Did John Boehner Win the Shutdown in the End?

Things looked bad for Republicans after they refused to fund the government, but they're a lot better now—and the House speaker deserves some credit.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The government shutdown was supposed to doom Republicans forever. But less than three months later, things look very different.

During and after the shutdown, public approval of the Republican Party bottomed out at the lowest levels seen in more than two decades. In one survey, 70 percent accused the party of putting its political agenda ahead of the public good. Congressional races that were supposed to be safe Republican seats started to look winnable for Democrats, and Democratic candidates came out of the woodwork to contest them. In Omaha, Nebraska, a Democratic city councilman who’d previously refused his party’s entreaties to try for a seat the party hadn’t held since 1992 suddenly announced he was willing, on account of “the dysfunction.” He was featured in the New York Times. House Speaker John Boehner began to look like the man who killed the GOP.

A CNN poll in mid-October, right after the shutdown ended, found Americans preferring to vote for Democrats for Congress by an 8-point margin. CNN took the same poll in mid-December and got a different result: Republicans favored by 5 points. The Democrats’ great Nebraska hope dropped out of the race.

Given the way things have turned out, maybe it’s worth revisiting who actually won the shutdown. Not only do Republicans lead the congressional ballot for the first time in more than a year, they rallied behind the year-end budget deal that funds the government into 2015, and they’ve finally decided to call an end to the pointless repeal-Obamacare votes. Boehner, who spent the year trying and failing to bring his caucus to heel, has finally solidified some measure of control.

In the end, after all the dust settled, did Boehner win the shutdown?

Obviously, Republicans' current good fortune is partly thanks to the problems Obamacare has encountered, which they didn't create and couldn't have fully predicted. But Boehner's strengthened position is also the result of strategy on his part. He chose to prolong the shutdown and take the short-term pain in order to increase the prospects of order down the road.

When the shutdown hit on October 1, Boehner had a choice. He could have overruled the small but vocal group of House Republicans who were refusing to fund the government unless Obamacare was defunded. He could have put the "clean" continuing resolution passed by the Senate up for a vote. It probably would have passed, with mostly Democratic votes. As the shutdown went on for two and a half weeks, Boehner faced increasing pressure, including from his own worried advisers, to put the clean CR on the floor.

But Boehner knew that even if he did that, when the country hit the debt ceiling, on October 17, there would be another confrontation, this one threatening to put the country in default. And after that, there would be another confrontation after the short-term CR expired, and another one after that, and another one after that. He didn’t want a deal that ended the shutdown without resolving the more serious matter of the debt ceiling, and he wanted his unruly caucus to learn a lesson. So he waited.

The agreement that ended the shutdown on October 17 also raised the debt ceiling. Additionally, it required the House and Senate to start negotiating a budget agreement, with a December 13 deadline. Nobody thought this would actually happen; since 2009, the government had been operating under “continuing resolutions” instead of budget agreements, essentially treading water at the same level of government spending (or less, after this year’s sequestration cuts). When the Senate finally passed a budget this year, it was so far from the tax-cutting, Medicare-reforming plan the House had approved that any talk of compromise seemed laughable. The pre-shutdown House GOP refused to even send negotiators to try to harmonize the two.

But post-shutdown, things changed. The negotiators—House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray—actually got together. They worked out a compromise. They hit the deadline. And then both houses of Congress passed it. Over the past year, House Republicans had repeatedly humiliated Boehner by refusing to go along with his legislative gambits; nothing makes a speaker look worse than having to withdraw a vote because his own side won’t support him. But in this case, despite criticism from conservative outside groups like Heritage Action, House Republicans overwhelmingly supported Boehner, 169 to 62.

Boehner also took the opportunity to strengthen his position relative to those outside groups. For too long, he and other Republican leaders felt, Heritage, the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and other self-appointed arbiters of conservative purity had been yanking members of Congress around, warning of consequences if they voted the wrong way. The groups were among the cheerleading chorus that brought about the shutdown by insisting on defunding Obamacare. Yet after the shutdown ended, Heritage Action’s CEO admitted, in a televised interview, that defunding was an impossible goal as long as Obama remains in office. For Boehner, that was the last straw, proving that the groups didn’t care about being realistic or constructive. In December, before the budget deal came up for a vote, he publicly thumbed his nose at the groups: “Frankly, I just think that they have lost all credibility,” he said.

So Boehner is in good position politically, has solidified the support of his caucus, and has seized control back from conservative pressure groups. The budget deal also ensures that the government can’t shut down again for at least another year; it might marginally improve the image of the House as uncompromising and unreasonable; and it could pave the way for another piece of legislating Boehner would like to do, immigration reform. House Republicans also say that, though repealing Obamacare remains their official position, rather than add to the more than 40 repeal votes they've already held, they’ll now focus instead on "oversight," capitalizing on the law’s unpopularity by highlighting its many problems. (Democrats hope this strategy will backfire when, they predict, implementation issues subside and the beneficiaries of reform start to drown out the victims.)

The shutdown took a terrible short-term toll on Republicans, and Boehner took plenty of blame. But it's hard to imagine any of these good outcomes—a yearlong budget agreement, a less unruly House GOP, the possibility of immigration reform—had Boehner not allowed the shutdown to play out the way it did.

At the time, it seemed crazy. But in retrospect, it looks like John Boehner won.