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.)

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?

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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