Jonathan Chait

Why Boehner Must Shut Down The Government

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How should Republican leaders deal with the dilemma of being caught between a base that will view any budget deal with President Obama as a sellout and independent voters who are likely to turn on them if they shut down the government? Jonathan Bernstein thinks they should bite the bullet and cut the best deal they can, figuring they'll get hit by the base no matter what:

what Boehner has to do is to convince Republican Members of the House that the hit they’re going to take from the right for compromising is inevitable. They’ll be seen as sellouts if they cut a deal before a shutdown. They’ll be seen as sellouts if they cut a deal after a six week shutdown. True believers will always be convinced that complete and total victory was just a week away if only the cowardly politicians had been willing to hang in there. They can’t win that game.

Not a bad argument. The counter is that it's one thing to cut a deal with Obama, and another to be perceived as cutting that deal without really fighting. If Boehner shuts down the government and then cuts a deal, at least he's demonstrated some willingness to go to the mat and fight, right? Bernstein is right that he'll have angry Tea Partiers regardless, but I do think he needs to show that he's fought the good fight. A deal with Obama is bad no matter what, but a deal without a shutdown looks like surrendering the fort without firing a shot.

The other quibble I have with Bernstein's analysis is that I don't think he's really thinking about this the way Boehner is, or even should, be thinking about this. What is the downside to a shutdown? Republicans get less popular, have a lower chance to win the presidency in 2012, and maybe a higher chance of losing the House as well. What is the downside to cutting a deal? GOP backbenchers revolt against Boehner and depose him as Speaker of the House.

If I'm Boehner, I'm more worried about the guns pointed at my back then the guns pointed at my face. A shutdown increases the small chance that he goes from Speaker to Minority Leader in 2013, but a deal increases the chance that he goes from Speaker to (R-OH) in 2011. The right-wingers do not trust Boehner, and he has very little slack. He also lived through a series of purges and attempted purges in the late 1990s, always taking the form of purists complaining that the leadership had gone soft.

Boehner's top priority is probably staving off internal revolt. That means shutting down the government.

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