Of all the questions prompted by last week’s governmental shutdown, this may be the most persistent, the one that the most Americans, alternately bewildered and horrified by the spectacle in the capital, found utterly confounding: What were they thinking?
For the truth is that none of the principals marched unthinkingly into the shutdown showdown. They knew what they were doing, and they had examined the tactics and consequences. This confrontation may have seemed thoughtless, but it was just the opposite. This is what they were thinking:
Pilloried for being weak and indecisive on Syria, hectored by the conservative wing of the Republican Party, clinging to Obamacare as his only substantial legacy, the president had little choice but to project strength and refuse to compromise with his rivals.
Ordinarily, a government shutdown reflects badly on the head of state, but in this case Obama knew that the Showdown at Shutdown Gulch redounded to his benefit, at least in the short term, and he proceeded with the sure knowledge that the public would blame the inconvenience and interruptions on the Republicans.
Unlike almost every other episode in the Obama years, the plate tectonics of this confrontation worked to the president’s advantage. To be sure, to conservatives he looked like an uncompromising zealot, but it wasn’t the conservatives’ approval that he sought or needed. To the rest of the American public, he looked, perhaps for the first time in years, like the calm steward of the nation, a sharp contrast to the insurgents in the House Republican conference.
From the start the speaker knew the risks involved when a Republican House pushes the government into paralysis. He remembers the last such incident. He knew, too, that his own leadership position was at risk in two dimensions — first in the view of Republican regulars, in his own chamber as well as in the Senate, who worried that the party was jeopardizing its future in a futile jeremiad against the president; and then in the view of the GOP rebels who doubted his commitment to conservative values and who were skeptical of his impulse to make a deal rather than to make a point.