Take the heat now.

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Stop the Shutdown Before It Starts

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Extended government shutdowns -- not the one-day or long weekend impasses, but those that go on for a week or more -- happen only when one side really wants them to happen. 

So if budget expert Stan Collender is correct that House Speaker John Boehner has a strong incentive to shut down the government in order to save his job, then it will probably happen. 

But that decision would invite disaster for Boehner -- and for many mainstream conservatives.

There's a predictable end game to any shutdown: Eventually, after one day or a month, the government will reopen after the president and a congressional majority come to an agreement. And also predictably, Senator Ted Cruz and House radicals will claim they were winning the shutdown and would have forced Barack Obama and the Democrats to surrender if they hadn’t been stabbed in the back by John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and the Republicans who reached a deal.

So Boehner has no choice: This ends with the House Freedom Caucus blaming him for a defeat.

The question is whether he’s better off accepting the hit now or later. The clear answer is "now." The potential shutdown is still a relatively minor news story at this point. This will change after Sept. 30 if Congress fails to provide funds to keep government agencies operating. All of a sudden it’s the big political event, and the Republican Congress will take most of the blame (and no, clever arguments insisting Obama is the one shutting down the government won’t help).

This will matter a lot to those mainstream conservatives whose votes will be needed to reopen the government. As much as it will be a tough vote for some of them now, it will be even tougher once it’s magnified by the publicity that a shutdown causes, and once the Republican Congress becomes even more unpopular.

Since it's the job of a party's leaders in Congress to shield members of their caucus from having to cast damaging votes, a lot of people who think Boehner is an acceptable speaker today may find themselves changing their minds at that point. 

Right now, Boehner is in little danger. Thirty or so dissatisfied extremists aren’t going to take him down as long as most Republicans are generally happy with his leadership. But if he hurts his own party by forcing a shutdown, that could change rapidly.

  1. It’s likely that Barack Obama will also take a public opinion hit, at least in the short term. But that doesn’t do much for the politicians who are John Boehner’s constituents in the House Republican conference.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net