Winners and Losers in the Shutdown Battle

The latest congressional fracas is good for Obama and Cruz, bad for Mitch and the rest of us. Reuters

Even a race to the bottom has winners and losers. So it is with the U.S. government shutdown. Poll after poll bears bad news for the Grand Old Party: A majority of Americans blame them for the shutdown, saying they put politics above country. Today’s polls seldom if ever translate into tomorrow’s electoral defeats, but here is what we proudly used to call in Newsweek the conventional wisdom.

Biggest Loser: The Republican Party. True, it was a photo finish, but the shutdown underlined the party’s still unresolved civil war between ultraconservative, libertarian types made up largely of new House of Representative members and more traditional GOPers. Voters don’t like parties who can’t decide who is in charge. Americans blame Republicans more than the president or the Democrats by a 22-point margin (53 percent to 31 percent), according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last week. The poll found just 24 percent have a positive opinion of the GOP.

Winner: Ted Cruz. The freshman senator from Texas championed the shutdown and is basking in the conservative accolades his anti-Obamacare campaign is bringing him. That he is disliked by most Americans, or that establishment Republicans like Senator John McCain despise him, is of little consequence to Cruz. Having cast his lot with the Tea Party, Cruz won the presidential straw poll at the Values Voter Summit last weekend and is currently the movement’s top man. As long as he stays that way, he’s winning.

Loser: Marco Rubio. Viewed suspiciously by both the establishment and the Tea Party, Florida Senator Rubio is no one’s top choice for president in three years’ time. He tried to sidle into the spotlight whenever Cruz spoke to the press during the shutdown, but otherwise his contribution was noticeable by its absence. Once a likely Tea Party favorite for president, Rubio has fallen a long way in a short time. He did himself no favors by volunteering to become a top surrogate for Mitt Romney’s failed presidential campaign last year, then lost sympathy when he became a prominent advocate for immigration reform. Spurned, the Tea Party is now embracing Cruz.

Winner: Democratic Party. If the team you’re playing against is struggling, you’re winning. Though Americans aren’t thrilled with either party right now, Democrats are seen as the only grown-ups in the room.

Losers: Republicans in Swing Districts. Already facing tough re-election battles due to the bipartisan makeup of their districts, House Republicans in swing districts have been hurt by the shutdown. Polls show that voter anger over the shutdown is more of a hammer than a scalpel, showing a desire to replace current members of Congress, no matter the party. A majority of Americans want to send every member of Congress packing. Given the chance to vote out every lawmaker, including their own, the same WSJ/NBC poll found 60 percent would take that deal. For Republicans in swing districts, that’s bad.

Winners: Vulnerable Senate Democrats. Before the shutdown, the electoral map for next year’s Senate elections favored Republicans. To keep control of the Senate, Democrats need to win seven seats in traditionally Republican “red” states won by Mitt Romney, as well as a handful of seats in “purple” states. Among the most vulnerable are senators Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor in Arkansas. But the shutdown has given this pair a chance to go on the offensive because their main opponents next year are House Republicans embroiled in the shutdown fight, Louisiana’s Representative Bill Cassidy and Arkansas’s Representative Tom Cotton.

Loser: John Boehner. Even Democrats feel sorry for the House speaker, who seems hell-bent on keeping his job by pandering to the minority Tea Party contingent in the House Republican caucus. Though Boehner has humored the ultraconservatives thus far, it’s hard to see any deal passing that won’t upset them. And that hurts Boehner.

Winner: Paul Ryan. The shutdown and the debt ceiling have given the House Budget Committee chairman and Romney’s vice presidential sidekick an opportunity to flex his leadership muscles and present himself as a dominant force in the House. If the Wisconsin Republican wants to be speaker one day, this won’t hurt. But he will need more than keeping mum when the flak is flying to suggest he could be a prime presidential candidate.

Loser: Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator was a Tea Party favorite and top pick among conservatives in 2016 until Cruz raised the bar for Tea Party favoritism. Paul has backed Cruz’s defund-Obamacare-or-else strategy, but he’s not the ringleader, and that means he’s losing.

Winner: President Obama. By hurting themselves, Republicans are helping the president. While Republicans have seen their approval numbers tank, the president’s numbers have remained stable. The WSJ/NBC poll even found his numbers moving up two points between September and October. Generally, the Republicans’ loss is Obama’s gain. How Obama ultimately fairs is anyone’s guess. He will win if he convinces Republicans not to try this kind of shutdown or default shenanigans again, which is unlikely. But if Republicans take a permanent hit, that could help him get closer to the budget deal he wants, or, even better, succeed on one of his legislative priorities, like immigration reform.

Winner: Obamacare. The rollout of the insurance exchanges on October 1 was disastrous. The tech problems with the website should have been a political low point for the administration and the new law. Instead, the shutdown has eclipsed all this bad news for Obamacare which in one poll became more popular since the shutdown.

Winner: Harry Reid. The Senate majority leader held together a fractious Democratic coalition before and during the shutdown, playing hardball with Republicans and refusing to compromise on the big issues. For a party notorious for buckling, fracturing, and compromising, Reid must be feeling pretty good right now.

Loser: Mitch McConnell. The shutdown is a disaster for the Senate minority leader, who is facing a primary challenge from Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin in his home state of Kentucky. Just as McConnell is trying to prove his conservative bona fides back home, the shutdown crisis has forced McConnell to cede concessions to his counterpart, Majority Leader Harry Reid. Even worse for McConnell, the deal he came close to completing with Reid that was rejected by House conservatives on Tuesday means his name is attached to a deal his party rejected as too liberal. Meanwhile, his Republican opponent in the tight Senate race is his milking the situation. “At a time when conservatives need him to stand strong in the Government shutdown battle,” a Bevin campaign email this week read, “Mitch McConnell is negotiating our surrender.” Poor Mitch.

Winners: Pandas at the National Zoo. The American people have gone two weeks without their beloved panda cam. In that brief time, the giant pandas had their privacy restored and enjoyed some peace and quiet away from prying eyes. Shouldn’t pandas have Fourth Amendment rights?

Losers: Everyone. The economy is at risk, millions are out of work, American democracy is no longer functioning properly, the national parks are closed and the rest of the world is shaking its head – and fist – at America. Little wonder every morning we feel it’s the morning after.

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