We already know the next two acts of this drama. The Senate will refuse to accept the latest disingenuous House offer of allowing temporary government funding in exchange for a one-year delay in implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Barring a miracle, the government will then be forced to cease all non-emergency operations as of midnight tonight.
We also know that at some point, the government will have to re-open, and that Republicans will have to relent on their fantasy of destroying Obamacare. The Republicans picked the president's signature achievement, the one issue on which he can't be rolled. But what will be their price for allowing the government to function?
On budget issues, President Obama has a very unfortunate history of needless cave-ins, most recently in the "fiscal cliff" deal of last January, when all of the Bush tax cuts were scheduled to expire. Obama had most of the leverage, because if Congress did nothing, taxes would increase on everyone. In that bargaining, he settled for very modest tax hikes on the richest, but allowed Social Security taxes on working people to rise by two full percentage points. The bargain was such a windfall for Republicans that Grover Norquist, the enforcer of the no-tax-hike-pledge, quietly urged Republicans to take the deal.
What will happen this time? Republicans, in their besotted zeal, have thrown one demand after another into the stew.
Late last week, the list included: Allow the Keystone XL Pipeline to proceed; fast-track authority to slash taxes; more unregulated offshore oil and gas production; more energy exploration on federal lands; roll back regulations on coal ash; reverse EPA regulations on greenhouse gas production; eliminate a $23 billion for orderly dissolution of failed major banks; cut funding of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, limit medical malpractice lawsuits and increase means testing for Medicare.
This Christmas-in-September wish list was withdrawn, temporarily, in favor of the "last-chance" offer that the House Republicans sent to the Senate to keep government open in exchange for "only" a one-year delay in ObamaCare.
But the Christmas list will be back. And the risk is that Republicans, as they walk back their extremist demand to destroy the Affordable Care Act, will portray their reversal as a huge concession, difficult for their lunatic base to accept, blah, blah, blah, and will demand good-faith concessions from the Democrats in return. Their entire wish list will be on the table again.
And here, Obama's own history suggests that he can indeed be rolled. Already on the table is a disguised cut in Social Security via a needless slowdown of the annual cost of living adjustment--the so-called chained CPI (don't ask.) How did that concession get there? It was in Obama's own budget, a bone to appease deficit hawks and Republicans.
We can see how well that tactic of advance concessions worked. It hasn't even been mentioned in the keep-the-government-open negotiations, because it is already taken as a given. Thank you very much, Mr. President, what else do you have for us? Yum.
The great shutdown drama of 2013 should be a slam-dunk win for Democrats. The Republican extremism grows nuttier and more unrealistic by the day. The one other time Republicans tried this stunt, under House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995-96, Republicans got their clocks cleaned by President Clinton. Government reopened, and Clinton did not give away the store. And not until the arrival of Tea Party control of the House in 2011 did any party try to make legislative or ideological gains by threating to repudiate America's national debt.
This time, however, Republicans have sown just enough confusion that they may suffer only temporary losses in their popularity in exchange for legislative gains. President Obama's approval ratings are down into the low-forties. Polls show that most Americans don't want the government to shut down, and that they will blame Republicans more than Democrats or their president if the shutdown occurs.
On the other hand, a majority of those polled say they disapprove of Obamacare. People support its individual provisions -- expanded Medicaid, broadened access to affordable coverage, no insurance denial for pre-existing conditions, coverage of young adults on their parents' insurance up to age 26. But the law is so complex, with accurate reports of glitches in its implementation and the connection between the law and the increased erosion of employer-provided coverage that the Republican demand for a one-year delay doesn't seem crazy on its face. Unless, of course, you have been following the increasingly cynical Republican tactical maneuvering. But most Americans haven't.
If only the president's health reform had been a simple, easy-to-understand expansion of Medicare. If only it had at least included an option to buy into Medicare, the so-called public option. All that is a lament for another day. But the back story of Obama's declining popularity, public confusion over the Affordable Care, and Obama's fall in the approval ratings suggest that a battle that should be an easy win for Democrats could end up as a political draw, with Democrats ending up sacrificing other core goals in order to save Obamacare.
Hanging tough against the right's goofy opportunism -- and not just on the Affordable Care Act -- will prevent that outcome. Heaven knows, the president should have learned that lesson by now. The Republicans are split between the far fringe and conservatives who still have some tenuous grip on reality. Those divisions can and should be exploited.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is the hero of the hour for bluntly calling out Republicans on their extremism and cynicism, and holding together his entire 54-senator caucus to hang tough. In the next round, he and other Democrats will need to hang just as tough -- both with Republicans and with their president.
Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos.
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