There is quite a bit of worry and concern about our side potentially being blamed for a shutdown. The polls don't show the public, at this point, clearly blaming the Republicans more than our side. There is worry that they have the better propaganda machine.
I am rarely one to not worry, but this is a case where I am reasonably confident that their side is going to be blamed for this shutdown by almost all the voters whose opinions can be swayed. Their side will never lose their dead-enders, but everyone else will blame them for the shutdown.
Lord knows that there are plenty of issues where it is all too easy to misdirect most of the electorate. People have their own lives to live, and little to no personal experience or expertise in most public policy issues. It is therefore quite possible, and quite commonly happens, that public policy issues can be successfully ripped out of context and then framed into a distorted context designed to give their side an advantage in determining the outcome.
It is true that the very fact that we are even having any sort of debate or question surrounding the annual appropriations process demonstrates that a topic like the annual appropriations process is definitely so far from most people's horizon of interest or attention that it can be gamed in this manner. The weighing of costs and benefits, and the decision to go forward or hold off on govt projects based on that process of balancng costs against benefits, happens when individual laws are passed that establish these govt projects. The only legitimate way to change these priorities is to make new laws or repeal old laws that create the obligation for the govt to undertake and fund these projects. The annual budget bills are simply a way to reconcile these obligations with specific funding levels for the specific agencies that are supposed to carry out the projects that the law obligates the govt to implement. The only legitimate areas of dispute over the annual budget bills whould be questions of whether specific agencies are either high-balling or low-balling how much money thay will actually need to meet the govt's obligations. This is clearly downstream of any question of whether the govt should or should not have undertaken these obligations.
Well, any side that tries to bring to the budget reconciliation process these upstream questions of whether or not specific programs ought to be funded, whether or not we can afford them, is simply and obviously not respecting the process. That side is trying to turn control of only one chamber into an equivalent of the control of both chambers and the presidency that is required to pass laws. The Rs in the House can't actually change govt priorities the legitimate way, because they only control one chamber, and you need the trifecta to change the law. So their strategy is to blackmail the other chamber and the president into letting them dictate priorities unilaterally, by threatening to wreak the havoc that will occur if they use the power their one chamber gives them to shut down the govt.
Unfortunately, that annual budget reconciliation process is too much inside baseball for most of the electorate to be appropriately outraged that the House Rs are demanding anything in exchange for doing their duty and funding the lawful obligations of the United States.
So far so good for the propagandists and misdirectors, and empirically, polls do indeed show that the electorate doesn't see either side as more to blame for the prospective shutdown. But the problem the Rs will run into as they actually implement their threat, and actually force a govt shutdown, is that the actual implementation, unlike the theoretical process, is too readily understandable. This is a game of budgetary chicken, and everybody understands chicken as a game, and how that game works, however inattentive they might be to the underlying policy and process issues at stake in this particular game of chicken.
Their spin artists can misrepresent the underlying process and policy questions involved all they want, but in this game of chicken, the Rs are unequivocally the aggressors, the crazy party that clearly set up this game. They don't conceal that, they glory and pride in it. They preen as the budget warriors, and they were foolish enough to imagine that coming out with Ryan's long-term budget plan, a plan for that upstream process of prioritizing what the govt should and shouldn't obligate itself to do, just as they launched their reconciliation game of chicken, would somehow legitimize the craziness of their intent to barrel down the middle of the highway in the game of chicken, damn the consequences.
That was a breathtakingly stupid move. Either arm of their scheme might work on its own terms, but bring them together, and they explode each other like matter and anti-matter. They come out with Ryan's plan in order to convince everybody that they have such a depth of ideological conviction ("This nation's very continued status as a great nation is at stake!") that they won't blink first in the reconciliation gane of chicken. They must imagine that this will help them win the game of chicken because they have set down a marker of just how monomaniacally convinced they are of this apocalyptic vision. The D side has to see that the Rs won't be blinking first, so the Ds better swerve aside. But they can't see beyond that to the obvious problem that however much being perceived as the crazier player helps win within the game of chicken, if you're playing as one of the two major US political parties, you can't win the battle of appearing crazier without losing the wider war of avoiding blame for the govt shutdown, the crash in this game of chicken.
That said, let me reassert my usual pessimism and paranoia. I don't think that there is much prospect of our side losing the blame game over a shutdown. I think that the Rs will take a clear, immediate, PR hit if they go forward. My big worry now is that they don't care about the immediate PR hit.
Even if they didn't expect the PR hit, and start to think of this shutdown as a mistake, they may calculate at that point that it is too late to go back to a more cautious strategy. They may try to tough out the immediate PR hit and gamble on winning the budget battle with the Senate and the WH big, so big that they get effective control over govt spending and thus govt activity. They will put off worry about winning the wider PR battle to 18 months from now, because they don't have to face the voters until then. They will gamble that their best, maybe their only, hope of recovering with the electorate, is for the economy to be better in Fall of 2012 after they have won this huge battle with the Ds in the Spring of 2011. The economy being better may have nothing to do with their policies, it may happen despite their policies, but they may conclude that the only way their party gets the credit for the improved economy that usually goes to the incumbent president, is to have at least seemed to have replaced Obama as the economic decision-maker by winning this game of budgetary chicken.