Congressional Republicans backed themselves into a corner during the government shutdown, playing into their stereotype as the "party of no" so thoroughly that they obliterated their approval rating.
In doing so, the party may have inadvertently presented Democrats with a game plan for enacting a wish list of progressive priorities in the coming year — or possibly once a new Democratic-controlled Congress takes over in 2015.
By aggressively needling their opponents, Democrats could place Republicans in a bind: Either grudgingly give ground, or further cement the "party of no" moniker. If played right, Democrats could roll up win-win situations all the way to November 2014, either gaining policy victories on issues like immigration and budget reform, or notching political victories that can be used as weapons in the midterms.
The Democratic National Committee is already re-upping that message for a fundraising push. The organization's site promoted this week to the top of its homepage an old post titled, "Republicans admit they want obstruction."
The shutdown, the clearest proof of such obstruction, sent the GOP's approval rating crashing to an all-time low, resulting in polls suggesting Democrats had a decent chance to reclaim the House in next year's elections. Though such divination is dubious one year out from Election Day, Democrats at the least have a huge early edge.
Republicans' best hope to winnow that gap going forward is to move away from the sorts of tactics that plunged them into their polling abyss, and to convince Americans they can effectively govern when given the reins. This presents a huge opportunity for Democrats.
"We will be weaker when we negotiate with Democrats next time, and we proved that President Obama doesn’t need to negotiate with us,” an anonymous GOP consultant told election handicapper Stuart Rothenberg.
Larry Kudlow picked up on the same problem facing Republicans, writing in National Review that "the president likely will be inflexible" in the coming budget fight, insisting on huge concessions from Republicans while "permitting only the most inconsequential entitlement reforms."
If Republicans balk at their demands, Democrats would have all the campaign ad ammunition they would need to hammer the GOP next year, particularly on issues that enjoy overwhelming popular support (universal background checks for gun purchases) or bipartisan institutional support (an immigration overhaul that passed the Senate). Indeed, in sizing up the coming elections, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) remarked this week that "you think historically it's hard for us to win, but my observation is it's pretty easy for them to lose."
Obama has reportedly been eyeing his post-2014 presidency ever since he won re-election. A detailed Washington Post story in March said Obama, following his defeat of Mitt Romney, "began almost at once executing plans to win back the House in 2014, which he and his advisers believe will be crucial to the outcome of his second term and to his legacy as president." His strategy, the paper wrote, hinged on him trying to "articulate for the American electorate his own feelings — an exasperation with an opposition party that blocks even the most politically popular elements of his agenda."
In sum, the plan meant convincing voters the GOP was working against their best interests. By furloughing 800,000 workers and sabotaging the shaky economic recovery, the GOP did more to convey that impression in two weeks than Obama could have done in a year's worth of campaigning.
Forcing the GOP to keep throwing wrenches in the works would only further ingrain that impression. If House Republicans, say, spike immigration reform, Democrats would have a strong argument to bring back home: "Marco Rubio and John McCain support immigration reform — but not the Tea Party-controlled House."
Republicans may well regroup and emerge with a unified voice of their own, particularly if the ObamaCare rollout continues to plague the administration. Yet that seems unlikely at this point, as establishment types and Tea Party-aligned fire-breathers remain locked in a civil war. Tea Party figureheads like Sarah Palin have floated the idea of forming a new party; well-funded conservative groups are threatening to bankroll primaries against moderate GOPers; and Ted Cruz is still throwing bombs at his Republican Senate colleagues.
Democrats could easily overplay their hand by pushing too hard, themselves becoming the unreasonable party in the eyes of the public. For now, though, they have both time and public opinion on their side. An effective use of those weapons could help them secure major concessions over the next year — or, failing that, put them in prime position to take back Congress and circumvent the GOP entirely.