• Back on track
    December 20,2013

    The budget deal approved by Congress creates a framework over the next two years that will preclude the kind of showdown that led to a government shutdown this fall. It was a compromise that was modest in scope and ambition.

    For Republicans the deal represents a sharp turn away from confrontation politics, at least for now. House Speaker John Boehner used it as an occasion for harsh attacks on the right-wing lobbying and fundraising groups that have allied themselves with the tea party movement and shoved the party toward confrontation and obstructionism.

    Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, forged a compromise with his Senate counterpart, Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, saying it was no longer possible for government to “lurch from crisis to crisis.”

    “Elections have consequences,” he said, showing a streak of realism till now shunned by the tea party right. Ryan meant to say that because Obama had been re-elected in 2012 and because Democrats dominated the Senate, reality dictated the need for compromise.

    It wasn’t always the case that the minority party in Congress felt duty-bound, as a matter of principle, to disrupt the business of government. In the past it was an assumption shared by both parties that members of Congress working with the executive needed to carry out the business of government. If you were in the minority you would do your best to score some gains as members of both parties put together the budget and established their priorities. That’s the way it worked with the Democrats playing a weak hand during the Reagan years and when Republicans were compelled to deal with President Clinton. (Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pioneered the tactics of confrontation during the 1990s, but Gingrich-style politics blossomed during the Obama years.)

    Ryan, the vice presidential candidate in 2012, must be considered a presidential candidate for 2016. It is clear he has decided that the government shutdown was disastrous for Republicans and that the public wants leaders who can make government work. By brokering the budget deal, he has cast himself as that kind of leader.

    Republican infighting is not over, however. The Ted Cruz wing of the party — which is to say the nihilist tea party fringe — is likely to continue the battle against cooperation with Democrats and for a strategy of shutdown and default. Boehner, meanwhile, has decided that as speaker he has responsibility for keeping the wheels of government rolling and so he has declared war on the ideologues. Significantly, he has Ryan in his corner.

    In Vermont the ideological right has never had much leverage within the Republican Party, and it has receded even further in recent days. The high-water mark of the right wing was probably the candidacy of Ruth Dwyer for governor in 2000. Driven by anti-civil union sentiment and the Take Back Vermont movement, Dwyer took on Gov. Howard Dean in a bitter, hard-fought race. Take Back Vermont was a precursor of the tea party movement — suffused by anger and inchoate rejectionism.

    Two years later, the moderate’s moderate, Republican Jim Douglas, became governor, inaugurating a period of modesty and restraint. Douglas did not need to battle the right wing of the party. It had more or less spent itself.

    Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the last Republican standing among statewide officeholders, has lately taken steps to steer the party away from the ideological rigidity of the national party and back toward the Vermont-style Republicanism associated with Richard Snelling, Robert Stafford and James Jeffords.

    The national party remains dominated by conservatives from the South and West whose political DNA dictates unyielding hostility to the federal government and toward President Obama. It is the sort of hostility that reached a virulent peak during the civil rights era, resurfacing now with the kind of harsh rhetoric that depicts Obama as a socialist and Pope Francis as a Marxist.

    The success of the federal government in getting back on track will have a lot to do with how successfully Boehner and Ryan can persuade their fellow Republicans that governing is a responsibility they cannot shun.

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