US House Speaker John Boehner: Tipping is that the Republicans cannot win this standoff. Photo: Reuters
The photographer caught the "uh" moment perfectly – House Speaker John Boehner, lips goldfish-like, as he again demonstrated his wobbly leadership of a congressional rump that risks taking the Republicans over the edge in the US government shutdown.
Boehner, reflecting establishment unease that the Tea-Partiers are driven by a death wish, was anything but convincing as he tried to sell the latest incremental retreat from their conservative demands to dump all or some of the so-called Obamacare health scheme.
"[It's] moving forward – the funding's already in place; you can't shut it down," President Barack Obama hectored his opponents on Monday. "It's here to stay ..."
And there was Boehner, whose verbatim quotes suggest he was not even in charge of his speech notes.
"The President provided, uh, a one-year delay of the employer mandate," he said. "He's provided exceptions, uh, for unions, uh, and others. Uh, there's even an exception for members of Congress. Uh, we believe that, uh, everyone should be treated fairly, and so we're going to move, uh, here in the next several hours, uh, to take, uh, the – the Senate bill, ah, add to it, uh, a one-year delay of the individual mandate on the American people."
Convoluted and complex, it didn't fly, just as the Republicans' earlier demands for a complete "defunding" of Obamacare; and then, later, the offer they may settle for a one-year delay in implementing the scheme didn't fly. They also failed to gain traction for their "or-else" demand that they would shut down government by denying its day-to-day funding.
The United States political process embraces the notion that there must be compromise – so it was something of a culture shock to see the Democrats tell the Republicans to take a running jump, particularly given Obama's "we-can-work-this-out" approach to politics.
The question then is – will the Democrats keep their nerve, and if they do, can they retain what appears to be their current domination of the news media narrative, to ensure that it is the Republicans, not the Democrats, that get the blame for a saga that makes Washington a laughing-stock at home and abroad?
For all their bluster, it seemed the Republicans did not have the stomach for a total shutdown – on Tuesday, they suggested that maybe the deal could be softened by adding the Department of Veterans Affairs, national parks and the entire District of Columbia to a significant list of "essentials" that have been excluded from the shutdown madness.
For now, the tipping is that the Republicans can't win. At least that's how a slew of commentators are reading opinion polls and it's what their last two presidential contenders, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Arizona senator John McCain, are telling them.
But political wind is a fickle beast. Measured by opinion polls, Obama and congressional Democrats are stronger than the Republicans, but if the shutdown continues to the point of inflicting serious pain to voters and/or the economy, both sides might suffer – especially if this wrangle runs into the next round of argy-bargy, just weeks away, over limits to federal borrowing.
The dilemma for the Republicans is that they allowed hatred to pass for good political sense, by making the continued operation of the government dependent on taking an axe to Obamacare, a tactic that worries the public, notwithstanding their antipathy for the health scheme.
"The whole budget/shutdown fight has been a net minus for the GOP brand," Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers told The Washington Post. "For some reason the party can't get budget politics right. There is no consensus among Republicans about what to do or even what we are for, so we just look like the party of 'no.' "
Amid internal assessments that individual Republicans already were ready to fold, others seemed not to be coping with the stress. When a radio commentator asked Californian Republican Darrell Issa what would be the Republican reaction to the Senate's inevitable rejection of their latest proposal, Issa bellowed: "How dare you presume a failure? How dare you! How dare you! How dare you presume a failure."
Oh dear – time for a Bex and a little lie down.