August 28

Get ready for another shutdown showdown, because it’s apparently on its way. Few Republicans will say so explicitly, and when the question is put to them directly they deny it, but that may well be where we’re headed. And I actually have a bit of sympathy for them on this question.

If the government is indeed going to shut down, here’s how it would happen. President Obama is preparing to act unilaterally to shield more people — perhaps a few million — from deportations. This will make Republicans very angry, because they already disagree with Obama’s enforcement priorities on deportations and don’t think he has the authority to unilaterally expand on them. The one means available to stop this will be attaching a provision blocking it to government funding this fall.

The key thing to understand about this is that there is only a subtle distinction between radical and mainstream Republicans about this prospect. People like Rep. Steve King are using apocalyptic language about the possibility of immigration changes, deriding them in advance as “unconstitutional” and “nuclear.” People like Marco Rubio, on the other hand, are saying things like, “I’m interested to see what kinds of ideas my colleagues have about using funding mechanisms to address this issue.” As Brian Beutler has explained, this very tactic is tantamount to flirting with a shutdown.

Here’s where my sympathy for Republicans comes in. They believe that they have a legitimate complaint about Obama’s use of executive power in general, and on immigration in particular. That applies both the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (which lets “dreamers” stay in the country) and on whatever he’ll do to expand it. While they are suing the President over executive authority, conservatives feel they aren’t getting a sufficient hearing on the substance of their complaint. And they know the best way to force the issue into the forefront of public debate is to create a confrontation.

The problem for Republicans is that if they threaten a government shutdown over executive authority on deportations, the substance of their argument will almost inevitably be swamped by the drama of the event. We won’t be talking nearly as much about “Is the president overstepping his authority?” as about “Holy cow, the government might shut down again!”

And for that, Republicans have no one to blame but themselves. They initiated a new era of procedural radicalism when Obama was elected — filibustering nearly every bill of any consequence, holding up executive branch nominations for years, refusing to approve debt ceiling increases, and shutting down the government once already. Each new confrontation serves to reinforce the public’s belief that the GOP is the party that just wants to burn the whole place down.

While there is certainly some political danger for Democrats in whatever policy changes Obama undertakes, some Republicans can’t seem to remember that they always lose these confrontations. But they’re hemmed in by their own pattern of behavior. The question driving the controversy will be, “When will Republicans finally give in and let the government keep operating?” They’ll become incensed that the entire country isn’t agreeing with them that Obama is running roughshod over the Constitution. And after it’s over, the saner ones will say, “Please, let’s never do that again,” while the Tea Partiers will say that it all could have turned out differently if they had only held firm and refused to buckle. In other words, a rerun of last time.