Obama, Cruz and Christie Walk Into a Bar

Barack Obama; Ted Cruz; Chris Christie (Getty Images)

(The Root) — After all that, there were really no winners in the shutdown fight because there was no appreciable policy outcome. And come early February 2014, we'll repeat it all over again since Republicans who didn't get anything are going to want their pound of flesh in the next quarter. But looking over the scarred battlefield of the Gettysburg remake that should have never been, there's nothing like keeping the political score in our aimless attempt to find closure. So who were the winners and losers in this silly round of Russian roulette?


President Obama. Watching the president's signature legislative style is like watching a gritty spaghetti Western flick. Let the drunken cowboys beat themselves into a pulp while the mysterious lone gunman at the bar sips his shot of whiskey. It was the most masterful play of the entire episode: fooling conservatives into thinking he was left impotent from a mixed outcome on Syria combined with remnants of perceived caving on previous debt-ceiling and fiscal-cliff fights.


Obviously, that wasn't the case, and congressional Republicans were sucker-smacked by a suddenly stubborn and resilient POTUS who seemed more than happy to face them in a High Noon-style duel. Some blasted the president for keeping his distance from the fray, save the occasional check-in at the White House. But letting Congress hash it out kept him far enough away to keep his low poll numbers stabilized and close enough to give a rather bold black Caesar press conference stroll hours before the final House vote.

The Affordable Care Act (aka "Why Are Democrats Calling It 'Obamacare,' Too?"). Had it not been for the shutdown mess, newspaper front pages and talk-show panels would have been preoccupied with the unfolding disaster of a program rollout that is Healthcare.gov. Republicans, too split and too loose to play their strategy smart, missed an enormous opportunity to finally prove "Obamacare" was not living up to its expectations. But no one would know, thanks to the GOP-manufactured shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis.  

Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The Senate majority leader and minority leader were like Oscar and Felix in The Odd Couple, each despising the other but able to work it out in the end. The result was a fairly functional Senate that passed compromise bills on two occasions even when a dysfunctional House wasn't having it. Reid's boxing background served him well in this episode, giving him the intestinal fortitude to absorb blows from both his left and right. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Clearly, it was Texan megalomaniac Cruz who, overnight, became public political enemy No. 1 for his central role in devising the scheme to defund Obamacare. But think about it: Did you know who Cruz was before the shutdown standoff? Exactly. Cruz might have known he'd never get the Affordable Care Act's head on a spear, and he probably knew the final act: a frantic, 11th-hour move to snatch us back from the brink. People assume Cruz really wants to be a legislator. But demagogues are not lawmakers; they are enthusiastic political martyrs who thrive on climatic last stands even as the ship is sinking. This was merely the fast track to fame, millions more dollars in contributions and speaking fees, millions more email addresses to spam.


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The 2016 Republican primary rat pack: Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Chris Christie. Because, for the most part, they kept their mouths shut. Christie, a Republican governor winning re-election in a very blue state (and during the shutdown debacle, no less), was able to keep his brand intact without breaking a sweat — even as his own party collapsed on itself. Paul, once vilified as a filibustering libertarian menace, was strangely quiet and self-sidelined, eager to let his friend Cruz take the heat. Rising star Rubio uttered barely a whisper. Each protected the brand and his chances for 2016, and each was well aware that it takes more than a primary to win a race.


Cory Booker. The tweet-crazy, superstar mayor from Newark, N.J., knows he should have whipped Republican challenger and no-name Steve Lonegan by way more than just 10 points on the same night Congress averted disaster. But it was the shutdown that ultimately saved Booker and further tainted Lonegan's unapologetic Tea Party style. Shut Twitter off, Cory — you have serious work to do between now and your next election.

Wall Street. Wall Street was losing its damn mind during the shutdown, and it went absolutely berserk as we got closer to an unprecedented national default. Suddenly it had no control over the faux populist Frankenstein it created. Business hacks and corporate political action committees went into action, appearing to become close friends with an Obama White House they once put everything into destroying. Stock indices plummeted, then soared at every rollercoaster rise and fall of the crisis.   


China, Russia and anyone else who has a beef with us or wants to be No. 1. The irony: Normally, Republicans are chest-thumping, pro-defense hawks who'll jump at any chance to force American world supremacy — yet, they allow a small band of party hard-heads to turn us into weakened geopolitical punks. Why blast the Obama administration for being soft on Syria or incompetent on Benghazi when you're undermining national security by shutting down the government that maintains it? With antics in Congress threatening an Armageddon-like global financial meltdown, international rivals were more than happy to gloat and point out our corroded political system. But, more urgently, gamesmanship in Congress was an opportunity for unfriendly creditors like China to raise interest rates and rattle our financial cage, thereby giving the upper hand to Beijing at a time when the U.S. can't afford that. Thanks, fam.


House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). In some ways it would be easy to buck conventional wisdom here and claim Boehner ultimately won — well, for Boehner. He's still speaker of the House, a gig he probably dreamed of since kindergarten. Not like anyone is going to put up a serious challenge to his Ohio district seat. And he planned all along to play this to its very dramatic end, giving red-meat conservatives the impression that he would fight this to the death. But ultimately, Boehner is the speaker of a shaky house of cards, a lonely and hated man who gains little respect and has little control beyond his Capitol Hill Rotunda office. This episode left him broken and beat down till the next round. 


The Republican Party. There is no way around this: The Republican Party lost so badly you can hear the collective rips as thousands of party faithful shred their membership cards. The GOP will, of course, attempt a Braveheart-like comeback Feb. 7, mooning the president and congressional Democrats like blue-faced Scots on an open hill. But it won't come without an epic implosion and split within the party that could very well end up right where the GOP was before its founding on the eve of the Civil War. The big question, though: How long is the public memory when the congressional midterms are more than a year away?

The Tea Party (aka the New Confederacy; the New Nullification Movement). You could argue this fresh, new, decentralized grassroots movement with no coherent or tightly massaged platform to speak of actually won this round. We still have to relitigate this in the next few months, so the uncertainty is there. After all, there is mounting doubt that they really want to participate in any real governance since, for them, it's all about making noise. But at some point you have to ask yourself how productive is it when nearly three-quarters of the country hates your brand and loses patience with everything you stand for? How much fun is it constantly being sent to the corner?    


Time. Because, yes, this entire episode was one of the more memorable wastes of policymaking time and political energy in recent history. Time lost big, because it's bad enough we never have enough of it. And this fracas only forced us all to spend precious moments of time biting our nails in front of TV screens, smartphones and tablets every hour nervously waiting for closure. We could have spent our time more wisely, but thanks to Congress, we lost more.

Government. Nothing like one more episode of Washington dysfunction and schizophrenia to do a hit job on an already frayed relationship between our government and the people. Government has been taking massive blows to the head lately: from sequestration to disclosures about the spy program snooping in our phone records and inboxes. It takes another blow as it reimburses furloughed federal workers for nearly three weeks of time off. This latest bit is bound to leave a taste as sour as molded Lemonheads.


The federal worker. Federal workers took a massive beating in the form of repeated punches to the stomach. Bad enough that sequestration and other budget cuts have completely stripped federal workers of the almost guaranteed financial stability they always had with a government job — now this. And in terms of African Americans, the black middle class can no longer rely on federal work as its key source of growth and upward mobility as public-sector jobs are being put on a perpetual chopping block. That includes contractors, too.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. When he's not mad, he can be reached via Twitter.


Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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