But as I wrote three weeks ago, the Republicans were "pot committed" by the Cruz speech and had to walk away with some kind of win, no matter how small. What, before beginning a losing shutdown battle, could Republicans have done to eke out a win?
The fallback position could have rested on two simple measures, one with broad bipartisan support, and one with pretend bipartisan support. In exchange for refunding ObamaCare, the House GOP could have immediately counter-offered a repeal of the medical device tax (already symbolically approved by the Senate), and to fully bind both houses to ObamaCare's provisions and mandates.
Requiring Congress to follow its own laws is one of those things where everyone gets to look like statesmen, even if it's through gritted teeth. And the medical device tax is opposed to anyone with more sense than God gave to pudding.
This deal, while not a great one for conservative interests, would have put Obama and Reid on the defensive -- and been probably achievable without a shutdown. Broad smiles for the cameras all around, and some small good would have even been done to the country for a change.
A strong speaker -- an O'Neil, a Gingrich, a Pelosi -- could have wrestled that deal through his caucus. Instead, Boehner had to rely on a majority of Democratic votes to get the bill passed.
It is with no pleasure that I must tell you now that the Hastert Rule -- not bringing bills to the House floor without "a majority of the majority" -- is dead in the water, just as the fight over immigration resumes. Think about that for a moment, if you're still convinced the GOP won some kind of moral victory these last 16 days.
The shutdown battle was probably irretrievably lost as early as October 6, when Boehner totally lost message discipline:
Appearing on ABC's "This Week," host George Stephanopoulos asked Boehner, "If [Obama] continues to refuse to negotiate, the country is going to default"?
"That's the path we're on," Boehner replied. "I'm willing to sit down with the president, but his refusal to negotiate is putting our country at risk."
There was never a risk of actual default. Washington takes in 18% of GDP in revenue, and spends only 2% of that to cover our debts. But by raising the specter of default, Boehner legitimized false Democrat warnings. From there the GOP's position, already weak, crumbled.
Before getting into this mess, Republicans ought to have asked themselves a third question: "Will a shutdown help us win enough seats, and the White House, to accomplish what the shutdown couldn't?" The jury is out on that one until 2016, but at the moment it doesn't look promising. The Republicans used to be famous for hanging together while the Democrats squabbled and scrambled, but those roles have reversed.
It's true that the president acted unseemly in his sour victory speech Thursday morning, but he's always had a knack for saying outrageous things in moderate tones -- and he'll get away with it this time, too. Obama had his soothing tone and his shutdown theater, and by that time the GOP had… what, exactly?
If there's a fourth question, it's the one Republicans ought to be asking themselves right now.
"Why do we keep playing to Obama's strengths?"