September 18, 2013

The New York Times has a big piece exploring a topic that seems to be on a lot of people’s minds in Washington right now: The question of whether frustration with the political difficulties bedeviling the White House will divide Dems heading into a series of critical battles with Republicans. This is of a piece with the larger media storyline, i.e., that Obama’s handling of Syria has weakened his standing on the Hill — including among Dems — with potentially disastrous ramifications for his agenda and the coming debt ceiling and government shutdown fights.

But there’s good reason to be highly skeptical any of this will matter much or play any real role in shaping the overarching political situation in the near future.

The divisions between Dems and Obama are real, but they are focused on some policy areas and not on others. There’s serious disagreement on Syria, NSA surveillance overreach, and who should run the Fed. These are important policy disputes and it’s good Dems spoke out rather than protecting the president.

But on the need to keep funding the government and raise the debt limit without giving an inch on Obamacare, there are no signs of any serious disunity — and this is what will likely shape the party’s stance in coming fights.

Congressional Dems understand the GOP is deeply riven by differences over how aggressively to confront Obamacare that may prove unbridgeable. There are no signs Dems are breaking from the position that Obamacare is non-negotiable — i.e., that anything that undermines the law is a non-starter, period, full stop. Dems have already staked a huge amount on Obamacare and understand making it work is crucial to a longer-term ideological battle that will reverberate for many years. As Jonathan Chait details, this is at bottom a “political and cultural war” over “the role of government deeper than any since the New Deal.”

Given this understanding, the pressure on any potentially wavering Dems to hold the line on Obamacare will be very intense. Given that Obamacare’s fate is equally important to conservatives, the prize they seek — the substantial undermining or destruction of the health law — means anything short of that will constitute unacceptable defeat and surrender. This will ultimately ensure that this fall will not be about Dem divisions, but about divisions within the GOP.

For this is what really matters here. The storyline this fall will be shaped largely by whether Republicans can reconcile their divisions over whether to accept the GOP’s limitations in combating the reality of Obamacare. The storyline will be shaped largely by the question of whether GOP leaders base their strategy on keeping alive the illusion that Obamacare can be stopped outside normal electoral channels, or whether they ultimately — and publicly — accept that it can’t. The former could lead to maximum albeit temporary chaos, but ultimately the latter is likely to assert control over the outcome, leading to an acceptance of the need to rely on a lot of Dems to keep the government open or raise the debt limit or both.

It is the very immovability of conservatives on Obamacare — and the seemingly irreconcilable differences within the GOP that have resulted — that makes this outcome the only currently feasible one. Everything will flow from this basic reality, making whatever divide among Dems that does exist — along with Obama’s “standing” vis a vis the Hill — largely irrelevant.

* WHITE HOUSE’S THINKING ON THE SHUTDOWN FIGHT: Related to the above, MSNBC’s First Read crew makes it very, very simple noting that the dominant story here is House GOP divisions:

Given this disarray, the White House isn’t blinking, and it isn’t going to extend a helping hand. Its logic: If House Republicans are willing to shut down the government over Obamacare, there’s nothing they can do to help.

I continue to believe what we’re really seeing here is an inability to reckon with just how unconventional the situation is, given the combination of the Tea Party wing’s asymmetrical radicalism and its outsized influence over the GOP.

* CONSERVATIVES TO ROLL OUT ALTERNATIVE TO OBAMACARE: Today, House conservatives are expected to roll out today their long-anticipated alternative to the Affordable Care Act, and it is likely to focus on limiting discrimination against people with preexisting conditions, one of the most popular parts of Obamacare.

The key here is that Republicans just don’t envision a robust government role in expanding coverage to the uninsured and in protecting those with preexisting conditions and consumers, and the rest is mostly noise. Either way, the rollout is a sign Republicans know their current posture on Obamacare is untenable.

* OBAMA TO ENLIST BACKING OF BUSINESS LEADERS: The President is set to give a speech to a national business group, the Business Roundtable, in which he’ll try to get them involved in pressuring the GOP to stand down from the coming debt limit confrontation:

Mr. Obama will also raise the specter of another economic downturn if Republicans do not raise the debt ceiling, aides said, and he will note that in 2011 — the last time Washington clashed over a debt ceiling increase — the stock market dropped 17 percent, the country’s credit rating was downgraded and consumer confidence dropped.

The goal is to drive wedge between the GOP’s pragmatic business wing and the Tea Party wing. The question is whether such pressure will help force John Boehner to stiff-arm the Tea Party and raise the debt limit with Democratic help.

* THE GOP’S OBAMACARE PROBLEM, IN TWO SENTENCES: Ezra Klein lays it out:

It would be a disaster for the party to shut down the government over Obamacare. But it’s good for every individual Republican politician to support shutting down the government over Obamacare.

As I’ve detailed here, polls show the desire for lawmakers to try to make Obamacare fail is highly concentrated among GOP primary voters.

 * THE GOP’S OBAMACARE PROBLEM, IN ONE QUOTE: GOP Rep. Thomas Massie, responding to critics of his support for the defund-Obamacare crusade, tells all:

“All that really matters is what my district wants,” Massie said. “And my district is overwhelmingly in favor of my position.”

But but but why won’t Obama lead?

* A CLOSE RACE IN VIRGINIA? A new Quinnipiac poll finds Dem Terry McAuliffe with a tight lead over GOPer Ken Cuccinelli, 44-41. That’s a bit out of sync with other polls; the Real Clear Politics average puts McAuliffe up 6.6 points. Dems view this the battle in Virginia — where shifting demographics are pushing the state into the purple column — as a potential test of whether they can get Dem constituencies to turn out in next year’s midterms (given it’s a non-presidential year) in bigger numbers than in 2010.

* AND DE BLASIO HOLDS WIDE LEAD IN NEW YORK: A new Wall Street Journal/NBC/Marist poll finds Dem Bill de Blasio with an overwhelming lead over GOPer Joe Lhota in the New York mayoral race, 65-22. Notably, de Blasio leads by 44-35 on who will best keep crime down — closer, but interesting, given claims his vow to end “stop and frisk” is soft on crime. The question is whether a de Blasio mayoralty — with its promise to aggressively combat inequality — could prove a harbinger of a more progressive economic turn for the Democratic Party nationally.

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.