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U.S. shutdown damages political system, but Republicans seen at greater risk

by Dan Balz

The Washington Post

There will be plenty of collateral damage from the government shutdown that began early Tuesday — from federal workers to ordinary citizens — but the most serious effects are likely to be felt inside a Republican Party that appears divided and in need of leadership.

Day One of the shutdown produced, if anything, a hardening of lines rather than any signs of rapprochement between the two warring parties.

If anyone thought that touching a hot stove would force politicians to recoil and retreat, that didn’t happen in the opening hours of this next phase of the battle. Instead, politicians from both sides emerged appearing emboldened and with a similar message: The fault lies elsewhere for the disruptions that the closures will produce.

President Barack Obama, who once had hoped to mark Tuesday as the day when critical elements of his Affordable Care Act went into effect, instead used part of his time at a public event in the Rose Garden to lob rhetorical grenades at Republicans for what he described as their intransigence and dereliction of duty.

Obama said defiantly that his health care law, which is the sole reason the U.S. government was partially shuttered and the political system in the capital paralyzed, was “here to stay,” no matter what Republicans think of it or try to do with it. Obama appeared more peeved than outright angry with the state of things.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats traded accusations for the failure of Congress to find a way to keep the government open for another two months, which even if had been done would hardly be something to crow about. Such limited ambitions — asking members in essence to punt for another 60 or so days, when another round of squabbling presumably would occur — underscore the breakdown of the system.

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, in a USA Today op-ed, accused Obama of a “scorched-earth policy of refusing to negotiate” over health care, spending or entitlement reform and said that was why the government ended up closed.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor sat with other House Republicans named to a budget conference committee that had been rejected out of hand by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, just before the shutdown began.

Cantor condemned the Democrats for refusing even to discuss what he said were repeated efforts by his party to offer different formulas to break the stalemate. The reality, of course, given the raw numbers in the House and Senate, is that in trying to use a short-term funding bill to stop or delay Obamacare, the GOP ended up stopping the government.

Reid continued to insist that Democrats in the Senate would never yield until Republicans fully capitulate by abandoning their strings-attached strategy and by sending him a clean bill to fund and reopen the government. Reid’s dismissals of the Republican tactics grow more flagrant and inflammatory by the day, which is not likely to serve Democrats well in the long run.

Democrats had hoped that Republicans would feel heat the closer they came to missing the deadline to keep the government running. If anything, calls for Republicans to stay the course were even louder Tuesday than they were Monday.

The Weekly Standard summed up this hard-line approach with a posting that compared the GOP’s situation to someone in a game of blackjack: Better to stay put for now with a not so great hand than move precipitously and end up a clear loser.

“That’s the Republicans’ situation today,” wrote William Kristol, the magazine’s editor. “They have a hand they could easily make worse by panicking, and which could be good enough for a win or draw if they keep calm.”

Republicans are getting the worst of this right now, based on what a series of public opinion polls show. This is clearly a concern of some in the GOP, such as Sen. John McCain, who have called the House Republican strategy a dead-end approach. But while the GOP’s vulnerabilities are likely to intensify the longer the situation remains unresolved, for now they are being reinforced by their base.

Democrats recognize that the longer the fight continues with government services disrupted, the more voters could hold them at least partially responsible as participants in a dysfunctional government. They were doing everything they could Tuesday to avoid what Rep. Chris Van Hollen called a “pox on all their houses.”

Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, was doing what he could to persuade those in the public who haven’t already taken sides that the fault lies solely and entirely with the GOP.

Whether that argument will hold in the face of an indefinite standoff that tries the public’s patience is another question. The best that Obama and his fellow Democrats can say to themselves is that they enter this moment less weak than their Republican adversaries. Obama’s approval ratings are tepid — somewhere in the mid-40s — but they have not taken a serious tumble as the shutdown battle intensified.

Congressional Democrats are held in even lower esteem than the president, which is always the case, but they are still higher than congressional Republicans. But the longer the stalemate continues, the more nervousness there could be on their side.

Still, it is the Republican side that continues to be more at risk politically because for now the party is being defined by a rebellious faction in the House. That has produced angst among some Republican commentators about the strategy advocated by the tea party faction in the House and accepted by Boehner.

But are those views an indicator of wider nervousness inside the party — or a reflection of a deep divide between party elites and rank-and-file followers of the tea party?

Whatever the case is, it will take something more to change the party’s image. In the late 1990s, House Republicans were the face of the GOP and seen as too rebellious and hard-edged, though less so than they are today. It took the emergence of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush as a presidential candidate, offering himself as a compassionate conservative, to begin to redefine the party.

Bush was bolstered by support among Republican governors, who consolidated around him early as their choice to lead the party in the 2000 presidential race. No Republican today appears to have the name, national prominence, political network or solid base to do what Bush was able to achieve a dozen or so years ago.

Political battles like these generally end when one side concludes that the damage has become too severe. Sometimes that occurs after an electoral beating, but the midterm elections are more than a year away. Similarly, a sharp turn in public opinion could cause the kind of panicking in the ranks that Kristol warned against.

As of Tuesday, neither side seemed to feel it had reached that point.