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Column: Government shutdown threat means it's high noon for Obama

By Nicholas Wapshott

(Reuters) - As the nation heads towards a government shutdown and defaulting on its debts, the two battling sides cannot even agree which election they are fighting. Republican presidential hopefuls are jostling for position ahead of the 2016 primaries while President Obama has his eyes on the midterms next year. Both sides insist they will not compromise; yet both sides cannot win.

The president's blink over Syria has encouraged the GOP. His failure to act resolutely and stand by his promise to punish Bashar al-Assad for gassing his own people suggests that when he declared over the debt ceiling, "I will not negotiate over whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations. I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States," he may have been bluffing, just like when he said about Syria, "A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."

The Republicans who hope to launch their presidential bids by tapping into the energy of the Tea Party, currently obsessing about killing the Affordable Care Act by defunding it, are prepared to call the president's bluff. For Senator Marco Rubio, whose reputation among Tea Partiers was dimmed by his attempts to broker immigration reform, the debt ceiling showdown at the end of the month is the perfect way to strangle Obamacare before it comes into full force. "I'm in favor of funding the government at the levels that were agreed to last year in the Budget Control Act and not spending a single penny more of hardworking taxpayer dollars on a disaster, which is Obamacare," he said.

Rubio's rivals sing from an identical hymn sheet. This is Senator Ted Cruz's rendition of the "single penny" line: "Under no circumstances will I vote for a continuing resolution that funds even one single penny of Obamacare." He is under the illusion the president, given the chance, will welcome the chance to abandon his healthcare reforms, which takes a lot of swallowing. As they enter their second term, presidents tend to be preoccupied with protecting their legacy. Perhaps Mr. Cruz thinks that when the president declared, "The law I passed is here to stay," he had his fingers crossed behind his back, just as he did over the Syrian red line.

Here is Senator Ron Paul explaining his populist reasons for backing the defunding of Obamacare: "Everywhere I go, people say, ‘Defund Obamacare,' and so that's where I am." To give him his due, he knows threatening to defund Obamacare is just a gambit. "We were elected to represent the people who said defund Obamacare. So I think we should represent them," he explained. It's not exactly a principled stand, but he knows, like his rivals, that to win the nomination for 2016 he will need to appear to have tried to defund Obamacare whether it works out or not.

You don't have to be a progressive, or a socialist, or a liberal, or even a moderate conservative to believe it would be unpopular to shut down the government, with all the misery and human anguish that will ensue, and even more unpopular to cause the markets to crash by allowing America to default on its debts. All polls suggest the same: even a majority of Republican voters would blame the Republican leadership for inviting such disasters upon the country. Charles Krauthammer, the dean of conservative commentators, believes that such a course would be "suicidal" for the GOP. "The only thing it will do is to undo all the gains the Republicans have made over the past year, and undo their very real chances of having great successes next year," he said.

And it is "next year" the president has his eyes set on. The obstructionism of the House Republicans who make House Speaker John Boehner tear up at the mere mention of defunding appears to have got to the president, who hopes he may win back the House next year. Like Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles, the president has long since abandoned trying to persuade the irreconcilables on Capitol Hill, and has taken his plea for rational government on the road, where he points out how many more Americans would be in jobs were it not for GOP inaction. He believes that once Obamacare is fully established, it will turn out to be popular, just as universal healthcare has proven popular in every other country. That is what the Tea Party fears, too.

There was a strong element of exposing rifts among congressional Republicans when the president threw Congress the Syria dilemma to solve. There has been no clearer way of showing how fiscal hawks have overwhelmed defense hawks in the GOP than in the diametrically conflicting views of Senators John McCain and Rand Paul, or Lindsay Graham and Ray Blunt, over intervening in Syria.

The president is also enjoying watching the GOP leadership wriggle as they try to contain the damage to their party's national standing caused by posturing over defunding Obamacare, the sequester, the debt ceiling, and shuttering the government. To make the embarrassment worse for the few moderates who dare put their head above the parapet while the Tea Party is on the rampage, he has - to the chagrin of his liberal supporters - even agreed to cut some social programs in exchange for modifying the worst horrors of the brutal arbitrary cuts imposed by the sequester.

The last time Republicans shut down the government - twice - in the winter of 1995, the public outrage rebounded on the architect of the resulting mayhem, Newt Gingrich, whose anarchistic gambit House Majority Leader Tom DeLay dismissed as "the tirade of a spoiled child." If, as Gingrich now contends, the closure of government offices, the failure to pay benefits, the placing of government workers on furlough, and all the other indignities and inconveniences eventually led to Bill Clinton's epiphany that "the era of big government is over," all prizes went to the president, whose popularity sharply increased, not to Gingrich, whose reputation was permanently diminished.

So now we have another blinking contest. Will the Republican presidential wannabes, with the Tea Party at their backs, dare to back down? Or will the president renege on his word, as he did over Syria, citing the merits of compromise and reasonableness when America's prestige is put at risk. The most likely outcome right now is that Boehner, nominally leader of the House Republicans, will abandon the "Hastert Rule" - which says only measures that attract a majority of GOP votes should be brought before the full House - and allow a backroom deal to be done.

But what the president must be silently hoping for, though he dare not say it out loud, is that Messrs. Paul, Cruz and Rubio go the whole way, bringing government to a halt and causing markets to plummet at the prospect of America becoming a credit risk. During the shillyshallying over Syria he was painted as a blustering Wizard of Oz, hiding his timorousness behind a curtain. Now he has the chance to act like Dirty Harry, challenging his Republican tormentors to "Go ahead. Make my day." If he doesn't stand firm this time, he runs the risk of giving credence to Clint Eastwood's comic portrayal of him at the Republican Convention last year as nothing but an empty chair.

(Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

(Nicholas Wapshott)

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