Boehner reportedly tells GOP caucus: Dems will win if the government shuts down

Three possibilities. One: It’s all lies, concocted to weaken Boehner’s hand at a critical moment in negotiations. Two: It’s true, and is being leaked by Boehner’s allies in the caucus to warn the base that they might be steering us off a cliff before Paul Ryan’s epic budget has had a fair shake publicly. Three: It’s true, and is being leaked by Boehner’s opponents in the caucus to warn the base that he’s going wobbly and that they should keep up the pressure for deeper cuts.

“The Democrats think they benefit from a government shutdown. I agree,” Boehner said during a closed-door, 90-minute meeting on House Republicans on Monday night, according to several lawmakers who attended the session.

Boehner’s opinion was quickly backed up GOP lawmakers who were serving in Congress during 1995, when former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) squared off with then President Bill Clinton by shutting down the government twice. Reps. Don Young (Alaska), Dana Rohrbacher (Calif.) and Buck McKeon (Calif.) — a close ally — supported Boehner’s position. Dozens of other Republicans rallied to support Boehner as well, in a moment that one GOP insider called a “turning point” for House Republicans

But while Boehner may have backing from the old veterans in his camp, he’s run headlong into the tea-party group of House Republicans who believe that Obama and Senate Democrats would come off the worse if a shutdown actually takes place…

The split among Republicans breaks somewhat along generational lines, but even more clearly between those who have served in government — either in the state, local or federal level — and those who have never done so.

If there really was a “turning point” in Boehner’s favor last night, why is he suddenly demanding deeper cuts from Reid today? That’s not a move you make if you’re worried about a shutdown and have the support of your caucus in compromising to avert it. On the contrary, the fact that he would up the ante suggests that he’s looking at so many defections if the leadership agrees to only $33 billion in cuts that he might not be able to pass the bill even with significant Democratic support.

When asked why he thinks a shutdown now wouldn’t be a replay of 1995, Mike Pence said, “We have the internet, we have talk radio, we have an infrastructure to get our message out.” All true, and of course the country’s spending is crazed now in a way that it wasn’t 15 years ago. But don’t underestimate how many low-information voters are out there; we’ve already seen one example of that today, in fact, in the poll about New Hampshire Republicans who apparently haven’t gotten the memo yet about RomneyCare. There’s plenty of education available about how entitlements are driving America to fiscal ruin on the Internet and on talk radio and among conservative media infrastructure, but in poll after poll you find an astounding reluctance to reform Medicare and Social Security — even among tea partiers. No matter how good and plentiful your “messaging” is, some voters will inevitably conclude that the shutdown must be the GOP’s fault because, after all, they’re the party that opposes government. Democrats, being the party of government, would never support shutting it down! As crude as that reasoning is, some will adopt it, just as some continue to believe that entitlement spending can be maintained or even increased if we just start cutting stuff like NPR and foreign aid. The only question is how many people like that are out there — especially among independents. How lucky do you feel?

Exit question: If they’re going to risk a shutdown over this year’s budget, should Paul Ryan be the one to try to sell it to the media/public? On the one hand, with all the praise today for the seriousness of his 2012 budget, he’d bring extra credibility to the GOP’s arguments. On the other hand, if Boehner’s right and we end up losing the war for public opinion anyway, Ryan will be seen as the face of a misguided effort and that’ll hurt his credibility on the far more important subject of entitlements. Maybe he should be inoculated from this debate to keep his legitimacy on long-term fiscal reform intact.