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October 01, 2013 9:55 PM The ‘Fraidy Cat’ Conference

By Jonathan Bernstein

OK, all through this thing, and all day Monday, I thought that a shutdown was relatively unlikely. Not impossible, but below 50/50.

Why? Because it was pretty obvious that only a small group of Congressional Republicans thought it was a good idea. To some extent because it really isn’t a good idea for them; to some extent because everyone has massively overlearned the lessons of 1995-1996 (Sean Trende is the latest to look at the minimal electoral effects).

Indeed, Byron York reports that the true believers are somewhere around 30 to 60 House Republicans — and, reporting last night, that “175 GOP lawmakers, are willing, and perhaps even eager, to vote” for a clean CR.

This kind of reporting pins the blame for the shutdown squarely on Speaker Boehner — who, as Brian Beutler puts it, “is a powerful person with agency and a conscience.” If in fact 175 House Republicans were actually eager to end this thing without a shutdown, and Boehner refused to bring it to the floor because he feared that the 30-60 would cost him his job, then the responsibility lies mainly with him (see also Greg Sargent’s similar numbers).

But I just don’t believe it.

Oh, I believe that the bulk of the Republican conference thinks this shutdown is stupid strategy.

But “eager” to vote for a clean CR? Look, if the bulk of the conference wanted a clean CR and Boehner was resisting it because of fears about his job, then he’s the stupidest man in the world…because no one keeps that chair for long if 175 of 233 disagree with a major decision like this. Yes, technically a handful of Republican defectors can prevent Boehner’s re-election on opening day of the next Congress…but in reality there’s not much they can do if the rest of the conference is happy with the Speaker. Just empty, noisy, protest. But if 175 think that Boehner is betraying them by not letting them vote on something they’re “eager” to do, then they’ll defeat him in the conference after the 2014 election — or, more realistically, ask him to resign immediately and replace him with someone who will do what they want.

They aren’t “eager” to end this thing with their own votes. They’re eager, perhaps, for the whole thing to go away. But they aren’t eager, and very well may not have been willing, to vote against the crazies.

Which we know, because when they had the chance they didn’t do it. At any point along the way, those 175 Republicans could have simply voted no — on the rule, on the amendments offered on Saturday night, on final passage to any of their offers to the Senate. I’m sorry to keep hitting on this same point, but in this matter the truth is that for all we can say about the Speaker being responsible for his own actions, it’s more to the point that each individual Member of the House is responsible for his or her own actions. The Speaker is elected by Republicans to do what they want — and as far as I’m concerned he’s probably doing just that.

Oh — it’s not just their votes. It’s also the reporting of what’s happened in GOP conference meetings, and generally what people, York included, are reporting. There’s been plenty of reports that “conservatives” are about to walk away from various potential CR offers, but virtually nothing about mainstream conservatives being unhappy with how Boehner is handling things. Because, most likely, they are not unhappy. He’s doing what they want.

What it comes down to is that while York counts about 30 true believers and another 20-30 who might be willing to deal except for their fear of a primary, and then 175 or more who are “willing” or “eager” to vote for a clean CR, I see a very different math. I see 30 true believers; another 20-30 who are so paranoid about primaries that they are externally no different from the true believers, and than another 150 to 175 who are “willing” or “eager” to make it known to smart reporters that they aren’t really crazy at all and are perfectly aware of how self-destructive this strategy is for their party…but almost in all cases without their names attached, and without any action to back that up. Which leaves somewhere below 20 who are actually willing to end this thing.

These 175, too, are mostly paranoid about renomination, even if they want reporters to know that they’re not actually nuts. They’re the ones who drive what Boehner does. They’re the ones who have to bear the brunt of the responsibility for this shutdown. They’re the ones who are the ‘fraidy cat conference — so paranoid about renomination, and more broadly about allowing any distance to appear between themselves and the “conservatives” who they probably honestly have contempt for, that they’re willing to run their party right into a ditch.

Perhaps the Speaker could have given this group a more forceful shove. Perhaps he could have reminded them that this thing eventually ends with a GOP surrender, and so they might as well get it over with now. Perhaps it’s his responsibility to force the issue by bringing up the clean CR, even if they didn’t want him to. I’m not disagreeing with any of that, and certainly not the first two of those.

But the main responsibility here is the bulk of the Republican conference. Not the guy acting on their behalf.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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