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Republicans Are Holding Themselves Hostage

They're threatening a government shutdown—against their own party.

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The comeback strategy Republicans adopted after back-to-back election wipeouts in the 2006 midterms and Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 drew heavily on two relentless tactics:

First, GOP leaders promised to reward their core supporters with unrealistic bounties once they returned to power;

Second, they attempted to extort those concessions from unwilling Democrats using procedurally extreme legislative maneuvers.

These two tactics seesawed over the course of the Obama era. When the second failed to yield significant victories, Republicans returned to the first one. They won back the House in 2010 on the strength of a wildly ambitious agenda, after which they took the debt limit hostage and made good on very little of it. When they failed to reclaim the Senate in 2012, they shut down the government in a bid to defund Obamacare. When it failed, predictably, they said real progress would have to wait until they were given unified control of government, and were rewarded with the Senate in 2014 and finally, last year, the presidency.

It is perhaps because these tactics didn’t lastingly backfire that Republicans have decided not to revise them, even as their ultimate purpose has been achieved. To put this another way, after years of failing to extract concessions from Democrats by threatening to harm the country, Republicans are now repurposing those same threats to extort themselves.

This is less “crazy like a fox,” than just plain crazy. But it is what’s happening. Much as their Obama-era hostage-taking grew out of a desperation to make good on false promises, Republicans’ lack of consensus today leaves them no choice but to admit defeat or turn their strategy inward.

In a lengthy interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, President Donald Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, laid the groundwork for a near-term government shutdown and an eventual collision with the debt limit by saying, in essence, that the administration is prepared to endure them if Congress won’t give the administration what it wants. The catch, of course, is that Congress is controlled by Mulvaney’s own party.

“[L]apses in funding used to be fairly typical,” Mulvaney said, later adding that “we’re going to raise the debt ceiling. But we’re going to have to do it as part and parcel of a larger thing to try and solve and resolve some of our debt problems.”

Mulvaney’s proximate goal, according to Politico, is to insist that government funding legislation include language denying federal funds to sanctuary cities, which refuse to cooperate with the federal government in detaining undocumented immigrants. Should Republicans adopt this language, they will place Trump’s government on a glide path to a shutdown and, eventually, to dealing Trump himself a defeat on the issue. Republicans will need Democratic votes to fund their government, and Democrats will not provide them under threat. Either before the government shuts down or after, the measure will have to be withdrawn.

This kind of nihilistic maximalism turns out to be an ineffective legislative strategy, in general. Its political usefulness from 2009-2017 stemmed from the effect it had on right-wing voters, who were primed (both by the promises they’d been sold, and the media they consume) to believe their elected representatives were selling them out.

The difference now is that when the brinkmanship fails, they will have run out of excuses for failing to deliver. That usefulness has expired.

Leverage is an important concept in politics, but it generally stems from being able to offer things of value, and to make credible threats. Having the power to withhold basic government services, or melt down the economy, creates the illusion of leverage, but the threat isn’t ultimately credible because the political cost of causing great harm can be severe. When Democrats refused to budge, Republicans descended into infighting like clockwork.

And yet Democrats now have less incentive to bargain, because they control nothing. The government Republicans are threatening to shut down is Trump’s.

It’d all be pretty amusing if the medium term risks weren’t so great. The country can endure a protracted government shutdown as it did in 1995, and again four years ago. It is less clear how well we’ll all fare if Republicans don’t learn from the coming shutdown fight, and threaten themselves with defaulting on the national debt.

During Obama’s presidency, Republicans’ strategy was a bit like attempting a holdup with a gun pointed at their own heads; today it’s more like trying to rob a bank with explosives strapped to their chest—except it’s their bank.