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Of all the questions prompted by the government shutdown, this may be the most persistent, the one that most Americans, alternately bewildered and horrified by the spectacle in the capital, found utterly confounding: What were they thinking?
None of the principals marched unthinkingly into the shutdown showdown. All knew what they were doing, and they had examined the tactics and consequences. This confrontation may have seemed thoughtless, but it was just the opposite. This is what they were thinking:
● President Obama. Pilloried for being weak and indecisive on Syria, hectored by the conservative wing of the Republican Party, clinging to Obamacare as his only substantial legacy, the President had little choice but to project strength and refuse to compromise with his rivals.
Ordinarily, a government shutdown reflects badly on the head of state. But in this case, Mr. Obama knew that the Showdown at Shutdown Gulch redounded to his benefit, at least in the short term. He proceeded with the sure knowledge that the public would blame the inconvenience and interruptions on the Republicans.
● John Boehner. From the start, the speaker from Ohio knew the risks involved when a Republican House pushes the government into paralysis. He remembers the last such incidents.
In the 1995-96 government shutdown, House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the leader of the rebellion and a willing conscript in the shutdown militia. In this case, Mr. Boehner was not the leader, but rather knew he was led by the rebels.
Moreover, he knew that he had to get ahead of the people who, in public at least, were behind him. That unusual political physics led him to volunteer, reluctantly, to be the front man for this rebellion.
● House conservatives. On the surface, this increasingly important faction of the Republican coalition mobilized to repeal, or at least to put off, Obamacare. But the revolt was never only about that. It was about creating a united front against the Obama ethos in its entirety: spending, taxes, gun rights, and regulation of business, banking, energy, and the environment.
Having chosen Obamacare as the fight this time — next time, when the issue is the debt ceiling, the fight will be on spending — they would not and could not retreat.
Many in the middle of both parties and in the mainstream press criticized the rebels unmercifully; they used the term “uncompromising” as a pejorative.
● Senate rebels. This group is smaller than its House analogue. In his quasi-filibuster against Obamacare and in his efforts to keep conservative discipline among House members, Sen. Ted Cruz won the opprobrium of mainstream Republicans but the approbation of conservatives who could become an important bloc of support if he seeks the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
The impact of the Tea Party might be on the decline. A new Marist Poll shows that support for the movement, now at 23 percent, is down by 11 percentage points in three years, a precipitous drop.
But that might not matter in a Republican primary, where the Tea Partiers are likely to be more committed and more likely to vote than other Republicans. Credit Mr. Cruz with ingenuity, along with steely intelligence. He has had more impact in nine months in the Senate than Mr. Obama did in 46 months.
● Democratic leaders. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi abandoned their restraint and poured on the invective.
● Oops. Now, what none of them thought of: The risk that the Obama rationale on Syria — that if the President doesn’t get his way on foreign policy, his domestic agenda will be wrecked — really does apply. Only its impact could be the other way around.
The risk is that this shutdown is only the overture to a shutdown sonata, with the next movement coming soon, featuring the debt ceiling.
There is the risk that this sorry episode will result in an anti-incumbency movement, as in 1994. Only this time, with party control on Capitol Hill split, it would endanger both GOP rule in the House and Democratic rule in the Senate.
Maybe these guys aren’t such geniuses after all. Maybe they didn’t think this all the way through before they put the country through an upheaval that voters will rain back on them.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org