So looking at confrontations like the current one on the shutdown, and the coming one on the debt ceiling, one analogy I've heard people use is the game of chicken, where two cars are driving at each other and the first one to swerve away loses. Swerving is worse for you than not swerving, but if nobody swerves then you die. Similarly, John Boehner doesn't want to "swerve" (pass a clean continuing resolution or debt ceiling increase) and Obama doesn't want to "swerve" (sign a CR that defunds Obamacare, or sign a non-clean debt ceiling increase), but if neither swerves, then the shutdown continues and/or we default. Is that a fair analogy?
That's the most basic way to think about it. When we think about the Cuban missile crisis, it kind of has that flavor. You could also call it a war of attrition, which is a more dynamic version of that. Those are appropriate analogies to a certain extent, but what they're missing is the specific nature of the U.S. political system and how public opinion plays a critical role in how damaging it is to be intransigent. It's not helpful for understanding the structural reasons why this is happening.
The really critical question is whether the Republicans are going to stay together. There's a spectrum, of course, depending on your district and what your primaries will look like, from more extreme to more moderate, but they've been more able to maintain a level of party discipline that's unusual compared to the '60s, '70s and '80s. But at what point will the moderate Republicans peel off? Will they stay together, or will they feel so much backlash in their districts at this point, and hear from their constituencies, that the political calculus just doesn't work anymore? That, to me, is the big question.
To a large extent that will depend on how effective the Obama administration is in shifting public opinion. It depends on (a) how catastrophic they think breaching the debt ceiling is and (b) who they're blaming for that. So I think this bargaining game will be determined by how successful the two sides are in shifting public opinion.
Who do you think is doing better at managing that so far?
So far it's going better for the Obama administration. You have these incidents of people being unable to get into national parks or Arlington National Cemetery, the Army/Navy games jeopardized. There are things where people say, "Ooh this is very bad," or "This is crazy." These are important because they give salience to the issue. The sequester didn't have anything like that. There wasn't anything symbolic that really caught people's attention and gave a sense of, "This is really wrong. We need to stop this." These small things, though they're economically not very significant, can shift public opinion because they reinforce how serious this is.
Part of the problem is that it seems hard to identify what exactly the House Republicans want. There was an amazing quote by Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.): "We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is."
It's hard for me to understand whether it's posturing or what. It's very hard to disentangle. Originally it was over defunding Obamacare, but when you go to, "You're disrespecting me," what that means strategically is, "I'm really not compromising, because the stakes are even higher." If that's real or a bluff is hard to say.