Why a government shutdown could be rational

Why a government shutdown could be rational

By Jim Tankersley September 18 at 12:50 PM

Republicans don’t think much of President Obama as a negotiator, but when it comes to a potential government shutdown, many might admit he holds a winning hand. That’s because he seemed to trounce them in the last shutdown, in 2013, which lasted 16 days before GOP leaders admitted defeat. The party emerged with no progress on defunding or delaying Obamacare, and its lowest approval rating ever recorded by Gallup.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate see no reason to think a shutdown this year would be any different. They’re waving polls at their members, warning that the public will blame their party – and endanger vulnerable GOP candidates next year – if conservatives make good on their vows not to pass further spending bills if they don’t strip funding for Planned Parenthood.

Senate Democrats would assuredly filibuster any measures to defund Planned Parenthood, and Obama would veto them if they somehow cleared Congress. The government would shut down. History suggests there’s no reason to believe it would open again until Republicans relented.

Those facts add up to a strong incentive for Republican leaders to oppose a shutdown. The only way to reverse that incentive would be to make a case for why this negotiation would go differently for the GOP – why Obama would fold when he hasn’t in the past, or why the public would blame Democrats for a shutdown. That’s basically what Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire challenged Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is urging Republicans not to compromise over Planned Parenthood, to do in a letter this week.

Cruz, though, has a strong incentive to do the opposite of what GOP leaders want. He’s running for president in a crowded field. Right now he doesn’t need to appeal to the broad electorate – he needs Republican primary voters. And those voters are basically split on the question of whether to shut down over Planned Parenthood, according to a recent CNN/ORC poll (as opposed to Democrats and independents, who overwhelmingly oppose a shutdown).

Cruz has been telling those voters that Republican leadership folds too easily, and that the Planned Parenthood fight can be won, and so it is in his interest to keep waging it. The same is true of a large fraction of the House Republican caucus: those members hailing from solidly conservative districts who worry more about a primary challenge from the right than losing a general election.

In other words, forcing a shutdown is entirely rational for Cruz and those conservative members, even if it hurts their party overall.

If history is a guide, the big question isn’t which set of incentives will win out – it’s when. Republican leaders are aligned with Democrats in wanting to keep funding flowing to the government. Two years ago, every Democrat in the House joined with a minority share of Republicans to pass an Obama-GOP leadership spending deal and end the shutdown. That appears to be the most likely outcome this time around, too, unless Cruz and co. can persuade a huge number of their colleagues that they have a plan to force Obama to blink.

It is true, as some of those conservatives have argued, that Republicans’ poll numbers rebounded from their plunge after the last shutdown. It’s also true that this year, the party’s approval ratings have been sliding, long before any talk of a spending standoff reached most voters.

Jim Tankersley covers economic policy for The Post. He’s from Oregon, and he misses it.

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