How Republicans Are Learning to Love the Shutdown

Conventional wisdom is malleable, and it appears that conventional wisdom on the wisdom of shutting down the government is shifting, at least within the Republican party. While the old CW was that it was a terrible idea that Republicans suffered for, and it would be foolish to do it again, the new CW seems to be, "Hey, didn't we shut down the government and win the next election?"

The other day, influential conservative journalist Byron York began pushing this line, writing that the 2013 shutdown "so deeply damaged GOP prospects that Republicans exceeded expectations in 2014, winning control of the Senate in spectacular fashion and making unexpected gains in the House." And now, as Dave Weigel reports, Republicans are taking it up:

In [conservative] circles, it's clear that the president can be stared down on immigration. And it's clear that a fight, even if it led to shutdown, would be either rewarded or forgotten by voters when they returned to the polling booths in November 2016. The reality of the Affordable Care Act had, after all, ended up winning elections for them in 2014. Why wouldn't the reality of Obama's new blunders elect the Republicans of 2016?

It's all deeply frustrating to Democrats. Virginia Representative Gerry Connolly, whose district's contractors and federal employees recoiled at the shutdown, had subsequently watched his state reelect its Republican congressmen and nearly knock off its popular Democratic senator. There clearly was no shutdown hangover for Republicans.

"From their point of view, frankly, while it had a temporary impact on their polling numbers, they fully recovered from that and paid no price at all on Nov. 4," said Connolly as he headed into a vote. "Politicians are all Pavlovian at a very elemental level. What's rewarded, what's punished. They look at that, and they think it seems to have been rewarded. It certainly wasn't punished."

This is entirely true. Approval of the Republican party took a nose dive in the wake of the shutdown, and though it is still viewed negatively by most Americans, that didn't stop Republicans from having a great election day. Because as at least some within the GOP understand, you can create chaos and crisis, and large numbers of voters will conclude not that Republicans are bent on creating chaos and crisis but that "Washington" is broken, and the way to fix it is to elect the people who aren't in the president's party. That in this case that happened to be precisely the people who broke it escaped many voters. The fact that the electorate skewed so heavily Republican in an election with the lowest turnout since 1942 also helped them escape the consequences of their behavior.

One of the things that interests me here is Weigel's observation, which I've heard from others before, that conservatives believe "that the president can be stared down on immigration." The fact that they've lost these showdowns again and again doesn't seem to register. They simultaneously believe that Barack Obama is a tyrant in the grip of a mad obsession to destroy America, and that he's a wimp who will back down if they show some spine.

If that's what you think, a shutdown becomes a win-win scenario. If you threaten to shut the government down and Obama relents, then you've won. If he doesn't relent and the government does shut down, you'll win anyway, because that's what happened before.

It now looks like Obama is going to announce his new immigration policy this week, at which point Republicans will freak out. And we may be seeing the front end of an evolution in their thinking, not just from "Shutting down the government would be bad for us" to "We could shut down the government and be just fine," but from there all the way to "Shutting down the government would be genius." Just you wait.

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