Commentary Magazine


And the Shutdown Cometh

Visitors to this website know that I believe Republicans have badly mishandled the government shutdown. My view is that it was unwise from the get-go, since it set up goals that were unattainable–certainly the Lee-Cruz-led efforts to defund the Affordable Care Act, which was always a pipe dream, but also the effort to delay it a year (which was more reasonable but still not achievable). That meant that unless Republicans ran up the white flag in advance of a shutdown–which would have enraged many grassroots Republicans and Tea Party members and probably cost John Boehner his speakership–we were going to face a shutdown.

Why? Because Democrats were not only not inclined to negotiate; they actually welcomed a shutdown. And from their perspective, I understand why. The public is strongly opposed to a shutdown–and even before we experienced one, the public was more inclined to blame Republicans than Democrats for it.

In addition, the party that controls the presidency has huge institutional advantages in confrontations such as this. The president has a much larger bully pulpit and the ability to enforce discipline in a way a House speaker simply cannot. And while President Obama is not terribly popular at the moment, he is (unfortunately from my perspective) far more popular than the Republican House. The fact that the GOP is the more anti-government party won’t help them in terms of the developing narrative of this story.

Beyond all that, I tend to believe that Republicans hurt, not help, themselves with these kind of high-profile confrontations. Brinksmanship isn’t something that tends to redound to the benefit of the GOP Congress–especially one that is so obviously pointless (since the end goal, defunding/delaying the Affordable Care Act, was never achievable).

As a result of all this, there’s more attention on the Republican Party’s role in the shutdown than there is on the implementation of the pernicious Affordable Care Act.

My concern is that this gambit will inflict damage to conservatism, erase the gains the GOP has made in recent months (when it has begun polling better on most issues than Democrats), and at the same time help revive the Obama presidency. That’s not the hat trick the right wants.

Now I may be wrong. Politics is rarely linear, often unpredictable, and so perhaps Republicans will emerge from the shutdown in better shape and the president in a weaker condition. We’ll see. But even if I’m right, we should be clear about a few things. First, it is President Obama and the Democratic Congress that is adamantine in their position. They are the inflexible and unyielding ones. They are the dogmatists in this drama.

Moreover, the hate rhetoric Democrats are employing is stupidly excessive. The charges that Republicans are (choose your crime and/or pathology) arsonists, anarchists, terrorists, jihadists, extortionists, racists, hostage-takers, and so forth and so on are reckless and unwarranted, to say nothing of tiresome and stale. It’s the sign of an intellectually exhausted party. And of course it is antithetical to the central promise of the Obama campaign in 2008, which was to bind up the political wounds in America and put an end to partisan divisions and divisive rhetoric. 

Republicans are pursuing a legitimate (though I think unwise) strategy to try to unwind a law they believe is malignant. They may be right or they may be wrong in their substantive analysis of the Affordable Care Act (I believe they are correct)–but in either case they are using levers that are available to them. Nor are they unreasonable, especially when facing a president who is himself obdurate and obstinate.

Make no mistake about it; Barack Obama and his Democratic allies wanted this shutdown, and now they have it. I just hope I’m wrong and that it’s the president, and not the GOP and the conservative movement, that pays the higher price for this latest governing debacle.