Lessons learned, lessons forgotten

LESSONS LEARNED, LESSONS FORGOTTEN…. Taegan Goddard flagged this terrific excerpt from Newt Gingrich’s 1998 book, Lessons Learned the Hard Way. It should have a special relevance right now.

“The idea of a grand showdown on spending had long been a staple of conservative analysis. Even before Reagan’s inaugural, he had been approached by one prominent conservative who urged him to force a showdown over the debt ceiling and simply refuse to sign on to one until the Democratic Congress reined in its spending plans. Reagan rejected this idea with a comment I wish I had understood better at the time. The conservative activist who told me that story was convinced that Reagan would have won such a showdown.

“For fifteen years I agreed with him, but I was to learn something about the American people that too many conservatives don’t appreciate. They want their leaders to have principled disagreements but they want these disagreements to be settled in constructive ways. That is not, of course, what our own activists were telling us. They were all gung ho for a brutal fight over spending and taxes. We mistook their enthusiasm for the views of the American public.”

Imagine that.

For what it’s worth, I suspect current House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is well aware of this. Rumor has it, Boehner went out of his way to consider all of the ways the GOP majority screwed up the last time, and was determined not to overreach, especially just a few months into the term.

But the decision wasn’t really up to Boehner — it was up to Boehner’s caucus, which doesn’t exactly take orders from the Speaker’s office especially well. It’s the Republican rank-and-file that are gung ho for a brutal fight over spending and taxes, mistaking the base’s enthusiasm for the views of the American public.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.