An interesting tidbit from Peter Baker’s oral history of President Obama’s first term:
Even before the struggle over the debt ceiling, Obama and the newly ascendant Republicans engage in the first of multiple showdowns over spending.
Joseph R. Biden Jr., vice president (2009-present): I thought we should have let them shut the government down, let them have a taste of what it was. I think we would have been in a stronger position. I was in the minority on that. If we could take a position back — I don’t know, the president might agree with me. I know he wondered about it. I think it would have been better to have them face the music right then and there.
On Friday, I asked a Democratic Senate aide what he thought of the House Republicans’ decision to raise the debt ceiling for three months, putting it after the sequester and the continuing resolution (which funds the government and could, if not agreed to by the end of March, lead to a government shutdown). “It’s a sign of how much the bar has shifted that the prospect of ‘just’ a shutdown feels like a relief,” he said.
That doesn’t answer Biden’s counterfactual, of course. Perhaps if the White House had permitted a government shutdown in February 2011, the Republicans would been chastened before getting to the debt ceiling, and this new, more dangerous strain of brinksmanship would never have emerged. Or perhaps the Democrats, who had just lost the 2010 elections, would also have lost the ensuing showdown, and the path of Obama’s first term, and of the 2012 election, would have been significantly altered.
But it’s worth remembering that it’s not just the White House that prevented a government shutdown in 2011. It was House Speaker John Boehner who agreed to the deal. He didn’t want a shutdown, either. Just as he didn’t actually want to breach the debt ceiling in August 2011, or go over the fiscal cliff in January 2012. Biden gives the White House credit for avoiding a shutdown, but some of that credit properly belongs to the Republican leadership.
Part of the strategy of House Republicans over the last two years has been to signal that they’re more reckless than they actually are in order to increase their leverage in negotiations. Part of the strategy of the White House in recent years has been to emphasize their willingness to negotiate and make concessions in order to persuade the public that the Republicans are responsible for Washington’s gridlock. The result is that congressional Republicans are widely seen as crazier than they actually are, and the White House is seen as weaker than it actually is.
The odds of a government shutdown this year are fairly good. A top GOP leadership adviser told Politico that Republicans “may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system.” But it’s not something the Republican leadership actually wants. They didn’t want it in 2011, when they were in a strong public position, and they want it even less now, when their brand is in tatters and Obama’s poll numbers are north of 50 percent.