10/07/2013 09:02 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The War Between the Republicans, Week 2

I've been saying for approximately a year now that the Republican Party is engaging in an increasingly escalating civil war amongst themselves. For a long time, this intraparty struggle was really only visible to those who pay very close attention to politics. But now the American public at large is seeing what the wonks have been watching for months, because it really is impossible to ignore the magnitude of the Republican government shutdown and the looming default of the full faith and credit of the United States of America. As we enter the second week of what could be called "The War Between The Republicans," it's going to become more and more evident that Republicans truly have no idea what they want out of their manufactured crisis, and that the voices of sanity within the party (such as they are) are upping the pressure on John Boehner to find a way out -- any way out -- of this mess.

There's no doubt that the people outside the Beltway are angry with Congress right now. But the question within the hallowed halls of Congress is whether the public will even remember this anger one year from now during the midterm elections, and how that anger will translate inside the voting booth. In other words, the same old story for politicians: their own self-interest in keeping their jobs. Democrats are busy polling to bolster their case that the longer the shutdown goes on, the bigger the chances that they'll take over control of the House of Representatives next year. John Boehner himself warned his caucus a few weeks back that a shutdown could indeed hand the House to Democrats, but they didn't listen.

That's all to be expected. Political parties routinely use the fear of what the voters will think in upcoming elections as leverage against their opponents. But Democrats aren't going to convince House Republicans on their own, because many of these Republicans live with such an insulated worldview that they refuse to believe polling until the day after an electoral defeat (see: Karl Rove, election night 2012).

But the real news is what is happening inside the Republican Party. Because it seems that some establishment Republicans have had enough and are beginning to push back. In a handful of districts now held by ultra-right Tea Partiers, moderate primary challengers are emerging as a form of backlash. Republican House members are being challenged not from more-pure Tea Party candidates, but the other way around -- by centrists who decry the Tea Party's tactics as unproductive and unhelpful to actually governing. This trend, so far, is tiny. But it could signal a return to some degree of sanity even within gerrymandered Republican districts, so it is worth keeping an eye on. But it likely won't change any Tea Partiers' behavior until a few of them get "primaried" out of office, which can't happen until next year.

More interestingly, it seems that the big-money Republican donors are getting a little upset with their investments in politicians. Big Business normally welcomes a good free-for-all donnybrook in Washington, because in normal times nothing ever gets accomplished as a result and the public's attention is distracted. But when the fight threatens the financial system that Big Business relies upon for profits, then it becomes a different story. Now, it's hard to feel sorry for Wall Street pouring money into extremist politicians and then later being dismayed that the extremists don't toe their line. They have created this monster, and are now suffering the consequences. But, again, most politicians are most afraid of being kicked out of office, and the news that big donors may withhold their money next year should be sending a shiver down the spine of the Republican Party establishment.

So far, there have been a few dozen House Republicans who already appear convinced that the shutdown strategy isn't working. They've expressed guarded support for a "clean continuing resolution" bill which would end the shutdown immediately, without any Obamacare extortion. But their support has been downright timid, to date. None of them have been openly calling for John Boehner to hold such a vote. None have signed on to Democratic efforts to force such a vote. In fact, a procedural vote was held last week on a clean bill, but the Republicans held firm and even though Democrats fully supported it, it was defeated. So while some Republicans feel free to state in a news interview that they'd vote for a clean bill, they are not directly calling Boehner out to hold one, they refuse to sign a piece of paper forcing one, and they'll vote against such a bill on procedural grounds. That's pretty guarded support indeed.

Democrats are confident that they could win such a floor vote. After Boehner flatly stated over the weekend that the he was sure that the votes didn't exist to pass a clean bill, President Obama called his bluff by saying, essentially, "prove it!" to Boehner. Hold the vote, John, and let's see where the chips may fall (in other words). But Boehner is in too deep to cave, at this point. He's not going to hold such a vote until he can extract some sort of face-saving measure. Doing so would be seen as total capitulation to Nancy Pelosi (which is seen as nothing short of the kiss of death within the Republican Party).

The only question now -- which is an all-consuming question, as we enter Week 2 of the Republican shutdown -- is what Boehner will consider to be sufficiently face-saving in order to break the logjam. Democrats recoil in horror over the concept of tossing Boehner any sort of bone at this point, because they believe they are in the right and Republicans deserve not one iota of extorted legislative reward for their obstructionism. Especially since the Republicans are becoming increasingly incoherent in their demands.

What was the purpose of the shutdown, after all? Obamacare. But as the shutdown continues, you hear fewer demands for Obamacare changes, because Republicans have pretty much lost all public support for their position. The irony is obvious to all: House Republicans wanted to shut down Obamacare, and what they got was the federal government shutting down while Obamacare is open. All while lawmakers are getting paid because they didn't do their own jobs. They followed through on their threat and Obamacare opened for business anyway. That isn't just attempted extortion, that is bungled extortion, and the public knows it.

So watch for Republicans to pivot this week, to the larger battle over the debt ceiling. At first, they larded up the issue with pretty much every Republican legislative dream they could think of. They tossed everything but the kitchen sink into their proposal. But they're already backing away from this pie-in-the-sky idea. Instead, they're going to focus on the grand bargaining on the budget itself, or the "more austerity for all!" position they've hewed to for years. But even this old standby has been undermined by the sharp drop in the annual federal deficit. Barack Obama has made good on his pledge to cut the deficit in half -- the sharpest fall in deficits since World War II, in fact. This weakens the Republican position enormously.

Democrats should put forth a proposal of their own, which states exactly what Obama has been saying all along. After all, nobody has yet even proposed a long-term solution to the budget fight. All the bills which have come to the floor of both houses of Congress are for extremely limited duration -- they're all nothing more than short-term fixes. To put this in plain terms: we are going to have this fight over again, and before the end of the calendar year. That is just about the only thing which everyone in Washington currently agrees upon. So Democrats should help Boehner out by shifting the public focus to that fight. "We're willing to negotiate on anything the Republicans want to bring up, but we need the time to do so, without a gun to our heads," should be the talking point for Democrats. "Our proposal makes a firm commitment to such a negotiation, and explicitly states that everything will be on the table in such discussions."

Call it "supercommittee light." Or maybe not. But whatever it's called, offer such open-ended negotiations as an olive branch to Boehner, so he can go back to his conference and brag that "I forced Democrats to the table!" Because no matter how high the pressure from within his own party to end the brinksmanship, Boehner has taken such a hard line that it is impossible for him to now back down without some method of saving face in the Republican civil war. Democrats promising to negotiate on anything under the sun is not really a concession at all, since they won't be agreeing to agree on anything with Republicans. But if spun as a big concession -- if Boehner can convince his fellow Republicans that it's a political victory -- then it might be the best way out of this mess. Boehner could roll everything together into one comprehensive bill -- an end to the shutdown, a short-term extension of the debt limit, and a firm commitment from Democrats to hold serious budget negotiations over the next two months.

Is this the best answer? Probably not. But it could work, and so far, I haven't heard any better ideas. So it's at least worth trying. Because the alternative is to sit back and watch the Republican civil war take down the American economy as collateral damage in their power struggle. And that's not a very pleasant prospect.


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