Will Obama’s Attack on the “Republican Shutdown” Splinter the GOP?

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Oct. 1 2013 6:10 PM

The “Republican Shutdown”

Obama escalates his indictment of the entire GOP. Will his pressure break the standoff?

Speaker of the House John Boehner (L) listens to U.S. President Barack Obama at a meeting with bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington to discuss a military response to Syria, September 3, 2013.
President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, Sept. 3, 2013.

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

The federal shutdown will end when House Republicans drop their demands and agree to a simple resolution that funds the government. What will make them give in? One approach is to sweet-talk House leaders and Republican moderates, inviting them to do the right thing. The other approach is to make the shutdown painful for the entire GOP.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Viscerally, President Obama has always preferred the nice-guy approach. Today, however, he turned up the heat. He seems to be realizing that reason may help, but pain will break the deadlock.

Obama likes to think of himself as the paragon of reason, transcending partisanship. He often praises “reasonable Republicans,” as he did two weeks ago in his radio address and in a speech about the impending fiscal standoff. He often credits the GOP with influencing the Affordable Care Act, noting that the bill “drew on a lot of Republican ideas.” He aims his criticism at “Tea Party Republicans,” a “faction on the far right of the Republican Party.”

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A few days ago, as the shutdown approached, Obama tried to stay bipartisan, noting that “the United States Senate—Democrats and Republicans—acted responsibly by voting to keep our government open.” He also drew distinctions among Republican governors:

Unfortunately, we’ve still got a few Republican governors who are so opposed to [Obamacare] that they haven’t lifted a finger to help cover more people. Some of them have actually tried to harm the law before it takes effect. But a lot of Republican governors are putting politics aside and doing the right thing. And they deserve congratulations for that.

Until now, Obama has generally portrayed House Republican leaders as victims of the Tea Party. “The House Republicans are so concerned with appeasing the Tea Party that they’ve threatened a government shutdown,” he said on Sept. 27. Three days later, he complained that “House Republicans continue to tie funding of the government to ideological demands … all to save face after making some impossible promises to the extreme right wing of their party.”

If that’s true—if the right wing is controlling House Republican leaders through intimidation—then the logical question to ask is: Why not try the same tactic from the other direction? Why not make the shutdown so painful for the whole party that Speaker John Boehner and other House leaders have to give in? Why not make them more afraid of continuing the shutdown than of defying the Tea Party?

Over the last couple of days, the White House has pretended that the blame game doesn’t matter. Yesterday, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Jay Carney: “Are you confident that this will be a political disaster for Republicans if there’s a shutdown?” Carney demurred. “We don't care about the politics,” he insisted. “The president cares about making sure that the American people aren't hurt.” Later, Carney deflected another question, arguing that it “supposes that we're approaching this in terms of how much political pressure will it take for Republicans to do the right thing. And we're hoping maybe zero, and maybe they'll just do the right thing.”

Please. Drop the fake innocence. This is a political fight, and it will end when the GOP decides to cut its losses. Speaking from the Rose Garden today, Obama signaled that he’s ready to bring the pain:

At midnight last night, for the first time in 17 years, Republicans in Congress chose to shut down the federal government.  … This Republican shutdown did not have to happen. … This shutdown is about rolling back our efforts to provide health insurance to folks who don’t have it. It’s all about rolling back the Affordable Care Act.  This, more than anything else, seems to be what the Republican Party stands for these days. I know it’s strange that one party would make keeping people uninsured the centerpiece of their agenda, but that apparently is what it is.

Obama went on, repeatedly calling the standoff a “Republican shutdown.” That’s language he has never used before. His slam at “what the Republican Party stands for these days” was his broadest indictment of the GOP ever. He’s escalating the pressure on the entire party in a big way.

It’s a risky move. Spreading the blame may antagonize moderate Republicans. At today’s White House press briefing, a reporter asked Carney, “How does it help you get a deal if you’re calling Republicans extortionists and terrorists?” The answer may be that overtures and sweet talk haven’t worked. The standoff ends when the other side can no longer bear its wounds.

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