Chances are that before midnight tonight, House Republicans will shut down the government. Let the novena of needless cable speculation begin: How will it all end? Who will get the blame?
In this case, the speculation is especially needless because we know how it will end. We've seen this movie before. Well, some of us have. Apparently, the Tea Party wing of the GOP missed that epic, "The Winter of '95," when the wind chill factor greeting the last Republican shutdown was fifty degrees below zero on the Gallup scale. Republicans retreated like Napoleon out of Russia, and they will again. Here's why:
A Bit of History
Republicans rode into 1995 on the zephyr of a historic election victory. The Health Insurance Industry's front-family, Harry and Louise, had strangled Bill Clinton's Health Care Reform plan in its crib -- it never even made it out of committee, and voters punished the Democrats for it.
The GOP now held majorities in both House and Senate. Clinton himself was a wounded gazelle. Newt Gingrich and his pride of 73 zealous, hungry House Republican freshmen circled, and crouched.
Then, when Clinton refused to meet their demands for budget cuts, they sprang for the kill: they shut down the government, confident that the spineless "Slick Willie" would cave in to their demands, and that Americans would embrace their bold takedown.
But a funny thing happened on the way to hubris: no one caved, and few embraced. Clinton calmly declared that he was willing to compromise, but that he wouldn't be extorted into accepting drastic cuts in education, Medicare and other important programs.
Americans could only watch in dismay as the "non-essential" services of the U.S. government ended. Families who had planned a trip to a national park cancelled it. Businessmen who needed their passports renewed were grounded. Some people who needed a pension or public assistance check stared at their empty mailboxes, and so on.
Unexpectedly, Republicans found that the sheer size of the federal government was against them. Three hundred thousand federal workers were furloughed and another 480,000 "essential" workers were forced to work without pay. This army of the suddenly unemployed was spread throughout every city and state in the country.
These 3/4 of a million people, it turned out, had friends, neighbors and family members who cared about them. Even people who didn't know any federal employees were themselves emerging from a steep recession and could feel the pain of people who lost their jobs because government leaders refused to be adults and compromise.
As the shutdown began, polls showed that, unsurprisingly, voters blamed the party that had refused to fund, and thus shut down the government, not the guy who begged them not to shut it down, and then beseeched them to open it up (49%-26%).
Gingrich's own disapproval rating leapt like a non-wounded gazelle, by 20 points. Then Bob Dole and other moderates in the Senate abandoned the sinking ship of the shutdown and voted to open the government. Privately, Gingrich admitted to Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, "We've made a mistake. Our strategy isn't working."
In the end, without concessions from Clinton, and despite the fury of the freshmen zealots, House moderates recanted and put the "Open" sign back in the door.
Later that year, the once-wounded gazelle won re-election by a landslide and then, to furious applause, demanded in his State of the Union speech that Republicans "Never, ever shut the federal government down again."
So, Why? Here's Where It Gets Interesting
So, given this discouraging history, why are House Republicans tilting their lances at the same windmill that so soundly thrashed them eighteen years ago?
The Tea Party members who pushed for the shutdown -- about a third of the Republican caucus -- aren't worried about voter backlash. They tend to come from districts in the deep woods of the Deep South that are safe for far-right Republicans.
But many of their Republican colleagues were swept into office from competitive or even Democratic-leaning districts by the voter anger of 2010. They tend moderate, and they have reason to fear voter backlash.
As one measure of their precarious position, 27 House Republicans come from Districts where Obama carried 48% or more of the vote in 2012. In thirteen of their districts, Obama carried more than 50% of the vote.
Why would these vulnerable Rebublicans join this Children's Crusade against a fait accompli? Eight words: Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action, Club for Growth. These are the richer than God interest groups ready to rain down brimstone on Republicans who fail to toe their line. Their four-word mantra strikes terror in the heart of every House Republican: "WE WILL PRIMARY YOU!" That is, they will run a more conservative candidate against you in a Republican primary election, where conservative voters are disproportionately represented.
Of course, kow-towing to extremism makes these vulnerable Republicans even more vulnerable in general elections, where they have to carry moderate Republicans and some independents to win. Here, they're an extremist running against a moderate in a moderate district.
They are, in short, damned if they do and damned if they don't. In this round, Big Money seems to have convinced Republicans that getting primaried next spring is the clear and present danger.
That sense will last until "Winter of '95 II: Revenge of the Tea Party" debuts later today, and all of the above history plays out again. At that point, the GOP may recall Santayana: "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."