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How the GOP Lost the Shutdown Fight

Speaker of the House John Boehner (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Speaker of the House John Boehner (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(The Root) — By the time Americans finish eating Christmas turkey, recover from New Year's Eve hangovers and start looking ahead to Super Bowl Sunday and President Barack Obama's sixth State of the Union address, the government shutdown of 2013 will already seem like ancient history.


Poll numbers will shift, issues will change and members of Congress — in both parties — will have spent several weeks back home telling supporters how they fought the good fight in Washington.

So, even if the president stared down Sen. Ted Cruz and House backbenchers to get the government re-opened, he shouldn't get too complacent. With the Tea Party's negatives at 49 percent, they're momentarily chastened, but they'll find a way to make Obama's life difficult in 2014.


But for this week, anyway, the takeaway from the GOP's failure to defund Obamacare — their stated goal at the outset of the shutdown — is that they'll have a hard time working their political will until they decide to take the president seriously.

Because faced with a shutdown and potentially caving in to the threat of a default that could upend world markets, Obama opted to stand pat and try to avoid instant lame-duck status.

It probably wasn't a tough choice, and Republicans made it easy for him by calculating that Obama wouldn't have the balls to call their bluff.

In effect, their game plan — break Obama with Obamacare — and their unwillingness to approach him as a worthwhile adversary, worked to their detriment. Here's how they underestimated him.


He's Got Skills

Although now it seems like it was meant to happen all along, six years ago, conventional wisdom said that a black guy probably couldn't be elected president.


So whether or not Republicans ever decide to reach accommodation with Obama on the critical issues of the day, when challenging him, they ought to keep in mind that a guy from Honolulu, who first ran for president in his late forties and beat a war hero and a governor's son en route to winning the White House, probably has some political skill.

They Believed Their Own Press Releases

 Plus, as I wrote last week, Obama has consistently run a middle course during his tenure, and most voters recognize this. If he really had turned out to be the socialist apologist-in-chief that his opponents often say he is, then they'd have been able to grab the upper hand in this fight.


But after the president adopted Mitt Romney's health coverage plan, made good on his 2008 promise to "kill bin Laden" and used the occasion of his March on Washington 50th anniversary speech to lecture that "too often" calls for civil rights have been "framed as a mere desire for government support," Obama's clearly dismissed any suggestion that he's a flaming left-winger.

Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me

And while the precedent for the shutdown-debt-ceiling standoff was set when Obama and Democrats agreed to a lower, "sequester"-level budget resolution in an effort to avoid a government default back in 2011, it should have been apparent why this time was different.


Obama had to compromise two years ago, because Republicans hadn't yet shown voters that they'd turn a default threat into a routine negotiation tactic. This time, though, the president could claim that he was forced to end the threat, even if it meant negotiating way past the 11th hour.

In the end, just like members of Congress, Obama's a politician. He'll horse-trade (think "Don't ask, don't tell"), he'll dodge (think Guantánamo Bay) and he'll offer concessions that his supporters don't like (think "chained CPI" for Social Security). But Obama can't bargain with adversaries if they won't take him seriously. And with this president, there are bargains to be had.


Next time, they should make him an offer that isn't quite so easy to refuse.

 David Swerdlick is a contributing editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter

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