This week the House Republicans gave up their quest to negotiate a bi-partisan spending bill with Democrats, instead signing off on a plan that would re-open the government and raise the debt ceiling through early next year while getting nothing in return. Immediately following the developments, conservative commentators and activists began obsessing over strategy, whether Ted Cruz is a genius or a moron, and how disorganized the Republican party was during the whole ordeal.
Did the GOP Have a Strategy?
I'm going against conventional wisdom here. I actually do think that Ted Cruz and the GOP House had a unified strategy. In fact, it's a strategy I have long advocated and one that has been employed regularly by Democrats for decades with great success. I've suggested the Republicans use this strategy during past and future illegal immigration debates. In the end, the strategy failed because they are dealing with a President unwilling to be a real leader and unwilling compromise over modest proposals. I believe what they were trying to pull off goes a little something like this:
Phase 1: GOP Offers Very Conservative Plan
The first Republican move was to offer the most conservative plan they could. The GOP-led House passed a plan championed by Ted Cruz to "defund" Obamacare. Ted Cruz then staged a quasi-filibuster where he railed against the Obamacare law and demanded the Senate vote on the package as it was. Of course, the Senate had no interest in such a law and they quickly stripped the defunding language from the bill.
Now, this is where the analysis diverges. Most conservative commentators think Cruz actually believed that he would be able to defund Obamacare and that Obama would be forced to sign the legislation. I think that Cruz is intelligent enough to know that Obamacare would never be defunded with Obama in the White House and that he and the US House were instead working the long game. Now Cruz couldn't come out and say as much. He couldn't say that the GOP was attempting to position themselves for future negotiations. That would be like John Kerry and Barack Obama's amateur hour Syrian policy: they threaten big attacks to deter dictators then run and promise that said attacks will be unbelievably small. On to phase two.
Phase 2: Republicans Offer Modest Package that Funds Obamacare
In the past, this would have been the Republicans' first phase. Rather than propose what they actually want, they would propose what is plausibly bi-partisan legislation that gives both Democrats and Republicans some of what they want. Even here, Democrats get mostly what they wanted. The advantage of passing the very conservative bill first is that that the second bill shows that the GOP has compromised what they want for something much smaller. When Democrats employ this tactic, they are seen as rational and compromising. Needless to say, that did not happen when the Republicans tried it.
In reality, this bill is what the GOP expected was doable all along. It was ready-to-go as soon as the Democrats in the Senate rejected the initial defund bill. This modest new package did little more than repeal a bi-partisan and unpopular medical device tax, remove subsidies for Congress and friends, and delayed the mandate tax for a year. That is a relative nothing-burger that would have changed little and would have done nothing to slow down Obamacare. So Obama gets what he wants, and Republicans get a few small things they want. In reality, the last one has "Future Obama Waiver" written all over it as HHS cannot figure how to get their exchanges working in the first place. Which brings us to phase three, which sadly never happened.
Phase 3: Negotiate and Get Something Out of It
The ultimate plan of the Republicans was to start with the most extreme stance (knowing liberals would do the same) and negotiate from there to get a center-right or at least break-even compromise. (This is in juxtaposition to their normal method of starting with a bi-partisan bill and negotiating with the Democrat's far left bill and ending up with a center-left compromise.) They did that and even put the first "compromise" on the table. At this point, the GOP was expecting that the Democrats would then be willing to negotiate now that the GOP offered a modest package. Historically, some compromise bill would have been crafted, it would have favored the Democrats, and they would have all sang kumbaya like they saved the world. And remember, the provisions the Republicans were now seeking were relatively small. Democrats could have showed up and probably stripped out whichever of the elements they least liked and the shutdown would never have happened.
Theoretically, this plan should have worked. But President Obama's refusal to even listen to the Republicans doomed the strategy. Laughingly, Obama would take to the campaign trail to talk about how he has "bent over backwards" to work with Republicans. The GOP was likely taken back by Obama's willingness - joy, even - to shut down the government over next to nothing. At this point, the Republicans' only option was to either give in or hold out for some sort of compromise. They held out. They forced the Democrats to ignore funding legislation. They were ignored. There was honestly little that they could do. How does one work with the unworkable? With the advantage of an Obama-adoring media, a low-information public informed by the Obama-adoring media, and the authority to command any network attention at anytime, the GOP had little option but to give up in the end.
What Strategy Would Have Succeeded?
Here is the reality check: no strategy would have worked. The only bill Obama was going to approve was the one written by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Obama was never going to sign anything that touched his namesake legislation, no matter how small the impact. If he wants to change it, he'll issue a questionably legal executive order or waiver on the matter. Obama refused to negotiate even when the House had effectively taken everything off the table near the end. The pro-defund side blame the establishment Republicans for not standing firm. Sorry, that didn't matter because on what earth would Obama defund his bill? Especially when they seemingly enjoy making the lives of Americans miserable if they think they can blame the GOP over it?
As for the anti-defund arguments of what Republicans "should" have done, every opposing strategy I've seen was just as unworkable. Oh, if only the Republicans had offered a reasonable package from the start would Obama have negotiated with them. Others said we should have focused on the debt ceiling instead of forcing a shutdown. Consider me originally in the latter camp. But after watching Obama operate, there is little to suggest he would have budged there either. Strategy is pointless - and arguing over it in hindsight even more-so - if you have an opponent not even willing to play the game. Obama is not running for re-election ever again. He is perfectly fine shutting down the government, screaming about default, and continuing his never-ending political campaign. After all, that's easier than being a leader.