September 30, 2013

Judging from pundits, some House Republicans and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his band of true believers, you’d think a government shutdown is inevitable. Even House leadership seemed grim on Sunday evening. It may come to that, but each of these players has a vested interest in making the situation seem dire. The danger comes when their manipulation becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Sen. Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) speaking on the Senate floor. (Associated Press)

The press is invariably gullible in these White House-GOP face-off’s. They bought the sequester hysteria hook, line and sinker. In the series of budget deadlines over the last few years, the overwhelming weight of coverage has been to predict the worst (e.g. default, shutdown) in each of them.

This stems from understandable self-interest in generating viewers and readers. “Shutdown near certain!” is going to get more eyeballs than “Could be, could not be a shutdown.” Also at play is that the mainstream media is itching to see Republicans blow themselves up.

Bargaining 101 tells that there are many moves left before the clock figuratively runs out in the latest high-stakes face-off. The amendments passed by the House over the weekend are not the last word from the House, not by a long shot. The White House, the GOP leadership and the Dems all know this.

Bargaining 101 also tells us that leaders committed to avoiding a breakdown (as Speaker of the House John Boehner plainly does) but who have a problem with their own side need to use the clock as much as the people across the table (or aisle) do. This is about getting everyone to understand certain things aren’t going to happen, and they have to decide now whether to create chaos. With the luxury of time, House hardliners would keep up the ping-pong game forever; Boehner needs to get them close to the stroke of midnight to force them to come to grips with reality. From the perspective of House leadership, then, it is also advantageous for members to understand the real risk of a shutdown. (In reality, a deal two hours or 2 days after the deadline passes is not going to throw a wrench into the economy.)

In this shutdown threat, the question, I suspect, will boil down to whether House hardliners and Senate Dems can agree on the so-called Vitter Amendment to include lawmakers and their staffs in Obamacare. For the 20 or so GOP House zealots this is not enough; for Cruz it’s a betrayal and for Senate Dems it is too much. But that’s the sort of difference that can be breached, if Boehner can keep his troops in line.

It is possible that the GOP hardliners will insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good, refuse to agree to the Vitter Amendment as the final offer, and thereby force Boehner to go to House Dems, who will only agree to a clean continuing resolution. It sounds insane that House Republican hardliners would rather have nothing than something, but we passed rationality on the way to self-delusion last week. Now it’s about martyrdom, betrayal and ideological purity even if that means giving up something significant. It’s also possible Boehner does let the clock run out, hoping his caucus will be stunned to find out their belligerence has consequences.

Meanwhile Cruz, on “Meet the Press” Sunday, went full-tilt, brimming with moral certitude and utter obliviousness:

DAVID GREGORY: You’re making an argument. I asked you a specific question based on the facts on the ground. You’ve made all these arguments. My goodness, you went and spoke for 21 hours to make these arguments. You haven’t moved anyone.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: The American people overwhelming reject Obamacare. They understand it’s not working. The only people who aren’t listening to the argument are the career politicians in Washington. It’s Harry Reid, who wants to use brute political And the great thing about the constitution is that it creates a system of checks and balances. And each branch has the ability to check another. President Obama, sadly, in implementing Obamacare, has, over and over again, disregarded the law. When he granted an exemption for giant corporations, that was contrary to law. When he granted an exemption to members of Congress, that was contrary to law.

That is all well and good, but the American people, even Republicans, overwhelmingly reject a government shutdown as well. Cruz cares only about public opinion when it agrees with him, it seems. And of course he has yet to find the 51 votes (or 67 to override a veto) he promised would be there for passage of a defunding measure. He is entirely unresponsive to questions on that subject for a reason: His goal is self-promotion and not a legislative end. He leaves the clean-up to others.

Cruz might actually believes lines like: “We shouldn’t have a shutdown, which means Harry Reid has to move off his absolutist position.” That would suggest he’s not a brilliant lawyer as so many conservatives swear but a slick ideologue with poor judgment. Like so many other ideologues, he is unaware his hard edges, incendiary language and extremism don’t play well outside staunch conservative circles.

This may finally be the point at which Boehner can no longer manage his cadre of zealots, Reid’s intransigence gets the best of him and the media correctly predicts a breakdown. Still, you have to wonder if House leadership doesn’t have one more card up its sleeve. Maybe letting their zealots stew in their own juices after tonight’s deadline will bring a dose of reality sufficient to forge a deal, albeit a few hours late.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.