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.

Speaker of the House John Boehner pauses as he speaks to the media after 1:00 am, after the House of Representatives voted to send their funding bill with delays to the "Obamacare" health care act into a conference with the Senate, prompting a shutdown of portions of the U.S. government.
Conservatives have forced House Speaker John Boehner to pursue a strategy that calls for things conservatives have spent months fighting.

Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

Listen to John Dickerson and David Plotz discuss the Day 2 shutdown developments.

During the Great Polling Disconnect of 2012, the Obama campaign, the press, and a number of pollsters thought that Barack Obama would win his second presidential election. Republicans and the Romney campaign were equally convinced the polls were flawed: The electorate would behave differently on Election Day.

There was a clear loser in that experiment. We're facing a similar test now with the government shutdown. Public opinion polls show overwhelming opposition to the GOP strategy. Republican Sen. John McCain tweeted a Quinnipiac poll Tuesday morning that shows 72 percent of Americans oppose Congress “shutting down major activities of the federal government” as a way to stop the Affordable Care Act from going into effect.

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For the conservatives pushing the showdown over the president's health care plan, those numbers are either wrong or changeable. We're about to find out which side is right.

In the first hours of the shutdown, the terrain looks very bad for Republicans. It's amazing how consistent the polls have been about linking a confrontation over the Affordable Care Act to funding of the government. While polls show the public disapproves of the law, it has consistently told pollsters it is not in favor of tying government operations to defunding the health care plan. In addition to the Quinnipiac poll, the polls from CBS, CNN, CNBC, National Journal, and Kaiser show this. As GOP Sen. Jeff Flake said, Republicans have found the one gambit less popular than Obamacare. 

Conservatives would interrupt the conversation here. They didn't shut the government down over Obamacare—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid shut the government down because he refused to negotiate. This is true; Reid refused to negotiate. But the American public would have to view this confrontation differently for that fact to give the Republicans any leverage. Right now, the public agrees with Democrats: Funding the government and taking apart Obamacare should not be part of the same conversation. How do Republicans change that dynamic? Asserting that Obamacare is not popular hasn’t made a whit of difference.

One way Republicans might improve their hand would be to seize on the first-day glitches that have bedeviled healthcare.gov, the website that launched Tuesday morning to sign up people eligible for the new health care exchanges. What better way to make your case that the law should at least be postponed than pointing to hiccups that show it's not ready for prime time? Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has pleaded for time, saying "give us the same slack you give Apple." It's a good point—except when you think about Apple Maps, a product that seems to be congenitally flawed (but a great way to learn about the geography of places you weren't trying to go.) Also, there's no Apple Mandate that forces you to buy an Apple. But analogies are never perfect, and everyone has to get back to fixing the crashing websites.

Now that the much-threatened shutdown has become reality, Democratic and Republican party unity is critical. Democrats are united. Even Democratic senators up for re-election in predominantly Republican states have not bolted. (Remember how conservative Democrats abandoned the president repeatedly during the passage of the Affordable Care Act.)

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