What Now For House Republicans?

House Republicans are meeting with the White House tonight to try to resolve the current standoff over the partial government shutdown and the debt limit. Republicans are bargaining from a position of severe weakness, due to their misguided decision to try to condition a continuing resolution to fund the first part of FY 2014 on (first) a defunding of Obamacare, and (second) a one-year delay in Obamacare’s implementation. This was a terrible, suicidal decision that apparently was driven by strong pressure from the party’s conservative base.

The Democrats must have been astonished at their good fortune. Government shutdown, here we come! What some conservatives don’t seem to understand is that politics isn’t like war, or football. If you are outnumbered in war, or outmanned in football, you might still prevail due to determination, heroic sacrifice, pluck, willpower, superior strategy, and so on. None of those things work in politics; not between elections, anyway. You need to have the votes. If you don’t have the votes, you can’t win. It really is that simple. So conservatives who kept urging their representatives to fight on in hopes that the Democrats would somehow cave, or perhaps see the light, were making a potentially tragic error.

In Washington, Republicans don’t currently have the votes to defund or delay Obamacare. The House can’t do either of those things on its own. What it can do is force a partial government shutdown by refusing to pass a CR that would fund the whole government, or substantially the whole government. That, inevitably, is what happened, and the result was a disaster for the Republican Party. The polls could hardly be worse. Earlier today, I noted the Gallup poll that shows support for the Republican Party dropping off the cliff. Currently the GOP’s approval rating in the Gallup poll is down to 28%, the lowest ever recorded for either party.

Since then, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has come out that is even worse. The NBC/WSJ survey finds only 24% of respondents having a favorable view of the Republican Party. The Tea Party fares even worse, at 21%. President Obama, meanwhile, has seen his approval rating rise by two points in the last month. Worst of all, NBC/WSJ now finds the Democrats with an eight-point lead in the generic congressional survey, 47/39. All of this is due to the government shutdown. In the NBC/WSJ poll, respondents blame Republicans, rather than President Obama, by 53%-31%. Perhaps most ironic is that the shutdown has caused Obamacare’s popularity to increase, despite the debacle of the exchange rollout. Some people apparently believe that if the Republicans are against Obamacare, it can’t be all bad.

So the House’s attempt to link the continuing resolution to Obamacare has been a disastrous failure. Republicans are now in a “Ransom of Red Chief” situation with respect to the shutdown. Far from getting something in exchange for lifting it, they would probably pay the Democrats to agree to take them off the hook. That is what happens when you pursue a strategy that is foreseeably futile, or worse, from the beginning.

But Republicans do have something to bargain with: the debt ceiling. Unlike Obamacare, the Democrats can’t raise the debt ceiling without the Republican House. The problem here is political. Hysteria generated by Democrats in the media has convinced most people–even some House Republicans, apparently–that failure to raise the debt ceiling would have catastrophic consequences. This is absurd. There wouldn’t be, and can’t be, a default on America’s debt obligations, for reasons I and others have explained many times. When Democrats are confronted with this fact, they immediately change their tune and say that we won’t be able to “pay our bills.” What that means is never explained.

In fact, the effect of maintaining the debt limit where it now stands, at around $17 trillion, would be virtually the same as passing a balanced budget amendment. It wouldn’t do anything about already-incurred debt, but it would require spending to equal revenue on a going-forward basis, just as if we had a balanced budget requirement. If people understood this, it would be easy to sell a refusal to increase the debt limit.

Now, it might be necessary to add a bit of nuance to that basic position. There no doubt are some government contractors who have performed services or supplied goods for which they have not been paid. To the extent that it may be necessary to borrow to pay those already-incurred obligations, fine: the amounts can be estimated and the House can agree to increase the debt limit by that relatively tiny amount. Then the government will be able to “pay its bills.” But going forward, there will be no alternative but to cut spending. That will bring the Democrats to the table, because they will have no choice. Absent further Congressional action, entitlements will be paid and the cuts will all come out of discretionary spending, which the Democrats prize. So they will have to bargain in a meaningful way for a budget that includes real entitlement reform and deep spending cuts. Otherwise, the Republicans can just say no. That’s the great thing about the debt limit: here, unlike the shutdown, the Republicans aren’t bluffing. Not only do they have the votes–they only need the House to block any increase–they have voter sentiment on their side. A clear majority of voters wants to see significant cuts in federal spending in conjunction with any action on the debt ceiling.

One wonders, however, whether Republicans have so fouled the water with their ill-advised position on the CR that they are unable to capitalize on their advantage with respect to the debt ceiling. Frankly, that may well be the case. Perhaps the best thing the Republicans can do at the moment is throw in the towel on the shutdown and agree to a “clean” CR in exchange for whatever small kernels they might be able to get, and then try to focus as much attention on the debt ceiling as possible. It will take some time to educate the public on what maintaining the existing debt limit (or something very close to it) really means, i.e., not default but a balanced budget. So kicking the debt limit can down the road a month or two, until most voters have, perhaps, gotten over their disgust with the GOP, could be a good idea. Remember, this is entirely in the Republicans’ hands: the Democrats can’t raise the debt ceiling without them.

Not until 2015, anyway. By rights, just about everything going on politically these days should be about the 2014 election. With divided government in Washington, the Obama administration knew that it wouldn’t be able to get anything significant through Congress. Any “progress” the Left wanted to make would have to be accomplished through administrative regulation. Of course, the Republicans wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything, either. Congress would be deadlocked until the 2014 election.

As of two or three weeks ago, there was close to zero chance of the Democrats re-taking the House, and most observers thought the Republicans had a good opportunity to pick up the six seats they need to control the Senate. The GOP may have blown that chance on account of the shutdown disaster, and when the dust settles, it may be that the Democrats have a realistic shot at taking the House. If the vote were held tomorrow, I suspect that they would do so. The shutdown was a terrible self-inflicted wound from which we can only hope that the GOP, and the conservative movement, will be able to recover–with luck, and if Republicans play their cards right on the debt limit, in time for next year’s election.