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Goodbye to the strategy Republicans knew was a fantasy

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
October 9, 2013 -- Updated 1606 GMT (0006 HKT)
The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13, 2013. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, 2013, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13, 2013. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, 2013, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: Republicans have quietly abandoned strategy to defund Obamacare
  • She says they secretly knew it was hopeless but felt forced into it by Ted Cruz, others
  • Borger says shutdown news overshadowed sputtering start to Obamacare
  • She says Boehner is back to where he wanted to be: urging spending cuts for debt limit deal

(CNN) -- Just one week ago Republicans were united, railing against the man-made evil known as Obamacare. They hated it so much, they said, they would tie the funding of the government to the defunding of the dread program. Sure, they had tried more than 40 times to get rid of the plan before, but they had never done this: Attach the plan to kill it to a must-pass piece of legislation.

It was an idea born of necessity, some now tell me. Republicans in the House had been hit over the head in their districts by ads run by conservative political action committees (paging Sen. Ted Cruz, who appeared in some). The rap against them: They had not worked hard enough to slay the evil dragon. The charge, having been plastered all over TV, was leveled against them at town hall meetings over the summer.

They came back to Washington very angry at Cruz and Company. And in survival mode.

So the plan to defund Obamacare -- and tie it to a measure to fund the government -- was hatched.

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

Never mind that House Speaker John Boehner was already on the record saying he didn't want to do that. He had no choice but to capitulate: If he didn't adopt the strategy, he would face a revolt. Who wants that when you're just back from summer vacation?

So defunding Obamacare became the new war cry. It passed the House, went to the Senate, where Cruz then promptly told reporters it would die. At that moment, Cruz morphed from the Pied Piper of House Republicans into the man on the Most Wanted sign. He had left them out on a limb. "He's a demagogue," one senior House Republican told me, then going on to detail how Cruz was shooting "his own team from behind" and other choice descriptions.

So Cruz had no choice but to mount his own faux-filibuster, which went nowhere. The Senate passed a clean bill to fund the government, and the rest is history.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the national stage: The president decided not to cave, and Republicans treated this as if it were shocking that he would not gut his single biggest legislative achievement.

Shutdown endgame
Defunding Obamacare a 'fool's errand'
McKeon: Enrollment in 'single digits'

But something else happened, too. The health care exchanges -- the heart of Obamacare -- came online, and it was a mess. The White House that had been lauded for its technical acumen suddenly looked like a bunch of Luddites. The system crashed, bobbed and frustrated. The White House refused to release reliable numbers so the public's level of participation could be gauged.

It landed with one big thud, which would have been a big problem for the administration, except for this: Nobody was talking about it, because the country was preoccupied with the shutdown.

So Republicans had accomplished the seemingly impossible: They trampled their own message on Obamacare. They finally had a great hook. But what were they doing instead? Scrambling to find ways to re-fund parts of the government to curb public outrage.

Great strategy.

Oh, and by the way, we could wind up paying all of those furloughed workers. Sure, this isn't their fault. But look at it this way: A government drowning in red ink is paying people not to work.

Another great moment.

All of which brings us up to date in this dysfunctional story. So Obamacare had a crashing start, the government is shut down, and the deadline to raise the debt ceiling is a week away. And the debt ceiling, as you know by now, is the bigger problem: no Social Security checks, no Medicare, high interest rates, and on and on. Everyone -- save for some debt ceiling deniers -- believes it can't happen. So what to do?

If you look closely here, you will see that something very profound has changed: Republicans seem to have pressed the delete key on talk of defunding Obamacare. They can't get it done. Their poll numbers are tanking. They're panicking. And some cooler heads I have spoken with are privately making the same point: Wasn't it always unfair to promise people something the Republicans knew they could never deliver (defunding Obamacare)?

So Boehner, no fool, carefully turned the page on all of this, moving to the terra firma he always wanted to be on in the first place: deficit reduction. Tie a package of spending cuts to raising the debt ceiling, he says. That's what has always been done. We are being reasonable about this.

No, says the president. You're not being reasonable. You tried to kill my health reform bill, so no negotiation until you fund the government and raise the debt ceiling without anything attached.

In the end, they will probably find a short-term way to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling and continue to argue over spending and taxes. But the House GOP scheme, abetted by Cruz and outside conservatives, will become a case for the civics classes. A study of the newly perverse politics of our time, and how a government was brought to its knees over a fight only a few wanted to wage -- that everyone secretly knew could never be won.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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