After meeting for over an hour with Senator Lisa Murkowski, it is hard not to feel sorry for the contemporary Republican realist, caught at every turn between rocks of varying sizes and hard places. Senator Murkowski, by implication if not always specific statements, agrees with what is surely the Alaskan common opinion: the shutdown of the government was a very bad idea. Not raising the debt ceiling is even worse.
Yet, somewhere around a quarter of Alaskans think shutting down the federal government is appropriate payback for grievances, real or imagined, and with less certainty, most of them think that not raising the debt ceiling works to cut the national debt. Since expert elitists are suspect, unanimous professional opinion that not paying our bills, by increasing interest rates, will increase debt and could bring on a global depression, can be dismissed.
Sen. Murkowski cannot ignore tea party opinion since she famously lost her primary to a tea party radical. Yes, she came back in a write-in to win the general election with massive help from independents (a majority of registered voters) and Democrats acting outside party guidelines. While one might think that this feat would leave her now above the fray, that doesn't quite work. The primary lesson is not drawn from her win, a fluke from a national perspective, but from her loss of the primary, an example noted by her colleagues in both chambers.
Though her own 2018 reelection is a political world away, Senator Murkowski has many colleagues coming up next year. The lesson is that the standard Republican must express sufficient common ground with tea party beliefs to hold off a primary challenge.
As in Alaska, the largest faction of tea-party adherents is made up of good people with uneducated understandings of social and legislative policy, perhaps also angry over some grievance -- a brush with a federal regulation for example, stoked by regular listening to hate-mongering radio and TV personalities.
The most dangerous faction, so small that it does not count numerically but that effectively controls tea-party activities, consists of a very few, very rich people who invest millions to keep tea-partyers riled up, building small political challenges into well-financed political campaigns. A recent New York Times article identified the design of this group, led by former attorney general Ed Meese and one of the infamous but fabulously wealthy Koch brothers. For many months, under this leadership, an organization of radical rightist groups have planned the current governmental crisis, implementing it through millions poured into elections, choosing media attacks on the Affordable Care Act as their primary tool, capitalizing on neo-racial animosity (as illustrated by "birther" beliefs) against the president.
Since almost all her colleagues on the Republican side are afraid of being "primarized," verbal concessions have been made to the extremists having the effect of polarizing both House and Senate. Can Sen. Murkowski play a leadership role in returning the Congress to a more sanely deliberative body? How about a female effort given that women are said to practice more collaborative problem solving strategies? She smiled before responding to the question.
In her work as chair of the Senate Energy Committee she has made deliberate efforts to cross the aisle, even to sharing ideas and meetings with members of the House. She, Sena. Begich and Congressman Young meet regularly to address specifically Alaskan issues. She did not then reveal, as reported later in the week, that she was working with Sen. Susan Collins from Maine to work on solutions to the larger questions.
Quietly, Sen. Murkowski is working at redesigning excessive partisanship as her piece of the action. The history lesson, from a century ago is that these factional uprisings, such as McCarthyism on the right or Wallace's Progressive Party on the left, come up fast but fold fast too. The strategy of the plutocrats is to pump money into the group to make sure it won't fade. We will see if it works.
John Havelock is a former Alaska attorney general and former White House Fellow. He lives in Anchorage.