JONATHAN COHN NOVEMBER 19, 2010
Grover Norquist is apparently pushing House Republicans to use the debt ceiling extension, which will need to be done early in 2011, as the setting for the big confrontation with Barack Obama over health care and whatever else.
This seems quite foolish, if the goal is to maximize GOP policy gains and GOP approval ratings while hurting Obama's approval ratings. Not only would an early shutdown play right into the Democratic story line that Republicans are a bunch of crazy, irresponsible Tea Party goofballs (a story that many reporters are likely to believe), but it would be quite vulnerable to Washington Monument strategies (and, hey, Taegan Goddard, why isn't that in your excellent political dictionary?).
Specifically, in a debt limit shutdown, as opposed to an appropriations bill shutdown, Obama could plausibly claim that Republicans would be putting the troops in danger by cutting off their funding.
Moreover, the dynamics of divided congressional control work against Republicans. Obama wouldn't be vetoing anything. If the House passes a debt ceiling extension larded with all sorts of Tea Party demands, the Senate will ignore it and take up a clean extension. Either that will pass, giving the House the next move and allowing Obama to blame a squabbling Congress for everything, or it will be blocked by a Republican filibuster—and it'll be awfully hard for Republicans to blame Barack Obama for shutting down the government in either situation.
Norquist pins his hopes on Fox News and "the Internet." It's true that the Republican partisan media would (naturally) take the GOP's side in any such confrontation, and partisans who get their news primarily from these sources would believe that Republicans were winning the confrontation. That won't, however, change the basic logic of the situation, just as Fox News and the Internet didn't prevent George W. Bush from losing spin contests on Katrina, Iraq, and the economy. What may change from 1995-1996, and what John Boehner is no doubt aware of, is that the partisan media may make it even harder for Republicans to extricate themselves from a high-profile showdown. That makes it more important to avoid getting into one without a clear path to victory.
That's not to say that Republicans can't gain some policy advantages from the necessary extension of the debt limit. They have some leverage. But it's not a whole lot, and in particular a shutdown threat could easily backfire.
Granted, while a government shutdown, especially an early confrontation over the debt limit, would likely be a disaster for House Republicans, it stands to be a big winner for Fox News, conservative talk radio hosts, and anyone who makes money from getting grass roots Republicans angry enough to buy books, visit web sites, and give money to conservative causes.