Republican Hostage Game Has Only Just Begun

Republicans will try again to extract spending cuts by holding the U.S. economy hostage in future government shutdowns.

Democrats seem delighted. The new NBC/Wall Street Journal pollshows Republicans sustaining historic levels of damage amid the government shutdown, with the party's favorability falling to a dismal 24 percent and 70 percent of Americans concluding that Republicans are putting partisan politics ahead of the common good.

But Democrats shouldn't be thrilled; they should be terrified.

The reason Republicans are being routed is that the House leadership caved not just to the wishes of the party's anti-government extremists, but to their strategy. The Republicans' burn-it-down caucus is powerful enough to bend Speaker John Boehner to its will, but appears to lack a single competent political strategist in its ranks.

As a result, the party adopted the one ploy guaranteed to fail: It shut the government and demanded that damage be done to the Affordable Care Act as the price of reopening it. Genius wasn't necessary to realize what a disastrous approach this would be. All the way back on Sept. 23, the Hill newspaperreported on "a flood of negative polling for the conservatives who want to threaten a government shutdown unless President Obama agrees to give up on his signature healthcare law." A Quinnipiac Pollshowed the public rejected that approach by a 3-to-1 margin. The danger couldn't have been more obvious if a green witch had written "Surrender Dorothy" across the sky.

Now that the Tea Party types have steered Republicans onto the rocks, Boehner and his leadership team should be able to retain control next time. But they will likely follow the course Boehner envisioned originally, before he was undercut by Senator Ted Cruz and his minions: Use the debt ceiling as leverage to extract outsize spending cuts that wouldn't pass Congress otherwise.

Unlike the federal government, which provides services that most every American can identify, the debt ceiling is just a phrase. According to this month's United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, 62 percent of Americans believe Congress raises the debt ceiling just to increase future spending. (Or that's what it seems to suggest; as Josh Barro pointed out, even the poll questions are confusing.)

Voters in the survey said by 2-to-1 that they wouldn't support the linkage of discretionary spending cuts to the debt ceiling increase, but given the confusion over what the debt ceiling is, there is far greater latitude for mischief. A more explicit version of the same question, asked by CBS in a poll taken Oct. 1-2, found that 55 percent of Americans favored linking a debt-limit increase to spending cuts, while only 23 percent supported raising it without conditions.

That is a giant opening for Boehner's next gambit.

Republicans, after all, haven't renounced the tactic of taking the U.S. economy hostage and demanding a ransom for not harming it. (The party's most extreme members appear more than willing to shoot the hostage, in fact, the necessary predicate to a successful ransom.)

Meanwhile, there is no reason to believe Republicans will be chastened by the debacle they have brought on themselves. The party appears to have no expectation of seeing the inside of the White House anytime soon, as evidenced by its hunkering down into a congressional and regional resistance. The political dynamics that encourage Republican extremism aren't abating, and have deep roots. Congressional Republicans,wrote Ron Brownstein, are channeling "the bottomless alienation coursing through much of the GOP's base."

In an essay on the same theme, Tom Edsall wrote, "The depth and strength of voters' conviction that their opponents are determined to destroy their way of life has rarely been matched, perhaps only by the mood of the South in the years leading up to the Civil War."

Republicans are too dysfunctional and splintered to produce much viable legislation, and the next presidential election is not only three years away but potentially out of reach to all but Hillary Clinton. For a party blistered by grassroots rage and struggling to achieve parity under traditional political norms, political extortion will remain a tempting shortcut to power.

The hostage-taking didn't work this time. But Republicans will do it again. Next time, they will do it better.

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