or Democrat. Get your folks to the polls. Do what you can to keep the folks on the other side from showing up – new voter-ID laws can help with that. But recognize none of this is about changing anyone’s mind about anything. Our politics is no longer about that. That sort of thing is for each party’s primaries. After those, no one is compromising on anything.

Not all Republicans have understood this, and last week, Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur outlined the conflict:

The sequel to Government Shutdown – the 2013 battle that caused the closing of national parks and museums, cost the U.S. economy $20 billion, and tanked the Republican Party’s popularity – is slated for this fall and will feature the same star: Ted Cruz.

The Texas senator, now a Republican presidential candidate, is rallying the faithful behind the same strategy as led to a two-week hiatus of government services in October 2013, when he led the party in holding up a government funding bill in a quixotic attempt to strip money for Obamacare. This time, Cruz is using the same Sept. 30 funding deadline to push for stripping Planned Parenthood’s $500 million in annual federal dollars. The women’s health care provider has become the bête noire of the right after undercover videos surfaced this summer of group officials discussing the cost of aborted fetal tissue.

Cruz understood Rove. Rally the faithful. That may tank the Republican Party’s popularity, but not with the faithful. That’s how you win elections these days, but there are those who don’t see it that way:

It is discomfiting to Republican leaders who have been down this road before and fully expect it to end in failure, as it did with the Affordable Care Act, as well as damage the party’s image going into an election year where Republicans are defending 24 Senate seats along with their Senate majority.

Cruz, who has made his willingness to defy party leaders one of his political calling cards, is already in attack mode. In an Aug. 25 call, the Texan told a large group of evangelical pastors that Republican leaders want an “empty show vote” that “has no teeth or no consequence” and will ultimately keep funding Planned Parenthood. He urged them to be “preaching from the pulpit” about the value of the unborn.

Yes, you don’t want to damage the party’s image going into an election year, but with whom? The base doesn’t like it when you don’t show up and fight. And they win you elections, if they show up. Don’t discourage them. Never give in.

Slate’s Jim Newell adds this:

We’ve seen funding games of this nature repeatedly since House Republicans returned to power in 2011. They’ve all played out in more or less the same fashion. Conservatives insist on an ideological demand – repealing Obamacare, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, defunding Planned Parenthood – that neither Senate Democrats nor the White House consider negotiable. The stalemate goes to the brink, or sometimes several weeks past the brink. Once it’s clear that conservative holdouts are inflicting damage on the Republican brand with no apparent exit strategy, House Speaker John Boehner smokes approximately 47 packs of cigarettes in a single sitting, takes a long sigh, and agrees to move a “clean” funding bill across the finish line with Democratic votes. Democrats celebrate, movement conservatives question the spinal strength of GOP leaders, the sun sets in the west, and the Republic carries on.

But this time there’s a new element:

A presidential contest is underway, and a handful of senators happen to be participants. That makes Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Senate less of a legislative body than a proving ground for the candidates’ talking points and fundraising appeals. …

Cruz is an intelligent person. He’s known all summer that this Planned Parenthood fight he’s chosen to wage will end with the federal government continuing to fund Planned Parenthood. And being at the losing end of yet another battle serves as a win for Cruz in the context of his standing in the Republican nomination field. He can, and will, take to the trail to castigate McConnell and the establishment for locking arms with cackling Democrats to promulgate Evil, to allow the senseless murder and mutilation of human beings to continue, and so forth.

Cruz will go Full Rove. Mitch McConnell didn’t understand the 2004 election at all, and now, from Tierney Sneed at Talking Points Memo, there’s this:

The plan hatched by the GOP leadership in Congress to appease abortion hardliners and avoid a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding shows little sign of working so far.

Facing a Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government, GOP leaders in both chambers decided they would fast-track standalone anti-abortion bills in an effort to allow conservative Republicans to express their anger over a series of “sting” videos claiming to show that Planned Parenthood is illegally harvesting the tissue of aborted fetuses. The leadership hoped that with those votes out of the way, the path would be clear for long-delayed bills to fund the government in the new fiscal year, even if those bills contained money for Planned Parenthood.

But anti-abortion groups and conservative House members are not backing down from their hard line. They are reiterating that they will not vote for bills that include Planned Parenthood funding under any circumstances, despite the maneuvering by leaders to vent their outrage over the videos. If anything, anti-abortion groups are amping up the pressure on lawmakers not to back down from the fight.

This is about the base and nothing else:

From the anti-abortion movement’s perspective, it’s time for Republicans to make good on their campaign promises and activists believe that Democrats will ultimately suffer the political consequences if they block the effort to defund Planned Parenthood, which receives some $500 million for non-abortive services.

“Letting it go would be a huge mistake,” said David Christensen, vice president for government affairs at the conservative Family Research Council, told TPM Monday. “Instead of just sort of seeing a standalone vote on bills, we definitely want to see the momentum build to put it on to something to bounce it back to the Senate,” Christensen said.

And no one wants any half-assed efforts:

In a sampling of some conservative lawmakers Monday, TPM was unable to find any members who had changed their stance on opposing any spending bills that included Planned Parenthood funding now that leadership had put forward votes on separate bills.

