The Republican strategy of universal obstructionism, focused on preventing the reelection of Barack Obama, is no longer tied to any such goal. With party leaders scrambling to figure out how to prevent a government shutdown in 100 or so hours (spoiler: without much luck), it's clear that the "beat Obama" strategy is now just beating up themselves.
Polls consistently show that if there's no spending measure approved before October 1 and the government switches off the lights (however incompletely), the Republican Party will get the blame. (A new CBS Poll: 44 percent would blame GOP; 35 percent, Democrats.) Republican leaders in the House and Senate never wanted to embark on this now nearly week-long diversion in which the party pretended that it could halt Obamacare by somehow tricking Obama into signing a bill gutting the program. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks up holding a partially-obscured piece of paper, asks for the president's autograph.) But pressure from the base, fomented by activist groups and Sen. Ted Cruz, made it hard not to at least go through the motions.
Which was totally predictable, in retrospect. From shortly after Obama's election, activists and the conservative media argued that the Obama administration should be fought at every turn. There was this sense of a mixed mandate, which Speaker John Boehner revived after the most recent election — yes, America had twice voted for Obama to be president and the 50 states elected a Democratic majority in the Senate, but they'd also elected a Republican majority in the House. That House majority, elected in 2010, provided enough cover for Republicans to deploy McConnell's now-famous "single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president" strategy. Fight Obama's priorities, drag your feet on ones that pass, with the aim of making Obama look weak in 2012. It worked, but not well enough.
But now the base and hard-right members taste blood. Democracy, predicated on the idea that we elect people to Congress with the goal of representing our local interests to work out what's best for the country, has been replaced with the idea in some circles that a member of Congress is there to force a political ideology on the country, no matter the cost. A Pew poll earlier this month asked which was preferable: shutting down government to stand up for principles or compromise. The results are at right. Which makes sense: the Tea Party hates the government! And they're vocal. Rep. Peter King told Politico that the calls he received from backers of the Cruz defund-Obamacare plan were "vile."
With about 100 hours until the government shuts down, party leaders now have to figure out what they actually want to do. Remember, there are two imminent deadlines. On October 1st, the government no longer has budget from which to operate. Then, on October 17, it exhausts its ability to borrow money to pay bills it has accrued. Republicans have seen both as opportunities to negotiate on economic (and other) priorities, moments of urgency in which the compromise required in a split-party government might be set aside in favor of hard negotiation over core priorities, an idea that Tea Party supporters have embraced.
Given the political danger of a shutdown (and the imminence of a funding measure), Republicans now seem to be focused on the debt ceiling as a vehicle for negotiating a big package. As Roll Call reports, in order to move past the funding fight, leaders are "in full flinging-spaghetti-at-the-wall mode as they float ideas … that could win over enough of their rank and file." On Wednesday, reports suggested that the party would push for short-term funding bill, giving them some breathing room to figure out where there might be compromise — with their vocal base as much as the president. A new (completely pie-in-the-sky) proposal for a debt ceiling package suggests that the week could mostly be spent trying to convince reticent members to give up on a fight over the funding bill, keeping the powder dry for the debt ceiling fight. As Sen. John Hoeven told Politico, the funding bill "is really a step to the debt ceiling."
The only problem — which members are smart enough to recognize — is that the consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling are much higher than those of having a government shutdown. The president has repeatedly said we won't negotiate on the issue, insisting on a clean up-or-down vote (assuming it would be overwhelmingly "up").
As Cruz showed this week, however, and as Obama demonstrated earlier this month on the fight over Syria, elected officials are very susceptible to vocal groups expressing outrage. The Republicans will try to force debt ceiling negotiations with a president who is as unpopular as he's been in years, according to The New York Times. Happily for him, his base is unlikely to be the group that's making calls and holding rallies and arguing (misguidedly) that the country shouldn't assume more debt. (The debt ceiling pays old bills; it doesn't allow new ones.) The Republicans' encouragement of that vocal base, its prodding of activists to rail against the government was effective in slowing Obama's momentum two years ago. But promoting anti-government sentiment proves a problem once you're actually trying to govern.