What if you shut the federal government down and everyone was better off for it?
Take John Boehner, who was on the loser ledger of any serious accounting in the immediate aftermath of the shutdown. The House speaker had led his troops into a battle he knew — and had told them — they couldn't win. Sixteen days later, with the Republican brand bloodied and at all-time lows, he would have to back down, almost unconditionally.
Then a funny thing happened. The GOP rank and file began to coalesce around him. Boehner's tea-party antagonists in the House appreciated his fight; his allies appreciated that he was right. "A leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk," Boehner later told funnyman Jay Leno. Boehner was done with lonely walks.
"In the long term, it has definitely turned out to be a turning point, and a positive turning point, for the Republican Conference," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. Boehner has since helped muscle through a bipartisan budget, a bipartisan farm bill, and a debt-limit hike without losing control of his famously fractious conference.
"I'm not going to say it was worth it," King continued. "Things have turned out for the better, I'll put it that way."
It's been 150 days since congressional Republicans forced the closure of the federal government in a last-ditch effort to derail and defund Obamacare. They failed spectacularly at achieving that goal. But as each day passes, it's getting harder to find a political figure — Boehner, President Obama, Ted Cruz, House Democrats, Harry Reid — who didn't benefit in some way from the fight.
Five months later, the Great Government Freeze of 2013 is proving an appreciating asset.
This is not to discount the federal workers who suffered from a delayed paycheck or the Americans who were denied needed services. (Or the panda lovers blocked from their beloved live video feed from the National Zoo.) But the political obituaries written last October are turning out to be premature.
The shutdown renewed Washington's hand-wringing about gridlock, but the gears of government have actually begun to turn more efficiently ever since. Congress passed its first bipartisan budget in years. The long-stalled farm bill reached the president's desk. And playing chicken with the debt limit, which had left the markets frustrated, gave way to a relatively drama-free lifting of the borrowing cap in February.
"There are no winners here," Obama insisted as the government reopened last October. He specifically cited the "completely unnecessary damage on our economy" from the shutdown. Yet early economic indicators suggest the impact of the shutdown was far from devastating, and it certainly didn't drive the U.S. economy back into recession. "I don't call the shutdown a good thing," said Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and a Boehner confidant. He said the government closure obscured more than two weeks of a broken HealthCare.gov website, and "absent the Obamacare debacle, we'd still be bleeding." But Cole did say the shutdown has changed the dynamics in the House for the better. With hindsight, he said, Boehner was "unquestionably a big winner."
Then there are the obvious political victors: Obama, whose unyielding stance broke the back of the GOP opposition and chilled the precedent of using must-pass legislation as political hostages; Reid, who got the fight he'd been demanding, and won; and House Democrats, who raised gobs of money.
Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an email that Republicans still have "never adequately recovered," and argued that the shutdown "just reinforced their brand as reckless, irresponsible, and out of touch." The DCCC's best day for online fundraising in 2013 was the 24 hours leading up to the shutdown. And in the week after Cruz's 21-hour filibuster, the committee hauled in $2 million online.
The shutdown fight certainly helped Cruz cement himself as a household name. The freshman senator from Texas is now a hero to the tea party, if not its de facto 2016 presidential standard-bearer. "It was a huge boost to Ted, because the frustration with a lot of the Republicans and conservatives [is], it seems like Republicans are never up for a fight," said Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express.
Cruz's advisers firmly believe the shutdown will continue to pay dividends when the health care law falters, which they see as inevitable, and the public remembers Cruz as the man who fought hardest to stop it. "In terms of whether we should've stood and fought on Obamacare, I think the proof is in the pudding," Cruz told CBS's Bob Schieffer in late January. "Millions of people across the country have seen now why we were standing and fighting, because Obamacare's a disaster."
Meanwhile, the outside conservative groups that agitated for a showdown added reams of new members. The Senate Conservatives Fund collected more than 2 million signatures on its defunding petition, pocketing an army of new activist email addresses. In December, the group hawked "Ted Cruz Was Right" bumper stickers to try to turn those email addresses into donors.
And while such groups have seen their influence wane somewhat in the halls of Congress since the shutdown, they won a more cynical victory. The most lasting impact of the shutdown may be how it further eroded Americans' faltering trust in their government — a boost to the tea party's limited-government ethos.
Faith in the institution has almost never been lower.