Their continued support for the defund movement comes after the announcement by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) Friday the plan to vote on the two standalone bills: one that would impose a year-long moratorium on Planned Parenthood funding and another that would stiffen penalties for medical providers who violated the Born Alive Infants Protection Act.

Forget that:

The Susan B. Anthony List, a group that spearheads funding for anti-abortion candidates, also doubled down on the shutdown fight after GOP leaders offered the standalone bills.

“It is vital that the House register its stance on defunding Planned Parenthood with a meaningful vote,” President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement. “No one should feel comfortable affixing his or her name to a budget that prolongs this atrocity. It is up to President Obama to make clear why he believes our government has no higher priority than guaranteeing that the abortion industry continue the piecemeal sale of the unborn without losing a drop of their federal revenue stream.”

Fine, but it may not work that way:

Abortion foes face much bleaker prospects in the Senate, where the movement to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood is being led by two presidential candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) but is opposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). McConnell told Politico that a shutdown fight over Planned Parenthood is an “an exercise in futility.” Taking an implied shot at Cruz who championed a different shutdown fight in 2013, McConnell said: “Shutting down the government, it doesn’t defund Planned Parenthood any more than shutting down the government two years ago would have defunded Obamacare.”

Unattached to any must-pass spending legislation, the House bills likely won’t make it to the Senate, where leadership has focused attention on legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks instead.

In the meantime, Republican leaders have launched their own PR campaigns to deter conservative lawmakers from replicating the Obamacare shutdown fight of 2013.

Yes, but Cruz, and maybe Karl Rove, would say that avoiding a shutdown will keep the base at home in 2016 and hand the president to Hillary Clinton, or whoever the Democrats settle on. The base just won’t vote, and someone is caught in the middle:

Speaker John Boehner says he’s not worried about his political future, but the Ohio Republican’s fate has become an overwhelming obsession of House Republicans. His backers believe Boehner is being “blackmailed” by conservative hard-liners into supporting a government shutdown. His critics insist they just want their leader to do the right thing.

But “blackmail” might be the right word:

The warning to Boehner is obvious: The speaker can either do what they want on Planned Parenthood, or they’ll force a vote to replace him.

Yet to hear Boehner’s friends and supporters tell it, the Ohio Republican is essentially being threatened into supporting a shutdown with no realistic plan on how to win the fight, which they liken to a repeat of the 2013 government closure over Obamacare. These GOP insiders say Boehner has no intention of provoking a showdown with President Barack Obama and Democrats that can result only in a Republican defeat.

Boehner is in a jam:

Every piece of legislation that Republican leaders put on the floor, or even think about putting up for a vote, is viewed through the prism of whether it will trigger an effort by conservative hard-liners to replace Boehner. The Ohio Republican’s allies and leadership aides believe there could be a showdown on whether Boehner can remain as speaker in the next few weeks.

“My position has been this month will be telling with what’s going to happen,” said Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), among the most vocal members of the House Freedom Caucus, a hotbed of anti-Boehner opposition. “If we’re going to do business as usual, it is going to be very difficult for me to continue with the same leadership that we have now.”

This is tricky:

A vote over whether Boehner should remain speaker is not an easy one for many members, and Boehner is aware of the problem for his rank and file back home. Boehner is also unpopular with the right-wing media and outside conservative groups, which see him as an outdated relic of the Republican establishment that needs to be replaced.

Yet the reality is that Boehner – who is still personally popular with the vast majority of members – may be the only Republican who can handle the competing pressures within the GOP Conference. … There are also some Republicans who see the Boehner controversy as an unnecessary distraction that interferes with their broader effort to rein in Obama’s agenda, such as the president’s so-far successful push to enact the nuclear deal with Iran.

On the other hand there’s this:

Sources close to Boehner say numerous members have approached him privately to pledge their loyalty to him. And they note that Boehner, a prolific fundraiser, spent the weekend in New Orleans and Mississippi raising money for his colleagues. Boehner heads to Seattle next weekend for additional fundraisers, and he has more events set up through October.

For Team Boehner, the image they want to portray is one of “business as usual, nothing to see here,” joked a GOP lawmaker.

And Steve Benen reports this twist to the whole business:

When congressional Republicans saw controversial videos about Planned Parenthood over the summer, the party’s plan came together quite quickly: GOP lawmakers would accuse the health care group of breaking the law and use this as a pretext for a government-shutdown scheme.

There was just one nagging detail: Planned Parenthood never actually did anything illegal. It didn’t sell fetal tissue for a profit; it didn’t misuse public resources, and it didn’t violate any laws. The Republican plan was based on a foundation of quicksand.

It doesn’t matter. The Hill reported this:

Congressional Republicans say they are determined to shut Planned Parenthood down, regardless of whether it broke any laws.

In more than two months of investigations, members have yet to turn up evidence that Planned Parenthood acted illegally, the same conclusion reached by a half-dozen state investigations. The Department of Justice has so far declined to launch a formal probe.

