After the Republican Party won big in the midterm elections, National Review published an editorial, “The Governing Trap,” arguing that the new GOP Congress should not even bother trying to govern. “The desire to prove Republicans can govern also makes them hostage to their opponents in the Democratic party and the media,” they wrote. Liberals mocked the article, but it was exactly right: With divided government, there’s no chance that major legislation will pass.
Instead, National Review argued that Republicans should focus on winning the White House in 2016 and laying the groundwork for a conservative agenda. “That means being a responsible party, to be sure, just as the conventional wisdom has it,” they wrote. In other words, enough with the shutdown fights and debt ceiling brinksmanship.
Less than four months later, the Republican Party had its first opportunity to prove it’s responsible—and it failed miserably. The same political dynamics that led to the 2013 government shutdown and past debt ceiling fights nearly led to a shutdown at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Republicans have not heeded National Review’s advice—and it could have major consequences for 2016.
On Friday, Republicans scrambled to avoid a shutdown at DHS, hoping to use the funding deadline as leverage to block President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration. They tried to pass a bill that would keep DHS open for another three weeks, but it failed by a 203 to 224 vote. Democrats opposed it, demanding instead a “clean” bill that would fund DHS through the remainder of the 2015 fiscal year (September 30). With time running out late Friday night, the Republican leadership settled on a one-week funding bill. But due to parliamentary rules, it needed a two-thirds supermajority to pass—in other words, it needed significant Democratic support. Those votes weren’t going to come cheap. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged her members to support the bill, but in return, House Speaker John Boehner reportedly promised her a vote on a clean funding bill next week. The bill sailed to passage, 357-60. Crisis averted, at least for seven more days.
This entire debacle has been embarrassing for House Republicans. But it is going to get much worse, for a couple of reasons. First, there are rumors that conservatives will try to oust Boehner if he allows a vote on a clean DHS funding bill, as he is likely to do. But there’s no logical candidate to replace him and no one on the far right could garner nearly enough support. Such a fight would almost certainly worsen intraparty division and hurt the GOP overall in the polls.
Second, all things considered, this was a low stakes fight. If DHS had shut down, it wouldn’t have put the U.S.’s national security at risk because all essential personnel are required to continue working without pay even during shutdowns—and around 85 percent of DHS personnel are classified as essential. The politics of the shutdown were, of course, terrible for Republicans. But unlike with fights over the debt ceiling, the practical effects of not passing a bill were far less dire.
Third, this isn’t the end of these fights. Congress has to raise the debt ceiling again over the summer and will have to pass a funding bill for the 2016 fiscal year. There’s no reason to think that those fights will go any smoother. If Boehner is still in charge, he’ll have even less trust of his conservative base. If he’s not in charge, well, who knows what the right wing is capable of? We do know that the Republican establishment will not let the U.S. breach the debt ceiling. But the odds are it will be an ugly, scary fight that only further reveals the recklessness of the GOP.
While these standoffs are embarrassing for the GOP, the electoral ramifications may not be particularly high right now. The 2016 presidential elections are still more than 20 months away. It’s hard to imagine that any voter will be influenced by the past few day’s events. Even the 2013 government shutdown, which sent Republican approval ratings shooting downwards, did not seem to inflict any lasting political damage on the GOP.1
But unless Republicans find a way to avoid these fights over the next 20 months, their electoral ramifications are going to become more and more costly. The Republican primary will only exacerbate the differences between the establishment and conservative base. If Senator Ted Cruz spends the summer denouncing the debt ceiling, he will put the rest of the Republican field in a tight spot. Either disagree with Cruz and face the wrath of the GOP primary voter, or agree with him and alienate moderates who are repulsed by those legislative tactics. Neither option is good.
What’s their best strategy going forward? For one, they should try to kick the debt ceiling and government funding fights past the 2016 presidential election. The less Cruz can use the debt ceiling for his own personal politics, the better. That was the smartest thing the GOP did in the run up to the midterms. The Murray-Ryan budget, which was agreed upon at the end of 2013, set top line spending numbers for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. That meant there was no big spending fight at the end of September last year, as the election approached. In February 2014, Congress also raised the debt ceiling so that it would not expire until 2015, once again eliminating it as an issue in the election year.
But that may be difficult to do. Hard line conservatives hated both the Murray-Ryan deal and the clean debt ceiling bill. If Boehner keeps his job after the DHS fight, it’s hard to imagine that the far right wouldn’t revolt if he brought up for a vote a two-year spending bill and clean debt ceiling bill. He could also completely ignore the far right’s demands. Democrats have been pleading with him to do that for years. Pelosi might even offer the votes necessary for Boehner to keep his speakership. Undoubtedly, that appeals to Boehner. But it also doesn’t make much sense for the establishment to wage a full-out war against the base as the 2016 cycle gets underway. There’s no way that ends well.
There is one other thing Boehner could do to regain credibility with the base: allow DHS to shut down. That's unlikely; if he wanted to do so, he would’ve have done it on Friday night. But as I noted above, a DHS shutdown wouldn’t actually be that bad for the country. Instead, it would be bad for the Republican Party, at least in the short-term. The public outcry would eventually force the GOP to capitulate. But even so, it would be very good for Boehner, who would be praised by the Republican base for his willingness to fight the administration.
When the debt ceiling and government funding deadlines come up later this year, maybe he would have earned enough credibility from the DHS shutdown to kick both fights past the 2016 presidential elections—the theory being that if they win the White House, Republicans will be in a much better negotiating position. If conservative reluctantly agree to that strategy, it could avoid all of these intraparty fights. The GOP could focus on governing responsibly over the next two years.
A politically toxic shutdown, of course, is never a particularly appealing move. But we live in wacky times. A group of influential Republicans is willing to inflict harm on its own party in pursuit of unrealistic goals. Given all of that, a DHS shutdown may be the best strategy they’ve got.
Some conservatives actually think it helped in the midterms. That’s a classic causation-correlation error. Republicans won last year despite the shutdown, not because of it.
A previous version of this article said the government shutdown was in 2012. It was in 2013.