October 16, 2013
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

So we probably now have a short-term continuing resolution set to expire in January. Does that mean another shutdown in January, after the two sides can’t reach an agreement? After all, that’s what happened in 1995 and 1996: a relatively brief shutdown in the fall was followed by a five-week deadlock in the winter. Is that what we’re going to get?

Probably not.

What the shutdown that appears to be ending today and the 1995-1996 episodes had in common was important: in both cases, one side really wanted the shutdown. In 1995, Newt Gingrich and many Republicans sincerely believed that Bill Clinton was personally weak and would fold if pressed hard enough. That turned out to be wrong; whether it was a foolish idea to test it in the way Gingrich did remains, I suppose, an open question.

This time around, the logic of the showdown gang was clearly foolish; no objective observers believed their stated plan would work; it would have required a massive surge of anger at the Democrats for allowing the government to be shut down over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but most Democrats like the ACA, and polling indicated that practically no one outside of tea party circles favored a shutdown over it.

There have been a lot of very contentious budget arguments over the last few decades, but none of the others ended with a prolonged shutdown; the next-longest one after those was only three days.

What causes an extended shutdown, then, isn’t missing a deadline. In fact, deadlines are probably needed to get deals done. As long as neither side actively seeks a shutdown, one of three things will happen: they’ll make a deal by the deadline; they’ll miss the deadline but going over the deadline will be enough to get it done; or, they’ll agree to move the deadline.

The question as we approach the next finish line, then, isn’t whether we’ll go close to the edge. Of course we will, but that’s a feature, not a bug (on a shutdown; flirting with the brink on debt limit is a far riskier thing to do). Real negotiations are hard; it takes time to sort out what the real asks are and what’s just bluff.  The question is whether a significant faction of the Republican Party wants to do this again, and, if so, whether the rest of the party will accommodate them again.

My guess, as of now, is that this one was devastating enough that we won’t see a repeat. That doesn’t mean that Republicans will back off their demands; it just means that they won’t see any additional utility in fighting through a shutdown.

My biggest worry? This wasn’t 1995-1996, when the GOP was generally united behind the belief that a shutdown would work for them. Instead, the dynamic this time was that a relatively small group wanted it, and a much larger ‘fraidy cat group was terrified of allowing any visible difference between themselves and the radicals. That could repeat itself next time — and the radicals, especially those in outside groups, may actually be pleased with the fundraising results of this fight, even if it hurt the party overall.

However, it’s reasonable to hope that mainstream conservatives learned their lesson from this one and won’t do it again; there’s also the hope that those radicals who are actually driven by policy goals may also have learned something.

Overall? One way or another, budget deadlines are absolutely necessary. And we won’t get a shutdown unless one side wants it.