Commentary Magazine


Must Republicans Blink on the Shutdown?

The government shutdown went into effect last night, and even before most Americans had absorbed the news or had learned what it actually meant there was little doubt about how it would end. The House Republicans who had refused to pass a continuing resolution funding the government without attaching conditions about the future of ObamaCare would be forced to back down before long. Backed by polls that said the public blamed the GOP more than the Democrats, President Obama and the Senate Democratic majority stonewalled any idea of negotiations with the House. With the mainstream media pouring on the invective aimed at conservatives while broadcasting endless sob stories about those suffering from the shutdown, and with many Republicans publicly dissenting from the strategy chosen by House Speaker John Boehner, Democrats woke up this morning confident that it wouldn’t be long before the GOP would blink and pass a “clean” resolution that would end the standoff.

But is that really the way it will happen?

There’s no question that Democrats are in a stronger position today, at least as far as public opinion is concerned. But the expectation that the GOP must give in and do so quickly may be mistaken. As I noted last night, after having gone this far in order to make a point about their unwillingness to go along with ObamaCare, for Boehner to cave in quickly would only worsen his party’s situation. Having taken a stand on points they believe are eminently defensible—applying ObamaCare to Congress and the staff of the White House and a demand to delay the penalties attached to the health-care bill’s personal mandate—and with the president declaring he won’t negotiate and with an even more important deadline looming in three weeks about raising the debt ceiling, the GOP may not have as much incentive to surrender as their opponents think.

Let me specify that the decision to call the president’s bluff on the shutdown was unwise. There was never a chance the Democrats would agree to defund ObamaCare and no game plan that would give the Republicans a viable exit strategy from such a standoff, let alone a way to win it. But having gotten into this position, it must be conceded that the widespread belief that they will be forced to wave the white flag within days is based on a set of expectations that aren’t necessarily valid.

As the Washington Examiner wisely noted this morning, the comparisons to the disastrous 1995 shutdown need to be re-examined. As much as Senator John McCain may be right when he said that he had seen this movie before, the circumstances are slightly different. Unlike in 1995, mainstream liberal media pressure on Republicans is now offset by not only Fox News but also conservative talk radio, a medium that is placing pressure on the GOP to stand firm, not to give in. The conservative base that helped goad the Republicans into this fix is equally unwilling to see them weasel their way out of it, at least not without a fight.

Just as important is the nature of their antagonist. In 1995, Republicans were faced with a Democratic president who made a career out of successfully pretending to be a centrist. President Obama may have run in 2008 as a post-partisan candidate, but he dropped that act a long time ago and is a far more polarizing figure. When the president told NPR this morning that he “will not negotiate” with Republicans, that was what his liberal base wanted to hear. But it is not a stand that is likely to increase pressure on the GOP. To the contrary, the more Obama dares them to dig in their heels, the more likely it is that conservatives will do just that.

All along, critics of the shutdown strategy have assumed that simply because there was no clear exit strategy the consequences of a shutdown would be enough to pressure Republicans to blink once the Democrats refused to budge. But the problem with that critique is that while Senator Ted Cruz and others were blowing smoke when they said Obama would cave, there may not be sufficient leverage on the other side that would cause Boehner to blink.

Indeed, the longer this goes on, the more likely it may be that Republicans start to think time is on their side rather than against them. President Obama has been hoping for this shutdown for two years but only because he, like so many others, assumed it would not last long. As the days pass with Senate Democrats refusing to go into a conference with House Republicans and Obama drawing a line in the sand, pressure may start to build on him to give a little. The financial markets are not collapsing today because of the belief the shutdown will be brief. Once that changes, the economic impact will change with it.

This doesn’t mean that Republicans are likely to succeed, but it does raise the possibility of something few of us expected in the event of a shutdown: a prolonged struggle that could wind up morphing into the next big battle over the debt. That doesn’t mean the decision to go down this road by either party was wise. But the longer this goes on, the more everyone gets damaged and the less likely either side is to give in. Anyone planning to visit the Statue of Liberty in the next week or two should think about a change in plans. 

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