The right is haunted. They are not haunted by their recent, round rejection by the voters but by the ghosts of their own victories past.
Take the National Rifle Association an organization whose behavior prompted MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough—himself a progun, Republican former House member—to complain on his Politico blog last week that the group responded to the Sandy Hook grade school massacre "as if it were 1994." (He should know—that's when he was elected.) He was talking about the group's responding to the shooting with a defiant, "absolutist," news conference, but he could as easily have been referring to the line-crossing television ad the group fired off drawing President Obama's daughters into the debate. The NRA's reaction to Sandy Hook has been that of an invulnerable political powerhouse culturally linked to a key swing group, not a lobby whose "political victory fund" got, according to the Sunlight Foundation, less than a 1 percent return on its campaign spending last year. The spirit of '94 lives on, even in the face of the political facts of '12.
The NRA isn't alone being stuck in the mid-'90s. A handful of House conservatives are so up in arms about Obama's efforts at reining in gun violence that they are talking about impeaching him. The impeachment caucus includes GOP Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas who is making his return to the Capitol after serving a single term … as a member of the class of '94.
Shutting down the government is another idea that has come back into vogue. "It is possible that we would shut down the government to make sure President Obama understands that we're serious," Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the House GOP Conference chairwoman, told Politico last week. Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas recently waxed nostalgic for the shutdown of 1995: "If we hold strong, we can do that again," he said on a conservative radio show. Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon told CBS's Bob Schieffer that "it's about time" for another shutdown. Salmon, too, is a member of the class of '94, returning to Congress after a dozen-year absence. Conservatives, incorrectly, see the mid-'90s shutdowns as the reason for subsequent budget surpluses. They blithely ignore voter fury over the crises.
And conservatives weren't necessarily talking about a run-of-the-mill government shutdown. Instead, many conflated a shutdown with the results of reaching the federal debt limit. They're not the same, and it's important to understand why.
The government—Congress, with the president's approval—has authorized and agreed to pay for a range of goods and services: a vast and active military, scientific research, a Federal Bureau of Investigation, and so on. What Congress doesn't do when they OK this spending is approve borrowing that may be needed to cover it. Refusing to do when the time comes to borrow the money wouldn't cut the amount the government is legally obliged to spend (that ship sailed when the spending was approved). It would merely mean that Uncle Sam had chosen not to pay all of his bills, sending critical shocks through a fragile global economy. (The World Bank estimated last week that if the United States hits the debt ceiling and implements the automatic spending cuts from the sequester, global economic growth would be reduced by 1.4 percentage points.)
A shutdown is prospective. The fight is over how much money will be spent going forward. As a 2011 Treasury Department fact sheet noted, a shutdown, "while unwise and highly disruptive, would not have the same long-term negative impact on the creditworthiness of the United States." And it can actually affect the deficit and debt.
That fact—along with polls showing that the public favors Obama's view that the debt ceiling and spending cuts should not be linked—explains why House Republicans voted this week to "suspend" the debt ceiling (oh so cleverly not raising it) until May 18. There was already a growing consensus on the right that a debt ceiling showdown would have been, in the words of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, "a dead loser." Conservative commentators, interest groups, and even GOP lawmakers had signaled that the debt ceiling was the wrong issue to fight on.