All the spin is wrong: The GOP shutdown was about more than tactics

The GOP's desperate to spin their shutdown in order to camouflage very real divisions. They do have one way out

Topics: Grover Norquist, Harry Reid, Barack Obama, John Boehner, Aaron Schock, Taxes, Government shutdown, Fiscal cliff, Sequestration, Budget, Immigration Reform, Defense, Pentagon,

All the spin is wrong: The GOP shutdown was about more than tacticsGrover Norquist (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Before the definitive book about the 2013 government shutdown goes to print, I hope its author takes a close look at the shutdown’s root causes, rather than parrot the idea that the shutdown was entirely a consequence of tactical disagreement between Republican elected officials.

That conventional wisdom has captured the entire political world. Conservatives have sold themselves on it because papering over tactical disagreements is worlds easier than acknowledging that the movement’s policy doctrine has grown sclerotic. But liberals have reached the same conclusion: This wasn’t a foreshock to a Goldwater/Rockefeller-type earthquake.

Perhaps it wasn’t. But the idea that policy played no role here is incorrect.

Obviously tactical differences were a key driver. And to the extent that the catalyzing issue was the launch of the Affordable Care Act, it’s true that Republicans are completely unified. If they’d had the power to defund or repeal Obamacare, they would’ve done it. In that sense, a tactical dispute was the only thing that forced them over the edge.

But the defunders would never have had the opportunity to force the shutdown on its skeptical but weak leadership if not for the party’s broader policy commitments.

The government only shuts down when Congress doesn’t pass bills to fund it, and those bills have become harder and harder to pass because Republicans can’t budget with Democrats. In fact they can barely budget among themselves. Obamacare’s got nothing to do with it.

If back in November or December, John Boehner had taken President Obama up on his offer to trade revenues for entitlement cuts and repeal sequestration, the appropriations process would have become much, much easier in this and future years. In the Senate, appropriators worked from a blueprint that imagines sequestration has been paid down, and cleared several spending bills through their committee on a bipartisan basis.

But sequestration is with us. Boehner walked away. Ironically, the right’s anti-tax absolutism made the tax increase that ultimately passed larger than it would have been — Boehner’s “Plan B,” to limit an automatic tax increase to those with annual incomes over $1 million, failed miserably — but it also killed the bargain that would have ended the cycle of brinkmanship that has defined GOP control of Congress.

It’s likely that a large minority of Republicans would have voted for a higher-tax deal, but they were mowed over by the absolutists.

It wasn’t just tactics. In a real way, this was Grover Norquist’s shutdown.

And now, Norquistism is the main obstacle to preventing another shutdown in January.

The bill that reopened the government precipitates official budget negotiations. Democrats have been demanding a House-Senate budget conference for six months, but Republicans forestalled it, largely because of Norquistism. And in the aftermath of the shutdown GOP leaders are still squashing any discussion of revenues before contemplating the merits.

Does that mean the government will shut down again unless Republicans have a tax epiphany, and agree to close some tax loopholes for rich people? No. But it means that they have already closed off the easiest and most obvious path to avoiding one.

As I noted before the shutdown ended, there are ways to skin this cat that don’t involve Republicans coming to Jesus on taxes. They could agree to move other Obama initiatives, trade them for entitlement cuts they want, then use the savings to pay down sequestration. Immigration reform would be a clever choice because a bipartisan bill has already passed the Senate, and it would reduce the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars over the coming decades.

Funny enough, one Republican immigration supporter backed into this idea last week in a comment to Talking Points Memo.

“I know the president has said, well, gee, now this is the time to talk about immigration reform,” said Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill. “He ain’t gonna get a willing partner in the House until he actually gets serious about … his plan to deal with the debt.”

Another idea, which I broached here, is that Democrats could establish a principle of their own. If Republicans refuse to consider tax revenues, Democrats can further limit the terms of the discussion to sequestration’s non-defense cuts only.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid backed into this idea last week in an interview with the Huffington Post.

“We are going to affect entitlements so we can increase defense spending?” he asked rhetorically. “Don’t check me for a vote there. I’m not interested in that.”

There are political risks to that approach. But it would focus the fight over sequestration into a zero sum contest between the GOP’s anti-tax hard-liners and its less numerous but well-heeled defense hawks.

These are just two possibilities. There are plenty of other ways the budget debate could play out. But the one that would make it much harder to accidentally trip a government shutdown in the future is abandoning Norquistism. Not becoming a party of big government. Not making peace with Obamacare. Just abolish the dominant view on the right that the things they say they want to do aren’t worth doing if they’re paired with $1 in higher revenues.

But that would first require them to acknowledge that this shutdown wasn’t just a consequence of bad tactics.

Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...