If Republicans do happen to force a shutdown in Washington, it's very possible they'll be embracing a political loser while doing the rest of us an immense favor.
With three Washington-manufactured fiscal apocalypses—sequestration, the debt ceiling and a new "budget"—on the docket, the idea of shutting down government to extract concessions from the iron trap sometimes known as the Obama administration has gained traction among Republicans. Or, I should say, the idea of threatening to shut down Washington has.
Pat Toomey, John Cornyn and other conservatives have said as much, though they've littered their shutdown statements with comforting modifiers, such as "partial" and "temporary," to allay the fears of Americans, who apparently can't fathom existence without the Department of Commerce. Certainly, it would energize the conservative base, and it might be effective in pressuring Democrats into genuine spending reforms. Because, despite what you may have heard, it's worked before.
As recent Washington arrival Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pointed out, "we didn't default on our debt" after the notorious 1995 shutdown battle between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. "And the result was balanced budgets—and some of the greatest fiscal responsibility we have seen in modern times from Congress—because fiscal conservatives stood together and said, 'We need to be responsible.'"
Gingrich, who has seemed to have some reservations about the shutdown through the years, now defends it in the context of policy, recently saying, "We would never have gotten to a balanced budget and we would never have gotten welfare reform without that fight." Can the Republicans claim political victory again? I'm skeptical.
First of all, Barack Obama isn't Bill Clinton. The level of ideological stamina in the White House, not to mention the willingness to fracture the nation to protect spending, is rather imposing. Moreover, Obama has no incentive to compromise after winning an election convincingly, and with the help of some of his friends in the media, he's been able to portray the GOP as obstructionists for failing to rubber-stamp his agenda.
Then, John Boehner isn't Newt Gingrich, either. For all we hear about the latter's eccentricities and faults, the Gingrich Congress—for a while there, at least—was imbued with a sense of purpose and offered Americans a cogent argument. Folks may not remember, but in the early phases of the fight, Clinton's poll numbers were dropping—and nothing hurt the man more.
The country, too, is different. We will never—and I mean never—hear Obama offer America a speech declaring the era of big government over, because, well, it would be preposterous, and it's not as if the country wants to hear it.
How Republicans shut down government matters, though. Failing to raise the debt ceiling would probably trigger panic in the markets. A more politically opportune time would be to deal with this when the government's general operating budget expires. Seeing as Senate Democrats have been unable to produce a budget for years—and not a single politician has voted for an Obama budget—Republicans have a case to make about responsible governing.
But even if the GOP risks losing the short-term politics, no matter how fortuitous a shutdown might be for Democrats, it isn't a situation any side could live with for an extended period of time. Obama would almost surely have to concede more on taxes and entitlement reform. Without a shutdown—or the threat of one—however, Republicans have no other leverage to obtain anything useful from the White House.