Government shutdowns are not really a big deal. Unfortunately, they tend to freak people out. They’re not helpful in terms of limiting government (everyone’s going to get back pay, you heard it here first) except to the extent that they help show people how much of government is unnecessary. And from a political perspective, they are fraught with danger.
Last night, after a series of House-passed government spending bills were rejected by the Senate, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced the House would vote for a conference committee to hash out differences. The Senate voted this morning to reject that idea. The sticking point, obviously, was that the bills passed by House Republicans have each attempted to defund, delay, or repeal portions of Obamacare, a bill that passed in 2010 and again does not depend on the spending bills now being considered.
This saga has not yet become a disaster for Republicans, but the potential is there. And it’s important to understand where this began. Conservatives are trying to lay the blame at the feet of President Obama and Democrats, because they won’t negotiate. But that’s not the issue — the issue is that they have no reasons to negotiate. A government shutdown can only help them, and this is something conservatives have been in denial about all along.
Meanwhile, exchange for preventing something the Democrats actually want, a few conservative lawmakers made unrealistic demands and unrealistic promises to their base. (See why this doesn’t work?) Lawmakers, they said, could easily prevent an already-passed, already-funded piece of health care legislation from going into effect if they’d just grit their teeth and wish it away. There was never a realistic plan to do anything about Obamacare, of course. It was all talk — pro-wrestling stuff, as Ted Cruz eloquently put it during his 21-hour speech.
So instead of positioning themselves well to put pressure on Democrats, or put pressure on the GOP leadership to do something that had a chance of working out, conservatives instead wasted a lot of time building email lists and losing the expectations game, apparently on purpose. The fact that President Obama can only gain from a shutdown is only dawning on some people now. What incentive does Obama have to end this? Serious question — answer it on Twitter for me if you can. (@freddoso)
The bravado, the online fundraising, and the events to rally the base proceeded apace throughout the summer. Bolstered by well-funded outside groups — especially the Heritage Foundation, which was once the conservative movement’s quasi-official think tank — a small handful of conservative lawmakers in the House and Senate successfully harnessed the power of the grassroots and pressured the congressional leadership into adopting a plan that lacked specifics or and endgame and that never had slightest prayer of victory.
At every step (right up to and including last night), every sound or semi-workable strategy was shouted down as a form of surrender in favor of the strategy that has led us here — to an Obamacare-related shutdown that 72 percent of the American public opposes. Not that there’s anything wrong with bucking public opinion, but presumably one does it when there’s a chance of accomplishing something useful, not merely to vent anger or raise money or prove that one’s ideological standing is an 11 out of 10.
Instead of spending the last three weeks going after unpopular parts of the law (such as the special treatment afforded Congress or the medical device tax) or seeking more realistic concessions from the Obama administration (such as spending cuts or reforms, because this was, after all, a spending bill), conservatives spent the entire summer promoting a message that no poll has ever shown to resonate with the American people, despite Obamacare’s unpopularity. At best, defund is a plurality issue, and defund-with-shutdown (which was always the plan) is a miserable minority issue. (The closest anyone ever came to vindicating this strategy in PR terms was this Rasmussen poll, which suggested that Americans might have backed reductions in spending under the law. Such cuts were never proposed.)
This defund plan did, however, manage to create expectations that made a shutdown inevitable. Republicans, having already lost the battle of Obamacare in the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and one out of two times at the ballot box, cannot easily stop Obamacare from going into effect without winning power in elections. There’s no shortcut, but nobody wanted to hear that.
So again, this whole thing hasn’t ended in disaster yet. But we’re already seeing its legislative fruits. Republicans can, as Ted Cruz has suggested, diminish the pressure they’ve put on themselves by sending up a series of bills to fund various parts of the government. But to what end? As they do, they gradually lose whatever “leverage” they supposedly have. The shut-down agencies are the only leverage right now, and that isn’t even true leverage, as Cruz’s suggestion demonstrates. He’s willing to give it up piece by piece precisely because it’s only putting pressure on conservatives — not on Obama, not on Obamacare — and to understate the case, it isn’t creating a political benefit for conservatism. Maybe the shutdown hasn’t brought the world to an end, but is it persuading the public of the rightness of the cause? I’d love to hear how.
Meanwhile, House Republicans have been put in a real bind. They cannot end this shutdown without giving up most or all of what has been falsely promised — there is no way to meet expectations at this point The most likely outcome now is a total cave-in, since they can’t win either way. And even if Cruz has shot to the top of 2016 primary polls for the moment, this actually opens up new opportunities for the relative moderates within the party, whom conservatives had worked so hard to defeat in primaries and/or dominate in parliamentary procedure over the last decade.
I’ll add this: If I were Obama, I’d take full advantage of this and start turning the screws right now. I’d rescind my offer to sign a clean CR, and tell John Boehner that I’m not going to end the shutdown unless he restores pre-sequestration levels of funding or gives me a clean debt ceiling increase. (Mind you, the debt ceiling is the only serious leverage the Republicans ever really had have to make positive changes this year.) Be grateful if Obama doesn’t have the stomach to go so far.
When the cave-in comes, it probably won’t result in a worse legislative outcome than what House Leadership was planning all along — a clean CR. That demonstrates the establishment’s faults, yes. But the political outcome might be significantly worse — all pain for no gain. The story of Obamacare’s disastrous, glitchy roll-out today has already been overshadowed by the shutdown, but that’s the least of our problems.
Conservatives, in overplaying a laughably weak hand, are weakening their hard-won position of dominance within the GOP without any hope of advancing the ball. And with the broader public, they may damage not just the Republican brand, but the conservative brand.