The deep stresses inside the Republican Party, which erupted into fratricidal war during the government shutdown and debt crisis, have been an unexpected blessing for Democrats everywhere, even in the deeply red states of the Confederacy.
Never has a political party gained so much for doing so little — for simply sitting while the other party scared the country witless and defaced its own image as the party of stability, caution and self-control. Polls showed a devastating collapse of the Republican brand outside the South so that Democratic chances of regaining the House of Representatives in 2014 looked good in spite of the favorable apportionments for Republicans in large red states.
Only in the South, where most people were easily convinced that the shutdown and looming default were the black Muslim president's doing, did the GOP not suffer appreciably.
But even in Arkansas, Democratic chances of regaining the congressional seats in central and southwest Arkansas suddenly looked promising, and strong Democratic candidates emerged in both districts and perhaps in east Arkansas as well. Central Arkansas's GOP congressman, Tim Griffin, polling poorly, announced that after less than three years in office he needed to spend more time with his family and wouldn't run again. He will return to the fold of lobbying and political consultancy from whence he came but more lucratively than before, when he labored anonymously in the boiler rooms of Republican campaigns and the Bush White House's political detail.
But Democrats would be wise to calm their exuberance. No one likes excessive end-zone celebrations or I-told-you-so's. Besides, as the unpopular shutdown engineered by Newt Gingrich in 1995-96 showed, people quickly move on from political crises. Democrats gained only two seats in the next election and another five in 1998. The chief casualty was Gingrich himself, who was forced to resign as speaker after an insurrection led by young John Boehner. (Boehner, though pilloried for his leadership now, will one day be viewed as the disarming genius of the standoff for giving the Tea-Party insurgents the rope to hang themselves.)
More than its momentary lift for Democrats, the shutdown and debt crisis was a terrible setback for the country. The economic damage may linger only for a few quarters but the erosion of confidence in the United States, both globally and among Americans, will take longer to correct. That is nothing for Democrats to cheer about. Dysfunctional government includes Democrats.
Political parties always enjoy deep cleavages in the opposition. Republican ideological strife lifted Democrats to victory in the 1964 and 1976 presidential elections, but the unusual ugliness of this GOP civil war will not produce a result that will hearten anyone.
Sen. John McCain, the party's standard-bearer in 2008 and the party's real leader in the Senate, said the House Republican faction that guided Congress to the government shutdown was on "a fool's errand" and he called their leading Senate allies, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, "wacko birds." Jeb Bush, prepping for a race for the presidency in 2016, said none of them was "grounded in reality." Texas's Gov. Rick Perry, who was quietly ordering his state to shut down its high-risk pool and tell customers to buy insurance instead in the Obamacare exchange where insurance would be much cheaper, said deplored Cruz's and Paul's folly as "political theater." Cruz and the House leaders were calling their spineless colleagues traitors and promising well-funded primary opponents for the 82 House and 18 Senate Republicans who voted to abandon the cause and reopen government.
The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who worked out a quick last-minute surrender deal with Majority Leader Harry Reid to end the shutdown and avert the debt cliff, promised the next day that enough people had learned the lesson that neither crisis would happen again.
It was a particularly hard lesson for Republicans to learn because they had followed H.L. Mencken's timeless theory, which has nearly always been good for both Democrats and Republicans: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
In this case, the hobgoblins were Obamacare and the man who lent it his name. If Obama was allowed to provide health insurance to those who couldn't afford it in January, they said, the great American democratic experiment essentially would be over. The shutdown and credit default would be worth it to stop that cataclysm.
The week after the crisis ended, the party's new voices of moderation urged that the party forget Obamacare until it could come up with a better health plan. Obamacare, of course, had been the Republican plan until Hillary Clinton and other Democrats co-opted it in the presidential campaign of 2008.
Next come the Republican primaries of 2014, where the strength of the party's angry right wing will be tested, principally in the Midwest, and the country will see how far the party of Lincoln has gravitated to a new Dixiecrat party, a development not even Democrats should hope for.