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No One Knows What The Republicans Will Do Next

Strategists of all stripes scratch their heads as fiscal fight lumbers on.

Posted on October 12, 2013, at 4:01 p.m. ET

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

WASHINGTON — What exactly are the House Republicans up to? No one who watches politics for a living seems to know exactly, and few are willing to predict what lessons if any the GOP has learned from the current standoff.

Even after poll numbers showed the ongoing government shutdown and threat of default have dragged the Republican Party to its worst standing with the American people in recent memory, political consultants of all stripes say it's impossible to know if Republicans will abandon government shutdown as a strategy.

"Hell if I know," Republican strategist Ana Navarro said when asked if using a shutdown as leverage was off the table for the GOP. "I think [Texas Republican Sen. Ted] Cruz' credibility and power of persuasion on his colleagues has taken a hit from this experience. In the short term, he's going to have a hard time talking people onto a limb. But until the government is able to agree on a longterm solution to address the underlying problems with our budget and debt ceiling, they will be used in some way or another as a negotiating tool."

"But hopefully not a shutdown," she added.

As the 12th day of the shutdown was drawing to a close Saturday, it was clear that at least for now, House Republicans were standing pat.

After the White House shot down Republicans short-term debt limit extension and government funding plan, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor huddled with their members.

Some Republicans had hoped the leaders would use the Saturday sit down to try and talk some sense into their conference, which has become increasingly uncontrollable. Senate Republicans, in particular, were hoping they'd begin making the case that the shutdown had to come to an end as soon as possible.

Instead, Boehner, Cantor and other leaders essentially threw the ball back into the lap of Senate Republicans, insisting to their members that it is up to the upper chamber GOP to hold the line against Democrats — despite the fact that they are in the minority.

"I hope the Senate Republicans stand strong so we can speak in a united voice," Cantor told reporters following the meeting.

At the same time, Budget Chairman Paul Ryan attacked a compromise being crafted by Sen. Susan Collins undermining its chances even before Senate Democrats and the White House could reject it.

The House's seeming disinterest in trying to come to terms with the dual crises was pushing their counterparts in the Senate to the brink. "Where the hell is their plan?" one veteran Republican aide said dismissively.

The conundrum for political observers watching the GOP: While House Republicans are pushing for a short term opening of the government — suggesting they've abandoned their plan to use government funding to force Obama to act — even if Democrats were to acquiesce there remains no evidence Republicans wouldn't find themselves right back here the day after a deal expires.

Democratic strategist Paul Begala said there's little sign Cruz is willing to change his tune, suggesting the tea party members won't be willing to deal either, even as polls show their strategy is tanking their party's political standing.

"Cruz is weird. He's like the frat boy in 'Animal House' who, after he's paddled says, 'Please, sir, may I have another?'" Begala said. "The American people are spanking Cruz and the whole GOP, and he seems to enjoy it. Oh well."

Republican strategist Rick Wilson said he doubts Republicans get behind a shutdown again — but he doesn't think shutdown as a political strategy is gone for good.

There won't be any new shutdowns "until there's a Republican President with a Democratic House majority," Wilson said.

When the shutdown began Oct.1, Wilson penned an essay urging conservative activists in his party and establishment leaders to figure out an endgame strategy or risk losing the narrative to Obama and the Democrats.

"In politics, a plan beats no plan every time, and for the post-shutdown message battle we need a communications plan that runs deeper than 'Fire two broadsides and board 'em in the smoke,'" Wilson wrote.

Twelve days later, with some polls bearing out his fears, Wilson is still looking for his party to figure out what it's doing and do it. "The House leadership couldn't play poker with a gun to their heads," he said.

"This turned into everyone swimming in the pool with a turd. Everyone is getting some nasty on them, but someone is going to be holding the sumbitch when the whistle blows," he said. "No one will be covered in glory."

Democratic strategist and former senior Obama aide Bill Burton said he sees no evidence that the conservative right is going to change tactics, sticking with shutdown and default threats even as the polls tank around them.

"Despite brutalizing the Republican brand through this process, the tea party isn't motivated by the same things that motivate most politically sophisticated people," Burton said. "So, yes, I assume they will try this again."

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