What Did the Government Shutdown Battle Really Accomplish?

Oct 21, 2013Bo Cutter

Republicans have thoroughly discredited themselves and cleared the way for President Obama to put forward a new agenda.

Well, that was fun. We just escaped another Perils of Pauline moment by deciding not to test the proposition that default doesn't matter, and the Republican Party's (apparently diminishing) instincts for self-preservation finally overcame its fear of its far-right base. So where are we?

First, a brief victory lap. As I predicted a week ago, this debacle was devastating politically for the Republican Party. Reflect on this quote from the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, taken after about 12 days of the shutdown: "the poll gave the Republican Party its lowest marks in the history of Journal polling. More than twice as many (participants) hold a negative view of the GOP as a positive one. By contrast the number of Americans viewing the Democratic Party positively or negatively was nearly equal at 40%." I won't bore you with more numbers; they all tell the same story.

This result was inevitable. The Republican House members (1) chose a goal they could never accomplish; (2) chose means (shutting down the government and threatening default to defund ObamaCare) that never had a whiff of political legitimacy; (3) never had a strategy; (4) never communicated a comprehensible story; (5) spent every waking hour making themselves look like mean, inept aliens; and (6) voluntarily selected a negotiating tactic that was beyond stupid. You never, never, never enter into a negotiation with both a goal that is really hard to achieve and a self-defined binary outcome, with no middle ground. All of this against a president who was and is a lot more popular than they are. (Maybe none of them had ever heard the story of the bear and the hikers.)

As I said before, in the history of the world, no one has ever been luckier than President Obama in terms of who his opposition is. All he had to do was wait for the game to come to him. As Napoleon said, never interfere when the enemy is in the midst of destroying itself.

And what did all of this accomplish, except a vast waste of time and money, further erosion of trust in politics and democracy, and a substantial hit to America's international reputation? I'm tempted to answer "nothing," but that's not true.

First, it was diverting and fun, in a way. I particularly liked the repeated instances when people who loudly shut down the government discovered that they didn't like shutting down the government. But you can only stand so much of that fun.

Second, it pretty much guaranteed we wouldn't be put through this by the Republican House again for a while. Of course, some of them continue threatening, and there will continue to be budget and tax battles, but I cannot imagine anyone actually daring to try for shutdown and default again during President Obama's term. He should have fought this fight two years ago in March 2011, as I wrote then, but learning lessons late is the human condition.

Third, it accomplished the impossible by switching attention away from the enormous and predictable startup problems of ObamaCare and toward the inanities of the people who foisted this debacle on us. Who knew there were so many Republican politicians more eager to explain at length why default was a destiny to be embraced than to ask why the new heath care exchanges weren't working?

Fourth, it probably ended any chance Republicans had of winning the Senate, maybe put the House in play (I see 435 campaigns on the general theme of "he (or she) shut the government down; let's shut him (or her) down"), and gave the Democrats a huge boost for 2016. Did Senator Cruz just simultaneously win the Republican 2016 presidential nomination and elect Hillary Clinton?

Fifth, it made inevitable a necessary civil war within the Republican Party. A party cannot go through a debacle like this without hard questioning about how it reached this point and what it is trying to accomplish. The country actually needs the Republicans to go through this fight.

And sixth, it provided President Obama with a totally unexpected opportunity to reinvigorate his second term. He's the only political player in Washingyon left standing with any credibility or gravity, and if he now defined a sensible, pragmatic, doable agenda, he could get it done.

I'll conclude on the agenda. The Republican Party doesn't have one, and I see little evidence that the Democratic Party is capable of or willing to rethink one. But there is a new agenda out there that all polling evidence suggests the vast middle of the American electorate (across party lines) is hungry for. All the political experts say there is no chance for a third party, a third agenda, or a temporary alliance of independents. But the world keeps changing, the next American economy poses huge challenges, and we've all just had another extended lesson in the dysfunctional nature of our current politics. Why can't this debacle we just survived be the moment that catalyzes the widespread sense there has to be a better way?

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

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