Open and Shut Case

J. Scott Applewhite

It's hard to understand how one person or a small group of people can convince others to do something that will end badly for them. It is still hard to fathom how the cult leader Jim Jones could have persuaded so many intelligent people to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. It should always have been obvious to everyone who followed him into the jungle that it would turn out badly.

As a Republican watching a handful of conservative extremists push to either defund Obamacare or shut down the government, it was obvious from the start it wouldn't end well. To make such a prominent and painful mistake makes Republicans like me worry for the survival of our party as a national force.

The problem is, the only people who don't recognize the shutdown as a disaster for the GOP are the people who came up with the strategy. Despite polls showing the American people overwhelmingly disapprove of closing the government, as well as surveys showing that forcing the shutdown may well have put the party's House majority at risk in next year's mid-terms, there are still some who defend the shutdown strategy as a great idea.

The attempt to link the repeal of Obamacare with the threat of a shutdown has unearthed a fault line that separates Republicans from each other. The divide has nothing to do with ideology. It's not about moderates vs. conservatives. It has nothing to do with policy: All Republicans agree Obamacare is bad policy. And it isn't about the Tea Party vs. the Establishment.

The real divide is between those who believe Republicans must grow the party to survive and win and those who believe we don't need to expand the party, we just need to excite the base. No amount of polling will convince those who are content with pandering to the base that what they are doing is damaging the party. As long as the conservative media, the conservative Twitter-sphere and the conservative chattering class is happy with the "strategy," it must be working.

It was the "true believers" who could not see that the attempt to defund Obamacare was doomed from the start. Even though polls clearly show the American people disagree with our approach, their views are ignored. What really matters to the base feeders is whether hashtags like "Make DC Listen" are trending on Twitter.

To make such a painful mistake makes Republicans like me worry for the survival of our party.

Election results are disregarded too. Or explained away. We are told we need more true believers. Yet true believers like senatorial candidates Todd Akin, Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle and Richard Mourdock proved unelectable and allowed the Democrats to retain control of the Senate.

We are told Romney lost because he wasn't conservative enough, despite the fact that he adopted every single ultra-conservative position suggested to him during the primaries. He signed every tax and women's health pledge, filled out every right-wing questionnaire and promised to do anything and everything he was asked to by the people who now claim he wasn't "one of theirs."

As long as the "excite the base" crowd holds sway over the Republican Party, our electoral prospects across the nation will remain bleak. Some of our party are in denial about facts that everyone else acknowledges are true.

Those of us who think we need to grow the party if we are to win are not in denial. We accept the facts – as discouraging as they can sometimes be. We understand our message has turned off women, Hispanics, young people, gays, African Americans and others. We know we are facing a demographic tsunami.

We know the Affordable Care Act is deeply unpopular. But one of the few things even less popular than Obamacare is how the Republicans have handled opposition to it. Three out of four disapprove of our suicidal "defund Obamacare" strategy. To win in next year's mid-terms and the 2016 presidential election, we need to turn those numbers around.

The first thing congressional Republicans need to recognize is that we have an obligation to govern, not just sit on the sidelines saying no. If we want voters to give us the keys to the White House and to put us back in control of the Senate, we must earn their trust. We must prove we are more interested in doing their work than engaging in pointless partisan bickering.

There is no way forward for the Republican Party until we settle this most basic question: Why are we losing? Until that is settled, the GOP circular firing squad will continue. And so long as Republicans spend more time pleasing the amen choir than reaching out to new voters, the party will become increasingly poisonous as a brand, and we will keep losing.