What Good Can Come of the Shutdown?

An NRO Symposium
Conservative observers lay out possible scenarios.

How can this shutdown end well? What is an acceptable solution? What can we learn from here? National Review Online asked some political observers and vets for their insights.

David French
Will the so-called shutdown end well for Republicans? In the short term, it’s hard to see it ending well for anyone. Both sides are getting their share of public blame (though with Republicans admittedly getting more), and it’s impossible to see any kind of grand bargain or other game-changing deal emerging when the shutdown ends. There will, of course, be a round of Beltway score-counting, which the bulk of the voting public will largely ignore.

However, as the Obama administration maintains its defiant posture, what, precisely, remains of its agenda? Republican aggressiveness has caused President Obama to redefine victory as merely maintaining the status quo. That’s a strange definition of success for a president less than one year removed from a hard-fought reelection triumph.

The shutdown will end, a marginally acceptable deal will be reached, but two key images will endure: one of a president with nothing to offer but a tenacious defense of his failing health-care reforms, and the other of a federal government so intent on preserving its privileges that it will actually spend money to harm the public it allegedly serves.

For Democrats, is that what victory looks like?

— David French is a lawyer, writer, and veteran of the Iraq War. 

Henry Olsen
Thinking about this politically, conservatives need to keep their eyes on the prize — keeping the House majority while shifting it to the right. That means understanding who your audience is.

The House majority rests on Republicans’ keeping 18 of the 33 congressional districts represented by Republicans that Obama carried in 2008 or 2012 and that he won on the average margin from both elections (for politigeeks, I am looking at congressional districts with a Cook PVI of R+3 or less). These seats have one of two characteristics: They either come from the Northeast, the D.C. suburbs, or the Midwest (22); or they have significant concentrations of blacks or Hispanics (9). (Two Washington-state seats — Reichert and Herrera-Beutler, seats in suburban Seattle and suburban Portland — also make the list.)

A successful outcome, therefore, must be one that satisfies both the base and swing voters in districts with safe seats.

What can trigger that outcome? We don’t know. It is highly unlikely, however, that we’ll get there if we follow the course we are on, where the only acceptable outcome is total Democratic capitulation.

It defies common sense to think that these voters, who already are open to Democratic appeals and who are not part of the GOP base, would be happy to go to the mat to defund Obamacare. Most polls show these voters want the two sides to come together and compromise.

To successfully paint the Democrats as the closed-minded party, House Republicans would need to publicly offer a menu of items to negotiate that bear some relevance to funding government, and it would need to be short of the total defunding or even the delay of Obamacare. However, doing this would enrage the base, something Obama and Reid know. But the Democrats’ intransigence is daring Boehner to do just that.

The only way out of this impasse is for the leaders of the base to think through what measure of victory short of unconditional surrender they will accept. The longer this impasse continues without finding such an alternative, the more intransigent Democrats will become as they perceive the swing voters they need to retake the House slowly coming to their side.

We can’t expect to offset these potential losses with gains from Dems sitting in GOP seats. The reps from the two most Republican seats — McIntyre and Matheson — are already voting with the GOP on the defunding/shutdown bills, and the others save one (Murphy, in Florida’s 18th congressional district) represent districts with the same characteristics as those that have vulnerable GOP seats.

— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Ralph Reed
The partial government shutdown has not gone as planned for President Obama and Democrats in the Senate. Generals usually refight the last war, and politicians tend to view each legislative battle or election through the prism of the past. Thus did conventional wisdom posit that Republicans in Congress would get hammered by the public for making funding of the government conditional on Obama’s agreeing to certain public-policy demands, just as Newt Gingrich and the GOP Congress in 1995–96 were blamed for that shutdown.

This has not been the case this time around. A new CNN poll found that while 63 percent of the American people blame the Republicans in Congress for the shutdown, 58 percent blame the Democrats, within the margin of error. By contrast, in the government shutdown of December 1995, respondents blamed Republicans by a two-to-one margin. In a new Pew Research survey, 44 percent said Republicans should give in and end the shutdown without demanding changes to Obamacare, while 42 percent said Obama should agree to changes in the Affordable Care Act — essentially a jump ball. All this should encourage conservatives in Congress to hold firm and not blink in the face of media and partisan criticism.

