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

Published October 21, 2013 11:46AM (EDT)

Grover Norquist                             (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Grover Norquist (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.

By Brian Beutler

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

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