Congress must pass a budget before Sept. 30, or it faces partially shutting down the government for the second time in two years. Here's how we got to another potential shutdown. (Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)

Yes, we are hurtling towards another government shutdown. We’ve been here numerous times before, so it’s not surprising that we’re hearing yet another rerun of the same old rhetoric: If Congress fails to keep the government funded, it will be Democrats, not Republicans, who are really shutting down the government!

It’s worth noting, however, that when conservatives say this — particularly those running for president — they’re not actually talking about Democrats. Rather, they’re talking about GOP leaders — or, to put it another way, they’re talking to conservative voters about GOP leaders.

Republicans who want to use the coming government funding fight to defund Planned Parenthood — a strategy that GOP leaders have denounced as hopeless folly — like to argue that the GOP won’t take the blame if the government does shut down. Senate Dems would filibuster, or President Obama would veto, any government funding bill that defunds Planned Parenthood. So Republicans can argue that Obama and Dems are refusing to fund the government because of their commitment to keeping Planned Parenthood in business, even after the fetal tissue videos shocked the country.

As Marco Rubio recently put it:

“We are in support of funding the government fully — just not giving any more money to this one organization that was just caught on video dismembering unborn children!…I don’t understand why we accept this argument that we’re the one’s shutting it down. They’re the ones shutting it down! It would be a Democratic filibuster and a presidential veto that would shut down the government, and it would be for the purpose of supporting one organization.”

But Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur digs up examples of Rubio and other Republicans making precisely the same argument during the government shutdown fight of 2013, only the target was Obamacare, not Planned Parenthood:

“Well, the one who’s threatening to shut down the government is the president and his Democratic allies,” the Floridian told Hannity on Aug. 1, 2013, two months before Republicans shut down the government in an ultimately futile effort to cut funding for Obama’s health care law. “What they’re basically saying is unless the budget funds Obamacare, they won’t support it. They’re basically saying that unless we fund Obamacare they are willing to shut down the government.”

In the end, Republican lost the fight. Not just because they had to cave and pass a bill that continued funding for Obamacare, but because they took the political hit for it: 81 percent of Americans disapproved of the shutdown, and the public blamed Republicans by a 53 percent to 39 percent margin, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll taken at the time. Nine days into the shutdown, Gallup found that the GOP’s approval rating had sunk to an all-time low. Democrats’ approval dipped more modestly.

As Kapur notes, Ted Cruz also made exactly this argument in 2013. And Cruz, who is now running for president, is making it again in 2015, in urging Republicans to realize that they can win this fight if they hold firm.

But Rubio, Cruz, and company surely remember they made this argument two years ago. They also surely know the history confirms that government funding fights politically and structurally favor presidents over Congresses, and that Dems won’t cave this time, either. (Steve Benen jokes that if anything, Planned Parenthood is more popular than Obamacare.) They know GOP leaders will ultimately keep the government open again by passing funding with the help of Democrats, if necessary. We are usually told (until he caves) that Speaker John Boehner won’t dare do this because it will unleash conservative fury that will cost him his job. Yet this time, intimations to that effect are taking on a sad quality: House conservatives are threatening to get behind Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a coup attempt; and even though McCarthy has said it’s utter nonsense, those conservatives won’t let go of the idea.

So Rubio, Cruz, and other conservatives know how this will end. And that’s what this whole ruse is really about.

Their argument that Democrats will take the blame for a shutdown isn’t actually about somehow spooking Dems into fearing this fight or persuading GOP leaders to adopt this shutdown strategy and stick to it. They know GOP leaders won’t actually do that. Rather, their argument is targeted to conservatives voters: it’s designed to keep alive the illusion that there was indeed a way to win the battle if only GOP leaders had the stomach to see it through to the end.

Enhancing the hall of mirrors effect in play here, this is exactly what makes it possible to simply repeat the same argument two years later. The fact that Republicans lost previous government shutdown fights, which should ideally cast doubt on that argument and strategy, is — poof! — easily transformed into more fodder for the idea that Republicans only lose these fights due to a failure of will. Republican Congressional leaders have become the preferred pummeling dummies for presidential candidates who want to persuade conservative primary voters that they have cracked the code that has tormented them for years: Why can’t the GOP succeed in rolling back the Obama agenda?

This is a painfully obvious trick. Yet it actually seems to work. Senator Cruz, for instance, is circulating audio of an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show, in which Hannity said:

“This is a big part of the message that is keeping you in the top tier of candidates, which is that you are taking on the idea that Republicans do not fight. They don’t fight on immigration. They don’t use their constitutional authority on health care. Again and again. And I would argue they won’t end up doing it on Planned Parenthood, either. But you’re the guy saying, ‘These are our values, these are our promises.’ And yet they won’t stand with you.”

You’ll be startled to hear that Senator Cruz wholeheartedly endorsed Hannity’s analysis.


UPDATE: Also see Jonathan Bernstein’s post on how conservatives know this strategy will fail and on why this is the whole point of it.