The shutdown probably won’t hurt Republicans in 2014. Here’s what will.

October 11, 2013

I agree with Nate Silver on this: Political events in October 2013 are very unlikely to drive an election in November 2014.

That's particularly true assuming the GOP backs off soon. As Silver writes, "if the current round of negotiations is resolved within the next week or so, they might turn out to have a relatively minor impact by November 2014."

He doesn't know. (AP Photo/Senate TV)
He doesn't know. (Senate TV via AP)

But the problem for the Republican Party isn't this shutdown. It's what led to this shutdown.

There are two ways to interpret the GOP's ill-considered strategy over these last few weeks. One is that it's an aberration. They just made a mistake. It won't happen again.

The other is that it's structural. They're not here because they forgot to carry the one. They're here because their party has become structurally dysfunctional in ways that are leading to self-destructive behavior.

If the structural explanation is correct, then some kind of temporary deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling to make room for budget negotiations isn't likely to do the Republican Party much good. The problems will persist, and recur, over the next year — and thus they will affect the 2014 election.

Imagine this scenario: Republicans agree to reopen the government and suspend the debt ceiling for six weeks while they try and negotiate a deal on Obamacare and the budget with President Obama. If the GOP's problem was simply that they made a mistake when planning this strategy and they have since learned their lesson, this could solve their problem: They strike a deal with the Obama administration that cuts entitlements and raises taxes and maybe makes some tweaks to Obamacare and that's end of the insane showdowns. In that world, this won't do the GOP much damage come 2014.

But does anyone really believe we live in that world?

First, as badly as they want to do that, as terrible as the polls look for them, top Republicans don't seem able to convince their members to reopen the government and suspend the debt ceiling so negotiations can take place in a more normal, less politically damaging, context. But let's assume they could.

The makeup of the GOP's coalition is such that the party's leaders can't sell the base on any compromise that Democrats would accept. They've all taken a pledge not to raise taxes (a pledge that's apparently so unbreakable that they won't even accept chained-CPI, which was one of their demands, without offsetting tax cuts). They're viewed with intense skepticism by the Tea Party.

So the question is, what then? If they reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling for six weeks and then they get nothing for it, will they really be able to pass a clean CR and another debt-ceiling increase in late-November? Or will the Tea Party feel that they gave Speaker John Boehner and his team a chance to do it their way and they failed. Now it's back to confrontation.

You can already see the seeds of this narrative being planted. Sen. Ted Cruz is telling his supporters that the polls look terrible for Democrats and that "the House of Reps needs to keep doing what it's been doing ... standing strong!" "I blame the leadership primarily because they decided to follow Cruz's strategy but in a half-[hearted] way," tweeted the Weekly Standard's Jay Cost, though the word he used wasn't "hearted."

If this ends and the negotiations fail, the lesson many in the party will take isn't that the GOP erred terribly in in employing these extreme and unpopular tactics. It'll be that they erred terribly in backing down from them, and letting the leadership muck up the clear messaging of Ted Cruz and the Tea Party.

Republicans should be very worried about what this episode means for their party in the midterms. But not because the shutdown itself is going to be foremost in voter's minds 13 months from now. It's because the shutdown is evidence of a Republican crack-up that is leading the party to pursue doomed, reckless and self-destructive campaigns. And if they keep doing that through the rest of 2013 and much of 2014, that will matter in the elections.

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Brian Fung · October 11, 2013