A Spine Is a Useful Thing to Have

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

How much damage have the Republicans done to themselves going into the elections of 2014 and 2016? And has President Obama resolved to hang tough, not just in this round, but in the one that follows and the one after that?

The contrived shutdown crisis proved two things.

How Conservatives Reacted to the Shutdown/Default Deal

The despair that comes from knowing poor people are going to get health insurance. (Flickr/Jerry Furguson Photography)

Yesterday, John Boehner told a Cincinnati radio station, "We fought the good fight. We just didn't win." That's one way to look at what happened; another is that frightened Republicans allowed their most unhinged members to pull them into a political disaster that any rational person could have foreseen (and many certainly did). That Republicans would never get what they wanted—the destruction of the Affordable Care Act—was obvious. That they'd come out of it with almost nothing at all was nearly as predictable. So now that the battle is over, how are conservatives reacting? Let's take a look around...

How Liberals Should Feel about the Shutdown/Default Agreement

Don't go too wild with the celebrations. (Flickr/Susana Fernandez)

We have a deal. At this writing no votes have been taken, but by the time you read this, the agreement brokered between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell may well have passed one or both houses. So how should liberals feel about it? Let's break it down.

Take the Fourteenth!

AP Images/Charles Dharapak

Remember the proposals that were current back in 2011 to have President Obama invoke his authority under the 14th Amendment to keep funding America’s public debt, even without approval from Congress? Well, that proposal has suddenly become highly relevant again, even urgent.

What Explains Ted Cruz?

AP Images/Jose Luis Magana

Between his 21-hour non-filibuster to halt Obamacare, his impassioned, hard-line speech at the right-wing Values Voters Summit, and his meeting with House Republicans at the mediocre Mexican joint, Tortilla Coast, it’s clear Ted Cruz is still conducting the shutdown train, even as the country heads into default and his party heads over a cliff. Just about every write-up of the man portrays a smart and opportunistic political mind, eager to be, as The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith puts it, “the Tea Party’s one true standard-bearer.” But is his strategy just crazy?

Eight Things about the Shutdown/Default Crisis that Are Still True

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

As we approach default, it seems like every hour brings a new development in our crisis, and you'll be forgiven if you aren't able (or can't bear) to follow every new proposal, abortive vote, and angry denunciation. So it's a good time to remind ourselves of some things that were true yesterday and last week, and are still true today. These are the things we need to keep in mind as this horrid affair tumbles forward.

Old Conservatives Can't Learn New Tricks

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

If President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats wanted to maximize the political advantage they're getting from the shutdown/default crisis, they'd agree to at least one part of the short-term deals Republicans have offered, raising the debt ceiling for only six weeks at a time. Then we'd have one default crisis after another, and the standing of the GOP would keep on its downward trajectory until—let's just pick a date at random here—November 2014. But Republicans won't do that; they're now insisting (and good for them) that the deal has to extend at least a year into the future so we don't have to keep going through this. If they get that deal, though, the issue will fade and voters could start to forget how reckless Republicans have been.

They could forget, but I'm guessing Republicans won't let them.

The GOP Craziness You Missed over the Weekend

It's only a flesh wound!

We're at kind of a weird point in the shutdown/default crisis. Everyone knows Republicans have lost; it's really just a matter of working out the details of how we get out of this. The sane ones are trying to come up with some sort of agreement that will end the crisis before any further damage is done to their party while providing something they can call a concession from the Democrats, thereby allowing them to save face, to the extent that John Boehner can hold the damn vote and claim that it isn't an abject failure.

But alas, sanity seems to be in short supply on the right side of the aisle, even at this late hour.

John Boehner Is Adrift

Flickr/Donkey Hotey

At this point, I'm starting to get the feeling that John Boehner spends a good portion of each day sitting around in his office with a bunch of aides as they all stare at the ceiling. "Anybody got any ideas yet?" he says periodically. "No?" Heavy sigh.

Every couple of days they come up with something, float it to reporters, and find that it only serves to confuse things, to the point that nobody really knows what they're demanding anymore. First they'd only open the government and raise the debt ceiling if the Affordable Care Act were defunded. When that didn't fly, they suggested they'd release the hostages if the ACA were delayed for a year. No go on that, so they suggested that they'd accept some kind of "grand bargain" as long as it included "entitlement reform," which is Republican code for cutting Social Security and Medicare. Nope. Then they said they'd take some package of unnamed budget cuts and tax cuts. They aren't getting that either, and now it seems they've finally come to terms with the fact that when President Obama says he isn't going to pay any ransom, he actually means it.

So the latest proposal is that they'll allow an extension of the debt ceiling, for...six whole weeks! During which time they'll still be holding the government hostage, but will temporarily delay defaulting on the debt. The question is, to what end? What is supposed to happen in that time? Is President Obama going to change his position and decide that he'll give in to their demands after all? is the public going to decide that they're really a bunch of reasonable fellows who should be rewarded for this nightmare with a chance to govern the country? What?

I suspect the answer is this: They have no idea.

