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The Shutdown Threat and 2016

One argument I’ve been making about the prospective class of 2016 GOP presidential candidates is that the divide between the governors and the senators redounds to the benefit of the governors. Coverage of the congressional battles fought since the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives has focused mostly on the here and now: divided government and partisan bickering grinds Congress, and thus President Obama’s agenda, to a halt.

Both sides will argue whether it is in the best interests of the republic for the Democrats to be impeded, and will surely argue as well over the legality and constitutionality of Obama’s response, which is to simply vest the legislative powers of Congress in the White House for the time being. But what often goes unmentioned is the fact that the Republicans’ lack of power and the conservative grassroots’ antipathy toward major legislation means the rising stars of the Senate have thin resumes.

To correct this, conservative senators like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have been like tired baseball players in extra innings swinging for the fences on every pitch, tantalized by the knowledge they are one well-timed swat from getting the win. Rubio did this by working with Democrats to get comprehensive immigration reform passed in the Senate, though it has languished in the House. Paul singlehandedly elevated his profile with the 13-hour talking filibuster over drones. And all three of them are now engaged in a high-stakes gamble by threatening to shut down the government unless Congress votes to de-fund ObamaCare.

The ploy is unlikely to be successful, but today the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan argues that the three Republicans only stand to win by losing:

Why? Because Rubio, Cruz and Paul get to champion a plan that looks attractive to many conservatives in theory but could be politically disastrous in practice.

The trio of senators and possible 2016 presidential candidates is supportingpitch circulated by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that calls on lawmakers to not support any continuing resolution or appropriations bills that devote even a cent to funding President Obama’s health-care law. The plan has gained very little traction in the GOP Conference, despite a series of campaign-style events in August designed to build support for it.

Still, it’s getting the job done for the principals involved. Politically, at least.

I’m not sure I fully agree with the premise; my sense is that whatever the trio will gain politically will accrue to them whether or not the government gets shut down in the end, because that support is coming primarily from the base, which appreciates the attempt whatever the result. But it’s worth recalling that while the GOP governors don’t want the shutdown–because they worry about the effect on their own state economies–they also don’t need it, politically.

If Cruz, Paul, and Rubio end up running for president, and not much changes between now and then, they are going to be running on ideas–sometimes powerful ideas, powerfully expressed. But they might be going up against governors like Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal, who can all boast of having taken on the unions and instituted much-needed reform.

In Christie’s case, he did this in a blue state, proving conservative policy can have mainstream appeal. In Jindal’s case, as I wrote this week, he is taking on the Obama administration’s Justice Department over school vouchers. And in Walker’s case, when the unions, media, and the rest of the American left went ballistic over his reforms, he outmaneuvered and defeated them at every turn.

The governors have another advantage: they don’t have to take difficult, inconvenient, or symbolic congressional votes. And that includes on de-funding ObamaCare. It’s true that the governors have counseled against shutting down the government over ObamaCare, but that’s different from actually voting the other way or standing against the grassroots tide represented by Ted Cruz. Sullivan’s logic, that since the shutdown won’t happen anyway its supporters need not worry about the consequences, rings true for the governors as well. If the shutdown fails, the governors can’t be blamed for it by the grassroots. If by chance it goes through, the governors won’t be responsible for the consequences.

That is not to say the senators should be blamed for swinging for the fences (though the various strategies are not all equal). They have to play the hand they were dealt, and that means accepting the confines of being leading lights in a party out of power. But there’s no question it puts the governors, at least for now, at an advantage.