J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
As I write this, there is still no deal on the shutdown or debt limit. I can't predict what will happen over the weekend, but I can comment on how this all came to be.
When the end of the fiscal year approached, just ahead of the date when we hit the debt limit, polls showed that a majority of Americans disapproved of Obamacare and some Republicans thought the time and circumstances were ripe to force its "defunding." Many conservative voices, including some very seasoned political observers, disagreed, saying it would be a very bad move politically, but they were ignored and the confrontation came.
The doubters were right. The strategy shifted the public's attention away from the shortcomings of Obamacare over to a discussion of the merits of the government shutdown, stepping on the original message. Obamacare's troublesome start on Oct. 1, which validated Republican arguments that it is a very poorly written law, went virtually unnoticed because public opinion hated the shutdown more than it hated Obamacare. Most of the blame for the situation has been attributed to Republicans. Yes, the president's approval rating has dropped, but Republican approval numbers have dropped far more.
The decision to force a shutdown violated one of the first rules of politics, going all the way back to Machiavelli: "Exploit the inevitable." When something is certain to happen, you should use it, however you can, to your own advantage.
Initially, that's what the Republicans were doing with Obamacare. It is one of the most unpopular laws passed in recent memory, a subject many Democrats do not want to talk about. It was inevitable that its implementation would be full of difficulties and expose its many weaknesses. Focusing on those weaknesses would have provided Republican candidates an issue around which they could build an effective campaign in 2014.
However, by forcing a shutdown in an attempt to kill Obamacare now rather than later, House Republicans went from exploiting the inevitable to ignoring it. They were warned; time and again they were told, "There is no way Democrats can lose this fight. They control both the Senate and the White House. Opposition to a default comes from a united front of business leaders and economic experts who are appalled at the thought of it. You don't have the votes to win and you'll get blamed for whatever goes wrong."
That is how it has played out. The Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, filibuster was good political theater — the "Green Eggs and Ham" bit will be remembered for a long time — but in the end, when the vote was taken, even Cruz voted with Harry Reid. His efforts were an empty gesture and did nothing to help Republicans. The polls are reporting record-high disapproval levels, and the shutdown strategy is hurting them in this year's campaigns.
Take Virginia, where the Republican candidate for governor is Ken Cuccinneli, a tea party darling and loud critic of Obamacare. Trailing a mediocre Democratic opponent by about eight points, Cuccineneli is now trying to catch up by distancing himself from national Republicans. He has criticized the shutdown and had "a scheduling conflict" when Sen. Cruz came to the state, thus avoiding the possibility of having a picture of the two of them appear in the morning papers. Democratic ads are gleefully doing their best to tie them together.
Thirty days is a long time in politics; a year is an eternity. There may well be no lingering after-effects of the present whirlwind. At the moment, however, it appears that the Republicans have shot themselves in the foot.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
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