The U.S. government shutdown has produced inconvenience, instability and unusually bitter invective. But it has also produced unanticipated consequences that have left Washington changed – perhaps for the remainder of the Obama years, perhaps longer.
When this imbroglio began, the Republicans were united in their impatience with business as usual, in their opposition to Barack Obama, in their determination to sidetrack if not to kill Obamacare in its crib. And when this episode began, the Democrats were divided, some counting themselves loyal to their president, some increasingly disappointed if not angry with him.
Now all that has been reversed.
The cracks in the Republican edifice came first. The tensions that produced them – regulars versus insurgents, lawmakers with safe seats versus legislators facing difficult election battles, above all late-twentieth-century conservatives against the new-breed muscular "tea party" conservatives – have been there all along. But they were masked by the party's success in holding the House and, before that, in winning two consecutive Republican terms between the two terms of Bill Clinton and the two of Barack Obama.
Now that mask has been torn away. First senior Republicans outside Congress, then GOP members of the Senate, and finally some House members expressed disapproval of the hard line the House Republicans were taking, refusing to pass a spending bill unless Obamacare – which had already become law – was trimmed back or killed outright.
Two important symbolic moments: First, when the arch-conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal cautioned against the GOP strategy. And second, when Sen. Ron Johnson, a first-term Republican from Wisconsin known as a reliable opponent of government spending, a disciple of Ayn Rand and a Tea Party favorite, expressed doubts that Obamacare could be defunded.
Indeed, with each phase of the capital crisis, the cracks in the Republican coalition became more evident, more threatening to the Republicans' prospects in the midterm congressional elections of 2014 and perhaps even in the 2016 presidential elections. The more some Republicans pleaded that the party hold together, the more centrifugal forces of American politics drew the party apart.
But that is only half the story. Precisely the opposite was occurring on the other side of the aisle on Capitol Hill and beyond.
Liberal Democrats had fallen out of love with Mr. Obama years ago, worried that the president was willing to cut old-age benefits that he regarded as unsustainable, troubled about the administration's enthusiasm for trade deals opposed by organized labor, skeptical of Mr. Obama's openness to spending cuts, concerned that his economic stimulus wasn't robust enough, disappointed that his health-care overhaul wasn't far-reaching enough, horrified by the intrusions into cellphone and Internet privacy – and some of them deeply disheartened that he would consider armed intervention in Syria.
Now the Democrats are rallying around their man, and the harder his stance, the harder the unity that Democrats are feeling – and expressing.
Since this crisis began, the president has not for a moment stood alone. At no time in his presidency has he been closer to Harry Reid, the senate majority leader from Nevada, and Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader from California.
There has been no second-guessing, no accusations of weak hearts, no trial balloons from the left intended to appeal to the president's conscience or shame the president for his apostasy. The Democrats haven't been this united since George W. Bush was president and the party rallied in opposition to his war, tax and spending policies and his openness to privatize parts of the income supplement for the aged known in the U.S. as Social Security.
When House leaders examined the possibility that conservatives' determination to take on Obamacare might prompt a government shutdown, they understood the risks involved, including the lesson of the Bill Clinton years, when a 1995 federal shutdown redounded to the disadvantage of Newt Gingrich's Republicans. They expected backlash from the public and the criticism of much of the mainstream press.
But they never figured that they would give new life to Democratic unity. Politics has surprises, to be sure, and those surprises almost never are good. This is a lesson the Republicans have learned this month, to their immense disadvantage and their considerable dismay.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.