Whether or not Republicans dodge the actual shutdown Friday night -- and at this point, it seems to be anyone's guess -- they've already hurt themselves politically speaking. No, it's not a death blow. Not even close. But it does suggest that Republicans' previously demonstrated inability to get out of their own way hasn't disappeared since the party seized total control of Congress.
Simply put: At this moment in history, the more Republicans keep the focus off themselves -- and their internal disagreements -- the better. The country is primed to agree with them -- or, at least, trust them more than Democrats -- on virtually every major issue. And, yet the GOP is doing just the opposite.
A new Pew Research Center poll makes this point starkly. Pew asked which party people trusted more to deal with seven issues; on just one -- health care -- did Democrats have a statistically significant edge over Republicans. Republicans had wide leads on handling the threat of terrorism, foreign policy and dealing with taxes.
The problem for Republicans is that those edges on issues are almost the exact reverse of how people view the two parties. A majority of Americans believe the GOP is "too extreme"; just one in three see the Republican Party as "tolerant and open to all groups of people."
You can see, then, why this ongoing fight over funding the Department of Homeland Security is problematic politically for the party. The central fight, at least at the moment, is focused on whether conservatives in the House will accede to allowing separate votes on funding DHS and repealing several of President Obama's executive actions on immigration. The parading of Republicans' most conservative element into the public eye and the trumpeting of the storyline that they continue to control what does or doesn't happen in Congress put the focus almost entirely on the GOP's biggest weaknesses.
And, as an added bonus, the issue being fought over is funding the department charged with keeping the country safe -- creating at least the possibility that Republicans' big lead on that question could be eroded by how the blame game of a shutdown plays out.
What Republicans should be talking about every day, all day, is whether the Obama administration has an effective plan to deal with the the threat of terrorism or a blueprint for America's right role on the world stage. Or, heck, even how they want to shrink government and reduce the tax burden while Obama is fighting them every step of the way. In short, they need to (a) keep the focus on Obama and (b) find issues where their side largely agrees with itself.
Making yourself the story is very rarely a winning strategy in politics. That's especially true when you have the image problems Republicans are currently dealing with. The sooner they can get the spotlight off themselves and onto a discussion of issues -- and what Obama is doing (or not) to address them -- the better off they'll be. That means finding a solution to avoid a shutdown. ASAP.