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Why Republicans are losing this budget showdown so badly
The polls are getting pretty brutal for the GOP. Why can't they seem to win a government shutdown?
House Speaker John Boehner and his constantly shifting demands are being trumped by the president's no-negotiation stance.
House Speaker John Boehner and his constantly shifting demands are being trumped by the president's no-negotiation stance. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
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obody in Washington is really coming out of this government shutdown and debt-limit brinksmanship smelling like roses. To give one example, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll [PDF] featured 60 percent of respondents saying they would "vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress," including their own representative. For another, a predictably snarky PPP poll found that Americans have a higher opinion of witches, jury duty, and hemorrhoids than Congress.

Politically, the mess in Washington is probably a mixed bag for Democrats. But almost nobody is arguing that the shutdown has been good for the Republican Party. The only real argument is over how bad a hit the party is taking.

Gallup and the NBC/WSJ polls have the GOP's favorability rating at all-time lows. Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — whose own approval rating is at 26 percent, according to Gallup — is trying to reassure his pro-shutdown allies that voters are blaming the GOP for the shutdown by only a 46 percent to 39 percent margin over "Obama and Democrats."

Only President Obama and ObamaCare saw their favorability numbers rise. In the NBC/WSJ poll, voters now favor a Democratic Congress by an 8-point margin.

As this budgetary fight wraps up — at least for now — it appears to be nothing short of disastrous for the GOP. Here, how Republicans reached this point:

1. Republicans rolled the dice, and lost
The only political sin greater than causing a huge disruption to the body politic for an unpopular long-shot victory is coming away empty-handed. In this case, when the shutdown is over, "the Republicans who pushed for it hardest will have gotten essentially nothing for it," says Peter Suderman at Reason.

House Republicans should have paid more attention to "the sunk cost fallacy," says Neil Irwin at The Washington Post. "A sunk cost is something you're not going to get back," such as those six months you dated the wrong person. Like a lover trying to hold on to a lifeless relationship, a sizable portion of the GOP caucus "sees the fact that they have shut down the government and attendant decline in popularity as a reason that they must continue to fight."

The fact that House Republicans have "fought so hard" is irrelevant to the future costs and benefits of any deal. The more the caucus is making decisions based on what happened in the past, the less likely they are to make strategy decisions that are best for both the country's and their own future prospects. [Washington Post]

2. Democrats are united, the GOP divided
At the beginning of the shutdown, Slate's John Dickerson predicted that the party that is "singing from the same song sheet" will fare better. Then, as now, Republicans are the ones out of harmony:

Democrats are united. Even Democratic senators up for re-election in predominantly Republican states have not bolted.... In most epic battles with a Democratic president, Republicans would swallow their own internal differences and close ranks against their common foe. But that's not the case in this showdown: Many Republicans are personally invested in their previous argument that the party was headed toward ruin if it shut down the government over ObamaCare. [Slate]

That's not the only division on the GOP side. Business interests are chafing at the Tea Party influence in the party. And so are plenty of moderate Republicans. "Roughly one-third of this [House GOP] caucus thinks hitting the debt ceiling and shutting down the government are great strategies to try to stop ObamaCare," says Josh Barro at Business Insider. "The other two-thirds of the party has realized all along that this strategy sucks, but they could not find any way to stop their party from implementing it — even though these 'reasonable' Republicans outnumber the crazies."

Can you imagine the situation this country would be in if Republicans controlled both houses of Congress right now? Or if we had a President whose administration gets jerked around by Heritage Action in the same way that House Republicans do? It would be a trainwreck.... There is no serious argument for Republican governance right now, even if you prefer conservative policies over liberal ones. These people are just too dangerously incompetent to be trusted with power. [Business Insider]

3. Nobody understands the GOP's strategy
There was a careful, well-laid-out strategy to get House Republicans to agree to putting all their chips on defunding ObamaCare, and using the federal budget as their leverage. But if there was a contingency plan in case Obama and the Democrats didn't agree to destroy one of their major legislative accomplishments, nobody seems to know what it is.

There are smart people who argue, to various degrees of believability, that Republicans and especially their Tea Party wing are sneakily playing a long game here — or have already won, even. Either of those may be true, but it's not how the public is viewing this fight right now. Neither are plenty of Republican-friendly commentators and strategists.

