Great relief resounded throughout the land this week when the GOP hardliners finally stood down. I myself took great heart in the fact that the Republicans had demanded a stop to Obamacare, and ended up getting nothing. I gloated with and high-fived my progressive friends, happy to see the Tea Party get its due.
After some reflection, however, I've come to realize that these feelings may have been premature. While the Tea Party types did not get what they wanted, I doubt they will face any real consequences. Gerrymandering makes it difficult to flip most districts, and the election won't be until next year anyway. Our amnesiac voting public and its ever-shortening attention span will ensure that this latest episode in right-wing perfidy will slide right on into oblivion. The US almost went to war with Syria a month ago, but nobody is even talking that conflict on these shores anymore.
Not only will Republicans not be punished, they might well be in a better place now because of the shutdown. This does not mesh with conventional wisdom, but conventional wisdom is never to be trusted. The answer is simple: conservatives have, yet again, determined the parameters of our national political discourse. After Sandy Hook they managed to swat away a much-desired look at gun control. Despite the fervent hopes for immigration reform across the country, Congress hasn't even come close to passing legislation. Now, in the aftermath of the shutdown, all talk centers around budget and taxation.
These are the bread and butter issues of modern conservatism, and the ground where conservatives would prefer to fight. During the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney took great pains to make his campaign a referendum on the budget. He nominated Paul Ryan, the posterboy of modern-day Reaganomics, to be his running mate and lend credibility on the issue. While most Americans don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with Republicans on this issue, the GOP gets into serious trouble with the electorate when it comes to issues like women's rights, gun control, and immigration. If the national political conversation begins to take up these topics, the Republicans know that their goose is cooked. Hence, they must do everything they can to prevent them from even being discussed.
The shutdown basically accomplished that. Now in Congress there will be nothing but budget and taxation-related action, and if there is another Sandy Hook or Syria, no worries, since the deadline for another continuing resolution to fund the government is always around the corner. The rest of us will be forced to make concessions to head off another hostage crisis, and all other issues will fall by the wayside. It is an unfair and dangerous strategy, but will continue to happen for the simple reason that it works.