Why It’s Groundhog Day on Government Shutdowns

So as congressional Republicans tie themselves into knots over trying to shake their fists at the president on Iran and Planned Parenthood without getting blamed for a government shutdown, Greg Sargent reminds us how recently we’ve been through this same game before. It’s not like it’s been that long ago, has it?

Rubio, Cruz, and company surely remember they made this argument two years ago. They also surely know the history confirms that government funding fights politically and structurally favor presidents over Congresses, and that Dems won’t cave this time, either. (Steve Benen jokes that if anything, Planned Parenthood is more popular than Obamacare.) They know GOP leaders will ultimately keep the government open again by passing funding with the help of Democrats, if necessary….

Their argument that Democrats will take the blame for a shutdown isn’t actually about somehow spooking Dems into fearing this fight or persuading GOP leaders to adopt this shutdown strategy and stick to it. They know GOP leaders won’t actually do that. Rather, their argument is targeted to conservatives voters: it’s designed to keep alive the illusion that there was indeed a way to win the battle if only GOP leaders had the stomach to see it through to the end.

Enhancing the hall of mirrors effect in play here, this is exactly what makes it possible to simply repeat the same argument two years later. The fact that Republicans lost previous government shutdown fights, which should ideally cast doubt on that argument and strategy, is — poof! — easily transformed into more fodder for the idea that Republicans only lose these fights due to a failure of will. Republican Congressional leaders have become the preferred pummeling dummies for presidential candidates who want to persuade conservative primary voters that they have cracked the code that has tormented them for years: Why can’t the GOP succeed in rolling back the Obama agenda?

I’d add two observations to what Greg’s saying here. The first is that the last shutdown was immediately followed by the healthcare.org roll-out, which seems to have counter-balanced what looked for a moment like a calamitous drop in support for the GOP. And the second is that Republicans did indeed do extremely well in the 2014 midterms. So it’s a bit difficult for GOP congressional leaders to argue they might blow the presidential election by doing the same thing, particularly when there are plenty of conservative opinion-leaders who think a meltdown over Planned Parenthood will help “mobilize the base” next year.

So we’re fated to go through at least some of this all over again. It will probably end when Boehner and McConnell agree to play the villains and become the punching bags for conservatives, which in Boehner’s case could be incompatible for holding onto his gavel.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.