As with a terrible headache that finally eases, the reverberations of the 16-day government shutdown continue to echo around Washington even though the immediate crisis has passed.
The question everyone in politics is trying to answer is whether and how much the shutdown showdown changed things inside and outside Washington. Is this a pivot point in our politics or simply a hiccup in the spasmodic nature of modern governing?
In an attempt to answer that question, here are some things that the government shutdown and debt-ceiling debate changed — and some that they didn’t.
What changed: The GOP brand is in the gutter. Republicans didn’t start the shutdown on firm political footing, and they ended it in even worse shape, with the schism between establishment and base on full display. The one number you need to know? In a Washington Post-ABC News poll last week, 47 percent of self-identified Republicans disapproved of how their party was handling the shutdown. (Forty-nine percent approved.)
What hasn’t changed: Historic midterm election trends and a heavily gerrymandered national map. For all the talk of the House now being in play, it’s worth remembering that only one president (Bill Clinton) in the past 100 years saw his party gain seats in the House in the second midterm election of his presidency. Then there is the fact that the playing field of truly competitive seats is minuscule — the Cook Political Report ranks just 13 as endangered at the moment — thanks in large part to the 2011 national congressional line-drawing that, for the second straight decade, mostly protected incumbents of both parties.
What changed: President Obama found his voice. If you haven’t read or watched the speech Obama gave Thursday, the day the government reopened, you should. It was an impassioned and, at times, borderline-angry speech by a man who is fed up with the way politics is practiced in Washington. “It was one of those deep-in-the-gut expressions of sadness and weariness about how he feels about this whole mess,” said one Democratic consultant, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the president. Obama has often struggled to convey genuine emotion and investment in issues and governance as president, but he clearly feels strongly about what’s wrong with Washington.
What hasn’t changed: Obama still lacks a major second-term accomplishment as the calendar draws dangerously close to an election year. Gun control failed. Any chance at a large-scale deal on debt and spending issues seems elusive. Immigration reform, on which Obama seems set on refocusing in the wake of the shutdown, still faces a very uncertain future in a badly divided House. “There are no library wings built on standing up to the House Republicans,” that same Democratic consultant said about the recent shutdown face-off. “[It’s] not really a legacy moment.”
What changed: Ted Cruz became a major player in the 2016 Republican presidential race. The fight over Obamacare was something of a put-up-or-shut-up moment for Cruz, and while he failed to repeal or delay the bill, he did throw himself into the fight in a major way — most notably with his 21-hour filibuster against the law. While his actions enraged Democrats and turned off many independents, Cruz proved to rank-and-file Republicans that he is the purest of the tea party conservatives — and that is a strong position to hold in the current incarnation of the GOP.
What hasn’t changed: History suggests that the purest of the ideologically pure candidates don’t win the Republican presidential nomination. Mitt Romney was the 2012 GOP pick, not social-conservative stalwart Rick Santorum. John McCain beat out Romney, who at that point was trying to be a hard-core conservative, and Mike Huckabee to win the 2008 nomination. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was cast as a sort of middle road to get the party back into the White House in 2000 after eight years in the political wilderness. In truth, you need to go back to Ronald Reagan in 1980 or maybe even all the way back to Barry Goldwater in 1964 to find the last time a “true conservative” won the party’s presidential nomination.