Why Democrats didn't blink first in the shutdown stare-down

Democrats aren't exactly known for party unity. So why did they stick together this time?

President Obama
(Image credit: (Mark Wilson/Getty Images))

If you want to know the score in Washington, you could do worse than checking with the scorekeepers at Politico. Here's how they judged the end of the government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship:

Or, to put that another way:

It's hard to argue with the conventional wisdom. President Obama said he wouldn't negotiate over the debt limit or funding the government, and he "achieved both goals, with minuscule concessions," says John Dickerson at Slate. "In the crude analogy of two cars playing chicken, the president's opponents pulled over." Obama was helped by the civil war raging in the Republican Party, but "the president and his fellow Democrats benefited in this round largely because they were united," also.

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That's no small feat. "Democrats in Congress don't have a great reputation for party unity," says Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic. But there they were: "Obama held his ground — in public and in private. On Capitol Hill, Democrats from both chambers and both wings of the party said the same things and, behind the scenes, coordinated their actions." What was different this time?

Part of it has to do with how the party's congressional makeup has changed in the past few years. A lot of conservative House Democrats were unseated in the 2010 election, says Cohn, and "the Senate Democratic caucus has bid farewell to Blanche Lincoln, Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson, and Joe Lieberman — all more conservative and all (but particularly Lieberman) inclined to make trouble for party leadership." The remaining conservatives, like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) got "plenty of political cover" from moderate GOP colleagues criticizing the shutdown.

Still, in this case, Democrats may not have been able to stay together without the help of an unlikely ally, Sen. Ted Cruz (R- Texas), says Ezra Klein at The Washington Post. Not only did Cruz's tactical push to link ObamaCare to the federal budget fracture the GOP, but it was also "so suicidal that Democrats felt comfortable forcing Republicans to cave completely." In fact, Democrats got way more in the deal than they thought possible before the shutdown.

Cruz has been so helpful, Klein says, that "a true cynic about American politics" might have to conclude that he's "a Democratic sleeper agent."

Cruz's assumption that Obama and the Democrats would bend wasn't crazy, says Jonathan Chait at New York. It was the "widespread, world-weary conventional wisdom." And Republicans "spent weeks prodding for every weakness" in the Democratic caucus. To no avail. The GOP's single biggest mistake, Chait adds, was "failing to understand the way its behavior would create unity in the opposing party."

Part of what undergirded Democratic unity went beyond a (correct) calculation that it would be dangerous to pay any ransom at all. Democrats seemed to share a genuine moral revulsion at the tactics and audacity of a party that had lost a presidential election by 5 million votes, lost another chance to win a favorable Senate map, and lost the national House vote demanding the winning party give them its way without compromise. [New York]

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