Republicans Still Have No Idea What They Want

With the Obamacare fight seemingly over, there's no one who can put forward a strategy and rally the party around it.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

"There may be a back room somewhere, but there’s nobody in it,” Speaker John Boehner told ABC on Sunday — a good way to describe the stalemate that has set in on the government shutdown and rapidly approaching debt ceiling.

In the absence of negotiation, one might think Republicans would spend their time huddling and coordinating their demands and approach for the next round. For the Democrats, this is easy: Their strategy may have political risks, but they know exactly what they want — a clean continuing resolution to fund the government and a clean debt-ceiling increase.

For Republicans, it's a different matter. A fight that began over Obamacare is now about ... well, what exactly? Last Wednesday, the Washington Examiner quoted Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana saying, “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

Five days later, there's no sign they're any closer to figuring it out. Take this quote from Rep. Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican, in the New York Times:

“Republicans have to realize how many significant gains we’ve made over the last three years — and we have, not only in cutting spending but in really turning the tide on other things,” Mr. Ross said. “We can’t lose all that when there’s no connection now between the shutdown and the funding of Obamacare.”

“I think now it’s a lot about pride,” he said.

Like Stutzman's, Ross's take is striking in its desperate machismo. He admits Republicans have lost the ACA fight that inspired them, but sees this as no reason to stop the fight. The problem is that you can't ask for "pride" in return for raising the debt ceiling. When it comes to specific ideas, the GOP agenda ranges from non-existent to vague to mercurial, and since the party leadership is now taking its cues from a small conservative faction, there's no one who can step forward and unite the party under a single, coherent banner.

Speaker John Boehner's appearance on ABC's This Week demonstrates the Republican bind. Three times, host George Stephanopoulos showed Boehner doing 180s under duress from his caucus. It's easy to see why the speaker wouldn't want to commit to any new proposals, since he can't rely on Republicans to back him.

First, Stephanopoulos played an old clip of Boehner saying, "If we were to put Obamacare into the CR and send it over to the Senate, we were risking shutting down the government. That is not our goal." Why had he changed his position? "But providing -- providing fairness to the American people, under Obamacare, is -- all we're asking for. My goodness." Not much of an answer.

The second:

STEPHANOPOULOS: They're saying it's at risk because of your refusal to pass a clean debt limit. There have been some reports —

BOEHNER: We're not going to pass a clean debt-limit increase.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Under no circumstances?

BOEHNER: I told the president, there's no way we're going to pass one. The votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit. And the president is risking default by not having a conversation with us.

What credibility does Boehner have? He has repeatedly said he understands the importance of raising the debt ceiling, and last week, the New York Times reported he had privately told GOP colleagues he wouldn't let the country default. In a third reversal, he now says there's no chance of raising the debt limit without major entitlement reforms  — yet less than two weeks ago, the Republicans put forth a series of demands in exchange for raising the debt ceiling that barely touched entitlement reforms. 

So Democrats have reason to believe Boehner is bluffing, while hardline conservatives have reason to distrust his resolve, too.

Republicans' best bet so far seems to be trying to paint Democrats as "the party of no," a nice reversal of a Democratic talking point from a few years back, on the basis of President Obama's refusal to negotiate. But it's hard for anyone to believe Democrats are the party of default when some Republicans are actively welcoming it. Take Rep. Ted Yoho, a freshman from Florida who's a large-animal veterinarian by trade yet thinks he knows better than all of the economists. "I think, personally, [a national default] would bring stability to the world markets," he told The Washington Post.

Just how lost is the leadership? One Republican congressman used this analogy to explain it to Byron York: "I would liken this a little bit to Gettysburg, where a Confederate unit went looking for shoes and stumbled into Union cavalry, and all of a sudden found itself embroiled in battle on a battlefield it didn't intend to be on, and everybody just kept feeding troops into it," he said. "That's basically what's happening now in a political sense. This isn't exactly the fight I think Republicans wanted to have, certainly that the leadership wanted to have, but it's the fight that's here."

You don't have to be a Civil War buff to know how that battle turned out for the shoe-seeking southerners.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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