So we have come to the end of week one of the government shut down with no end in sight. I do not usually concern myself with following the details of political maneuvering since much of it is posturing and lacking any substantive content. It is usually Kabuki theater designed to distract the public while secret deals are made behind the scenes. But this conflict seems genuine and I have been curious about what will bring the shut down to an end because of course it must at some point.
The current positions don’t allow any room for compromise. The Republican members of the House of Representatives demand some cuts in the Affordable Care Act in return for passing a continuing resolution while president Obama and the Democratic party say that they will not give in on anything and will not negotiate until a clean continuing resolution is passed and the debt ceiling raised.
But such political impasses must be resolved eventually and usually involve some concessions on either side that allow them to save face. The catch is that the Democrats do not get much in return for any concession since the continuing resolution only opens the government until November 15 and it is not clear by how much the debt ceiling will be raised. It is not likely to be by much so even if they give in now, we will have a re-run in a few weeks with new demands so what’s the point?
In fact, the next time it will be worse for the Democrats since they will have validated the Republican tactic of demanding concessions simply in order to keep the government functioning. Unlike negotiations over other issues where one can offer the other side something in return, here any offer represents a surrender of the functioning of government itself. For president Obama and the Democrats, this stand-off is not really about the ACA at all, though that is the proximate cause. It is about whether they can allow the government to be held hostage like this for any reason whatsoever. Today, it is the ACA. Tomorrow it may be more tax cuts for the rich or elimination of food stamps entirely or some other pet project of the Republicans. So any concession by them to open the government is costly.
For the Republicans on the other hand, conceding anything costs them much less in concrete terms since they are not really giving up anything in agreeing to re-open the government. They are merely agreeing to maintain the status quo and they can try again in a few weeks.
So using a purely rational calculation, one would expect the Democrats to hold firm and the Republicans to waver since the former have so much more to lose by conceding anything at all. But we are now beyond the stage of rational calculations. For Republicans, the ACA has taken the form of a talisman that has almost a mythical significance, a horcrux that must be destroyed.
They have vested so much emotional and political capital in undermining it that it is hard to see them agreeing to anything that does not do so. If they do, the party will suffer the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown from which it will take a long time to recover. This possibility may actually give the Democrats even more motivation to not give in at all.
What I personally would like to see happen is that those people in the Republican party establishment who think this is a losing strategy in the long term and that concerns over the ACA are hopelessly overblown and that it does not represent an existential threat to life, liberty, and the American way, stage a quiet insurrection within the party. Their incentive to do this is that they want to regain control of the party and may be willing to suffer a short-term defeat to do so. The catch is that speaker John Boehner, although part of the establishment, knows that such a coup will cost him his job and you can expect him to fight that with a passion. So he may become even more intransigent.
So we are in an odd situation where, as the shut down drags on, the dynamics is hardening positions rather than softening them.