We won't know the full consequences of the shutdown of the federal government for some time. But we do know that if Congress refuses to increase the debt limit, leaving the United States without the ability to pay bills it has already incurred, the impact on the financial markets and the economy is likely to be swift, drastic, and painful. Why then are Congressional Republicans willing to risk being blamed for such far-reaching disasters? After all, the majority of voters seem to think, at least so far, that the GOP is more to blame for the impasse than is the President. The press also reflects the view that the Democrats have tried to put together a compromise but the Republicans are resisting.
Yet even in the face of negative poll results and news stories, the GOP House members have indicated that they will settle for nothing less than the abandonment of the Affordable Care Act even before it fully takes effect. To achieve this goal Republicans are prepared to keep the government "closed" indefinitely and, further, to use the debt ceiling as a weapon in this bare knuckle fight.
What could be the political reasoning behind the Republicans recalcitrance? Part of the explanation, of course, is purely ideological: hostility toward any new (and most old) government programs. Part of it may be the fear that any GOP member who shows a sign of weakness will have to face a primary fight from the extreme Right. And part of it may be personal: they just want to take President Obama down more than a peg or two. But, perhaps, in the often counterintuitive world of political strategy someone is making a novel, but plausible, case in favor of closing the government down, defaulting on U.S. Treasury obligations, and tumbling the economy back into recession.
There are two extreme outcomes to this fight. If Congressional Republicans get their way and defeat Obamacare, they will score a historically famous victory. But suppose that the administration stays the course; what then? Worst case, the Republicans will have to hold their own in a "blame game" about who deserves most of the blame for a renewal of hard times. (Of course it should be noted the fundraising backbone of the modern GOP includes a lot of people who don't seem to suffer much in an ordinary recession.) In these circumstances the likely major economic reversals will certainly play a big role in the Congressional elections next year. Who will the voters punish?
Most of the GOP base is going to believe it's Obama's fault, regardless of the facts. Semi-official outlets like FOX News will make sure that, no matter what happens, voters should understand that -- six years into the Obama administration -- the economy is still a mess. An additional segment of the voters are certainly going to accept the "they are both to blame" oversimplification of much of the "mainstream" press. In addition, historically it is the party in power (read controlling the White House) that takes more of the heat or receives most of the credit for whatever state the economy is in.
So for the GOP the real question may be this: Would a recession turn out to help them lock in the major gains they made in 2010 in the House and at the state and local level?
The precedent set in 2010 is unlikely to be lost on GOP leadership. They gained control of the House of Representatives, many governorships, and state legislatures. As a result, they have been able to gerrymander congressional and legislative districts to increase the prospects for Republican dominance in the House and in the states for the next decade.
So while a strategy of letting the sky fall is not a sure thing, it's got to be tempting. Its potential success turns on two things: will the press hone on who really brought the nation to brink of insolvency? And will the public move beyond the simplistic "plague on both your houses" judgment about who is to blame?
In this case, after all, it's only one of the houses that is to blame: the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.