Suffice it to say, it’s hard to do a deal when the only thing the other guy wants is the one thing you can’t give him. This null set scenario is, unfortunately, precisely where we find ourselves in the debate over funding the government beyond September 30th. House Republicans are insisting that any funding measure simultaneously de-fund Obamacare, while Democrats have rightly proclaimed this idea preposterous. And there appears to be no wiggle room in the GOP position. According to The Wall Street Journal, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked House Speaker John Boehner what else on the entire planet the GOP could accept—a lifetime supply of Slim Jims, say, or maybe a warehouse full of Kiefer Sutherland-autographed “24” box sets—Boehner told him there was nothing.
Even so, if this were the only obstacle to an agreement, we might still avoid a government shutdown. After all, we’ve been in situations before where the null-set logic looked ironclad, only to have one side or the other back down at the last minute. Back in 2011, Republicans agreed to a debt-ceiling increase in exchange for Obama’s embrace of the sequester, which averted a debt default that looked imminent. At the end of last year, Republicans allowed taxes to rise on the highest income earners to avoid going over the dreaded fiscal cliff.
What makes this time is different is that, in addition to having carved out hardline positions, neither side has an incentive to back down. In 2011, Obama was willing to give on his demand that revenue increases accompany spending cuts because he understood the apocalyptic consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling. In late 2012, Republicans knew that the alternative to a small tax increase was for taxes to rise automatically by a much larger amount. This time, on the other hand, every party to the negotiation has reason to welcome the government shutdown that would result if they can’t reach a deal.
Start with the White House, which has been annoyingly open to concessions even when it has all the leverage. In my own conversations with White House officials (and people close to them) over the past few months, I’ve picked up a clear willingness to allow a shutdown if Republicans refuse to budge. This is unlike 2011, the last time the White House faced a shutdown situation. Back then, a well-connected former administration official told me recently, “the political strategists wanted a deal. [Senior adviser David] Plouffe wanted a deal . . . to increase our numbers with independents.” This time, according to this source, “There’s no constituency for caving.”
That jibes with the change of heart I’ve detected when speaking directly to White House officials. In 2011, they were queasy about the risks a shutdown posed to the rickety economy, which could ultimately hurt the president. This year, they believe a shutdown would strengthen their hand politically, which is almost certainly true given the public outrage that would rain down on Republicans. One official pointed out that the pressure for spending cuts has subsided with the deficit falling so rapidly on its own.
Of course, the president himself isn’t the toughest negotiator in the world. You can’t rule out the possibility that the White House will blink when the deadline gets close. At the very least, one can imagine Obama signing a short-term government funding measure (known as a continuing resolution) that leaves the automatic sequester cuts in place so long as it doesn’t touch Obamacare. But even if he were inclined to do this, Congressional Democrats seem less willing to support him than in the past. They believe they can demand much more in exchange for saving the GOP from a shutdown. “Our leadership thinks the time has come to draw a line in the sand, not do a short-term extension,” a senior Democratic Hill aide told Politico last week. “They’re ready for a flash and a pop.” Bottom line: Democrats across the board are more willing to broach a shutdown than at any other time during the past three years.
Next there are the Tea Partiers, who give every indication of wanting a shutdown, too. Unlike mainstream Republicans, who appreciate the damage a shutdown would inflict on their party, the Tea Partiers consider it win-win. A shutdown would mean they forced their leadership to stand up to Obama, which plays well in their districts and the various organs of the conservative movement. And when the GOP inevitably bowed to public opinion and sued for peace, the Tea Partiers would be able to accuse their weak-kneed leadership of caving, thereby enhancing their status within the party. Politico reports that the so-called Senate Conservative Fund, a group that successfully lobbied against Boehner’s attempted quashing of the Obamacare defunding idea, has plans to raise another $50,000 to stop any future deal. No surprise there.
That leaves the final and arguably most consequential player in this drama: Boehner himself. Throughout his tenure as speaker, Boehner has had to divine a path between the apocalyptic impulses of his members and the political disaster that would attend their preferred apocalypse (shutdown, debt default, fiscal cliff dive). All the criticism of him notwithstanding, I think he’s done a pretty masterful job at this.
His general m.o. has been to translate the will of his rank-and-file into a ludicrously extreme opening position, which promptly gets laughed off stage by either the Democrats who control the White House and Senate, or the public, which pans it.1 At that point, the White House opts to negotiate with Boehner’s Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell. Once they agree to a deal, Boehner shuffles before his caucus to explain that House Republicans held out as long as they could, but the White House and Senate Republicans have backed them into a corner. This buys him enough sympathy to bring the White House-McConnell deal to the House floor, where it passes with help from Democrats and the tacit acceptance of conservatives.
The problem this time is that the White House hasn’t really been negotiating with Senate Republicans, partly because McConnell is facing a right-wing primary challenge and has no political interest in compromising, partly because McConnell’s Senate colleagues also worry about the wrath of the Tea Party, and partly because (as noted above) the White House doesn’t feel any particular urgency about reaching a deal. Unless this changes—and so far there’s been little indication that it will—there’s no way for Boehner to employ his usual theatrics. He can’t tell his troops that he fought hard for their position until the bitter end, when Senate Republicans isolated them, because Senate Republicans haven’t done anything.
Deprived of his usual cover story, Boehner is simply flailing. When a reporter asked Boehner last week if he has a new idea for getting the House out of its jam, he responded: “Do you have an idea? They’ll [conservatives will] just shoot it down anyway.” To date, he hasn’t even been able to persuade conservatives to delay the Obamacare fight until the debt ceiling showdown, where the terrain is marginally more favorable to the GOP.2
Now, don’t get me wrong: Boehner clearly prefers to avoid a government shutdown. He’s spent months figuring out how to do that, fully aware of the political debacle it would entail. Unfortunately, it’s now clear that the only way he can induce the political isolation he typically relies on to prod his caucus into semi-rational action is by shutting down the government and inviting the public backlash he’s been so desperate to avoid. Boehner simply has no other way of talking sense into his people, no other hope of making the House GOP governable. And so, in the end, a shutdown is in Boehner’s interest, too.3
Fortunately, a shutdown is almost certainly a good thing. Yes, it can slow the economy and wreak temporary havoc on people who rely on government services. But these consequences are nothing alongside the fallout from defaulting on our debt, which will happen if we don’t raise the debt ceiling by mid-October. That's why Boehner's inability to persuade conservatives to postpone their Obamacare demands until the debt-ceiling fight is in fact a hugely welcome development. It gives everyone a chance to sober up before we take on the substantially higher-stakes proposition of avoiding a debt default. In fact, if Boehner and the White House had both been a bit more pro-shutdown back in 2011, when this whole B-movie horror flick started, that year’s debt ceiling fight and the sequester may never have happened, and we might not be in the mess we’re in today. A little bit of shutdown, I’d wager, goes a long way.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber