Shutdown Autopsy

The Shutdown Fiasco -- and it was a fiasco, and solely for the Republicans -- began with an impassioned pseudo-filibuster on the Senate floor by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, ably assisted by Rand Paul and Macro Rubio. To the extent that it stirred small-government souls, and it certainly stirred mine, the marathon speech was a rousing success. Cruz's speech was the kind of thing even your typical, apolitical American could appreciate -- a man quite literally standing up for what he believes in. He was Jimmy Stewart with a Texas twang.

If only Cruz and the Tea Party caucus had possessed the wisdom to leave it at that.

What happened next was the House Republicans doing what they were elected to do, and that is to defund ObamaCare. The bill went to the Senate, where the Democrat majority did what it was elected to do -- protect ObamaCare. That the two sides of Capitol Hill are so deeply divided is merely a reflection of the nation as a whole. Of course Harry Reid and his crew restored the cut spending and sent the bill back to the House, which rejected it in favor of a partial shutdown of the federal government.

There were questions the House GOP should have asked before entering a shutdown over defunding ObamaCare:

1. Did they posses enough leverage to force the Democrats to fold?

2. If not, then what is Plan B?

The answer to the first question was obviously No. The progressives, now firmly in control of the Democratic Party, had fought for a century to grab centralized hold of health care. Having won it, there is no way short of booting them from power to get them to let it go. (See: Ed Morrissey.)

The answer to the second question was, "I'll get back to you on that."

As Robert Costa has been documenting for National Review, the GOP response to the shutdown has been a confused mess, notable mostly for backbiting, name-calling, and changing strategies more frequently and less intelligibly than I ask my bartender for another round. From Costa's October 7th report:

Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the Rules Committee, tells us Speaker John Boehner doesn’t yet have his debt-ceiling proposal finalized. For now, no legislation is headed toward his committee, and it’s all about messaging. “Negatory,” he replies, when asked whether the GOP’s next move has been set. “We’re going to keep with our great, positive attitude and tell the president, ‘you’ve got to sit down and negotiate.’”

“I’d say if you ran the clock on it, 48 hours,” Sessions adds, when asked how long it’ll take Boehner to unveil the leadership’s plan.

That was seven days into the shutdown, not seven days before.

The Democrats had their Plan A ready to go from the start, and it was solid -- if highly unethical. Use every lever of federal and media power to make the Republicans look bad. If the Democrats had a Plan B, they never needed to use it, mostly because the GOP helped the Democrats almost every step of the way.

Now it is true that the House sent 11 different re-funding bills to the Senate -- but so what? Reid could reject each one, knowing that his position was the stronger one. The Republicans had gone "over the top" as they used to say of trench warfare in WWI, and found themselves entangled in the enemy's barbed wire. Reid was never going to hand them a pair of snippers with which to free themselves. He's the kind of Democrat who would throw a drowning Republican an anvil -- and smile.

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?"

Why, indeed.