We now enter the end game as Congress wrestles with how to increase the federal government’s borrowing authority after October 17. The most immediate imperative is for Republicans in Congress to give social conservatives a stake in this fight. They should do this by reinstating the conscience clause included in the original continuing resolution; this exempted religious charities (such as Catholic and Evangelical colleges, hospitals, and inner-city ministries helping the poor) from the Obamacare mandate to cover health-care services that many find morally objectionable, such as abortifacients.

They should also reinsert the provision that would make funding of the government conditional on reaffirming the Hyde Amendment and ending all subsidies for the performance of elective abortions under Obamacare. There are also numerous direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies of abortion contained in Obamacare, not least of which are government-mandated abortion surcharges on policyholders who purchase policies on the health-care exchanges. According to a recent analysis by the Charlotte Lozier Institute, these subsidies, when combined with Medicaid expansion in states such as California and New York that cover elective abortions, will lead to as many as 111,500 additional abortions in the United States that are paid for with tax dollars. These subsidies should be eliminated by attaching language to any legislation that funds the government.

Both the conscience clause and the reaffirmation of the Hyde Amendment were in the first CR passed by the House, before the beginning of the fiscal year. After the Senate stripped them out, they have inexplicably never been added to any subsequent continuing resolution. This oversight should be fixed immediately.

The First Amendment is not open for negotiation. Evangelical Christians and faithful Catholics should not be persecuted by their own government with their tax dollars, forced to pay for services that many consider to be the taking of an innocent human life. That has never been the case in U.S. history, and certainly not since the Hyde Amendment was adopted by Congress in 1976. If Congress will not stand up for religious freedom now, when will it? 

Finally, Congress should hold firm on delaying or defunding as many provisions of Obamacare as possible within the context of any legislation that funds or increases the borrowing authority of the federal government.

We cannot afford Obamacare. This is not just a fiscal issue. It is a moral issue, and Congress should say so without apology.

Ralph Reed is chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition.

Michael Tanner
If anyone ever believed that the stalemate over the continuing resolution and government shutdown was going to end with the repeal or complete defunding of Obamacare, they seriously misunderstood how Washington works.

However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile to put it on the table as an opening bid. Any smart negotiator starts by asking for far more than he expects to get in the end. 

Now, however, Republicans risk both overplaying and underplaying their hand. The overplay part is easy: By allowing this media cycle to be about the pain caused by a government shutdown and interparty divisions, Republicans have obscured Obamacare’s disastrous rollout.

But Republicans could also underplay their hand. The polls show Republicans in a stronger position than one might think. Although voters blame Republicans more than Democrats, the gap is far smaller than it was in previous shutdowns — single digits in most polls — and Democratic unfavorables are very high as well. In fact, more than half of voters also disapprove of the president’s handling of the shutdown.

That means Republicans should not simply give in and approve a so-called clean CR. Public pressure will force Democrats to negotiate, even as they insist they won’t negotiate. When they do, Republicans should understand that half a loaf is better than none.

— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

J. T. Young
In the search for an answer on how the fiscal fight will end, we should first consider the real possibility that it won’t — at least not for longer than many now think.

Recent history, on the two fiscal issues now being debated once again, points to short-term solutions. Consider that the last time Washington addressed the debt limit, it did so with a three-month suspension. The last time Washington addressed annual federal spending, it did so with a six-month deal.

The Congressional Budget Office’s latest estimate for when the Treasury’s “extraordinary measures” will run dry (these are what has allowed the U.S. to keep borrowing just under the limit) is “between October 22 and October 31.” That effectively brings Washington to within one year of 2014’s midterm elections.

Short-term solutions have been the recent norm in these budget battles, and elections are the permanent obsession in Washington. It is therefore very possible that a fight both sides seem willing to have could simply continue — through short-term solutions and through those elections that have almost begun already. 

The real end for this fight — an end longer than simply short-term solutions that are effectively just temporary cease-fires — may well not come until after we get a political resolution from 2014’s November elections.

— J. T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.

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