Shutdown means damage to the system, but greater risk for Republicans


House Speaker John Boehner speaks to the media at the Capitol on Oct. 1. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Dan Balz
Chief correspondent October 1, 2013

There will be plenty of collateral damage from the government shutdown that began early Tuesday — from federal workers to ordinary citizens — but the most serious effects are likely to be felt inside a Republican Party that is divided and in need of leadership.

Day One of the shutdown produced, if anything, a hardening of lines rather than any signs of rapprochement between the two warring parties. If anyone thought that touching a hot stove would force politicians to recoil and retreat, that didn’t happen in the opening hours of this next phase of the battle. Instead, politicians on both sides appeared emboldened and had a similar message: The fault lies elsewhere for the disruptions that the closures will produce.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

President Obama, who once hoped to mark Tuesday as the day when critical elements of his Affordable Care Act took effect, instead used part of his time at a public event in the White House Rose Garden to lob rhetorical grenades at the Republicans for what he described as their intransigence and dereliction of duty.

Obama said defiantly that his health-care law, which is the sole reason the government is partly shuttered and the political system in the capital paralyzed, is “here to stay,” no matter what Republicans think of it or try to do to it. He appeared more peeved than outright angry about the state of things.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats traded accusations for Congress’s failure to find a way to fund the government for two more months — an act that, even if it had been done, would hardly be something to crow about. Such limited ambitions — asking lawmakers in essence to punt for 60 or so more days, when another round of squabbling presumably would occur — underscore the breakdown of the system.

A lengthy government closure could damage the GOP's standing with voters, according to Republican Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson. (The Washington Post)

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), in a USA Today op-ed, accused Obama of a “scorched-Earth policy of refusing to negotiate” over health care, spending or entitlement reform and said that was why the government ended up closed.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) sat with other House Republicans named to a budget conference committee that had been rejected out of hand by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) just before the shutdown began.

Cantor condemned the Democrats for refusing even to discuss what he said were repeated efforts by his party to offer different formulas to break the stalemate. The reality, of course, given the raw numbers in the House and the Senate, is that in trying to use a short-term funding bill to stop or delay Obamacare, the Republicans ended up stopping the government.

Reid continued to insist that Senate Democrats would never yield until the Republicans abandoned their strings-attached strategy and sent him a clean bill to fund the government. Reid’s dismissals of the Republican tactics grow more flagrant and inflammatory by the day, which is not likely to serve Democrats well in the long run.

Democrats had hoped that Republicans would feel heat the closer they came to missing the deadline to keep the government running. If anything, calls for Republicans to stay the course were even louder on Tuesday than they were on Monday.

The Weekly Standard summed up this hard-line approach with a posting that compared the GOP’s situation to someone in a game of blackjack. Better to stay put for now with a not-so-great hand than move precipitously and end up a clear loser. “That’s the Republicans’ situation today,” wrote William Kristol, the magazine’s editor. “They have a hand they could easily make worse by panicking, and which could be good enough for a win or draw if they keep calm.”

The Republicans are getting the worst of this right now, based on public opinion polls. This is clearly a concern of some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who have called the House GOP strategy a dead-end approach. But while the GOP’s vulnerabilities are likely to intensify the longer the situation remains unresolved, for now they are being reinforced by the base.

Democrats recognize that the longer the fight continues with government services disrupted, the more voters could hold them at least partly responsible as participants in a dysfunctional government. They said they were doing everything they could Tuesday to avoid what Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) called a “pox on all their houses.”

Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, was trying to convince those in the public who haven’t taken sides that the fault lies entirely with the Republicans.

Whether that argument will hold in the face of an indefinite standoff that tries the public’s patience is another question. The best that Obama and the Democrats can say to themselves is that they enter this moment less weak than their Republican adversaries. The president’s approval ratings are tepid — somewhere in the mid-40s — but they didn’t take a serious tumble as the shutdown battle intensified.

Congressional Democrats are held in even lower esteem than Obama, which is always the case, but they are still higher than congressional Republicans. However, the longer the stalemate continues, the more nervous their side is likely to be.

Still, the Republicans continue to be at greater political risk because they are being defined by a rebellious faction in the House. That has produced angst among some Republican commentators about the strategy advocated by the tea party movement in the House and accepted by Boehner. But do those views indicate a wider nervousness inside the party — or a deep divide between GOP elites and rank-and-file followers of the tea party?

Whatever the case, it will take something more to change the party’s image. In the late 1990s, House Republicans were the face of the GOP and considered too rebellious and hard-edged (although less so than they are today). It took the emergence of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush as a presidential candidate, offering himself as a compassionate conservative, to begin to redefine the party.

Bush was bolstered by support among Republican governors, who consolidated around him early as their choice to lead the party in the 2000 presidential race. No Republican today appears to have the name, national prominence, political network or solid base to do what Bush was able to do then.

Political battles like these generally end when one side concludes that the damage has become too severe. Sometimes that occurs after an election beating, but the midterm contest is more than a year away. Similarly, a sharp turn in public opinion could cause the kind of panicking in the ranks that Kristol warned against. As of Tuesday, neither side seemed to think it had reached that point.

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