The 2013 government shutdown was a disaster for the GOP. It began with Republican congressional leaders being humiliated by the Ted Cruz wing of the Republican Party, and ended with Republicans setting a new record for unpopularity in Gallup's polls.
This was predictable, and it was predicted. Republican Party leaders knew the shutdown was a stupid idea going in, but, as often happens, they lost control of their conference. But after surviving the shutdown and then being saved by Obamacare's disastrous rollout, they were determined not to repeat their mistake again. "There's no education in the second kick of a mule," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters.
But sometimes you forget the first kick. In a new interview with Politico, McConnell threatens more shutdown-based tactics if Republicans retake the Senate. Obama "needs to be challenged, and the best way to do that is through the spending process," McConnell says. Specifically, he promises that Republicans will "pass spending bills, and they're going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy."
The way this might work is that a bill to fund the government will come with a rider that the Environmental Protection Agency back off its efforts to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. If Obama vetoes the bill the government shuts down. Or maybe it comes with a rider that Obama repeal his executive action helping DREAMers. If Obama vetoes the bill the government shuts down.
Jonathan Bernstein notes that McConnell never actually says the word "shutdown" in the Politico interview. He could intend to stop well before the government actually shuts down. He could simply "force vetoes", and then, after Obama vetoes his spending bills, he could strip out the offending language and pass a version of the bill Obama can accept.
But does anyone actually believe that his party's conservative wing will let him do that?
McConnell and Boehner don't have the kind of precise control over their party necessary to ensure brinksmanship never ends up pushing them over the brink. Perhaps McConnell does intend to score symbolic points and then back down in the face of presidential vetoes. But does Sen. Ted Cruz? Does Rep. Steve King? Does Fox News? (In a telling moment, the Politico article quotes Cruz waffling over whether McConnell is fit to be Senate Majority Leader.)
There are two reasons to think that it will be even harder for Majority Leader McConnell to back down than it was for Minority Leader McConnell. The first is simply that the majority is a more powerful position. Senate Republicans currently have the excuse that they're in the minority and can't force Obama to do anything. But once they win the majority they'll have to prove they're good for something. If conservatives don't want to hear that a Republican Senate minority can't win its confrontations with Obama, they surely don't want to hear that a Republican Senate majority can't win its confrontations with Obama.
Compounding that problem, McConnell's Senate will be particularly scared to cross the conservative base. The 2016 election will put the Republican wave of 2010 in the crosshairs. As of now, it looks like 24 Republican-held Senate seats will be up for reelection in 2016. That means 24 possible Republican primaries. That means at least 24 Senate Republicans who won't want to back down before Obama's vetoes. And this is coming after a cycle in which House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost a primary challenge. No Senate Republican will feel safe being seen as a sell-out.
So McConnell intends to unleash a tactic that will almost inevitably end with shutdowns — whether he wants them or not. This might make sense if Barack Obama were running for reelection in 2016: the shutdown hurt his popularity, too, and perhaps it would make sense for congressional Republicans to mount a kamikaze mission against his third term.
But Obama isn't up for reelection in 2016. These shutdowns will be a disaster for the Republican Party that will help elect Hillary Clinton — and help Harry Reid retake the Senate. Republicans will end up backing controversial positions with wildly unpopular tactics and the Democrats will take full advantage when they face the friendlier presidential electorate.
For that reason, winning the Senate in 2014 will be a double-edged sword for Republicans. All else equal, it's of course better to hold more seats than fewer. But all else isn't equal. The internal pressures of the Republican Party are such that if Republicans win the Senate in 2014 they'll probably chart a course that makes it likelier they'll lose both the Senate and the White House in 2016.