Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Break the Fever" Is Futile -- Especially For Boehner

I said this over at Greg's place yesterday (and just now another version of it on twitter), but I sort of buried it in the post, and so I want to highlight it properly:
[T]he key thing to know about a shutdown is that it will end. Maybe after a day; maybe after a month. It will end, and it will end with something that both Boehner (and mainstream conservatives) and Obama (and mainstream liberals) can live with. And at that point, there is nothing more certain in this world than that radical “conservatives” will believe that if only Boehner  and Congressional Republicans had held out a little while longer, Obama would have surrendered and Republicans would have won a total victory.

So a shutdown (or a debt limit breach) has to end with Boehner (supposedly) selling out conservatives, and doing it with far more press coverage and attention than he would get from (again, supposedly) selling them out before a shutdown by cutting a deal. That’s a disaster for him — and, on the other side of the Capitol, for Mitch McConnell — and one he’ll work hard to avoid.
This is in response to Noam Scheiber, who thinks that it makes sense for Boehner to accept a shutdown because it will force Republicans to come to their senses (see also Brian Beutler today).

What I think is that the bulk of the Republican conference already knows that a shutdown won't achieve the goal of rolling back health care reform; that's the sense, for example, from reporting within the conservative press about hostility to Ted Cruz. In fact, they believe it will be a disaster, but they feel pressured to go along anyway.

The problem is that nothing about actually going through with it is likely to help.

"Break the fever" was a bad idea when Barack Obama believed in it (or perhaps he just claimed to believe in it); it's a bad idea now. The isn't some easily-shattered illusion. It's a very successful enterprise. It's not something that a clever strategy can solve; it's just part of what politicians have to work around and muddle through.

The only good news is that I'm pretty sure Boehner knows all that. It might not be enough to prevent a debacle, but it's something.


  1. Excellent post, thank-you. When you have time, I'd be interested in your thoughts about Jonathan Chait's latest piece framing this as a legitimacy crisis, rather than traditional political maneuvering. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/09/obama-republicans-and-the-crisis-of-legitimacy.html

  2. Resolved, then: the GOP is not primarily a political party pursuing policy, influence, and political power. It is a short-term fundraising scam creating, sustaining, and exploiting easy marks. It is not legitimate to call on GOP leaders to use their influence to stop the creation of easy marks.

  3. I believe it was Ronald Coase who said that if a wealth-killing regulation was being passed that would cost $1bn per year, and an economist managed to delay its implementation by just two weeks, he would have more than justified his lifetime salary.

    By the same token, if Republicans legislators can "shut down the government" (and no, defunding the government will not actually shut down most of its functions) for just a month, they will have more than justified their salaries. How Democrat legislators can justify theirs is left as an exercise for the reader.

    1. Thanks for your comment. What exactly will Republican legislators have accomplished if they shut down the government and don't repeal of Obamacare?

      (P.S. Sorry to play "grammar police", but the second word in your final sentence should be "Democratic".)

    2. So, anon, let me see if I understand. A futile, short-lived gesture is all fine and good, and is what we are paying our legislators for? You seem to be for pyrrhic victories as though they were real victories. Do I need to add that this makes no sense?

    3. Shut down government for just a month? What a squish. It's people like Anon who've ruined this once great country and turned it into a fourth world hellhole.

    4. Thanks for your comment. What exactly will Republican legislators have accomplished if they shut down the government and don't repeal of Obamacare?

      They will have saved the American taxpayer one month's worth of needless expenditures. I know it's only a drop in the ocean, but something is better than nothing. By and large, I see the job of Republicans as being a long, doomed fight in defence of civilisation against the forces of the-word-I-can't-say. I have no reason to doubt that Bernstein is right and Republicans will have to cave eventually, so they may as well save the taxpayer as much money as possible in each skirmish on our path to barbarism.

      (P.S. Sorry to play "grammar police", but the second word in your final sentence should be "Democratic".)

      No, it really, really shouldn't.

    5. Ah, so you meant to both insult and misinform!

      A one month furlough will only save on government employee salaries (from the non-protected employees, so not military, or postal, or public safety, or....).

      An estimate I've seen is that total wage and benefit costs for executive branch employees is 7% of the budget.

      So, 1/12th of 7% is.... 0.58% of the budget. It's not a drop in the ocean. It really and truly is not that different from nothing. In so doing, it leads to a really terrible decline in the value of the services provided. At some point, wouldn't you rather pay 100% to get some service versus 99.42% to get much, much worse service? Service doesn't decline by 0.58%...it declines for one month by a lot more than that, and your dealings with government will be screwed up for months to come. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the economic harm from shutting down the government for a month, in fact, causes MORE damage to the deficit keeping it open would have. Businesses will not be able to make some profits because their permits got delayed. Government employees won't spend money on lots of stuff. The list goes on. I imagine an economist could suss out what the ultimate effects might be on the government's bottom line; I think it's very likely much less than 0.58%, and really think a terrible decline in value provided by the government isn't worth it.

    6. @Matt, you're arguing in vain with someone who thinks that the US is doomed anyway, but that the GOP are noble for waging the hopeless fight. This guy is steeped in a fantasy world of political good and evil, so isn't susceptible to rational argument.

    7. Last time the government shut down for just about a month in 1995-1996, all federal employees were still paid because it would have cost more money NOT to pay them due to administrative costs, etc. So, the argument from Anon is illogical on its face.

    8. It won't save any money because most of the expenses will just be delayed, until the shutdown is over. GOP can accomplish something with a shutdown, and I am surprised Bernstein didn't identify it. At present it is merely a conjecture that Republicans will be blamed for the shutdown and that they will pay an electoral price. It is quite possible that once a shutdown is put into place polls will not give clear-cut evidence of electoral disaster for Republicans in which case they have every incentive to continue the shutdown until the Democrats yield. If it turns out that House Republicans see convincing evidence that they could well pay an electoral price they can always pass a clean CR. They won't have to vote for it, all they need do is allow Boehner to bring it to a vote. Seems to me the risk is small and they can learn something useful.

      Given a choice between allowing Obamacare and a Democratic House, I think Republicans will chose the former. But if they *don't* face such an outcome, then why not?

  4. I wish there was more reporting on the so-called GOP Establishment. Some reporters get plenty of off-the-record quotations that various high-level GOP party actors are really annoyed by or genuinely hate Cruz, the Tea Party, etc. But then we hear precious little about whether these closet relative moderates are doing any substantive organizing to quash the wackos or out-of-control grifters. At what point do those dogs bark?

    It seems to me that if I were Boehner and his well-connected, exasperated aides, I would be working behind-the-scenes with key media elites, business groups, and party funding apparatuses to assure cowardly GOP representatives that they will have tons of primary funding to flatten challengers, thus it's OK to vote with Boehner against these fantastical schemes.

  5. I doubt the fever can be broken. Too many people making too much money in the fight to ever let it go.
    The outrage has to be sustained or the donations and book sales drop.

  6. There's not really a 'fever' to break - most of the Representatives do drink the 'tea' and have been raised on the idea that all government (except the military) is evil. They don't understand the economy, and they don't understand the value of public services. They are not interested in legislating, aside from specific requests of their individual donors (typically less regulations and taxes on the rich), aside from that they are only interested in 'scoring points' against their opponents.
    Aside from reflexively opposing anything proposed by a Democrat, they don't have an idea of what they are supposed to be doing.
    And so the democratic party has the unenviable role of explaining that the Republican proposals are insane and their continued control of the house is dangerous to the Republic, as it results in the sabotage of the sequester and threatened sabotage of shutdowns and unnecessary debt defaults.


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