Thursday, November 19, 2015

Some Hills are Not Worth Dying On

So, it would appear that Republicans have found a new issue to threaten a government shutdown -- Syria refugees.  Not cutting them off altogether, not even changing the substance of the vetting process, just making it slower and more cumbersome.

This shows something significant, I think.  It shows that really the issue triggering the government shutdown is secondary.  What the Republicans really want is to have such a showdown, and to win it.

And on this one they probably will.  The author of the article stresses that Republicans could win this one because this time Republicans are united Democrats are not, but ignores the underlying reason why that is so.  The reason that in other shutdowns Democrats stayed united and Republicans split was that the issue leading to the shutdown was unpopular on the substance.  Shutting down the government to voucherize Medicare or cut Social Security or shut down Obamacare after people use it to get health insurance is going to be unpopular.  The public sides with the President and blames Congress for the showdown/shutdown not just because these things are structured in the President's favor, but because they agree with him on the underlying issue.  On other issues, Obama could say, "The Republicans are shutting down the government because they want to cut Social Security/take away people's health insurance."  The Republicans had a hard time blaming Obama because most people did not support what they wanted to achieve.

This time, Republicans can say, "Obama is shutting down the government to force us to take in a bunch of Arab refugees without properly vetting them."  Obama will have a hard time blaming the Republicans because most people will not agree with him on this.

Furthermore, Obama will do his brand serious harm if he goes to the mats on this.  The author of the article says that Democrats voting against this bill risk being labeled as "soft on terror" in the next election.  But if there is one thing the Obama Administration has proved, it is that how a Democrat votes does not matter.  If the President proposed something unpopular (nationally or locally) and a member of his party votes against, they will not get any credit for that vote.  As members of the President's party they will be tarred with whatever the President favors.

In the meantime, the Republican demands are fairly modest.  They will clog the admission process but not stop it.  The harm to refugee admissions is not that great.  The harm to the Democratic brand is immense.  My advice to Obama is to cave and agree to sign the bill.

Of course, once Obama agrees to something, it automatically becomes poison to Republicans.  What they want is not any particular concession.  They want to win a loud public showdown and make clear to the base that the concessions were forced over on Obama against his maximal resistance. Concede on this and they will simply ask for more.  My answer to that is fine, let them.  Keep conceding and conceding and conceding until the Republicans are forced to make unpopular demands.  Then hold the line and force the showdown.  Why, if you are lucky, you may force the Republicans to overreach all the way into conceding on the refugees as well.

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