Setting aside the hourly thrust and parry between Democrats and Republicans, here’s how the shutdown is likely to end: Senate Majority Harry Reid is going to strike a deal with his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell at some point in the next few days. The deal will reopen the government for a medium length of time—possibly till January 15, when the next round of sequester cuts kick in—giving the two sides time to replace the sequester with something more appealing. The deal will also raise the debt ceiling—maybe for as little as a few months, maybe until after the 2014 election. Reid will give up almost no concessions in return for any of this, with the exception of one or two symbolic items, and he’ll probably get some higher-than-sequester level of government funding (a top Democratic priority) for a month or two starting later this year. Pretty much every Democrat in the Senate will vote for the deal, along with at least five and maybe as many as 20 Republicans.
As the minutes tick away toward default this Thursday, the Reid-McConnell arrangement will be the only deal in town. With no alternative to avoiding a default, House Speaker John Boehner will add some small face-saving alteration and bring it to the floor, where it will pass with several dozen Republican votes and a large majority of Democrats. In doing so, Boehner will reprise the same formula he deployed in resolving last year’s fiscal cliff fight. I know this because it’s how the GOP has gotten out of pretty much every self-inflicted PR disaster of the Obama era, and it’s where the best reporting available suggests we’re headed today.
Of course, I could be wrong on the details. If Reid plays his hand especially well, he may do a bit better—erasing more of the sequester now rather than deferring that task till later. If McConnell plays his hand especially well, he may get some slightly bigger concessions, like a delay or repeal of the tax on medical devices that was enacted under Obamacare. But those are the basic contours of what a deal will look like, and they’re notable for what they almost certainly won’t include: anything that has more than a trivial effect on Obamacare, any cuts to entitlements as the price of reopening the government or raising the debt ceiling (though Democrats may give a bit on entitlements in exchange for ending the sequester and some new revenue). Which is to say, the deal will include none the key demands the Republicans were hoping to achieve by shutting down the government.
Or, put differently: On policy, the Republicans will end up either about where they were when they started this fight, or worse off. Politically, they’ll be in a far weaker place, having seen their public support collapse. Along both dimensions, they are faring worse than they did even in 1995-6, when Bill Clinton accepted some of their key demands, and when their approval ratings didn’t sink as low as the latest polls suggest they’re sinking now.
How has it come to this? After all, there were reasons to think Republicans would be in a stronger position today than in the mid-‘90s. As my colleague Nate Cohn and other stats connoisseurs have pointed out, the public is more polarized along ideological lines than it was back then. That means a party can do its level best to piss off the entire country—and the GOP has really thrown itself into the challenge—and still retain the support of 45 percent of voters.
Likewise, most Republican House members represent such conservative districts—the average House district is 11 points more Republican than the rest of the country—that they can simply disregard national poll numbers. (This is often what people mean when they invoke “gerrymandering,” though the term is inapt, as Nate points out.)
Taken together, the data suggested there was a floor of public support below which Republicans simply wouldn’t drop, no matter how insanely they behaved, and that there would be no particular sense urgency driving them to strike a deal. These forces seemed likely to push the outcome of the conflict toward stalemate rather than toward a clean victory for the Dems.
What this analysis missed is that even in an age of hyper-polarization and geographic segregation, there are some tactics that go too far, alienating even voters who are ideologically or politically sympathetic to the GOP. And, unfortunately for Republicans, one of those tactics was extortion. Going into the shutdown, more people opposed Obamacare than supported it. But the idea of shutting down the government or threatening a debt default to undo Obamacare was massively unpopular. Most polls showed roughly three times as many voters against the idea as in favor of it.
Worse, precisely because the House GOP was so insulated from public opinion—because the average GOP congressman is much more concerned about a Tea-Party challenger than a general-election opponent—conservative Republicans couldn’t see that this tactic was completely counterproductive. Which is to say, the very forces that made Republicans better able to withstand a public backlash drove them to pursue the one tactic guaranteed to produce a backlash so intense even they couldn’t withstand it.
