I’m no fan of “winners and losers” breakdowns of complicated fights, because I think they’re simplistic, and I hate getting heavy Internet traffic for my articles. But it would be irresponsible to move on from Shutdown 2013 without remembering how badly the GOP underestimated Barack Obama. The White House said all year that the president would refuse to negotiate on the debt limit. The president himself said this whenever asked. Republicans didn’t buy it.
“Oh, nobody believes that,” said Rep. Paul Ryan in a Sept. 28 interview with National Review. “Nobody believes that. He himself negotiated Bowles Simpson on the debt limit with Democrats. That was Kent Conrad’s requirement. He himself negotiated the Budget Control Act with the debt limit. Graham Rudman [sic]. Bush Andrews Airforce Base. Clinton Gore ‘97. All of those major budget agreements were debt limit agreements. I see this time as no different and I believe he does too. I think most people believe he’s just posturing for now.”
He was not posturing. Republicans failed to appreciate the president’s strengthened position vis-à-vis 2011, when he had lost the House and needed to win re-election. They had a theory that the world had changed since 1995, and the “optics” of a shutdown were changeable. Republicans didn’t realize that Obama was doing his best impression of Rorschach after he gets jailed in Watchmen. He wasn’t locked in with them. Theywere locked in with him.*
Let us also raise our glasses the pundits who completely misread the situation.
– Ron Fournier, Oct. 7: “Why Obama Must Talk to the GOP.”There is the matter of optics. Voters want to believe that their leaders are open-minded, a trait they particularly expect in a president who promised to change the culture of Washington. Obama simply undermines his credibility by stiff-arming the GOP. Their obstinacy is no excuse for his. During the last protracted government shutdown, President Clinton talked almost every day with GOP rivals Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole.”
– Piers Morgan, Oct. 8. “There comes a point, if you’re the President of the United States and it’s your government that shuts down, you’ve got to be the big guy. You want to get in the room and do business.”
– Michael Kinsley, Oct. 10: “Obama Should Just Give in to the Republicans,” an instant classic that ofered the president the cave-in speech he needed to give. “I have sent a letter to Speaker Bohner, saying that I will agree to a year’s postponement of the Affordable Care Act, if he will agree to a rise in the debt limit that is at least big enough to spare us another episode like this for a year. I can’t pretend that this is not a defeat for common sense, good government, and democracy. And if people wish to see it as a defeat for me, so be it. I have more important things to worry about.”
Why were they so wrong? I don’t think they were cynical enough. It was easy for the White House to keep the onus on the party that made demands in order to fund the government, and when the story turned last week, the one-way talks that brought members of Congress to the White House fixed the “optics” problem. There remains no good way for a party in control of Congress to make the president look like an aggressor in a shutdown. I am sure, in the long run, this will be blamed on liberal media bias.
*In this analogy, Ted Cruz is the guy that Rorshach splatters with hot fat. Cruz’s emergence as a foil was a great benefit to Obama. Republicans like John Boehner, and as poorly as the speaker polls, he comes off as a regular guy. None of this is true with Cruz, the champion debater who knows exactly how smart he is.