The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Republicans snatched defeat from the jaws of victory

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Tuesday should have been a banner day for Congressional Republicans, the day in which sequestration cuts to the federal government were locked in for another few months -- a move that would have proved just how committed the GOP was to cutting federal spending and shrinking the debt.

Instead, the government is shuttered. Polling shows Republicans are in line to take the lion's share of the blame. The party is fighting amongst itself about when and whether to make a deal. Party strategists are (semi) openly fretting about the political danger their side is courting with the shutdown.

"When is a win not a win?," asked former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis (R). "When it belongs to the GOP. These are constant self-inflicted wounds. We don't need to learn how to be a good loser. We need to learn to be a good winner."

How the heck did the party turn what could have (and should have) been a clear political win affirming their baseline commitment to shrinking government and reducing spending into what looks like a political quagmire from which they might struggle to extricate themselves?

The answer is simple -- yet complex. And it can be summed in one sentence. The Republican party base -- and cast-iron conservatives in Congress -- loathe Obamacare.

Remember back a few weeks ago when Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor floated a proposal that would have allowed House Republicans to vote to defund Obamacare and fund the government, but also allowed for Senate Democrats to strip the defund language and send the continuing budget resolution to President Obama directly?

That proposal died before it ever got close to the House floor as cast-iron conservatives in the House -- with an assist from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) -- portrayed it as a "fake" attempt to defund Obamacare.

The people, Cruz insisted, wanted a real effort by Republicans to defund the law -- and it was time GOP leaders in the House listened.  What Cruz meant by "people" was, really, the Republican base -- which, over the past four years, has come to see the Affordable Care Act as a  symbol of everything they don't like about Obama and his presidency.

Take a look at these numbers -- broken down by party ID -- on opinions about Obamacare via the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Or these numbers from the Washington Post-ABC News poll that showed 66 percent of self-identified Republicans who supported shutting down the "major" activities of the government to prevent implementation of Obamacare.

Boehner, who quite clearly knew which way the wind was blowing, re-positioned the party leadership -- offering a series of proposals over the past five days (or so) that would either have defunded Obamacare entirely or delayed its implementation by a year, knowing full well that neither had any chance of making it through the Senate.

Boehner's gambit did a few things.

On the positive side for him, his willingness to hold the line on defunding Obamcare strengthened his position among hard-line conservatives and gave him a talking point if/when he decides to run for Speaker again in 2015. (That is, of course, if Republicans still control the House.)

On the negative side, it allowed the entire debate to revolve around Republicans' insistence that keeping the government running was dependent on starving Obamacare of money -- a linkage that is simply not popular among voters. Witness President Obama's statement Tuesday on the shutdown: "They've shut down the government over an ideological crusade to deny affordable health insurance to millions of Americans. In other words, they demanded ransom just for doing their job."

Make no mistake: John Boehner (and his leadership team) know everything we've written above. Boehner is a savvy pol who understands that much of politics is knowing when to fight and when to take what you've got and declare victory. (See Davis' comment above.) That's what he and Cantor were trying to do with their first proposal to deal with funding the government while given conservatives a chance to be on the record for defunding Obamacare.

What they underestimated -- to the potential political peril of their party -- is the extent to which diehard conservatives in Congress would pressure him to do something (defund Obamacare) that is simply not political practical. (If you think President Obama is planning to undermine his signature legislative achievement of his first term, you haven't been paying attention. To politics. Ever.)

"The whole budget/ shutdown fight has been a net minus for the GOP brand," said Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers. "For some reason the party can't get budget politics right. There is no consensus among Republicans about what to do or even what we are for so we just look like the Party of 'no'."

Here's what Republicans are left with: A public relations fight with a president who, like him or hate him, is a gifted communicator. And at the center of that fight? No, not deficit reduction or bringing spending down but rather Obamacare and the need to link it to keeping the government running.

Given what today could have looked like for the party, that's a swing and a miss. Big time.