How Republicans won nothing and lost everything in the government shutdown

The Week
The GOP doesn't like what Cruz has wrought.
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The GOP doesn't like what Cruz has wrought.

Two and a half weeks into the government shutdown, and with a disastrous debt default mere hours away, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday finally reached for his one escape lever.

The House on Wednesday is expected to vote on a bipartisan Senate-brokered bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. "We fought the good fight, we just didn't win," Boehner said in announcing he would bring the bill for a vote, which should pass with support from Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Though Republicans originally demanded a steep ransom, the inexorable path to Wednesday's deal wrought havoc on the party brand while delivering them absolutely none of the gleaming prizes they wanted. And plenty in the party told them this is exactly how it would end.

First, the terms of the deal are quite favorable to Democrats. The one concession Republicans won in the deal? The implementation of an income verification system in ObamaCare for people seeking federal subsidies.

Except it's hardly a concession. The health care law originally had similar verification requirements, though the Obama administration in July delayed them to 2015. In short, the GOP will get a minor tweak to the law that was in there in the first place.

At the same time, the deal will force the House and Senate to convene a budget committee to hammer out a new spending agreement. Democrats have been repeatedly asking for just such a committee since at least April.

The GOP's failure to win any concessions is all the more painful when you consider that a different strategy — to be blunt, a sane strategy — could have put real pressure on Democrats.

Before the shutdown, Republicans had a chance to vote for a clean continuing resolution to fund the government through November 15 at the reduced levels mandated by the 2011 debt-limit deal. Instead, the House balked, repeatedly sending the Senate untenable bills attacking ObamaCare.

Had Republicans approved the original "clean" offer, they would have had a second crack at addressing spending within two months, and an untarnished image as they tried to wield the debt ceiling as leverage. By putting all their chips in an utterly futile plan to defund ObamaCare, they squandered both.

While Republicans gained virtually nothing, they will be bleeding from this battle for a long time to come.

Republicans entered 2013 clamoring for a "rebrand" after losing the 2012 election. The shutdown has set that effort back so far that they might as well have rewound the clock to the eve of Mitt Romney's defeat.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey midway through the shutdown found that only one-quarter of Americans had a favorable opinion of the Republican Party, an all-time low. Other polls showed Democrats opening up wide leads in generic balloting, and suggested they could retake the House in 2014.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) told the Washington Post that the GOP's huge slide in polls had allowed the party to recruit a handful of stronger candidates who otherwise would have stayed out.

"In a number of districts we had top-tier, all-star potential candidates who several months ago didn't see a path to victory," he said. "They reopened the doors."

Though Democrats' big polling advantage will likely fade to some degree come 2014, the party is, for now, in good standing heading into the midterm elections, particularly in the Senate, where candidates have to appeal to a wider ideological swathe of voters.

The shutdown fallout could also have an impact next month in Virginia. With the shutdown dragging on, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe pried open a wide lead over Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. McAuliffe aired an ad directly linking his opponent to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the shutdown's architect. And even Cuccinnelli conceded the shutdown was negatively impacting his campaign.

Meanwhile, Cruz has also exposed a deep rift in the congressional GOP between the establishment and the Tea Party. Though conservative members say they won't oust Boehner from his leadership post for caving on the debt ceiling, the House caucus has been left more fractured than ever, with outside conservative groups blasting GOP members unwilling to tank the economy as the "surrender caucus."

That's not even taking into account the huge gulf opening up between House Republicans and Senate Republicans.

Such divisions could spawn fractious primary fights next year. Business groups, concerned with their waning influence with the GOP, have already said they may help finance primary campaigns against Tea Party lawmakers.

Even Republicans, looking back on the carnage that was the shutdown, have begun to admit it was a costly mistake.

"We took some bread crumbs and left an entire meal on the table," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. "This has been a very bad two weeks for the Republican Party."

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