Republicans wave white flag, admit shutdown tactic is hopeless

Regardless of Ted Cruz's posturing, listen closely and it's clear the GOP knows its debt limit strategy is toast

By Brian Beutler

Published August 22, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

To great Republican annoyance, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and a posse of conservative activists have hit the road to inflate the right's expectations that the GOP can win a fight with President Obama over funding the Affordable Care Act. And to do it, they have to convince the right of something laughable: that they can successfully blame President Obama if the government shuts down at the end of September.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus is officially neutral in the ongoing dispute over whether to shut down the government unless President Obama agrees to sign legislation to essentially destroy his signature accomplishment. But he was happy to give voice earlier this month to the argument the strategy's supporters use when they defend their idea.

“Even if you take the position of a Ted Cruz or Mike Lee, what they’re saying is we actually are funding 100 percent of the government except for that small percentage of non-discretionary -- excuse me, discretionary -- funding to Obamacare,” Priebus told CNN's Candy Crowley. “So Mr. President, if you want to shut the government down because you want to continue to fund this monstrosity that you’ve admitted is half-broken, then go ahead. The fact that it’s on the Republican Party I think is spin from the Democratic Party that you ought to not be adopting."

Priebus was actually wrong about the right's substantive demands -- Cruz and Lee are demanding a total defunding of the law, not just the small share of the finances it derives in the annual appropriations process.

But there's a lesson in both the facial absurdity of the demand, and the fact that so many Republican members either publicly disagree with Cruz and Lee or refuse to join them: Democrats have already won the fight over the debt limit.

Blaming your opponent is a big part of politics, but it only works when there's potential to obscure. And sometimes it really is hard to tell who's at fault. That sequestration hasn't been replaced yet doesn't boil down simply to Republicans' unwillingness to compromise. There are genuine substantive differences between the parties over how to do this and unless and until those differences diminish, we're stuck with it.

Related: Sometimes couples decide to stay home and bicker when they can't decide which movie to see together.

To plausibly convince the general public that a government shutdown fight is Obama's fault, or at least that both sides are to blame, they'd have to argue that funding the government is a concession in and of itself -- something they'd rather not do, but will reluctantly if Obamacare goes away.

If Republicans want to add "oppose funding the government and paying interest on the national debt" to the party platform, they're more than welcome to. Even if that were an accurate description of the GOP agenda, I doubt they'd advertise it. Yet it would have to be true for Ted Cruz's defund Obamacare spin to make sense.

Instead, what most Republicans recognize is that the public can distinguish between a disagreement and a stickup. If Republicans support funding the government as a general principle, then refusing to do so unless partisan demands are met is hostage taking. And blaming Obama for the shutdown is like blaming law enforcement when the hostages get shot.

That's what Republicans are tacitly admitting when they warn Cruz et al. that Republicans will suffer if the government shuts down over Obamacare.

But the same logic applies more intensely to the debt limit, where the explosives attached to the hostages are nuclear.

That Cruz and Lee are taking so much friendly fire reflects the fact that most Republicans recognize not just that the government shutdown gambit won't work but that the tactic is hopeless wherever it's applied -- particularly now that Democrats are unified against getting mugged again.

The sad reality in hindsight is that if Democrats hadn't been so frazzled by the results of the 2010 midterms, they could've wrong-footed the GOP in 2011 and avoided all of the terrible consequences of the debt limit fight. But they've learned their lesson, and if you listen closely enough, Republicans are admitting it.

Brian Beutler

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

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Affordable Care Act Debt Ceiling Government Shutdown Mike Lee Obamacare Reince Priebus Ted Cruz