Is this government shutdown a trap for the Tea Party?

It would be nice if it were

(Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The conventional wisdom in Washington is the Tea Party “forced” House Republican Speaker John Boehner to insert provisions first repealing and then postponing Obamacare into a measure that would secure funding for the federal government. The key question, though, is: Forced how?

As Washington Post opinion writer Ruth Marcus soberly noted in this morning’s newspaper, taking on the ideologues might cost Boehner his speakership — but so what? Making it into the history books as the speaker who led the country to the first government shutdown in some 17 years doesn’t sound all that appealing. And, let’s be honest, in almost every picture Boehner looks as if he’d just gulped down a mouthful of chewing tobacco. That is not the face of someone who’s enjoying his job.

Read: Ted Cruz and the Tea Party’s Dangerous Game of Chicken

As I wrote last week, one possible explanation for why Boehner and the rest of the Republican establishment have given the Tea Party so much free rein is that they fear primary challengers to the right. If they don’t accommodate the extremists, in other words, they might lose their seat — not just whatever role they’ve taken on in Congress. You can blame re-districting and party primary races for encouraging centrifugal forces rather than creating incentives to converge toward the political centre.

There’s another possible take, though: The current shutdown is a trap for the Tea Party, the product of an unspoken alliance between Democrats and pragmatic Republicans to tame the anarchists. Boehner might be quietly leading his newbies to step on a rake in hopes that the smack in the face will get them to relent — with the Democrats watching with their fingers crossed.

Putting up with a few shuttered federal agencies seems like an OK price to pay if it brings the extremists to the negotiating table in time for a compromise on the debt ceiling. That outcome, though, is far from guaranteed, for two reasons.

First, it isn’t clear that Americans will put the blame for the shutdown squarely on the Tea Party, or even on the GOP. A CNN survey found that 46 per cent of Americans would fault the Republicans, and 36 per cent President Obama. That might not be serious enough backlash to cause a reckoning.

Second, and most importantly, the Treasury has said it might run out of cash by October 17, which doesn’t leave very much time for the GOP’s unruly freshmen to learn the lesson.

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