The Campaign Spot

Shutdown Strategies, Past and Future

On Tuesday, Rich wrote, “Did it take the shutdown to draw attention to Obamacare? I think it’s been pretty conclusively shown the last few weeks that the answer is ‘no.’”

Yesterday a regular reader wrote in, disagreeing, concluding:

What the shutdown did show was the GOP recognized in advance what a disaster Obamacare was, that it wasn’t ready to be launched, that average people were going to be hurt if the mandate was not delayed, etc. It also showed that the GOP members were willing to fight this monstrosity even though they were getting attacked for it and Obama wouldn’t even have any civil discussion about it (instead playing destructive politics all while he should have known what a disaster was about to hit).

We’re rapidly learning that during the shutdown fight, both sides within the GOP made erroneous assumptions about how the public would view the party’s actions.

A) The shutdown was not an effective way to build a critical mass of opposition to Obamacare, because the dominant issue became the shutdown, not Obamacare, and effectively created a news story that temporarily partially obscured the problems with Obamacare’s rollout.

Score a point for the shutdown skeptics. But also . . . 

B) The shutdown did little or no lasting damage to the image of Republicans and has quickly been forgotten.

So add a point in the column for the shutdown advocates. It wasn’t such a self-destructive strategy after all.

We did get another little bonus from this entire brouhaha: We now know that President Obama is the kind of man who would refuse to concede to his opponents’ demand for a delay in the implementation of Obamacare, even when his own political interests desperately needed a delay in the implementation of Obamacare. Chalk it up to stubbornness, stupidity, or an almost unimaginable obliviousness to the actual condition of the Obamacare rollout.

Now, the country faces some more key deadlines in a few months. On January 15, funding for the government runs out. On February 7, the government will hit the debt ceiling again. The heads of the Senate and House budget committees — Senator Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) — have been trying to hammer out a longer-term deal, but the outlook isn’t good.

Should the GOP make a big Obamacare-related demand of President Obama as the deadline approaches? Heck yes. They should make that demand and watch Obama refuse to accept, say, a delay of the individual mandate, even as his system continues to sputter and fail and grow less popular. Watch the Democrats’ unity splinter. Watch more and more Americans see Obama as a failed leader, (bitterly) clinging to an idea that is increasingly proving unworkable.

Republicans can make grandiose demands publicly, but they shouldn’t fool themselves about what they’re likely to get as concessions. Obama will never sign a repeal of his signature legislation, and he probably fears the chaos of Obamacare without the individual mandate more than the chaos of Obamacare with the individual mandate. Congressional Democrats may feel angry and betrayed, but they won’t abandon the president en masse until after the 2014 midterms.

Past experience shows that once the government shutdown begins, the dominant conversation to most apolitical Americans becomes, “Why can’t those losers in Washington do their jobs and pass a budget?” Eventually, a government shutdown becomes its own dominant issue, obscuring the original issue.

Republicans can and should push for the best concession they can get — but they should realize that government shutdowns are fundamentally unpopular, and they’ll always get a disproportionate share of the blame for them.

So an eleventh-hour deal that raises the debt limit through 2014, keeps next year’s spending at sequester levels, and makes Obama look stubborn and callous about people’s problems under Obamacare would be a pretty good win.

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