09/17/2013 03:49 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

Boehner's Government Shutdown Calculus: Let Calamity Be The Cure

The growing clamor around the Beltway is that everyone should batten down the hatches and get ready for the inevitable government shutdown. It's an outcome that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has worked hard to avoid, for the sake of his party's reputation. But Boehner, short on time and tactics, may have no other choice now than to let calamity physics work its will.

For the past week, warnings over the possibility of a shutdown have rung out. Jonathan Chait advised just last week that "a government shutdown is more likely now" because the time in which to actually deal-make around it is quickly elapsing. Not that a deal seemed likely. As one source, positioned to suss out the state of negotiations, told Jonathan Cohn, "The breakdown is more extensive than you've heard ... There is no discussion going on at all at this point."

And Peter Weber cautions, "Brace yourselves," because everyone's incentives seem to align in such a way that makes a shutdown a fait accompli. President Barack Obama thinks the shutdown will add political capital to his coffers. Democrats believe it will improve their position to bargain on the budget. Tea party Republicans believe the conventional wisdom -- which holds that the GOP's brand loses out in the event of a shutdown -- is wrong, and that they actually have the leverage. The Hill reports that "at least 43 conservatives want the GOP leadership to go for broke" over this.

Standing at the center of all of this is House Speaker John Boehner, who has, thus far, attempted to stave off a shutdown on the grounds that it would be bad for the GOP's brand. But he might be all out of options.

His most recent gambit was to try to get the House to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government functioning, with a sidecar resolution attached that would defund Obamacare. The idea is to give his caucus colleagues another chance to vent their disapproval of Obamacare without imperiling the federal government. At the same time, Boehner has extended the notion that there will be time enough for hostage-taking when the debate over the debt ceiling is enjoined. (Of course, there's no indication that Boehner thinks a debt ceiling row would be any better for the GOP than a shutdown, but if his colleagues accepted this plan, he would at the very least buy some time.)

The problem, however, is that the more raucous members of his caucus have rejected Boehner's "continuing resolution with a side of Obamacare defunding," and call this plan a "sell-out." Boehner is further hamstrung by the fact that his colleagues have turned the "Hastert Rule" -- which holds that the speaker can't bring anything to the floor for a vote without first securing a "majority of the majority" -- into official House GOP dogma.

All of this brought Boehner to his lowest point last week, when he vented his frustrations at reporters, saying, "Do you have an idea? They'll just shoot it down anyway." So now, as The New Republic's Noam Scheiber posits, Boehner might just let his colleagues take aim at their own collective foot.

Back in March, Scheiber mapped out the strategy that Boehner's been using to move important business through the House and survive -- both as a House speaker and as a guy tasked with keeping his party's standing from collapsing. It goes something like this:

First Boehner stakes out a position so extreme or impractical that he effectively marginalizes himself from any negotiation with Democrats. At that point, Democrats begin to bargain with Boehner's Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell. Once they strike a deal, it passes the Senate with overwhelming support. This is the cue to Boehner to troop before his caucus and lament that they fought the good fight for as long as they could, but now even their fellow Republicans have turned on them. If it is their will to hold out, then Boehner will obey it. (Always best to give crazy people the illusion of agency.) But he can no longer in good faith recommend this path. Invariably, the lunatics fold.

But with those same lunatics in full revolt against Boehner's continuing resolution gambit, that particular jig is up. So Scheiber now reckons that Boehner has no choice left but to stop treating the symptoms and fully feed the disease:

Now, don’t get me wrong: Boehner clearly prefers to avoid a government shutdown. He's spent months figuring out how to do that, fully aware of the political debacle it would entail. Unfortunately, it's now clear that the only way he can induce the political isolation he typically relies on to prod his caucus into semi-rational action is by shutting down the government and inviting the public backlash he's been so desperate to avoid. Boehner simply has no other way of talking sense into his people, no other hope of making the House GOP governable. And so, in the end, a shutdown is in Boehner's interest, too.

The hopeful possibility here, according to Scheiber, is that now maybe Boehner's GOP antagonists will "sober up before we take on the substantially higher-stakes proposition of avoiding a debt default." That would, indeed, be a welcome occurrence.

But contending against this possibility are electoral fundamentals. The GOP goes into the midterm elections with a very strong hand. The vagaries of redistricting, and the fact that the bulk of the Democratic base has sequestered itself into a limited number of urban districts, means that there literally might not be enough votes in the right districts to threaten any of the GOP dead-enders. And a government shutdown may not actually be enough of an apocalypse to alter the underlying electoral plate tectonics.

So there's a good chance that Boehner's plan will simply further tarnish the GOP's standing, without providing sufficient motivation to push his colleagues in a saner direction.

But as Boehner himself has asked, do you have a better idea?

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]



Biggest Political Hypocrites