If you asked a hundred conservatives which opinion columnist they most admire, I'm pretty sure Charles Krauthammer would come out on top. Unlike, say, George Will, Krauthammer is free of even passing heresies against conservative dogma. Unlike, say, Cal Thomas, Krauthammer doesn't paint conservative culture warring in explicitly religious terms, allowing everyone to join in the smiting of sinners. And, they'll tell you over and over again, he's brilliant!
I can't say I've ever seen it that way—Krauthammer may not be a numbskull or anything, but I've never read anything he's written and said, "Wow, that's a really smart argument—I'm not sure how I'd counter it." And if you've seen him on television, you know that he's a particularly grim figure, usually looking like he's vaguely bored with whatever he's talking about and displeased with the fact that he has to be wherever he is. His columns, furthermore, are often driven by a particularly venomous attitude toward Democratic politicians and liberals in general that may be cheered by his ideological compatriots but is hard to get past for anyone else.
So it was with some surprise when this morning I read him offer Republicans some advice that I found not only practically wise but on target analytically as well. A couple of months from now, Congress is going to need to pass a new continuing resolution11 A continuing resolution is how Congress keeps the lights on when it hasn't passed an actual budget detailing spending for every agency; the CR says that funding will continue at its current levels. in order to keep the government from shutting down, to which some conservatives say, "Great! Another opportunity for a hostage crisis! How about we say we'll shut it down unless Obamacare is defunded?" Krauthammer tells them this is a terrible idea, with an important reminder about recent history:
Never make a threat on which you are not prepared to deliver. Every fiscal showdown has redounded against the Republicans. The first, in 1995, effectively marked the end of the Gingrich revolution. The latest, last December, led to a last-minute Republican cave that humiliated the GOP and did nothing to stop the tax hike it so strongly opposed.
Those who fancy themselves tea party patriots fighting a sold-out cocktail-swilling establishment are demanding yet another cliff dive as a show of principle and manliness.
But there's no principle at stake here. This is about tactics. If I thought this would work, I would support it. But I don't fancy suicide. It has a tendency to be fatal.
As for manliness, the real question here is sanity. Nothing could better revive the fortunes of a failing, flailing, fading Democratic administration than a government shutdown where the president is portrayed as standing up to the GOP on honoring our debts and paying our soldiers in the field.
How many times must we learn the lesson? You can't govern from one house of Congress. You need to win back the Senate and then the presidency. Shutting down the government is the worst possible way to get there. Indeed, it's Obama's fondest hope for a Democratic recovery.
Krauthammer's main point here is something Republicans don't seem to realize: It isn't just that this latest threatened shutdown will likely blow up in their faces, but that shutdown crises, whether they come to fruition or not, always blow up in Republicans' faces. It isn't that they have gotten nothing at all from the recent threatened shutdowns; there have been budget cuts they presumably liked as part of some of the eventual agreements to avert disaster. But they never get the enormous substantive concessions they're after, and it's always a political disaster. They look reckless and uncaring, while Obama looks sane and responsible. That's how it always goes, and that's how it'll go this fall.
There's one point, however, where Krauthammer is missing something. When he says, "There's no principle at stake here. This is about tactics," he's only half right. I'm sure people like Ted Cruz don't think that the path they're advocating is tactically stupid. In reality it may be, but they believe that this time it'll work, and if they remain strong enough Obama will knuckle under. But for them it's also very much about principle. It's about standing up to Obama, but it's also about demonstrating government's inherent evil. If government shuts down for a week or a month, to them that's a good thing, because for that short time it won't be doing the harm they believe it does every day. And doing the radical thing, the risky thing, the dramatic thing—that's an end in itself too. They never tire of saying that they didn't come to Washington simply to go along and get along. They came here to shake up the system, to ruffle feathers, to pound their fists on the Leviathan's walls. Telling them it isn't going to work won't convince them otherwise.