No one should be surprised by the shutdown

NO ONE SHOULD BE SURPRISED BY THE SHUTDOWN…. Josh Marshall had an item yesterday that I suspect represents the way many observers consider reports of a government shutdown next year: “When I first heard this talk of another ‘government shutdown’ in 2011, I figured it was just Democrats whipping it up as a cudgel for the election. Then I heard Republicans talking about it too. But I still figured it was just a way of ratcheting up their own core voters — who of course loved the first one too.”

Two months ago, when I first put the odds of a government shutdown, in the event of a GOP majority, at over 50%, I heard this, too — it’s just a lot of talk; it’ll blow over; and cooler heads will prevail.

But Josh started reconsidering his take when he considered in detail how the funding fight over health care is likely to play out if Republicans take the House (and/or the Senate). Christina Bellantoni reported yesterday on the right-wing plan to “defund” health care policy, effectively holding the government hostage unless President Obama agrees to go along.

GOP leadership is on board with defunding health care and it’s the most popular idea on the America Speaking Out voter forum run by the House Republicans and is included on the tea party’s version of a Contract with America.

“Since we would need 60 senators to stop a filibuster, defunding is really our only option,” said Alex Cortes of DeFundIt.org.

While some GOPers suggest they could cut funding entirely, there is only $150 billion in the reform law that’s discretionary and not self-executing. Those funds are to help the Department of Health and Human Services and the IRS implement the new law, and Republicans believe, “If we exclude those funds, they can’t institute the program,” Cortes said.

“I don’t think a shutdown would eventually happen,” Cortes said. “We’d ultimately win the PR battle if we did it. We won the battle in the 90s because we stood on principle.”

Conservatives who think the shutdown(s) made Republicans look good probably need a quick refresher of the politics of 1995.

Regardless, the talk of inviting a government shutdown is getting harder to miss, and Republicans haven’t even won anything yet. The GOP won’t be able to repeal the health care law, so this is widely seen as the next best thing, despite the severe consequences.

The next question is whether it’s likely Republicans would go through with it.

Jonathan Bernstein recently argued that Boehner & Co. would not. In the mid-’90s, Gingrich assumed Bill Clinton was weak and could be pushed around — he could threaten the president with a shutdown, and Clinton would give Republicans what they wanted. The GOP probably perceives Obama differently.

Now, John Boehner was there, and remembers what happened. He almost certainly has a lot more respect for Barack Obama than Gingrich did for Clinton. He also should know, and probably does know, that the rise of the partisan media since 1995-96 will make it even harder for him, and for House Republicans, to extricate themselves from a high-profile stalemate; frankly, I think it’s highly unlikely that Boehner could survive as Speaker following a high-profile “surrender” (that is, compromise). Given all of that, I think it’s unlikely that Boehner would let himself get trapped in such a situation.

That’s a reasonable assessment, but I’m not sure how much of a choice Boehner will have. The House Minority Leader has already said scrapping the entire health care reform law is his top priority, and Boehner’s caucus — and the party base — will expect follow-through. Boehner could pass a repeal bill in the House, but after it failed in the Senate or got vetoed, he wouldn’t be able to say, “Well, we gave it a shot; let’s move on to other issues now.” It’s too late for that — defunding the law is already far too popular within the GOP. There’s an expectation that the fight has to happen.

Bernstein’s right that Boehner’s role as Speaker might not survive a failed confrontation with the president, but I’m not sure Boehner’s role as Speaker could survive if he decided not to force the confrontation.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that in a showdown, Obama would come out ahead of Boehner & Co., in much the same way Clinton looked better than Gingrich. I think that’s true. But I also think Republicans have already backed themselves into a corner — they’ve made the president out to be the devil; they’ve all but ruled out compromising; and they’ve committed to a path that almost certainly ends in a government shutdown. GOP leaders may have even deluded themselves into thinking that they’re more popular than Obama (they’re not), and that if a shutdown hurts the economy, they’ll avoid blame (they won’t).

When gaming this out, there’s a temptation to think rational players will act in accordance with reason and self-interest. With Republicans, especially in the House, the models are skewed by their often-bizarre interpretations of reality.