The safety restraint in Washington's shutdown

There is a view, often espoused by libertarians and small government conservatives, that the US constitution is designed to make the act of governing as troublesome as possible. By granting the president and the two houses of Congress separate but overlapping powers, the theory goes, the Founding Fathers wanted to make passing laws or enacting budgets so difficult that few laws or budgets would ever see the light of day. 

In this telling, the dramatic expansion of the federal government since the Great Depression – overseen by presidents of both parties – has been an unrelenting 80-year war against a constitution, devised by secular saints like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison, to prevent precisely such 'abuses'. For adherents to this worldview, the gridlock and dysfunction that currently besets Washington DC in the form of the government shutdown represents an invigorating and long-overdue fightback.

And they couldn't have hoped to find two better battles than Obamacare and the debt ceiling, both emblematic to these groups of grotesque federal overreach. The more protracted, the messier, the better. Former presidential contender and Tea Party caucus convener Michele Bachmann was typically frank: "This is historic," she told The Washington Examiner of the shutdown, "and it's a historic shift that's about to happen, and if we're going to fight, we need to fight now."

Bachmann does not represent a majority view within the GOP caucus, let alone the Congress. In fact, there are probably fewer than 40 hardliners among the 232 Republicans in the House of Representatives who embrace the shutdown as merrily as Bachmann, and no more than five or six of the 46 Senate Republicans. Most GOP lawmakers are mortified by conduct they consider unbecoming, reckless, and electorally suicidal. And yet the fanatical minority holds sway over current GOP strategy. How is this so?

At one level, the answer is surprisingly straightforward. The factional breakdown between pro-shutdown ultra conservatives and the relatively moderate wing within the Republican caucus is far less pertinent than this number: according to a CBS News poll last week, 48 per cent of Republican voters – and 57 per cent of self-identified Tea Partiers – support the government shutdown.

And most incumbents, representing deep red districts thanks to gerrymandering efforts I have written about previously (Border skirmishes: The gerrymandering game pulling Republicans apartAugust 7), are far more vulnerable to primary challenges from the Tea Party flank than they are to Democrats in the General Election. A vote to end the shutdown can be turned overnight into attack ads painting them as (shock!) soft on Obamacare or (horror!) dovish on deficits – and either position is enough to inflame primary voters and end careers.

You would be brave to bet against a right-wing challenger in today's climate, especially when you consider that low turnout primary elections tend to disproportionately attract fringe voters. That explains why even moderates alarmed by the current state of play are nonetheless eager to avoid expressing themselves in the form of a recorded vote. And it’s why, despite there being easily enough votes between mainstream Republicans and Democrats to end the government shutdown immediately, Speaker John Boehner won’t bring the matter to the floor of the House. He doesn’t want to force colleagues to vote in the national interest, or they may punish him for doing so by sacking him.

And so it barrels on: next stop, negotiations over the debt ceiling for which the deadline is October 17 (Showdown at the Senate saloonOctober 7). For decades a perfunctory measure adopted without fanfare since it simply authorises borrowing against spending already signed off by the Congress, the debt ceiling has emerged in the past year as a key front in the battle against Big Government. Even with economists and Wall Street Republicans warning that debt default by the US government would trigger global panic in the financial markets, GOP hardliners seem determined to test the proposition. Such a drastic step is too much for Boehner and his party’s leadership, who may have stumbled on a strategy to avoid the edge of the cliff. By linking the current Obamacare stand-off to the debt ceiling vote, Boehner can theoretically wrap two critical measures – ending the shutdown and raising the debt ceiling – into an all-encompassing negotiated package with the White House. 

While Obama has shown no eagerness to compromise (following Napoleon’s dictum never to interrupt your enemy while he’s making a mistake), he also understands that, ultimately, saving Boehner’s job may be the only way to avoid a catastrophic default. Expect to see emerging in the coming week contours of a deal involving some minor tax cuts, and perhaps even expedited approval for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline Project.

In one of the strangest political twists in recent memory, it may have become necessary to keep the US federal government shut down for a further two weeks to avert an even more reckless stunt. For all the head-shaking and consternation around the world at what appears from the outside as foolishness on a grand scale, the most alarming aspect of this whole affair is how much sense it all makes the closer you look. 

Phil Quin is a New York based consultant and freelance writer and former advisor to Gareth Evans and Steve Bracks. He can be found on twitter at @philquin