Opinion

The GOP is relearning one of the hardest lessons in politics

Who knew governing could be so complicated?

This Friday, one of two things will happen: Either the federal government will shut down, or Republicans will bow and make a deal with Democrats to keep things functioning. Either way, it will be a remarkable embarrassment for President Trump and his party, even as they enjoy unified control of both the executive and legislative branch.

Indeed, this week Trump and the Republicans are relearning one of the perennially forgotten lessons of American politics: Governing is hard.

It's supposed to be a routine duty for Congress and the president to authorize federal government spending. But in our era of partisan gridlock, getting lawmakers to agree on just what and how much spending to authorize can be a toweringly difficult task. Especially because Senate Democrats can filibuster the budget bill, meaning the chamber's 52 Republicans need the support of at least eight Democrats.

For but one example: The president wants money for his border wall. To get it, he's threatening to scuttle money in ObamaCare that goes to insurers to reduce the cost-sharing payments they heap on customers. Without that money, some of ObamaCare's insurance markets could lose too many customers and fall apart. Meanwhile, the more hardcore factions of the GOP, especially in the House, want to cut Planned Parenthood off from being able to participate in Medicaid, or any other government program that helps Americans buy health care. Democrats, of course, are hell bent against letting any of these things happen. And remember, this is just one part of the budget. There are many disputes like this in other areas.

So, what happens now?

As Tara Golshan explained at Vox, there are four basic outcomes:

1. Pass a comprehensive bill authorizing spending. (This is the toughest option, since it requires hashing out agreements on every conceivable topic.)

2. Pass a "continuing resolution," or a short-term spending bill that would continue the status quo for a short while, giving Congress more time to haggle.

3. Pass option one for most noncontroversial items, and option two to delay the reckoning on controversial items.

4. Shut down the government.

Congress will have to settle on one of these options by Friday. And make no mistake: If option four happens, the Republicans will get the blame.

Politicians often indulge in a fantasy that voters carefully parse the behavior of the various players in government, and understand subtleties like the filibuster and the divide in power between the House and Senate. That's nonsense. Instead, most voters judge politicians on a simple heuristic: If bad stuff happens when you're in power, then you must be responsible for it. This is actually a pretty reasonable assumption, even if the byzantine government handed to us by James Madison makes it technically not true.

President Trump may well be learning this on the fly. But most lawmakers already know this to be true, even though they talk like they don't. It's the insight Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used for years to torpedo most policy efforts by the Democrats during the Obama administration. And it worked, as the Republicans' clean sweep in 2016 can attest.

But now the shoe's on the other foot. "Our Republican colleagues know that since they control, you know, the House, the Senate, and the White House, that a shutdown would fall on their shoulders, and they don't want it," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pointed out. The Republicans implicitly agree: "No one wants a shutdown," admitted Press Secretary Sean Spicer. “We want to keep it going."

Ironically, because the Republicans now have all the power, they have no leverage. Democrats can just keep saying "no" to everything, and the GOP doesn't really have any recourse. If Democrats' intransigence results in a shutdown, it's the Republicans who will pay the political price.

There's no way out of this impasse for the GOP. It really all rests on just how mean and merciless Democrats want to be with their opponents. (Fortunately for the GOP, the Democrats do appear to be of a fundamentally softer constitution on this score.)

McConnell is a political genius: He discovered something that's close to an iron law of American politics — a predictable structural reality to how voters process information about who among their leaders is to blame for outcomes. And for eight years, he and the Republicans exploited it ruthlessly.

But now that they've won back the White House, that iron law is still in effect.

What's it they say about karma again?

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