GOP's post-shutdown comeback: How it recovered from political destruction

A year ago to the day, the Republican brand hit rock bottom. How in the world were they able to turn it around?

Published October 2, 2014 11:00AM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell                                     (Jeff Malet,
Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (Jeff Malet,

Funny fact: Only one year ago yesterday, the federal government was shut down.

On September 30, 2013, in a tedious bout of late-night legislative ping-pong, the House and Senate had failed to agree on the terms of a continuing resolution to fund the government for the short-term. The Democratic Senate and the White House wanted a "clean" spending measure that funded the government for a couple of months to allow House and Senate negotiators more time to work out a proper budget resolution. The House Republican conference, ceding control to the most conservative wing of the party and its spirit animal down the hall, Sen. Ted Cruz, demanded that funding for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act be stripped from the short-term continuing resolution. Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team knew that the Democratic Senate would never pass and President Obama would never sign a bill defunding of his signature piece of legislation, and Republicans would be blamed for the shutdown. Call it a wild guess. But the id-centric House conservatives, egged on by right-wing advocacy groups like Heritage Action, demanded a showdown and received a shutdown.

What happened is what everyone expected would happen. The GOP was blamed for the shutdown and forced to fold after 16 days. Republicans' best effort to deflect blame onto the president was some muttering about how Obama wouldn't let World War II veterans visit the memorial in Washington D.C. That didn't work. Eventually the House passed a "clean" continuing resolution funding the government for about six weeks and raising the debt ceiling until mid-February 2014. The shutdown wasn't necessarily "good" for Democrats, but it was horrid for Republicans. Surveys shortly after the shutdown showed Democrats with an eight percentage point lead in the 2014 generic ballot.

It doesn't feel like the shutdown was only a year ago, does it? It was the climax of Obama-era right-wing obstructionism, yet blurs so easily into all the other chaotic moments of the past six years. It seems like distant history. That's because, in terms of shifts in national political climate, it is distant history. A year ago, popular sentiment was that the Republican party's hubris had eliminated its chances of a strong showing in the 2014 midterms. Today -- and for much of the year, really -- all signs point towards a Republican takeover of a half dozen or more Senate seats and control of the chamber for the first time in eight years.


Timing and short attention spans didn't help the Democrats: epically bad news for the Republican party was canceled out instantly by epically bad news for the Democratic party. The rollout of the Affordable Care Act's major provisions did not go well. Federal and various state exchanges were plagued with technical problems that took months to fix. And one line of President Obama's rhetoric from the time of the ACA's drafting -- "if you like your plan, you can keep it" -- didn't turn out to be... true... in many cases. Eventually the exchanges overcame their technical problems, the administration met or even exceeded its open enrollment targets, and today millions of people who had previously been uninsured have coverage. But the dicey rollout wiped out whatever gains the Democrats briefly enjoyed: by late November, Republicans found themselves ahead in the generic ballot.

The Great Canceling Out of Late 2013 reset the midterm map back to one that was never favorable to Democrats. All of the Democratic senators from purple states who rode the Obama 2008 wave to office were up for reelection, while retiring Democratic senior senators from Iowa, West Virginia, Montana, and South Dakota opened up seats for the Republican plucking.

Republicans blew their last two decent opportunities to take over the Senate in 2010 and 2012, but at the moment, it doesn't look like they'll do it again. What's changed? They've gotten out of their own way -- avoided hilarious self-inflicted mistakes -- both in governance and in candidate selection.

In any sort of healthy world it would be laughable to suggest that Republicans have governed well since the shutdown. But we live in awful times, where the bar for competent leadership has been set farcically low. The House GOP lost its appetite for brinksmanship. Rather than push aggressively for a new set of unrealistic demands, the House GOP acceded to the Paul Ryan-Patty Murray budget resolution in December 2013 and to a no-drama "clean" debt ceiling hike earlier this year. They don't exactly deserve candy and ponies for these demonstrations of basic legislative duty. But they did stop going out of their way to screw everything up, and in a year where they were already favored, that's all they needed.

And as much as Tea Party or conservative movement organizations will hate to admit it, the guiding hands of Karl Rove and the Chamber of Commerce prevented the party from nominating "goofball" Senate candidates in critical states.

So much has happened in the past year that I, for one, had completely forgotten about the shutdown until my editor reminded me of it this morning. It was only one friggin' year ago! And it's shocking is how easily the Republicans have buried the episode. A new story popped up to erase the shutdown from headlines, and from there on out, the party has coasted on favorable fundamentals. The GOP didn't have to come up with any sort of plan for governance -- all it had to do was stop shutting down the government and threatening to arbitrarily destroy the nation's credit, avoid nominating obvious screeching idiots for Senate, shout about how the Middle East is bad, and poof: a six-, seven-, or eight-seat pickup is probably going to fall into their laps. Greatest Country in the History of the World.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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