Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountains. Like wind in the meadow. The days have gone down in the west. Behind the hills, into shadow. How did it come to this? - JRR Tolkien, Lord of the RingsIt hasn't yet come to pass, but the inevitability of a government shutdown is as certain as a sunrise on October 1st.
The damage of another shutdown, similar to the ones we had in 1995 and 1996, are pretty clear: lost earnings reaching into the billions, petty inconveniences to average Americans, loss of confidence in the governance of the nation. The stock market as always is worried and at risk.
Shutdowns are serious business. The results of the previous ones didn't go so great for the party that pushed for them: the Republicans ended up getting the blame, failed to achieve much of what they wanted, and made Bill Clinton look good for his re-election in 1996. The more recent shutdown threat in 2011 over the debt ceiling tanked Congress' polling numbers from which it has yet to recover. And the polls are showing that a majority of Americans don't want a government shutdown, and will blame the Republicans if one takes place.
And yet, here we are. The Republicans - and no matter how they try the blame game on Democrats ("If only the Democrats would compromise on everything we want like tax cuts and defunding Obamacare and infinite military spending...!") - are pushing for this showdown.
How did it come to this?
An interesting reason is that a sizable number of the Republican voting base want a shutdown in the first place. There's that strain of uber-libertarianism that doesn't so much want "small" government as it wants NO government: full deregulation, no taxes, free reign on finance and do-what-thou-will will be the Law of the Land. A kind of conservative variation of anarchism that would make Randians weep for joy and a majority of Americans weep in pain. The faction of the GOP that wants to prove government is ineffective and will happily crash it over a cliff to prove it.
The other faction of that Far Right voting base isn't as extreme as that, but are convinced that the threat of a shutdown - if not the shutdown itself - will force the Democrats to defund Obamacare. These are the voters who have been told since 2009 about how Obama isn't really the President, that Obama is a socialist fascist fake American, that he's imposing Sharia law and taking our guns (personally, in the dead of night, through 10 miles of snow, uphill, both ways), and that above all Obama's signature health care reform law is unconstitutional and full of death panels. Having been told for four straight years, these are the people who wholeheartedly believe Obamacare is outright evil... and that you don't compromise over evil...
But it's not just the base. This is an action being pursued by the elected officials in the GOP-led House - not so much in the Senate, where Ted "All About Me" Cruz is the biggest thumper on the showdown - who have sold themselves as liberators of the Right and have obsessed themselves over eliminating Obamacare at all hazards. Up to and including the fact that they've voted 41 times now to overturn, kill, or defund Obamacare and yet never find the time to pass a jobs bill for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. These are the elected officials who are on a singular mission: make Obama a failed President. They couldn't succeed making him a one-termer, but now they're aiming for the next best thing: force Obama to reject his own signature achievement in office.
Another reason the GOP leadership do not seem so concerned about the fallout from pursuing a government shutdown is that in practical terms it didn't cost the Republican Congress of 1995-96 all that much. They only lost a handful of seats in the House and gained a couple seats in the Senate that election cycle (the only real loss was making Clinton look good enough to win re-election).
The failing of that logic is that for starters this isn't 1996: in 1996 the economy was booming behind the Internet Tech bubble; in 2013 the economy is still in a recession of failed wage growth and wobbly housing values. Also, in 1995 and 1996 Congress was functional enough to have passed spending and appropriations that kept much of government functioning quite well during the shutdowns: in 2013, this Congress hasn't passed or agreed to much of anything and is in fact mired in a sequester cutting program that has left government dysfunctional. A shutdown today would be a disaster, and the GOP doesn't see it.
What does concern the GOP leadership is that voting base they've stirred up the past four years. Placating the base is far more important to them than actual governance. For all the reality of incumbents enjoying near-certain re-election wins in general elections, those incumbents are terrified of facing primary challenges. Say hello to one of the major costs of gerrymandering: outside of the fact that gerrymandering creates wasted votes, these specially-crafted congressional districts are designed so that the party candidate of that district is favored to win no matter what (almost). The big reason the Republicans held onto the House in 2012 wasn't because of their popularity: it was due to having crafted enough gerrymandered districts to maintain control. But while it was good for the party in 2012, it's bad for the Republicans in 2014 because the gerrymanders don't stop primaries.
The Far Right base - the Tea Partier faction - is stirred up and angry... and utterly convinced that if "their" elected officials so much as blink towards a compromise with hated Obama, they'll put up an even Further Right wingnut as a challenger. And the nature of a primary fight is "who can pander the most to the voting base who turns out": primary elections are poorly attended by moderate (aka sensible) party members, and so candidates veer sharply to their base (Dems to their Left, GOP to their Right). An incumbent could win a general election but before that happens he/she can seriously lose a primary to a more extreme opponent: it has happened before. The RINO party purge hasn't finished yet: it's even going after incumbents who had purged out RINOs three or four election cycles ago. And if the extremist candidate replacement is extreme enough, the Republicans could lose what would have been an easy gerrymandered (or Red State) win.
So this is how we got here. A political party in the Republicans who have been for decades purging out more moderate party leaders until a more partisan faction is in control... and yet the mechanisms they used for those purges are still in place and eagerly purging out the partisans for even worse extremists. Now fearing their base as much as they pander to it, the Republicans have to pursue an obsessive agenda - defund Obamacare or otherwise make Obama concede to Far Right policy - at all hazards, up to and including a government shutdown and economic crisis for which they'll be blamed and which for most reasons will have far greater repercussions in 2014 than previous shutdowns had in 1996.
And this is all on top of the House GOP voting on a Food Stamps defunding bill that cuts $39 billion in aid to starving families. Basically an open act of sadism that hurts more poor whites than it does any minority group. It's like the Republicans WANT to commit political suicide. Who's gonna be left voting for Republicans by 2014?