A lot of reporting on the shutdown has focused on the irrationality of the GOP position on several fronts: first, the irrationality of their demands; second, their shifting targets; and third, how the GOP has become a party of petty extortionists. I think all of these approaches miss the point when a much simpler explanation is available. It’s easy to rationalize Ted Cruz’s and the House GOP’s actions if you guess that they don’t actually want the government open.
Or, simplified, this is the situation everyone seems to be imagining:
Both sides want an open government, each side has some sort of binary issue it cares about that the other hates, there’s an issue of degree where there’s room for each side to give a little, and a deal looks not only possible but likely. If this were your starting position, you’d be very confused about why Republicans seem uninterested in making “reasonable” demands.
If, however, this is more appropriate:
…we have a much more challenging situation. There’s nothing both sides want, and since an open government is something only Democrats want (and it’s not unreasonable to think of an open government as the biggest thing on their list of demands), it requires a roughly comparable concession in order for both sides to feel like they’ve gotten something. If Democrats don’t understand that they’re the only side that wants an open government, they will continue fundamentally to misunderstand what the GOP is up to.
But why the House GOP would want a closed government probably requires some explanation. I have two. First, the GOP still labors under the myth of ever-expanding government payrolls and expenditures, while neither of these appears to be accelerating:
It hasn’t mattered at any point during the recession whether this myth was true. If this is the world in which the GOP lives and both need to be cut, a government shutdown gives them larger reductions of federal employment and expenditure than any deal they could possibly extract.
Second, inasmuch as Ted Cruz is proud of pissing off everyone he didn’t “push into traffic and walk away” from, there’s little reason to believe that he has any plan related to actual policy. It’s inane, posture-heavy and substance-light, but if Cruz is contemplating his future as a non-Senate candidate, this is an episode he can point to in which he “broke with the Washington establishment” or something equally hollow. Further, election season is a long time and probably at least one more debt ceiling crisis away. If Anthony Weiner can make a serious push for NY Mayor, I don’t know why we’d expect serious long-term consequences for Cruz, while, with the benefit of some distance in time, he can probably spin his intransigence into “principle.”
There’s a possible third reason in which Rs just want to throw 800,000 employed people — or about 5 months of average job growth — out of the labor force for a lil bit in an effort to keep things awful for the 2014 midterms, but that sounds almost evil, so I’m going to leave that one.
None of this suggests irrational behavior. The Republicans responsible for the shutdown are less baffled by the way public opinion has turned against them than they are preoccupied with furious masturbation to their destructive fantasies. There’s no reason to believe that explaining the political realities of the shutdown to them will change anything, because they aren’t concerned about the political realities (and they already know). The assumption here that the obstructionists don’t know what they’re doing is lazy and destructive to good analysis, and deals predicated on the belief that Democrats and (radical) Republicans want one of the same things will invariably fail unless Boehner and a collection of Senate Republicans in an instant take back control of their party.