Several Republicans acknowledged this week that they may never find proof of wrongdoing at Planned Parenthood – but said it doesn’t matter. …

“The issue is not whether there’s been a crime committed or not,” Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas.) said last week. “This issue is whether or not taxpayers should fund Planned Parenthood.”

This is about the base. Keep them angry, and Kevin Drum adds this:

In reality, there’s no shift here. Republicans have wanted to defund Planned Parenthood for a long time. The sting videos were just an excuse to mount another effort. Democrats do the same thing on gun control whenever there’s a high-profile shooting.

And there’s nothing really wrong with this. Politics is all about persuading the public to come around to your way of thinking, and one way to do that is to take advantage of events in the real world. Even if you fail, maybe you’ve moved public opinion a few points and you’ll do better next time. So far, both Planned Parenthood and gun rights have survived, and there’s not really much evidence that public opinion has shifted a lot on either one. But that doesn’t mean anyone is likely to stop trying.

But public opinion doesn’t shift a lot. Everyone was locked into their positions long ago, so this is the best we can expect:

As the Sept. 30 deadline to fund the federal government approaches and conservatives dig in on a fight to defund Planned Parenthood, the White House and Senate Democratic leadership signaled they would be open to a short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown.

From the Senate floor Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that any short-term bill must be “clean.”

“That means, no riders, nothing with Planned Parenthood. Nothing with repealing what the Environmental Protection Agency has done. No repealing what the Dodd-Frank bill put into effect to stop us from having another Wall Street meltdown,” Reid said. “No riders dealing with immigration. Just a clean continuing resolution for a short period of time to allow us to do a more full, more complete deal in the very near future.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday afternoon that President Obama would be willing to sign such a short-term spending resolution…

That’s where this is headed, but David Dayen sees something else going on:

The shutdown of 2013 may not have accomplished anything substantively, but it certainly helped cement a picture in the public’s mind of a dysfunctional government that cannot do anything right. That, of course, fits with an enduring conservative narrative about bumbling politicians ruining the country for the rugged individuals out there. It’s a neat trick: make the government look feckless and then point to that as an example of government fecklessness.

The fallout from the shutdown can be seen in a Washington Post poll out this week. When asked whether “most people in politics can or cannot be trusted,” 72 percent said they cannot. When asked whether “the current political system in the United States is basically functional or basically dysfunctional,” 64 percent said it was dysfunctional.

If Republicans in Congress have had any goal over the five years since first gaining back the majority in the House, it’s to create this impression. Their constant deadlines and ultimatums and false starts and showdowns may look like failures of leadership. But they also serve to alienate people from their government. And ultimately, that reflects poorly on the party that wants to employ government resources to solve problems…

That may be overthinking this, or not:

The public doesn’t want a shutdown by overwhelming numbers, according to a recent CNN poll. But the public doesn’t watch C-SPAN in large numbers. Their awareness of a government shutdown will only go so far beyond the surface and even awareness that Republicans precipitated the fight will fade come next year. The residue that will remain is that government can’t get its act together.

That’s the clear lesson of the 2013 shutdown. You might remember that it was supposed to ruin the midterm elections for the Republicans, putting their pointless irresponsibility on full display. But that didn’t happen, and eventually the shutdown became overshadowed by the bigger political story of the time – the early failure of the healthcare.gov website. In the end, Republicans won big in 2014, as political memories are fickle.

We know already that a shutdown would be a second-order story, compared to the 800-pound gorilla of our never-ending presidential election. But it can be employed as a convenient tool for all 2,906 candidates, all of them pointing to nondescript “dysfunction” in Washington. To the casual observer, this creates a definitive hopelessness in government writ large.

That’s the point. That keeps a lot of the wrong sort of people from voting:

Turning people off from politics has been a core goal for conservatives for decades. “I don’t want everybody to vote,” said Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority, back in 1980, at a meeting attended by Ronald Reagan. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.” That’s not just about voter suppression, but deflating hope, crushing the promise of a government that acts on behalf of its citizens.

That’s what base elections are about. Forget the independents and undecideds. Rile up your guys, demoralize the other guys, and win when the other guys don’t show up to vote. That gave us four more years of George W. Bush. What could go wrong?

Everyone knows the answer to that question.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Base Moves

  1. Rick says:

    Yeah, we always joke about the idea of the Republicans mucking up some government project, then turning to point back at their handiwork and say, “See? What’d we tell you? Government doesn’t work!” But as with so many other jokes we tell about Republicans, there’s a lot of truth in that one.

    For example, I suppose some might find some humor in that Karl Rove strategy, back in 2004, of turning out the base with all those state initiatives on gay marriage — only to discover eleven years later that dragging that issue out into the public square like that might have just compelled people to think about it and choose a side, eventually with the chickens coming home in the form of a Supreme Court decision.

    What we learn from this is that the hapless Republicans don’t just actually win when everyone thinks they lost — such as all those seemingly-quixotic government shutdowns then leading to their off-year electoral victories — but sometimes they end up losing after everyone thought they won. In fact, the way things have been going for them overall, this seems to happen more often than not.

    But someday, they might find they need to look for a less feckless strategy than trying to trick everyone into thinking windmills are giants.

    Rick

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