With a showdown over the budget looming in the House and a government shutdown looking all but inevitable, many people are arguing that this is exactly what we need, that the blowback against the Republicans will be so powerful that it will bring the Tea Party Republicans in the House back to their senses and bring them to the table for negotiation. Noam Scheiber, for example:
Next there are the Tea Partiers, who give every indication of wanting a shutdown, too. Unlike mainstream Republicans, who appreciate the damage a shutdown would inflict on their party, the Tea Partiers consider it win-win. A shutdown would mean they forced their leadership to stand up to Obama, which plays well in their districts and the various organs of the conservative movement. And when the GOP inevitably bowed to public opinion and sued for peace, the Tea Partiers would be able to accuse their weak-kneed leadership of caving, thereby enhancing their status within the party…
Now don’t get me wrong: Boehner clearly prefers to avoid a government shutdown. He’s spent months figuring out how to do that, fully aware of the political debacle it would entail. Unfortunately, it’s now clear that the only way he can induce the political isolation he typically relies on to prod his caucus into semi-rational action is by shutting down the government and inviting the public backlash he’s been so desperate to avoid. Boehner simply has no other way of talking sense into his people, no other hope of making the House GOP governable. And so, in the end, a shutdown is in Boehner’s interest, too.
Fortunately, a shutdown is almost certainly a good thing. Yes, it can slow the economy and wreak temporary havoc on people who rely on government services. But these consequences are nothing alongside the fallout from defaulting on our debt, which will happen if we don’t raise the debt ceiling by mid-October. That’s why Boehner’s inability to persuade conservatives to postpone their Obamacare demands until the debt-ceiling fight is in fact a hugely welcome development. It gives everyone a chance to sober up before we take on the substantially higher-stakes proposition of avoiding a debt default. In fact, if Boehner and the White House had both been a bit more pro-shutdown back in 2011, when this whole B-movie horror flick started, that year’s debt ceiling fight and the sequester may never have happened, and we might not be in the mess we’re in today. A little bit of shutdown, I’d wager, goes a long way.
But Elias Isquith casts some serious doubt on this scenario by asking one obvious question: What evidence do we have that a public smackdown of this type will make the Tea Party types be reasonable?
So to put Scheiber’s argument in different, cruder terms: the Tea Party wing of the GOP simply must have a government-paralyzing tantrum, and it’s better they have it over funding the government than over raising the debt ceiling. Once they blow off their steam, shut down the government, and find a public furious over further Washington dysfunction and inclined to blame it on the GOP, these Tea Party types will be chastised enough that the folks who now pass for the adults in the Republican leadership will be able to resume control. Then everyone shakes it off and gets back to the work of governing.
It doesn’t sound nice, exactly, but it does sound preferable to the all-out anarchy of a government shutdown immediately followed by a debt default. But what I don’t understand is why we believe these Tea Party folks will be more susceptible to reason after a shutdown than they are now? We seem to be putting a lot of faith behind the power of public opinion — yet at the same time it’s well understood that many Republicans only fear a primary challenge from their right, and that top-line public opinion doesn’t sway them.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think the Democrats really care. Sure, they’d like to keep the government functioning and they’d like the far-right caucus of the House Republicans to be reasonable. But politically, it may help them in 2014 if they’re not. If Republican legislators get primaried by candidates even further to the right, that works out just fine for the Democrats. If the public really does blame the Republicans for a shutdown, it makes it more likely that they could get control of the House back in 2014.