House GOP looking for a "hail Mary"?

“Can’t anyone here play this game?” That’s an old Casey Stengel quote, and it’s the theme of my column today at The Fiscal Times, too.  Republicans have more or less put themselves in a cul-de-sac with the budget showdown over ObamaCare, especially now that it has rolled out, and stepped on the news cycle that could have been the best day ever for opponents of the ACA.  Fortunately for Republicans, that gift will keep on giving, as reports from the state make very clear, and we will no doubt have plenty of opportunities to underscore that message as the weeks roll along.

For Democrats, though, a shutdown should also have been a golden opportunity.  The White House has significant control over which functions get funded and which don’t, while the Senate could have kept pressure on by responding to individual crises and highlighting them for maximum public-relations effect. Instead, Harry Reid boots a question in a press conference that loses him at least one news cycle, while the White House and Barack Obama managed to do even worse over the first two days of shutdown, and even before it:

What did Barack Obama and his allies do? Obama claimed that Republican demands for negotiations on the debt ceiling amounted to “extortion” – despite the fact that Obama voted to oppose such an increase in 2006 as Senator.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to negotiate at all on continuing resolutions passed by the House, insisting that Republicans were holding “a gun to our head.”

Obama communications adviser Dan Pfeiffer – who should be helping to craft a strategic message to raise his boss’ leadership profile – compared House Republicans to terrorists on CNN’s The Lead, telling Jake Tapper, “What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest.” This came, it should be noted, on the same day in which Pfeiffer’s boss called Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to negotiate on nuclear weapons.  The State Department considers Iran one of the chief state sponsors of terrorists. …

The first day of the shutdown, though, the National Parks Service tried closing the memorial down to a group of World War II veterans who had traveled to Washington to see it, claiming that the shutdown cut off access to it. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), who accompanied the veterans, asked the White House to back off, only to get the brush-off himself. Instead, Palazzo took down the barricade himself to give the veterans access to the memorial honoring their own service in a park that is open to everyone anyway.

Did the White House learn a lesson from this PR debacle? Apparently not.   As Elizabeth Scalia points out, the President could have met veterans at the memorial the next day to express his appreciation for their service and toured the memorial with them. That would have given Obama some much-needed positive coverage and an opportunity to pressure Republicans into retreat without having to enter negotiations himself.

Instead, the National Parks Service spent Day 2 of its supposed shutdown by hoisting more barricades with forklifts to surround the memorial before more octogenarian and nonagenarian veterans could arrive. That took seven NPS security personnel, which Washington Examiner reporter Charlie Spiering noted was two more people than the Obama administration committed to security for the consulate in Benghazi a year ago.

Some Republican critics of the shutdown strategy based their opposition on an assumption that Obama would be at least politically competent, and would know enough to follow Bill Clinton’s playbook.  Clinton would never have allowed the opportunity to assist the World War II veterans slip through his fingers, and he would have made sure that White House press corps personnel followed him every step of the way through the memorial — and probably back to the White House to give the Greatest Generation a personal tour there, too, just to remind the media that tours have otherwise been shut down by the sequester.  Could anyone have predicted just how much Obama and the Democrats would have helped the GOP in the first few days of the shutdown?

Unfortunately for those furloughed, that gives Republicans less incentive to give up and vote on a clean CR, at least before the debt-ceiling expiration looms.  Byron York reports that House Republican leadership has run out of plays, but that may not concern them as much as it did a couple of days ago:

Wednesday was the best day in a while for Republicans, but not because of any progress they made toward their goal of defunding, delaying, or limiting Obamacare as part of a resolution to fund the government. Rather, Wednesday was a good day because Democrats handled their end of the crisis so badly. First, the Obama administration inexplicably went out of its way to barricade popular open-air monuments and memorials on the Washington DC mall, in particular closing off the World War II memorial to groups of elderly, Greatest Generation veterans who had come to the capital to pay their respects to a heroic moment in American history. Republicans couldn’t believe what they were seeing. “That looked atrocious,” said one well-connected GOP strategist, who suggested it proved once and for all that the ham-handed Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton when it comes to handling a government shutdown. …

So what now? House Speaker John Boehner and leading Republicans like Paul Ryan and Dave Camp are apparently reviving the old goal of a “grand bargain” — a budget deal that would include entitlement reforms, tax reform, and a new budget agreement, while also restoring government spending and raising the debt ceiling. The idea is that with the debt ceiling deadline coming up on Oct. 17, Republicans and Democrats could fix all, or at least many, of their problems in one fell swoop.

Such “grand bargain” attempts have failed in the past, and there is little reason to believe one will succeed now. And not just because Obama and Democrats are intransigent, which they are. The fact is, this is Oct. 3, meaning there are just two weeks before the nation hits the debt ceiling. Could Republicans get even their end of a “grand bargain” together in time? “Look at tax reform,” said the GOP strategist. “If you took Democrats out of the mix entirely, I don’t think Republicans could come up with a tax reform package by Oct. 17. There is a huge range of opinion on what direction to take.” The first “grand bargain” Republicans would have to reach would be among themselves.

The GOP probably can’t count on Obama being the gift that keeps on giving for another two weeks, but don’t expect anything to budge until Republicans actually lose a news cycle. That may not be soon, if the odd presidential meeting to say nothing new last night is any indication.

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David Strom 6:01 PM on March 29, 2023