Why the Shutdown Is Far Worse for the GOP Than Anyone Expected

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 1 2013 3:42 PM

Why the Shutdown Looks So Bad for the GOP

Not only are they taking the blame, but the Republican party’s divisions, fissures, and personal animosities are taking center stage.

(Continued from Page 1)

If Republicans want to stand fast against overwhelming public opinion, unity during the shutdown is critical. They should be singing from the same song sheet, something that goes a little like this: “We acted to keep government open while trying to protect Americans from being forced into a system they don’t trust and which has had such problems the president has exempted big business but not regular people.” But there is no unity in the Republican chorus. That was clear even before the shutdown began, as Republican senators spoke openly about the folly of the GOP’s approach. That's why John McCain, who was one such senator, was tweeting out polling figures that undermine the House Republican cause. So many Republican members have spoken out against the strategy that the Tea Party Express sent out a fundraising appeal asking, "With Republicans Like These, Who Needs Democrats?"

In most epic battles with a Democratic president, Republicans would swallow their own internal differences and close ranks against their common foe. But that’s not the case in this showdown: Many Republicans are personally invested in their previous argument that the party was headed toward ruin if it shut down the government over Obamacare. Put it this way: If Republicans emerge victorious from this struggle, McCain will have to admit Sen. Ted Cruz was right.

House Republicans have asked Senate Democrats to name conferees to a committee that would work out this impasse. They have characterized this as a matter of fairness and proper procedure. They've said they are following "regular order" by doing this. There is some tactical appeal to this approach because it puts pressure on Democrats to simply participate in the normal process, designed over generations to adjudicate disputes in a system of divided powers. Sounds entirely unobjectionable—why wouldn't Democrats want to play fair?

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First, Cruz and his compatriots in the House are not operating under the standard protocols. That's why they get the glory and the praise: because they are willing to go to extraordinary lengths. They don’t care whom they cause heartburn. They don’t care how many doors they have to open with a crowbar. To simply claim that this process is the normal way of doing things is absurd. When you have decided to take extraordinary measures, you just have to hope people cut you some slack because the extraordinary measures were worth it. But after you've pulled the tablecloth out and scattered the cutlery, it's hard to then say, “OK, let's continue with our nice meal.” (And it's worth noting that the table House Republicans are inviting their Democratic counterparts to sit down to is still one where the underlying dispute is live: whether the president's health care plan should be delayed as the price of funding the government for two months or so.)

It's also hard to argue for "regular order" when Democrats have been asking Republicans for that very thing on the budget since spring.  One of the reasons Republican leaders have said they didn't want to appoint budget conferees is that the two sides were too far apart. There's no point in doing it, they argued, unless Republicans and Democrats had at least narrowed the nature of their dispute. Some people said that was a dodge, but leaving that aside, if you apply that logic to the current moment, it doesn't fit: The sides couldn't be further apart, so it's hard to put much faith in a conference process.

The other reason Republicans didn't want to appoint conferees is that conservatives were highly suspicious of the process. Cruz was first among them. They thought the closed-door conference committee process would lead to capitulation. If that’s their view, calling for a conference committee seems to be a pretty sizeable contradiction to their current strategy. House Speaker John Boehner is following a strategy at the behest of conservatives that calls for a next step that conservatives have actively fought. Furthermore, conference committees exist to create compromise. It's very hard to imagine a compromise that the conservatives who pushed Boehner to this moment are likely to embrace.

During the shutdown, clinical trials and research and development at government laboratories will be slowed. However, a huge political experiment about public opinion, divided government, and the power of a small band of true believers has just been launched.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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