At the beginning of this week, Republicans in the House were feeling pretty good about their grand plan to shut down the government unless President Obama scrapped his health-care law. Tea Partiers were reportedly beaming as they voted on a continuing resolution that would defund ObamaCare, despite the fact that the vote all but assured a shutdown and a high-stakes confrontation with the president.
Yet there was one crucial component missing from the plan: A way out if Democrats called their bluff.
As the shutdown entered its fourth day on Friday, President Obama and Democrats, including senators from red states, refuse to accept anything but a clean budget bill.
Polls have been uniformly rosy for Democrats, giving them ample reason not to budge. Even a Fox News poll released Thursday offered almost exclusively good news, showing rising approval ratings for Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and falling favorables for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Meanwhile, the approval rating for the Republican Party as a whole hit its lowest point in the poll's history. As with several other surveys, the poll also found Americans more likely to pin blame for the shutdown on Republicans.
Some Republicans have openly acknowledged that the party cannot win and must move on, particularly as Congress heads toward a default on the national debt that would certainly be far more economically harmful than the shutdown. Yet a committed bloc of hardcore conservatives remains unwilling to throw in the towel just yet — even though they, too, see no winning endgame.
Though hard-line Republicans "see no plausible way out of the current impasse," The Washington Examiner's Byron York reports, they were nonetheless committed to pressing on "because they've come so far they cannot imagine backing down now."
In short, they know they've lost, but aren't willing to walk away embarrassed and empty-handed.
"I think there's a sense that for us to do a clean [continuing resolution] now — then what the hell was this about?" one House member told York.
How did Republicans get themselves into this mess? By following Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who had repeatedly been warned by other Republicans that his game plan would come to disaster. Though House leaders reportedly disliked the defund gambit, Boehner jumped on the bandwagon for fear of displeasing a right wing that was egged on by Cruz.
Cruz's colleagues privately hammered him in a meeting this week, accusing him of sabotaging the entire party while insulating himself from the blowback. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist summed up the sentiment best, telling The Washington Post that Cruz had "pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away."
Indeed, the situation has gotten so awkward for the GOP that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is reportedly asking Democrats for a "face-saving victory for Republicans looking for a graceful way to back down," reports Jonathan Weisman at The New York Times. (That face-saving measure is reportedly a repeal of a tax on medical devices.)
That's right: Republicans are now turning to the party it has demonized over ObamaCare to save the GOP from itself.
The question has increasingly become whether Obama will give Boehner an out, at the risk of affirming, if only slightly, the GOP's hostage-taking strategy. "In the end, political analysts say, it is in the interest of the White House to find a way for Boehner to emerge out of the crisis with some credibility with his rank and file," says Aamer Madhani at USA Today.
However, if Obama doesn't go that route, it's still hard to see how Republicans will benefit by locking themselves in to a publicly unpopular, politically infeasible strategy.
"Continuing in a fight simply to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that the fight was always pointless is absurd," writes The American Conservative's Daniel Larison. "There are no good ways 'out' for House Republicans at this point, but there are better and worse ways to react to the failure of the defunders' gambit."