(Bloomberg Politics) — One year and one month ago, the Republican Party was doomed. Its conservative wing in the House, egged on by outside groups like Heritage Action, had refused to include the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) in the must-pass funding bill. The result, a two-week government shutdown, was a “total disaster” for the GOP, a mistake that threatened the majority. Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina firm favored by Democrats, found “as many as 37 Republicans” in danger.
Those flashbacks now read like dispatches from an alternate reality. As Republicans develop their strategy for undoing some of the Obama administration’s policies through next year’s budgets, they’ve been throttling any talk of a new shutdown. They’ve repeated, like a koan, that the only person in Washington craving a shutdown is Barack Obama. Yet in the received, popular GOP history of the last Congress, the shutdown really did not end badly for the Republicans. They won, didn’t they?
“Let’s think about all the hyperbole, the hyperbolic statements coming from everybody, particularly the talking heads on television,” said Arizona Representative Dave Schweikert, a member of the Tea Party class of 2010. “This was supposed to be the end of the Republican Party. The public would never understand what the fight was all about. Turns out the public was a lot smarter than a lot in the political class and media class gave them credit for. They were able to discern that it was an honorable fight over many of the things that were rolling out in the new health care law.”
The revisionist history of the shutdown began as soon as the shutdown ended. When the Democratic Senate bottled the Republican House’s PPACA-defunding bills, House Republicans started moving”piecemeal bills” that funded portions of the government. By January 2014, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz could say that he “repeatedly voted to fund the federal government.”
Through the rest of 2014, Cruz claimed that the shutdown fight, rather than distracting from the first wretched fortnight of HealthCare.gov, turned ‘Obamacare’ into a winning Republican issue.
“That fight elevated the stakes of the debate, and as a direct consequence suddenly Republicans instead of being competitive in five or six or Senate seats are competitive in 10, 12, 14 Senate seats all over the country,” said Cruz in August 2014, at the Iowa FAMiLY Leader Summit. “Obamacare is an albatross around the necks of the Democrats who foisted it on the American people.”
Cruz’s causation/correlation switcher made absolute sense to conservatives. Before the 2013 crisis, when the very idea of a shutdown came up, conservatives liked to point out that the 1995-1996 winter clash between Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress did not lead to a Democratic victory in November. Clinton was re-elected, but so were the key Republicans.
“Tell me in what way we didn’t win,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich asked rhetorically, in 2010. “After that, we got to a balanced budget. And what happened to the Republican majority?”
The 2014 elections went even better for the GOP than Gingrich’s 1996 survival run. Three members of the House Republican majority ran for Senate—Arkansas’s Tom Cotton, West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, and Colorado’s Cory Gardner. All of them won. The first two won by landslides. Only two incumbent Republican members of Congress lost elections, and far more who were put on the October 2013 watch list triumphed.
One example? At the end of the shutdown month, the Philadelphia Inquirerreported that Pennsylvania Representative Mike Fitzpatrick, New Jersey’s Frank LoBiondo and Jon Runyan had watched their seats “nudged toward the Democratic column” by oddsmakers. LoBiondo won by 25 points, Fitzpatrick won by 24 points, and Republicans held the retiring Runyan’s seat by 10 points.