Why Republicans Think They Can't Lose a Showdown with Obama

Many in the GOP have, once again, convinced themselves that they've got nothing to lose from a government shutdown.

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Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One year and one month ago, the Republican Party was doomed. Its conservative wing in the House, egged on by outside groups like Heritage Action, had refused to include the Affordable Care Act in the must-pass funding bill. The result, a two-week government shutdown, was a “total disaster” for the GOP, a mistake that threatened the majority. Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina firm favored by Democrats, found “as many as 37 Republicans” in danger.

Those flashbacks now read like dispatches from an alternate reality. As Republicans develop their strategy for undoing some of the Obama administration’s policies through next year’s budgets, they’ve been throttling any talk of a new shutdown. They've repeated, like a koan, that the only person in Washington craving a shutdown is President Barack Obama. Yet in the received, popular GOP history of the last Congress, the shutdown really did not end badly for the Republicans. They won, didn't they?

“Let’s think about all the hyperbole, the hyperbolic statements coming from everybody, particularly the talking heads on television,” said Arizona Representative David Schweikert, a member of the Tea Party class of 2010. “This was supposed to be the end of the Republican Party. The public would never understand what the fight was all about. Turns out the public was a lot smarter than a lot in the political class and media class gave them credit for. They were able to discern that it was an honorable fight over many of the things that were rolling out in the new health care law.”

The revisionist history of the shutdown began as soon as the shutdown ended. When the Democratic Senate bottled the Republican House's ACA-defunding bills, House Republicans started moving “piecemeal bills” that funded portions of the government. By January 2014, Texas Senator Ted Cruz could say that he “repeatedly voted to fund the federal government.” And through the rest of 2014, Cruz claimed that the shutdown fight, rather than distracting from the first wretched fortnight of HealthCare.gov, turned Obamacare into a winning Republican issue.

“That fight elevated the stakes of the debate, and as a direct consequence suddenly Republicans instead of being competitive in five or six or Senate seats are competitive in 10, 12, 14 Senate seats all over the country,” said Cruz in August 2014, at the Iowa FAMiLY Leader Summit. “Obamacare is an albatross around the necks of the Democrats who foisted it on the American people.”

Cruz's causation/correlation switcher made absolute sense to conservatives. Before the 2013 crisis, when the very idea of a shutdown came up, conservatives liked to point out that the 1995-1996 winter clash between President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress did not lead to a Democratic victory in November. Clinton was re-elected, but so were the key Republicans.

“Tell me in what way we didn't win,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich asked rhetorically in 2010. “After that, we got to a balanced budget. And what happened to the Republican majority?”

The 2014 elections went even better for the GOP than Gingrich's 1996 survival run. Three members of the House Republican majority ran for Senate—Arkansas's Tom Cotton, West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, and Colorado's Cory Gardner. All of them won. The first two won by landslides. Only two incumbent Republican members of Congress lost elections, and far more who were put on the October 2013 watch list triumphed.

One example? At the end of the shutdown month, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Pennsylvania Representative Mike Fitzpatrick and New Jersey Representatives Frank LoBiondo and Jon Runyan had watched their seats “nudged toward the Democratic column” by oddsmakers. LoBiondo won by 25 points, Fitzpatrick won by 24 points, and Republicans held the retiring Runyan’s seat by 10 points.

“This is the second shut down where the GOP got blamed and saw no catastrophe at the ballot box,” wrote RedState.com's Erick Erickson on Tuesday. “Every horror story every talking head within the GOP Establishment trotted out to scare congressmen and senators into caving turned out to be crap.”

That sense of invincibility has slowly worked its way into Republican thinking about 2015. Before Republicans won the Senate, when they speculated about how control of the upper house would change politics, they universally assumed that putting bills on the president's desk would make him, not the GOP, look like the aggressor if he vetoed.

“The president knows that he has to sign appropriations bills that keep the government up and running,” said Texas Senator John Cornyn in February, before he won his primary for a third term. “We can package this in a way that would make it almost impossible for him not to sign them.”

“The president has never had to deal with something on his desk,” said Ohio Representative Jim Jordan at an April meeting of conservatives sponsored by the Heritage Foundation. A Republican Senate, he said, would “change the whole political landscape, the whole dynamic, and how American politics is going to work.”

This month, as they've taken power, leading Republicans have insisted they were never talking about shutdowns when they talked about forcing bills on the president. On Tuesday morning, after the House GOP's weekly conference meeting, Virginia Representative Scott Rigell opened his phone and showed off, of all things, a spreadsheet. Republicans had drawn it up to explain their options if the president used an executive order to except millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.

“They're calling for us, in there, to not overreact to this,” said Rigell, pointing to the room where his colleagues had been meeting.

The preferred Republican plan was obviously not a shutdown. Kentucky Representative Hal Rogers, who would be re-elected to lead the Appropriations committee, was selling his colleagues on recision—on passing a funding bill now, and later removing the funds that the Obama administration was using on “amnesty.”

That immediately stirred up emotions on the right. In those circles, it's clear that the president can be stared down on immigration. And it's clear that a fight, even if it led to shutdown, would be either rewarded or forgotten by voters when they returned to the polling booths in November 2016. The reality of the Affordable Care Act had, after all, ended up winning elections for them in 2014. Why wouldn't the reality of Obama's new blunders elect the Republicans of 2016?

It's all deeply frustrating to Democrats. Virginia Representative Gerry Connolly, whose district's contractors and federal employees recoiled at the shutdown, had subsequently watched his state reelect its Republican congressmen and nearly knock off its popular Democratic senator. There clearly was no shutdown hangover for Republicans.

“From their point of view, frankly, while it had a temporary impact on their polling numbers, they fully recovered from that and paid no price at all on Nov. 4,” said Connolly as he headed into a vote. “Politicians are all Pavlovian at a very elemental level. What’s rewarded, what’s punished. They look at that, and they think it seems to have been rewarded. It certainly wasn’t punished.”

As Connolly talked, outgoing Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel walked by. Seeing the 2014 election strategist prompted me to ask whether Democrats had overestimated the electoral power of the “shutdown” message.

“Attention spans are short, and we live in a media world where even the hottest story fades really quickly,” said Connolly. “That’s ancient history by this point. I think we sometimes lost sight of the power of the news cycle.”

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