"Fighting ObamaCare is more popular than cutting Social Security to pay for defense spending," acknowledges Ross Douthat at The New York Times, and there was "some kind of plausible populist case for threatening a shutdown around the health-care law, as a kind of exercise in noisemaking and base mobilization."

But the shutdown itself is just a classic march of folly. From RedState to Heritage to all the various pro-shutdown voices in the House, nobody-but-nobody has sketched out a remotely plausible scenario in which a continued government shutdown leads to any meaningful, worth-the-fighting-for concessions on ObamaCare — or to anything, really, save gradually building pain for the few House Republicans who actually have to fight to win re-election in 2014, and the ratification of the public's pre-existing sense that the GOP can't really be trusted with the reins of government. [The New York Times]

It's worth pondering "what House Republicans could have accomplished had they retained a sense of proportion and sought reasonable concessions without attempting to seize the highest-value hostage," ObamaCare, says Scott Galupo at The American Conservative. Maybe they would have won concessions on the medical device tax, or the Keystone pipeline, or some other goodies. Now "they'll get peanuts, and an even more badly damaged national brand."

4. The "blame the Democrats" line doesn't make sense
As Jon Stewart at The Daily Show has pointed out multiple times, GOP efforts to disavow responsibility for the government shutdown and looming debt ceiling breach don't pass the smell test. First of all, Republicans have long self-identified as the party of smaller government — and several Tea Party–aligned Republicans are publicly touting the shutdown as a positive development, and calling a debt-ceiling breach no big deal.

Second of all, the Democrats' narrative is easier to understand: Republicans are holding the government and global economy hostage, demanding the unreasonable ransom of dismantling a duly passed, already-in-effect law.

Republicans are correct that Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate could have passed House bills funding some pet parts of the government, and that, technically, the House voted to fund the government several times, with a diminishing list of ObamaCare-related demands. But their strongest argument, as the NBC/WSJ poll bears out, has been that Democrats are prolonging this shutdown by refusing to negotiate.

The problem: As we've all learned in every cop movie out of Hollywood, you never negotiate with hostage-takers.

5. Republicans lost in 1995–96
To some extent, the GOP entered the shutdown at a disadvantage: The last time a feisty Republican-led House shut down the government in a disagreement with a Democratic president, the GOP lost. Or at least that's the narrative most of us remember, including political journalists. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight argues that the evidence that the GOP lost the last shutdown is pretty slim, but House Republicans had the burden of upsetting that narrative. They haven't.

6. Republicans are being obviously political
The reason the GOP is losing the blame game is actually quite simple, says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. "The American public views the Republican party's motives in the shutdown as overwhelmingly political. And looking political is the absolute worst thing that can happen to a political party." Shutting down the government over ObamaCare looked rankly political, and it got worse when internal GOP sniping over tactics and strategy "broke into public view, drawing even more focus to the political sausage-making of the GOP," Cillizza says.

To be clear: There are politics — and political calculation — in everything. The trick, however, is to make the other side look like they are on a political mission while you are acting out of some combination of principle and pragmatism. Republicans have lost that fight and, in so doing, are watching their brand take a major hit. [Washington Post]

7. GOP leaders look weak, Obama looks strong
Republicans have often accused Obama of being a weak president, especially when it comes to foreign affairs. In this high-stakes game, however, Obama's no-negotiation stance is trumping Boehner's constantly shifting demands. In the NBC/WSJ poll, Obama's favorability rating has inched up 2 points, to 47 percent (41 percent unfavorable), and 46 percent of respondents said the president "has been a strong leader and is standing up for what he believes in."

It's not all good for Obama — 51 percent said they think he's putting his own political agenda ahead of the nation's interest. But he still looks good when compared with the GOP, which has 70 percent of respondents convinced the party is putting politics ahead of the common good. And Boehner has a dreadful 17 percent favorability rating, with 42 percent viewing him unfavorably.

This partly goes back to the first reason listed above. Obama is leading a unified caucus that's sticking to its guns while nobody believes House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is in charge of his House caucus. One of the reasons the GOP is losing, in fact, is probably that nobody knows who is driving the Republican Party right now, and that in itself is pretty unsettling.

[This article originally ran on Oct. 14; it was last updated on Oct. 16]

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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