Of all the questions prompted by last week’s governmental shutdown, this may be the most persistent, the one that the most Americans, alternately bewildered and horrified by the spectacle in the capital, found utterly confounding: What were they thinking?
For the truth is that none of the principals marched unthinkingly into the shutdown showdown. They knew what they were doing, and they had examined the tactics and consequences. This confrontation may have seemed thoughtless, but it was just the opposite. This is what they were thinking:
Pilloried for being weak and indecisive on Syria, hectored by the conservative wing of the Republican Party, clinging to Obamacare as his only substantial legacy, the president had little choice but to project strength and refuse to compromise with his rivals.
Ordinarily, a government shutdown reflects badly on the head of state, but in this case Obama knew that the Showdown at Shutdown Gulch redounded to his benefit, at least in the short term, and he proceeded with the sure knowledge that the public would blame the inconvenience and interruptions on the Republicans.
Unlike almost every other episode in the Obama years, the plate tectonics of this confrontation worked to the president’s advantage. To be sure, to conservatives he looked like an uncompromising zealot, but it wasn’t the conservatives’ approval that he sought or needed. To the rest of the American public, he looked, perhaps for the first time in years, like the calm steward of the nation, a sharp contrast to the insurgents in the House Republican conference.
From the start the speaker knew the risks involved when a Republican House pushes the government into paralysis. He remembers the last such incident. He knew, too, that his own leadership position was at risk in two dimensions — first in the view of Republican regulars, in his own chamber as well as in the Senate, who worried that the party was jeopardizing its future in a futile jeremiad against the president; and then in the view of the GOP rebels who doubted his commitment to conservative values and who were skeptical of his impulse to make a deal rather than to make a point.
There was another danger for Boehner as this crisis unfolded. In the 1995-1996 government shutdown, House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the leader of the rebellion and a willing conscript in the shutdown militia. In this case, Boehner was not the leader but, rather, knew he was being led by the rebels. Moreover, he knew, in the classic phrase, that he had to get ahead of the people who, in public at least, were behind him. That unusual political physics led him to volunteer, reluctantly, to be the front man for this rebellion.
On the surface, this increasingly important faction of the Republican coalition mobilized to repeal, or at least to put off, Obamacare. But the revolt was never only about that. It was about creating a united front against the Obama ethos in its entirety: spending, taxes, gun rights and regulation of business, banking, energy and the environment.
This dispute was also about the get-along, go-along ethos of Congress that these rebels have effectively repealed without ever having taken a vote on it.
Having chosen Obamacare as the fight this time — next time, when the issue is the debt ceiling, the fight will be on spending — they would not and could not retreat. Many in the middle of both parties and in the mainstream press criticized the rebels unmercifully; they used the term “uncompromising” as a pejorative. But the rebels were fired up by the zeal that led the Maquisards to mount an underground effort against the Nazis in World War II France: They saw virtue in resistance, even against hopeless odds. It is not a coincidence that those 1940s rebels were called partisans.
This group is far smaller than its House analogue and its face is Sen. Ted Cruz, Princeton ‘92, who inspires the sort of resentment among liberals that Obama, Columbia ‘83, does among conservatives. They are Ivy Leaguers (and Harvard Law graduates) against the stereotype.
In his quasi-filibuster against Obamacare and then in his efforts to keep conservative discipline among House members, Cruz won the opprobrium of mainstream Republicans but the approbation of conservatives, who could become an important bloc of support if he seeks the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
The impact of the tea party might be on the decline — a Marist Poll released last week showed that support for the movement, now at 23 percent, is down by 11 percentage points in three years, a precipitous drop. But that might not matter in a Republican primary, where the tea partiers are likely to be more committed and more likely to vote than other Republicans — the 21st-century equivalents of religious conservatives in the 1980s. At the same time, credit Cruz with ingenuity along with steely intelligence. He has had more impact in nine months in the Senate than Obama did in 46 months.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi abandoned their restraint and poured on the invective, with gusto. They thought the Republicans so odious that they could ignore the principle expressed a century ago by a fellow Democrat, Woodrow Wilson: There’s no reason to murder a man in the process of committing suicide.
Now, what none of them thought of: The risk that the Obama rationale on Syria — that if the president doesn’t get his way on foreign policy, his domestic agenda will be wrecked — really does apply, only its impact could be the other way around. The risk that this shutdown is only the overture to a shutdown sonata, with the next movement coming soon, featuring the debt ceiling. The risk both sides took in following this path without an exit strategy.
And this: The risk that this sorry episode will result in an anti-incumbency movement as in 1994, only this time, with party control on Capitol Hill split, endangering both GOP rule in the House and Democratic rule in the Senate.
Maybe these guys aren’t such geniuses after all. Maybe they didn’t think this all the way through before putting the country through an upheaval the voters will rain back on them.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.