Four Reasons We Don’t Need to Count Down to a January Shutdown

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The government has re-opened, the debt limit disaster was avoided, and something resembling peace has broken out in Washington. The cynics, however, have been quick to note that all of this is only temporary, with the next shutdown deadline falling on January 15. This round of budget squabbling resolved basically … nothing, so another debacle is likely. Ted Cruz is already threatening a repeat of what he just put the nation through.

Don’t count on a sequel to the 16-day hell we just witnessed, though. Barack Obama certainly doesn’t want a shutdown. And this time, Republicans probably won’t force one.

Of course, government shutdown has always been a bad idea, as Republicans just spent three weeks proving. But the very fact that they did it despite knowing that it was a terrible plan (or at least most of them knowing it was a terrible plan) suggests it could happen a second time, at least unless something new has happened to change things. So why won’t it? Here are four solid reasons we won’t have another shutdown—and one that, despite all of it, we still might.

1. Shutdowns don’t happen by accident

This is the main reason. All three extended shutdowns in recent American history—the two Newt Gingrich shutdowns in late 1995, and the Ted Cruz shutdown this month—were deliberately planned. In 1995, Gingrich foolishly believed that Bill Clinton was a weak man who would buckle if faced with the risks of an extended shutdown. This year, at least if you accept the surface explanation, radicals believed that a long fight would spark a wave of anger at Obamacare. It’s possible, of course, that Tea Partiers or some other group will decide another long shutdown is the right plan. But don’t expect prolonged shutdown (more than two or three days) to be the natural result of a normal budget stalemate. It doesn’t seem to happen.

2. Shutdowns are Republican kryptonite … something they might finally figure out

It was utterly predictable that Republicans would be blamed for the shutdown, but somehow at least a large number of them couldn’t quite believe it. Maybe they were too aware of the polls on the Affordable Care Act; maybe they weren’t aware enough of polling that shows Barack Obama is reasonably popular, despite the opposite assumption emanating from the Fox News studios. I don’t expect any kind of “break the fever” moment of revelation about the conservative closed information feedback loop. However, I do think almost all congressional Republicans realize that they lost this time, and most of them (accurately) believe that Republicans lost the Clinton/Gingrich confrontations as well. It’s pretty easy to draw the conclusion that shutdowns are bad for Republicans.

3. Republicans are going to promise no shutdowns—and that might matter

One reason that Republicans were blamed for the shutdown was pretty basic: Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and other radicals talked for weeks leading up to the deadline about forcing concessions by threatening to shut down the government. Cruz may or may not learn any lessons from that, but other Republicans already have: Mitch McConnell has already claimed he’s ruling out another shutdown. Even if this is just spin—an attempt to shift blame to Barack Obama in the event of a second shutdown—what politicians say tends to constrain their future actions, even when they don’t mean it.

4. The stakes are higher this time

Remember, the whole fight has been about a stopgap measure to allow time for real negotiations over the budget to take place. It was needed because neither the House nor the Senate was ready to pass full-year spending bills by the normal October 1 deadline. What Cruz and the radicals were doing, basically, was charging admission to the negotiations. That’s why it was unacceptable to Democrats even after the price of admission was reduced from all of the Affordable Care Act to relatively minor measures; paying to get to negotiations was just unreasonable. At the same time, there was little long-term negotiating cost to Republicans to give it a try, because at that point there wasn’t anything substantive at stake. It was just about when the real negotiations would begin. Now that they have, however, substantive policy is at stake. A route like the one that we just saw would mean real—and perhaps severe—damage to Republican policy priorities.

And yet … the GOP remains broken

Republicans, as a party, really should do everything they can to avoid a shutdown. And the overwhelming majority of them know it.

But they also knew that it was a mistake when they plunged over the cliff on October 1. They did it anyway. The dynamic within the party of mainstream conservatives terrified of being called RINOs and squishes—of mainstream conservatives paranoid about primary challenges—overwhelmed their good sense at the end of September, and then for 16 days before they finally gave in.

The very recent example that at the end of the day they’ll eventually have to bite the bullet and abandon the radicals—a move that doesn’t get any easier once a shutdown begins—might be enough to prevent a repeat. Should be enough to prevent a repeat. And yet … we’ll just have to see. Paranoia is a powerful emotion.

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