October 1, 2013

One thing that’s gotten lost in the noise over the government shutdown is an inconvenient bit of history: Before House GOP leaders decided to placate the hard liners by using a shutdown threat to chip away at Obamacare, people close to them let it be known they thought this was politically dangerous to the GOP.

Remember that? It happened. In August, GOP pollster David Winston — who has been close to the House GOP leadership for years — let it be known that his polling showed broad public opposition to a shutdown. Winston also told Robert Costa that House Republicans needed to produce their own alternative to Obamacare, because “the electorate expects Congress to govern.”

And yet, House GOP leaders — after internally advocating against a shutdown/defund Obamacare fight, and then reversing course and deciding to placate conservatives by waging one – have gone all the way to closing the government.

I asked Winston whether he still thought this was a dangerous course for the GOP.

“At some point in time, Senator Cruz and his allies are going to have to define an endgame that’s successful,” Winston told me. “And they haven’t done that yet. If they don’t, then this is going to have to be resolved some other way.”

“A long term shutdown is not a tenable solution in the eyes of Americans,” Winston continued. “They expect the President and Congress to govern. All the parties involved had better realize there are repercussions here. The biggest concern people should have is the level of uncertainty this injects as voters think about who they are going to choose in 2014. People should be concerned about what that will look like.”

If you look closely at what Winston is saying, it suggests House Republicans will have to find a way out of this battle that isn’t going to involve giving conservatives what they want on Obamacare. As Winston puts it, conservatives have not figured out how to get to the “endgame” they want. Translation: They can’t get what they want. And as Winston notes, a long term shutdown is not tenable. So what’s left as an option?

We have already seen that House Republican leaders slowly scaled down their Obamacare demands each time the previous one was rejected by the Senate. Now GOP leaders are looking for “negotiations” to get out of this situation, and there are discussions of funding the government piecemeal to reduce the political heat of a shutdown. Demts continue to insist on a “clean CR” or nothing. It seems pretty clear where this is going — in the direction of House Republicans finally allowing a vote on a “clean CR” or something that includes a small concession of some kind by Dems.

There is a very charitable way to interpret what Boehner is doing. By taking us through vote after vote, and even into a shutdown, perhaps he is trying to illustrate to conservatives that the battle to use this fall’s fiscal confrontations to unwind Obamacare can’t be won. Better to illustrate this now, in a shutdown fight, rather than in a battle over the debt limit, where the economic consequences are unknown and potentially far more destructive. As Brian Beutler persuasively details, it remains unlikely that Boehner will really allow default. We already know Boehner didn’t want a shutdown fight, either, but he apparently calculated that he had to stage one.

I don’t necessarily know whether the charitable interpretation of Boehner’s recent actions is the right one. But it seems plainly obvious that right now, he sees the real danger of allowing the GOP to get tagged as fundamentally incapable of bearing the responsibility of governing. It also seems clear he’ll ultimately have no choice but to find a way out that doesn’t do anything significant to Obamacare, and that reality-based conservatives will accept this and agree its time to move on to the next battle. Of course, the next battle is over the dangerous debt limit, so one has to hope that the reality that Obamacare can only be dislodged through electoral means will really have sunk in by then.

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