When Ted Cruz Cries ‘Wolf’ on Shutdown

I largely agree with T. Becket Adams, who argues today that if Republicans were planning to shut down the government, we would know about it.

As I’ve said, government shutdowns that last longer than a day or two don’t happen by accident. In 1995-1996, Newt Gingrich deliberately engineered a train wreck, as they called it back then, because he believed that President Bill Clinton was a wimp and would rapidly lose any game of chicken that Republicans devised. The result? Two lengthy shutdowns, and a much-chastened (for a few weeks, anyway) Newt.

Then, last year, Senator Ted Cruz and his fellow Republican radicals deliberately chose to shut down the government because he believed … well, it isn’t clear what the endgame was supposed to be. Perhaps Tailgunner Ted believed Republicans could get their way by holding their breath until they turned blue. Perhaps he didn’t game it out. Perhaps he cared more about differentiating himself from other conservative presidential contenders than about anything else. I don’t know.

What I do know is that several impasses since 1980, other than those in 1995-1996 and 2013, resulted in at most a very short government shutdown (the government didn’t bother to stop functioning during several 1970s funding gaps).

So why do I only largely agree with Adams that there’s no real shutdown threat?

For the same reason that in Hays Code movies no couple could innocently sit beside a fireplace or embrace chastely during a storm. Use enough coded language and it becomes impossible to say something uncoded (as Garry Wills explained brilliantly in his chapter on “Chastity Symbols” in “Reagan’s America“). As Brian Beutler points out, the problem here is that after publicly threatening a full government shutdown in fall 2013 (and Adams is correct about that), Republicans responded to the actual shutdown by claiming that (1) the government wasn’t really shut down and that (2) it was all President Barack Obama’s shutdown anyway.1

So when Cruz, as quoted by Adams, now says, “There is one person, and one person only, talking about a government shutdown, and that is the White House,” that’s pretty much what I expect Cruz to say whether or not he intends to instigate a shutdown (just as I know what must be happening every time a 1940s movie cuts from a kiss to a sunset).

On the other hand, when House Republican leaders say they intend to pass a clean continuing resolution to keep the government operating beyond the election, that means something. Except that’s pretty much what they intended to happen last October, and they were outmaneuvered by the radicals.

Of course, if Obama postpones executive action on immigration until after the election, then the chances of a radical spasm in reaction will be reduced. And even if it does happen, the last debacle probably diminished the chances of House mainstream conservatives going along. And for purely electoral calculations, there’s a huge difference between October 2013 (just before primary season for the House ) and October 2014, when members are about to face general election voters.

As for Cruz and every other Republican who suddenly decided a few hours into the shutdown that they had nothing to do with it? Well, maybe we should take their words at face value this time. And maybe Grace Kelly and Cary Grant were just having a drink and one kiss during those fireworks.

1 I’m pretty sure Beutler is wrong that no one has explicitly threatened a shutdown, and I’ve argued that we need to be careful about interpreting that every long-term plan to use leverage amounts to a shutdown threat. But he’s correct about what Cruz and the other radicals have been up to in the last few weeks.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.