It’s difficult to argue with those claiming the government shutdown is an ongoing disaster for Republicans. As our John Podhoretz noted today in the New York Post, the idea that the GOP could somehow buffalo red-state Senate Democrats into abandoning the president and defunding ObamaCare was divorced from reality. It was never going to happen and now they’re stuck in a standoff with the White House that Obama thinks he’s winning. Though, as I predicted last week, those who claimed the Republicans would have to fold quickly underestimated their staying power, they’re still stuck with a plan without a path to victory or a viable exit strategy.
But even if we concede that fact, as we should, the assumption that President Obama is winning the shutdown seems to be just as farcical as Senator Ted Cruz’s assurances that the Democrats would blink in the face of conservative threats. As everyone predicted, Republicans are getting more of the blame for the government shutdown. As the latest Associated Press/GFK Poll published today illustrates, 63 percent think Republicans in Congress are not doing enough to end the shutdown while 52 percent say the same of President Obama. That’s a statistical win for the Democrats, but not exactly a vote of confidence. When it is combined with the same poll’s stunningly low 37 percent approval rating for the president, it’s time to also concede that the idea that a shutdown might be a turning point that could revive President Obama’s dismal second term is unfounded. Tea Party and Cruz critics were right to think this is a fight that the GOP should have avoided. But those who think this it is making Obama look like a hero or can help his party win the 2014 midterms are also wrong.
Watching the president’s press conference yesterday, it was clear that this intelligence hasn’t penetrated his consciousness. The president’s hard line vowing not to negotiate over the shutdown or the debt ceiling (though offering the prospect of talks over the budget after the Republicans give up their leverage by surrendering on both the shutdown and the debt) is based on his belief that this is an argument he will always win and that his opponents will eventually see they have no choice but to give up.
For two years, Obama has been daring the Republicans to make his day with a shutdown, secure in his belief that doing so would ensure a repeat of the 1995 fight that helped rescue the Clinton presidency. But while at the urging of the Tea Party House Speaker John Boehner has finally succumbed to the temptation to don the Newt Gingrich clown suit, Obama has proved once again he is no Bill Clinton.
Pointing out Obama’s low poll figures does not exonerate the Republicans or make them look any smarter. But the media’s gang tackle of the GOP, Boehner, Cruz, and the Tea Party has missed an important element of the story that must be taken into account in any analysis of the political impact of the shutdown. As much of a blow to the Republican brand as the shutdown may be, it is far from clear that it will diminish their chances of holding onto the House next year or taking back the Senate.
Democrats may crow about the Republicans’ difficulties, but so long as the public face of their party is a president who endlessly repeats that he won’t negotiate with his foes or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, they are not likely to gain much ground with the public. Nor is there any indication that Obama’s tantrums are the sort of thing that will give his second term the boost of energy or popularity he so desperately needs.
For all the hyperventilating about the long-term damage the shutdown will do, it’s more than probable that this episode will have little or no impact on the 2014 elections. The fate of the next Congress will largely be determined by the events of the coming year that we cannot predict and by the identity of the candidates in individual swing races (which is a reminder of how much damage Tea Party extremists can really do to the GOP, as they have in the last two election cycles). Both parties will emerge bloodied and bruised from this mess. That doesn’t vindicate Cruz, but it also won’t save Obama.