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Opinion Government shutdown fight may again shake up GOP presidential race

With the big news out of Congress today the warm welcome received by Pope Francis, one might forget that our nation’s august legislature is headed for yet another government shutdown, this time over Republican demands that the government cut off all funding for Planned Parenthood, most of which comes in the form of Medicaid reimbursements for women’s health care.

This comes at a particularly inopportune time for Republicans. Just when it was starting to look like their chaotic presidential primary might be heading to a more sane place, the shutdown controversy threatens to drag it backwards, boosting the candidates the party fears most.

That’s not just because of the fact that it’s happening, but because of why it’s happening.

A new Businessweek poll asked whether “Federal funding to Planned Parenthood should be cut,” and found that 59 percent said it shouldn’t (with 40 percent saying that “strongly”) while only 37 percent said it should. Other recent polls have produced similar results: a Reuters poll showed respondents supporting funding by 54-26, and a CNN poll showed respondents saying it was more important to keep the government open than to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood by a margin of 71-22.

But that’s among the population as a whole. Among Republican voters — particularly the partisans who will actually turn out in primaries — Planned Parenthood is deeply unpopular, and a shutdown doesn’t seem like such a terrible idea.

Here's how the fight over Planned Parenthood funding could partially shut down the government for the second time in two years. (Video: Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, as Greg noted yesterday, Hillary Clinton is eager to get into an argument with Republicans over Planned Parenthood, because she knows how their attacks on the group have hurt them in the past with female voters.

Before we get to how a shutdown might affect the GOP race, let’s step back and think about where it has been going in the last week or two. First, Scott Walker pulled out, following Rick Perry to the exits. If you’re a Republican, this is a hopeful sign, because the outlandish number of candidates is beginning to dwindle, and the fewer candidates there are, the more order can come to the race. One might even hope that the winnowing process will accelerate the decline of the “outsider” candidates who are the product of momentary fascination but who would be disastrous in a general election. As the number of active candidates goes down, voters’ minds may turn toward rational considerations like electability, and the party could nominate someone who actually has a chance of winning next November.

And indeed, there are some signs that Donald Trump’s support has plateaued and may even be falling. Polls released in the last few days have shown him still leading, but with a slightly smaller number of supporters than before.

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But now we get another shutdown controversy, which reminds Republican voters of all the reasons they can’t stand the GOP’s establishment in Washington. Perhaps more than anything else, the interest in the outsiders in general and Trump in particular is fed by the disappointment and disgruntlement among the GOP base over party leaders who seem completely ineffectual, forever talking about how they’re going to stop Barack Obama but always failing to deliver.

So if there will be any beneficiaries of a shutdown (or an intra-GOP) battle over whether to pursue a shutdown) in the presidential race, they’re likely to be Trump, perhaps Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz, whose entire political persona is built on his contempt for the Republican congressional leadership. Cruz has a new op-ed in Politico demanding a shutdown, which begins this way:

What happens in politics when one side is absolutely committed to its principles, willing to fight for them no matter the cost, and the other side reflexively surrenders on every issue? We have modern-day Washington.
Today, President Barack Obama fights relentlessly for his liberal priorities. Like the Terminator, he never gives up, he never stops. And Republican leadership responds to every challenge by surrendering at the outset.

This controversy will end in one of two ways: either Congress will pass a “clean” continuing resolution to fund the government (including Planned Parenthood) before a shutdown occurs, or there will be a shutdown for some period of time, which will end when Congress passes a clean CR. Republicans will not get the substantive thing they want, just as they always fail to get the substantive thing they want when they threaten shutdowns. They didn’t repeal the Affordable Care Act when they shut down the government in 2013, and they won’t defund Planned Parenthood this time.

Whenever it does end, Ted Cruz will cry “Betrayal!”, Donald Trump will say, “these bozos can’t get anything done,” and lots of Republican voters will nod their heads in agreement. And the day when something resembling order comes to the presidential primary contest will have been pushed back again — all while the general electorate is reminded of what a reasonable and trustworthy governing party the GOP is.