In politics, as in business, you go where your customers are.
And for John Boehner and the Republican Party, their future customer base is the Tea Party.
As the federal government shutdown enters its ninth day, questions continue to swirl around why House Speaker John Boehner is orchestrating the standoff, and why he is refusing to allow a solution to the crisis—any solution—to come to a vote in Congress.
Most of the conventional wisdom follows a simple line of reasoning: as Speaker, Boehner must give in to the wishes of 30 or 40 members of the anti-tax, limited government “Tea Party Caucus”, mostly newly elected representatives from red-meat districts in the South, or else he’ll lose his Speakership in a mutiny.
If only it were that simple.
While it’s true that the Tea Partiers in Congress see the need to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, as vital to the future of the country, Boehner is undoubtedly also looking at another future reality. Lost in all of the recent media attention over who is winning or losing in the battle for public perception over the shutdown, a recent AP poll found that the hardcore conservative tea party movement is more than a rump of malcontents in the political landscape, as its been portrayed by many pundits and Democrats. Instead, it’s a sizable force among Republicans:
More than 4 in 10 Republicans identified with the tea party and were more apt than other Republicans to insist that their leaders hold firm in the standoff over reopening government and avoiding a default of the nation's debt in coming weeks.
Four in ten. For a party that been losing national elections left and right in recent years and shedding voters from it’s base at an alarming rate, that’s a future customer base they can't afford to ignore.
Simply put, the Republican Party, already down, isn't gong to start winning national elections again simply by relying on middle-of-the-road white male voters anymore. It needs more anger, more passion and more activism if it has any hope of sticking around on the national stage for the next generation or so.
Put yourself in Speaker Boehner’s shoes: the truth is, he’s faced with a near-impossible choice. Either he tries to repeal the biggest public policy legislation in a decade, which is already seen as settled law across the land, or he risks alienating the most visible and growing voting base his party has. Worse, if he abandons the demands of Tea Party members in the House, he runs the risk of potentially driving them—and the only future voting base he can see down the road—out of the party altogether.
Of course, none of this is reason for holding a gun to the nation’s head, shutting down the government or risking a global economic meltdown. Not by a long shot.
But it’s also useful to understand that for Boehner, this isn’t only—or maybe even primarily—about his speakership. In many ways, it’s even more so an existential question for the Republican Party.
One day, when he’s retired and reflecting on his legacy, Speaker Boehner certainly doesn't want to be the man who will be seen as turning the back on his party.
And, in doing so, being the one who ended up signing its death warrant.