Everyone Won the Government Shutdown

It’s getting hard to find a political figure who didn’t come out ahead, 150 days later and counting.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 16: U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) pumps his fist after leaving a meeting of House Republicans at the U.S. Capitol October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. Boehner met with the Republican Conference after the Senate announced earlier that it had reached a bipartisan deal on funding the federal government and extending the nation's debt limit after 16 days of a government shutdown. 
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Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Feb. 27, 2014, 4 p.m.

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.

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