No Shutdown Doesn’t Mean No Problems

Why aren’t Republicans worried they’ll get in trouble for not governing?

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The House GOP leadership reportedly feels confident that they've defused the fanatical right's push for a government shutdown fight over defunding Obamacare. The leaders apparently think that shutting down the government is, as a general matter, a bad idea because it tends to irritate voters who want those elected to govern to actually, you know, govern.

This prompts  Greg Sargent to wonder why the GOP doesn't get in more trouble for its general refusal to govern. The short answer, I think, is that Republicans think voters aren't paying attention.

Sargent cites a new report from NRO's Robert Costa outlining the House GOP leaders' plans to avoid a shutdown and continue the battle to derail Obamacare. The latest idea: Demand an Obamacare delay in exchange for raising the debt ceiling (a legislative version of "delay Obamacare or the economy gets it"). Costa quotes veteran GOP pollster David Winston as saying that the GOP wants to avoid a shutdown because people expect them to govern.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

Sargent writes:

The idea appear[s] to be that staging a shutdown to force the destruction of Obamacare — rather than offering an alternative — constitutes a failure to govern. But if that is so, why is not doing everything Republicans can to sabotage the law short of pushing for a shutdown, while offering no alternative, also a failure to govern?

I would think the answer is fairly obvious: A government shutdown is a high-profile and very unusual event and one that generally involves a fairly clear villain. If there's a shutdown, it's because one side is being obstinate – to wit, if House Republicans refuse to pass a bill to keep the government open without simultaneously defunding an existing law, they'll be responsible for it regardless of how many times they claim that it's Obama's fault because he refuses to go along with their demands.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

On the other hand, everything else the GOP is doing to make sure the law doesn't work – from refusing to work on bills which would correct its faults to refusing to accept federal funding for a Medicaid expansion ( Jonathan Chait has a great rundown of these tactics) – is not as eye-catching as a shutdown and falls into a different media narrative, one of generalized congressional gridlock. If Congress can't pass a bill which would, to take an example from Chait, fix the law so it doesn't force many church health insurance plans to disband, it's easy to ascribe it to generalized gridlock (a pox on both their houses!) rather than GOP obstinacy in the larger context of a refusal to cooperate with the very routine legislative work of trying to fix a law's problems.

Political junkies understand what the GOP is up to. But the party is gambling that medium- and low-information voters who couldn't help but notice a shutdown won't bother themselves with the ins and outs of daily governance (or lack thereof).

It seems a safe bet in the short term, but we'll see whether voters figure it out as they actually start to tune in and get ready to vote next year.