On top of which—and this is the biggest difference between today and the mid-'90s—the Republican Party is itself deeply, perhaps irreparably, split. In the ‘90s, we heard rumblings that Bob Dole, the GOP Senate majority leader, was unhappy about Newt Gingrich’s scorched-earth tactics. But there was nothing approaching the level of animosity that exists between today’s House and Senate Republicans, and between pragmatists and jihadis in the House. This time the divisions spilled into public view long before the shutdown started, and they only widened after that. As Jonathan Chait has pointed out, we no longer have a Democrat-versus-Republican showdown, as we did in the '90s. We have a Democrat versus Republican versus Tea Party free-for-all. And at times the poisonousness between sane Republicans and the jihadis overwhelms the contempt either side has for Democrats.
The problem for the GOP is that, as insulated as the House jihadis are from national trends, Senate Republicans and House pragmatists emphatically are not. When the approval rating for Republicans drops nationally, these people are badly exposed. They begin to fear for their jobs. They become desperate to cut a deal—any deal—that will end their political pain. And once they do—once there is a deal that a large chunk of Republicans either explicitly sign onto or tacitly endorse—then it is game over for the House. There is simply no House Republican leader who can resist a bill that many if not most Republicans want to see pass, a bill that has passed the Senate, and to which the only alternative is the complete annihilation of both the Republican Party and the global economy.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see how we ended up here: The Tea Partiers, high on their own apocalyptic fantasies, force the GOP down a strategically catastrophic path. For a few days, they are convinced that victory is at hand. The feedback they get from their constituents is overwhelmingly positive. The right-wing media urges them on. They are convinced providence is on their side. “This is about the happiest I’ve seen members in a long time because we’ve seen we’re starting to win this dialogue,” Michele Bachmann told Sean Hannity on Day Two of the shutdown.
At this point, the Tea Partiers are so convinced of their own impending success that sober Republicans, mainstream reporters, even liberals begin to wonder if there isn’t something to it—if they haven’t badly underestimated the public’s appetite for thuggery. At which point it all collapses. The polls trickle in and they are horrific. The pragmatic wing of the party is completely demoralized. It lashes out more violently than before. The national media both encourages and adds to their derision of conservatives. Suddenly every Republican in town is shopping his own terms of surrender. The biggest challenge for Democrats isn’t getting their way. It’s that there are so many offers, it’s hard to know which one to take. Politico labeled the spectacle a “buyer’s market” for Barack Obama, massively understating the point. It is a buyer’s market in the sense that the day after the Super Bowl is a buyer’s market for pork rinds.
As we enter the home stretch, the dynamic is only reinforcing itself. The Tea Partiers have become steadily more delusional, reminding the pragmatists how insane it was to lock arms with them in the first place. “When I was home, I talked with people in our office that called in, I don’t get the sense that 70 percent [of people blame us],” House conservative Jim Jordan told Politico last week. (Good point!) On Sunday, the loonies in the House seized on a report that a mob of patriots overran the World War II Memorial and reclaimed it for ... well, for whom isn’t entirely clear. But the loons in the House promptly labeled it a “game changer,” according to National Review’s Robert Costa. To them, it was the latest sign that the country sees things their way.
The pragmatists are, in turn, only becoming more anxious. Costa reports that aides to Mitch McConnell now worry they’ll have to make concessions on the sequester just to end the current crisis, whereas they’d previously assumed they could leave the sequester in place and trade it for entitlement cuts in a future grand bargain.
What Costa doesn’t discuss is the Republican leadership’s incentives, which is the final, poetic wrinkle in all of this. McConnell and Boehner, in addition to understanding how badly the Tea Partiers have hurt their party, have yet another reason to sue for peace. McConnell is facing a Tea Party primary challenge in his re-election campaign. Boehner has been repeatedly embarrassed by the Tea Partiers in his caucus, who have actively sabotaged his leadership (egged on/manipulated by Texas Senator Ted Cruz). Both men know their side has lost. Both men also know their party’s fanatics are to blame. Do you think they don’t want to see the Tea Party humiliated before all is said and done? Do you think they might want to see the Tea Partiers stuck with all the blame?
At the very least, it’s hard to believe they’ll fight too hard against any deal that accomplishes those goals. As I say, those intra-party rifts are a bummer.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber