Shutdown Report: How to Play Chicken and Lose

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

Republicans are likely to incur serious political damage in their effort to hold hostage continued funding of the government in exchange for deep spending cuts. This routine has become an annual ritual, and in the past President Barack Obama has been the first one to cave. The 2011 Budget Control Act, which includes the automatic sequester, is one bitter fruit of the president’s past failure to hang tough in the face of Republican extremist demands.

But this time is different.

The Tea Party Republicans, who dominate the GOP House Caucus, are demanding that President Obama de-fund the Affordable Care Act in exchange for their willingness to fund ordinary government spending in the new fiscal year, which begins October 1. But they picked the wrong demand. In the past, Obama was willing to make deep cuts in federal spending in order to get a budget deal with Republicans. The Affordable Care Act, however, is a nonnegotiable for the president. It’s his personal crown jewel, the centerpiece of his legacy. For Tea Party Republicans, however, Obamacare is evil itself, and opposition to it is a loyalty test.

Moreover, the president has told Democrats in both the House and Senate caucuses that he has no intention of negotiating over the debt ceiling. If the Republicans want to play cute with America’s full faith and credit, they will bear the political responsibility for the consequences.

Happily, the test over the shutdown comes first. We don’t need a vote to extend the debt ceiling until mid-October. If the Republicans gamble and lose big on the shutdown, they may well back off the debt-ceiling threat.

Another nice break for Democrats: In the past, voters’ eyes have glazed over when it came to budget details, and much of the mainstream press has played budget standoffs as “partisan bickering,” as if it were the equal responsibility of both parties. Equal blame is a mantra promoted by such Wall Street groups as “Fix the Debt.”

This time, however, the press is reporting on the sheer extremism of the GOP. Polls suggest that in the case of a government shutdown, or worse, a debt default, Republicans would reap most of the blame. A CNN poll released last week found that 51 percent of people would blame Republicans for a shutdown, while 33 percent would blame President Obama. Twelve percent would blame both parties. 

Ordinarily, Obama might offer other cuts in order to prevent a shutdown, but other cuts won’t do it this time; the Tea Party wants the scalp of ObamaCare. So a president who is ordinarily reluctant to hang tough may well let the Republicans shut down the government—and let them bear the responsibility. It worked for Bill Clinton in 1996 when Gingrich shut down the government and his Republicans took the fall.

Another nice break for the Democrats is that the Republicans are split several ways. The relative realists, including many GOP senators and the House Republican leadership, grasp just how much damage a shutdown or a debt default would do to their party. It would display to voters once and for all the sheer nuttiness of the Tea Party faction that now controls the House. Going into an election year, this sort of debacle could help the Democrats take back majority control in 2014.

But House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, nobody’s idea of political moderates, have failed utterly in their efforts to persuade the Tea Party Republicans of their folly—setting the stage for a donnybrook.

The GOP is also split between the congressional Tea Party and several conservative Republican governors who actually like Obamacare. Astoundingly, despite the right-wing animus toward anything connected to the Affordable Care Act, conservative governors in key states have accepted the provision in Obamacare to expand Medicaid mostly at the federal government’s expense.

These GOP turncoats include Rick Scott in Florida, Jan Brewer in Arizona, Ohio's John Kasich, and Michigan's Rick Snyder. Why the reversal? These are swing states, and the Medicaid expansion would reach well into the working middle class—people who are losing their health coverage. Medicaid is popular. Expanding Medicaid is not just sensible policy; it’s good politics.

So the Tea Party is on a collision course with both the congressional leadership and with Republican governors in several key states.

All of this opens up new possibilities for 2014. There are only about 25 contestable House seats thanks to gerrymandering. But if Democrats can pick up most of these, they can take back the House. It would take something big for that to happen, but shutting down the government and playing chicken with a debt default—that’s big.

It is said that most Tea Party Republicans don’t mind suicidal legislative politics because their own seats are safe. On the other hand, they don’t want to wake up in January 2015 as part of the House minority.

There’s only one glitch in this happy scenario. If Republicans do force a government shutdown, at some point they will have to back down and allow the government to reopen. And at that point, there would be pressure on President Obama to give them some cover by offering other cuts. Not Obamacare, of course—just minor stuff like Social Security, Medicare, education, food stamps, Head Start, and the rest.

But that’s a depressing column for another day, and maybe Obama will even enjoy the benefits of toughness and resist further cuts. For today, let’s enjoy the box the Republicans have put themselves in.

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