Postcards from the Shutdown Edge

AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)

Ten days into the shutdown, it’s easy to wonder just how much the federal government helps people day-to-day. We’ve heard about delays in highways maintenance and about federal workers who have to wait until the government opens to get paid. What about those programs conservatives are always complaining about? You might have expected stories about people suffering without help from various federal services—from food stamps to welfare checks. Instead, there’s been little to indicate needy people are going without.

That’s because the worst potential effects of the shutdown have been delayed—for now.

Is the Shutdown Creating a Dystopic Political Future?

The House GOP caucus, circa 2024.

Let's cast our minds forward a few weeks, to after the shutdown/default crisis is over. At that point, the 2014 off-year elections will be only a year away. And what will the lasting effect of this episode be? Maybe not all that much. After all, the party of the sitting president almost always loses seats in off-year elections, the big exception being 1998, when the electorate turned on Republicans after the spectacle of impeachment. The shutdown/default is a very big deal, and the GOP will certainly suffer for it, but it's not that big. Even if things turn out as badly as possible for the Republicans, chances are that they'd only lose a few seats in the House—not enough to lose control—because of the way the district lines are drawn (it was Republicans' great good fortune to have an enormous win at the state level in 2010, the year before post-census redistricting took place). I could be wrong about this, of course (here's a suggestion by Sam Wang that losing the House is a real possibility for them). But I doubt it. So where does that leave us?

How the Crisis Ends

In 2010, John Boehner tells President Obama, "I'm open! Pass it over here!" The President declines. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

I know it may be a little hard to envision right now, but the crisis we're in at the moment is going to come to an end. The question is, how? It might be worthwhile to think through the major possibilities. I've added odds for each one, based on my best (and necessarily subjective) judgment.

1. President Obama caves.

He agrees to delay the Affordable Care Act for a year to restart the government and agrees to budget cuts and entitlement cuts beyond the sequester-level budget Democrats have already agreed to in order to raise the debt ceiling. Tea Partiers triumph.

Will Republican Moderates Really Allow the Government to Reopen?

The palace of intrigue. (Flickr/K.P.Tripathi)

The latest rhetorical tool the President and his allies are using on John Boehner is telling him to put his money where his mouth is, specifically on the "clean" continuing resolution passed by the Senate. Boehner claims that if he allowed a clean CR to be voted on in the House, it would fail, so he must continue to demand a pound of flesh from the administration as the price of reopening the government. Barack Obama's response is, if that's true, then why not let it come up for a vote and see what happens? In recent days, a couple of news organizations have made counts of the Republican "moderates" (not all of whom are actually moderate) who have made public comments indicating they would support a clean CR. As of now, the Washington Post's tally has 21 Republicans in favor; combine them with the 200 Democrats, all of whom are likely to vote for the clean CR, and you've got a majority. But would these moderates actually follow through if it came to a vote?

As David Karol says in an excellent post on the topic of the moderates, "In general, Congressional moderates are more closely aligned to their parties than is understood. Often their defections from party ranks occur when it is clear that their party does not need their votes to prevail on a given issue." This is sometimes accomplished with a strategy that came to be known back when Tom DeLay was running things as "catch and release." The leadership makes sure it can win the vote, then slowly releases its moderates one at a time, allowing them to vote against the party so they can tout their independence but not threatening the outcome.

But that isn't the case here—there's a real question of which side would prevail. That means Republicans will be pressuring their moderates to stay in the fold. Karol also notes that even a Republican from a swing district could face a threat from a Tea Party challenger in a primary. Even if that challenger ends up losing the general election, if he beats you in the primary, you're still just as unemployed. So the question is whether the pressure on the moderates from within their party is greater or lesser than the pressure coming in the other direction.

The Power of No

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group of very nice people who won't be shutting anything down. (Flickr/Talk Radio News Service)

It's been noted many times that the conservative Republicans driving the shutdown/debt default crisis are insulated from political repercussions for their actions by the fact that they come from extremely conservative districts where they face little to no risk of getting beaten by a Democrat in a general election. The implicit argument is that safe seats equate to not just ideological extremism, but the kind of procedural extremism we're seeing now. Yet as Eric Boehlert observes, there are lots of Democrats who are just as safe as these Republicans—in fact, there are more Democrats with safe seats, and many of those seats are even safer than Republican safe seats. So why don't the extremely conservative Democrats engage in the same kind of gamesmanship the Tea Party Republicans do, threatening to burn the whole place down unless they get their way?

The Debt-Ceiling Crisis to End All Debt-Ceiling Crises

Don't worry--unlike what's going on in Washington now, this is only a drill. (Flickr/USAG-Humphreys)

The most important fact about the shutdown crisis, which is soon to become the shutdown/debt ceiling crisis, is that Democrats are not making any demands. The only thing they want is for the government to reopen and for the United States not to default. Since these are things Republicans also claim they want, they can't be considered demands. Republicans, on the other hand, have lots of demands, even if they keep changing. That's why the current Republican talking point—"Why won't the Democrats negotiate?"—is fundamentally misleading. One way for this whole thing to end is for Republicans to give up their demands and admit they've lost. Unsurprisingly, they're reluctant to do this. But what if Democrats started making a demand of their own?