It would be easy to blame the federal government shutdown that began Tuesday on the general dysfunction in Washington, but that assessment would be simplistic and wrong.
The blame lies with a core group of Republican House members whose mission is to block, delay or gut the Affordable Care Act and with Speaker John Boehner's strategy to cede power to them.
Most Americans think the democratic process works this way: A proposal is submitted to a vote and the majority prevails. However, such is not the case in Speaker Boehner's House. The speaker has had the opportunity to submit a genuine spending resolution to keep government operating (without the ACA poison pill), knowing it would pass with near universal Democratic support and substantial backing from moderates and realists within his own Republican caucus.
He did not do that. Instead, he worked with fellow House Republicans on spending bills that could win a majority of Republican votes. But Speaker Boehner could not get that majority unless he kowtowed to the anti-Obamacare fanatics. The result was a series of House bills that sought to use the budget process to defund or delay the ACA.
These spending bills were doomed in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Sen. Harry Reid, majority leader, had made it clear the Senate would not entertain a bill that sought to use the budgetary process to block the health care law just as it was about to roll out.
Along with freshman Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a leader in the charge to include defunding ACA as a condition of funding the rest of government, Speaker Boehner had to know that President Obama could not be coerced into surrendering his signature piece of legislation.
As the Wall Street Journal, no fan of the health care act, noted in a Sept. 30 editorial, "Mr. Obama can never agree to that."
So what is the point? For Sen. Cruz it is burnishing his credentials with the hard-right fiscal groups and activists who will play a disproportionate role in selecting the next Republican nominee for president. Sen. Cruz is already, it appears, a legend in his own mind. For Speaker Boehner the motivation is more fear than aspiration. He is persuaded, it would seem, that letting the House vote on a spending bill that wins passage without support from a majority of Republicans would lead to a challenge that could strip him of his speakership.
Yet allowing the House to vote on a clean bill could achieve two ends, both getting a spending bill approved, while tossing some red meat to tea party members. They could return to their safely gerrymandered districts and boast of voting against the spending plan and against Obamacare.
Speaker Boehner would then have to convince enough reasonable members of his caucus that he deserved to retain the leadership position.
This may be the speaker's only course of action. He has turned the car into a dead end. The Democrats will not provide a path back out through negotiation and compromise. Republicans will increasingly face the blame for making an unreasonable demand that led to a government shutdown, putting 800,000 federal employees out of work, closing national parks and monuments, disrupting services and damaging the economy.
Speaker Boehner also must know he will never get backing for a bill that includes Obamacare funding from people such as Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. Asked why he continued to push for Obamacare-stripping proposals that had no chance of winning Senate approval and guaranteed a government shutdown, Rep. King responded with the kind of fervor that can only emanate from blind faith.
"Because we're right, simply because we're right," he told reporters. "We can recover from a political squabble, but we can never recover from Obamacare."
How can you deal with someone who dismisses as a mere "squabble" an impasse that shuts down government and who believes the United States, which survived a civil war and depression, "can never recover from Obamacare."
You cannot deal with such people. Speaker Boehner needs to face that reality.