John Dickerson: Why the shutdown looks so bad for the GOP

10/04/2013 12:00 AM

10/03/2013 5:31 PM

During the Great Polling Disconnect of 2012, the Obama campaign, the press and a number of pollsters thought that Barack Obama would win his second presidential election. Republicans and the Romney campaign were equally convinced the polls were flawed: The electorate would behave differently on Election Day.

There was a clear loser in that experiment. We’re facing a similar test now with the government shutdown.

Public opinion polls show overwhelming opposition to the GOP strategy. Republican Sen. John McCain, Ariz., tweeted a Quinnipiac poll Tuesday morning that showed 72 percent of Americans opposed Congress “shutting down major activities of the federal government” as a way to stop the Affordable Care Act from going into effect.

For the conservatives pushing the showdown over the president’s health care plan, those numbers are either wrong or changeable. We’re about to find out which side is right.

In the first hours of the shutdown, the terrain has looked very bad for Republicans. It’s amazing how consistent the polls have been about linking a confrontation over the Affordable Care Act to funding of the government.

While polls show the public disapproves of the law, people have consistently told pollsters they are not in favor of tying government operations to defunding the health care plan. In addition to the Quinnipiac poll, the polls from CBS, CNN, CNBC, National Journal and Kaiser show this. As Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said, Republicans have found the one gambit less popular than Obamacare.

Conservatives would interrupt the conversation here. They didn’t shut the government down over Obamacare – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., shut the government down because he refused to negotiate. This is true; Reid refused to negotiate. But the American public would have to view this confrontation differently for that fact to give the Republicans any leverage.

Right now, the public agrees with Democrats: Funding the government and taking apart Obamacare should not be part of the same conversation. How do Republicans change that dynamic? Asserting that Obamacare is not popular hasn’t made a whit of difference.

One way Republicans might improve their hand would be to seize on the glitches that have bedeviled healthcare.gov, the website that launched Tuesday morning to sign up people eligible for the new health care exchanges. What better way to make your case that the law should at least be postponed than pointing to hiccups that show it’s not ready for prime time?

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has pleaded for time, saying “give us the same slack you give Apple.” It’s a good point – except when you think about Apple Maps, a product that seems to be congenitally flawed (but a great way to learn about the geography of places you weren’t trying to go). Also, there’s no Apple mandate that forces you to buy an Apple. But analogies are never perfect, and everyone has to get back to fixing the crashing websites.

Now that the much-threatened shutdown has become reality, Democratic and Republican party unity is critical. Democrats are united. Even Democratic senators up for re-election in predominantly Republican states have not bolted.

If Republicans want to stand fast against overwhelming public opinion, unity during the shutdown is critical. They should be singing from the same song sheet, something that goes a little like this: “We acted to keep government open while trying to protect Americans from being forced into a system they don’t trust and that has had such problems the president has exempted big business but not regular people.”

But there is no unity in the Republican chorus. That was clear even before the shutdown began, as Republican senators spoke openly about the folly of the GOP’s approach. That’s why McCain, who was one such senator, was tweeting out polling figures that undermine the House Republican cause. So many Republican members have spoken out against the strategy that the Tea Party Express sent out a fundraising appeal asking, “With Republicans Like These, Who Needs Democrats?”

In most epic battles with a Democratic president, Republicans would swallow their own internal differences and close ranks against their common foe. But that’s not the case in this showdown: Many Republicans are personally invested in their previous argument that the party was headed toward ruin if it shut down the government over Obamacare.

Put it this way: If Republicans emerge victorious from this struggle, McCain will have to admit Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was right.

Cruz and his compatriots in the House are not operating under the standard protocols. That’s why they get the glory and the praise: because they are willing to go to extraordinary lengths. They don’t care whom they cause heartburn. They don’t care how many doors they have to open with a crowbar. To simply claim that this process is the normal way of doing things is absurd.

When you have decided to take extraordinary measures, you just have to hope people cut you some slack because the extraordinary measures were worth it. But after you’ve pulled the tablecloth out and scattered the cutlery, it’s hard to then say, “OK, let’s continue with our nice meal.”

During the shutdown, clinical trials and research and development at government laboratories will be slowed. However, a huge political experiment about public opinion, divided government and the power of a small band of true believers has just been launched.

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