The Folly of Reason

Mitch McConnell just tried to explain to House Republicans why a government shutdown is a bad idea. That was never going to work.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, left, speaks to members of the media after the weekly Senate Republican Policy Luncheon at the Capitol, as Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, middle, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, right, listen, on Sept. 9, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has ventured into uncharted territory in his effort to prevent a second government shutdown in three years: He is trying to appeal to conservatives with reason. As if that’s the problem.

A familiar faction of conservatives, led by presidential aspirant Sen. Ted Cruz and 40-plus co-conspirators in the House, have pledged not to advance any spending measure that funds Planned Parenthood. Government funding expires at the end of the month, so what we have is another iteration of the legislative brinksmanship that’s defined the Obama–Tea Party era.

McConnell has this funny notion that the past can be used to inform the present. Kentucky’s senior senator seems to believe he can explain to conservatives the simple mechanics of the problem—congressional Democrats will not agree to defund Planned Parenthood, President Obama would veto any such bill if they did, and Republicans would be blamed for the shutdown—and they’ll think to themselves, Huh, hadn’t though about it like that; nevermind.

“Shutting down the government,” McConnell tells Politico, “it doesn’t defund Planned Parenthood any more than shutting down the government two years ago would have defunded Obamacare.” He lists a few small-bore items that he hopes this 114th Congress has a chance of passing, though he concedes that “none of them by themselves fundamentally change the country.” As far as those sexier, more ideological goals that might “fundamentally change the country,” like eliminating federal grant money to a family-planning federation? Those will have to wait until 2017 and the would-be incoming Republican president. McConnell at least tries to put this dispiriting call for patience into a rousing right-wing frame. “This is a critical election,” he explains, “… about whether we want to continue to go down this European path, or whether we want to recapture the growth rates and the greatness we’ve had most of our history.”

Conservatives don’t like being told to wait. House Republicans offered conservative voters the store in 2010—no more debt ceiling increases ever!—but, once in power, soon had to explain that they could not transform the republic into an abortion-free, deregulated utopia from one house of Congress. Senate Republicans more or less promised the end of liberalism should voters entrust them with a majority in 2014, and now they’re pleading with conservatives to acknowledge the continuing existence of the filibuster and Obama administration. (Something for McConnell to consider now as he begins overpromising the many splendors that await conservatives in 2017: The filibuster will exist then, too. Probably.)

McConnell is correct that the Republicans will not be able to win a shutdown battle over Planned Parenthood. The problem isn’t in his conference, anyway; Sen. Cruz appears to be flying solo in the Senate on this particular stunt. McConnell is playing the blunt bearer of bad news on this one because Speaker John Boehner (whose job is supposedly on the line) has to pretend for at least the next two weeks that House conservatives have a valid strategic argument that’s worth “hearing out.”

McConnell’s message of reason won’t work on House conservatives, though, because they already understand it. It just doesn’t suit their political circumstances. Each member, including McConnell, is acting according to his or her incentives, which is why this folly repeats itself year after year. An inability to grasp logic has nothing to do with it. Logic, instead, is what fuels it.

Let’s start with McConnell. For whatever strange reasons, he enjoys being Senate majority leader, and he hopes to maintain his majority in the next Congress. A government shutdown over Planned Parenthood—funding for which is still, on the whole, a popular policy—would do little to aid Republican senators up for reelection in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or Illinois. Sure, Republicans were blamed for the 2013 government shutdown and were able to quickly dispatch its legacy, winning landslide victories in 2014. But that doesn’t mean that the shutdown helped the GOP; the 2016 electorate and battleground map will be far less favorable to Republicans than 2014’s was.   

Cruz, meanwhile, is positioning himself as McConnell’s chief foil in this fight. Indeed, he’s positioning himself as McConnell’s chief foil for everything, because that’s the central message of his presidential campaign: the anti-establishment gadfly with enough “spine” to constantly annoy his colleagues with hopeless procedural stunts. His Planned Parenthood crusade might also improve his chances with evangelical voters in Iowa.

The House Republicans with whom Cruz is collaborating, and who hold the real power to block legislation here, are not the dunces incapable of understanding vote counts that they’re typically accused of being. These members largely represent districts where the only threat they could potentially face is a primary challenger from their right flank. After the well-organized outrage over the Planned Parenthood sting videos, it will be politically difficult for them to vote for any measure that appropriates funds to that organization. Even that might not even get to the core of it: It’s politically difficult for them to vote for anything that Boehner and McConnell ask of them that doesn’t slaughter at least one high-profile Democratic sacred cow.

And then there are the Democrats, who would love for the Republicans to shut down the government for a couple of weeks. They won’t admit this in any official capacity, but of course they long for the GOP-orchestrated chaos for the exact same reasons that Republican leaders lay awake at night trying to devise a strategy to avoid a shutdown.

Throw all of these highly logical actors together, and sometime around Sept. 30 we’ll see the likely Grand Compromise. McConnell puts forth a separate, abortion-related protest vote that gets filibustered but gives enough Senate Republicans cover to vote for a continuing resolution that funds Planned Parenthood along with everything else. Cruz votes against it and gives a long, pompous speech about why he “cannot in good conscience” vote for this or any other bill; excerpts from this oration are quickly inserted into his fundraising solicitations and stump speeches. House conservatives either extract some meaningful concession from Boehner beyond a protest vote or, more likely, they simply don’t vote to fund the government. Boehner passes a “clean” continuing resolution with many Democratic votes after Rep. Nancy Pelosi extracts some pledge out of him that he really hopes doesn’t leak. The public learns about it when it immediately leaks.

Republican leaders get to keep the government open, conservative presidential candidates get to grandstand on the trail, House conservatives get to holler to constituents back home about the “spinelessness” of the Republican establishment, Democrats keep Planned Parenthood funded, and Planned Parenthood keeps Democrats funded. Reason prevails, in its own politically refracted way.