The central political problem the Republican Party faces right now is that it is being jerked around by people for whom its overall electoral success is, at best, a tertiary concern. From Donald Trump to the House Freedom Caucus to conservative influencers, these individuals have captured the devotion of the GOP base while showing — and perhaps in part because they show — precious little concern about doing things aimed at actually winning and holding power.
The looming government shutdown is one of the most pronounced examples of this dynamic.
Indeed, it seems that those forcing the issue are in some cases fully welcoming their side owning the blame for it.
With the public, the potential blame for the shutdown currently breaks down relatively evenly. An Economist/YouGov poll released Wednesday showed 29 percent of U.S. adults said they would blame congressional Republicans for a shutdown, while nearly that many combine to blame either congressional Democrats (14 percent) or President Biden (13 percent). (An additional 32 percent say they would blame “everyone equally.”)
But the blame truly begins to crystallize when we go over the cliff. Republicans who hold out for concessions in legislation that would avoid shutdowns almost always shoulder more blame. And now more than ever, Democrats have all kinds of material to work with in pinning this one on the GOP.
How a government shutdown could affect you
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Let’s start with the process issues. A key way in which this shutdown could differ from others is that it’s not so much about the House and Senate failing to agree on one another’s budget packages, but rather the Republican-controlled House failing to pass anything. That could certainly change by the Saturday deadline to avert a shutdown, but right now, House Republicans are failing to pass even measures that normally sail through.
They also have only around five votes to spare in passing their own plan. Combine that with a complete non-starter right now — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) working with Democrats — and it means a very small number of holdouts have immense sway over a shutdown if they decide they want to burn the house down.
Complicating matters was the Senate taking its own action Tuesday. With GOP leaders such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaling that he wants no part of his party again forcing a shutdown, most Senate Republicans — 28 out of 47 who voted — joined with Democrats on Tuesday to pass a short-term continuing resolution that would keep the government funded beyond Saturday.
This would certainly reinforce the idea that the House’s failure to pass a bill — or even just pass a bill that had any chance of becoming law, which the Freedom Caucus’s proposals don’t — is on McCarthy and Co.
Beyond that are the many unhelpful comments from some of the combatants.
Donald Trump pushed his party to shut the government down if it doesn’t get what it wants.
“UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN!” Trump said Sunday on his social media platform. This echoed his rhetoric from the debt ceiling negotiations earlier this year, when he said that “if they don’t give you massive cuts, you’re going to have to do a default.”
Republicans would very much prefer to argue that it’s Democrats’ failure to negotiate that would cause the shutdown. But here is the leader of the GOP making the Republicans the subject of the sentence, taking the action to “shut it down” or “do a default.”
(Trump did, in the same breath, try to convince Republicans that “whoever is president will be blamed.” But both the current polls and the history of shutdowns — including when Barack Obama was president and the GOP bore the blame — belie that claim.)
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a leader of the GOP budget holdouts and of a possible effort to unseat McCarthy as speaker, made perhaps more-pertinent comments last week.
“We will have a government shutdown, and it is absolutely Speaker McCarthy’s fault,” Gaetz said. “We cannot blame Joe Biden for not having moved our individual spending bills. We cannot blame House Democrats. We can’t even blame Chuck Schumer in the Senate.”
Rep. Andrew Ogles (R-Tenn.) echoed this argument to some degree, saying: “At the end of the day, leadership procrastinated and created a mess. Now we’ve got to find our way through it. And if that means staying [in Washington] a couple of extra weeks with a shutdown, that’s fine.”
Gaetz appears to want to blame McCarthy rather than his party as a whole, in the service of forcing McCarthy’s hand and possibly unseating him. But the video is right there for Democrats to play: a prominent figure saying this isn’t Biden’s or the Democrats’ fault.
McConnell, too, as recently as Wednesday, basically acknowledged that his party would be to blame. He and other establishment Republicans, unlike Trump, may be making the admission to try to head off disaster.
“I’m not a fan of government shutdowns. I’ve seen a few of them over the years,” McConnell said last week. “They never have produced a policy change, and they’ve always been a loser for Republicans politically.”
He added Wednesday after the Senate sent its continuing resolution to the House: “We can fund the government for another six weeks, or we can shut the government down in exchange for zero meaningful progress on policy.”
Perhaps recognizing both these dynamics and the strong possibility of a shutdown this weekend, McCarthy has set about trying to blame Biden. His argument is basically that Biden needs to come toward the GOP on an illegal immigration crackdown. But it’s something of a non sequitur given that the big stumbling block right now is the House GOP’s inability to come together — including on a package involving border security.
None of which means the GOP will ultimately shoulder an overwhelming share of the blame or that it will cost the party electorally. We’re an increasingly polarized country, and the lasting political impact of a shutdown 13 months before an election is debatable. Polls during the debt ceiling standoff earlier this year also showed a much tighter split than usual on which side would get blamed for defaulting on the nation’s debt.
But there’s a reason the likes of McConnell are worried about this and are being increasingly public about trying to head it off; it’s unnecessary and risky for the party’s political prospects, particularly given that the party has precious little to show for its past brinkmanship.
Of course, as we’ve seen repeatedly in recent years, the party isn’t much interested in McConnell’s vision for winning power. It much prefers the showmanship of Trump and Gaetz to the political realism of McConnell. And if that costs a few RINOs their seats — and possibly the GOP control of the Senate — apparently so be it.