David Frum

09.28.13

Here Comes the Shutdown: Three Reasons It Will Hurt the GOP

Uh oh! A House plan to delay Obamacare has put the government on the brink of a shutdown—for real this time. David Frum on why the infighting is sure to backfire on the Republicans.

The federal government swerved toward a shutdown on Saturday when House Republicans demanded to hold a vote to delay Obamacare by one year instead of cooperating with the Senate to pass a “clean” spending bill. It's now practically assured that parts of the government will go dark on Tuesday for the first time in 17 years. 

From a Republican point of view, there are three possible happy endings to the looming catastrophe.

Happy Ending #1: The president blinks. He's blinked before after all—notably when he agreed to sequestration in 2011—and who knows? He might blink again.

Problem with Happy Ending #1: This time, though, "blinking" means blowing up the president's most important legacy: his health-care plan. That's more than a blink. He might as well hand in his resignation after that.

Happy Ending #2: The country blames the Democrats for the shutdown. After all, the GOP is only asking for the president to negotiate. It's the president who refuses to yield. 

Problem with Happy Ending #2: Republicans actually shut down the government in 1995. They took the country to the brink of debt default in 2011. Their caucus is reacting to this shutdown with enthusiasm, not regret. It's going to be hard to sell the claim that it's the Democrats who brought about this latest outcome when Republicans come out of caucus looking so happy about it.

Happy Ending #3: Even if the president does not blink, and even if Democrats don't get blamed, perhaps Republican activists will be so motivated and mobilized by the shutdown that their excitement will loft the party to big wins in the 2014 races.

Problem with Happy Ending #3: Because Happy Endings 1 and 2 look so unlikely, the shutdown is likely to end in a Republican retreat. Party activists will be demotivated—and may waste their energy recriminating against their own leadership rather than organizing to fight Democrats.

All in all, it's hard to see any positive outcome emerging for Republicans from this confrontation. Yet the party is charging forward anyway. Why?

The short answer is a breakdown in the party's ability to govern itself. It can't think strategically. Even when pressed to do something overwhelmingly likely to end in disaster, as this shutdown looks likely to do for Republicans, the party has no way to stop itself. It stumbles into fights it cannot win, gets mad, and then in its anger lurches into yet another fight that ends in yet another loss. 

Republicans who want to fight smarter are called squishes; Republicans who wish to fight less are called RINOs—and both have been hunted pretty near to extinction. Instead of effective opposition, we see those doomed spasms. And out of these spasms, Obamacare looks sturdier than ever—and any hope of negotiating to fix its worst elements seemingly further out of reach than ever.

Video screenshot

Twitter reacts to the House vote to delay Obamacare and effectively shut down the government.