If Democrats end up losing the House next week, as seems likely (though not certain), it's obviously going to bring a period of calm, reason, and cooperation to Washington. Just kidding, of course -- as I argued last week, the Republicans who get elected are going to be even more conservative than the already extremely conservative caucus, and less willing to compromise. Not only that, the ones who've been around for a while will be terrified of getting a primary challenge from the right, and so will be even more likely to give in to their base's demands.
And what will they be demanding? No compromise with the administration on anything, which in practice will mean shutting down the government. As Jon Chait pointed out on Friday, the Republican leadership presumably knows that shutting down the government is a really bad idea, but they may not be able to resist the demands from their base not to sign on to any Obama-approved budget.
And that's what shutting down the government means -- it means not passing a budget. In 1995, actually, it meant passing a budget they knew Bill Clinton would veto, which he did. Even though it was Clinton's veto that made it happen, Republicans still got the blame.
Shutting down the government is a bad idea on multiple levels. Not only will it make Republicans look like extremists bent on destruction, it also has the effect of providing people an instruction in the operations of government. As you know, lots of research over the last half-century has shown the American public to be ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. In other words, they are opposed to "big government" while they simultaneously support almost all the particular things government does. It's the "Tell the government to keep its hands off my Medicare!" paradox.
The more abstract the discussion of government is, the better it is for Republicans; the more specific it is, the better it is for Democrats. If the government shuts down, you get things like national parks closing and veterans not being able to access their benefits -- very specific. There will be endless news reports about the consequences of the shutdown, all against the backdrop of newly elected Tea Party members of Congress essentially saying, "Suck on it, America."
To repeat, the Republican leadership knows this will be very bad for them. So the question is, will they be able to resist the demands of their base for it? That conflict may well be one of the defining themes of the next two years.
-- Paul Waldman