First thoughts: How we got here
*** How we got here: The United States finds itself in Week 2 of a government shutdown, with NBC's Andrea Mitchell reporting on "TODAY" that the government is unable to pay immediate death benefits (for funerals and to reunite families) after U.S. military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan. What's more, the U.S. now faces the real prospect of default if the debt limit isn't raised by Oct. 17. And the political party controlling the House of Representatives—the GOP—can't seem to find a way out of the standoff it helped create. "We don't have the votes for a big deal, small deal, or short-term deal," an anonymous Republican aide told the National Review yesterday. So how did we get here? We can point to four structural changes over the last several years that have contributed to this governing crisis, particularly as it relates to the Republican Party.
1) Parties have less control over their members: The national parties and congressional leaders have less control over their rank-and-file than they used to. And there's one basic reason why: Money. Part of it is because of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform, which eliminated the practice of the parties being able to collect six- and seven-figure "soft money" donations. So when political parties stopped being the main source for cash, that was step one in the decentralizing of the parties. Another part has been earmark reform, which took away the ability of leaders and committee chairman to dangle goodies to get votes. (Think John Boehner could have more control over his caucus if he could promise a $10 million bridge in that member's district?) And a third part was the recent Citizens United decision, which allowed outside groups (and individuals) to have as much fundraising/ad-spending power as the parties. Think about it: Outside special-interest groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth have much more power over individual members than the Republican National Committee does. And whenever Democrats lose control of the White House, you can see how that party could splinter like the GOP has here, too. Speaking of campaign-finance changes, the Supreme Court today hears oral arguments about another possible one—the $123,200 cap on how much individuals can contribute (in the aggregate) to federal candidates and parties. It's just the latest example of how the changes in finance laws have impacted the power of parties, which in turn has made governing that much more difficult.
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2) Fewer competitive districts: There are fewer and fewer competitive congressional districts—due in large part to sophisticated gerrymandering and geographical self-sorting (with Democrats living in Democratic areas and Republicans living in Republican areas). During the last government shutdown in 1995-96, more than 33 percent of House Republicans represented congressional districts that Bill Clinton carried in the previous election, according to data from the Cook Political Report. Today, just 7 percent of House Republicans represent districts that Barack Obama won in 2012. This means there are fewer potential crossover votes. After all, what incentive does someone like Tea Party Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) have in working with Obama when Mitt Romney carried his congressional district by a whopping 42 points, 70 percent to 28 percent? In fact, his incentive is to oppose the president.
3) A changing media landscape: The changing media landscape has made it easier for the political parties to dig in. If you tune into one cable news channel, you're likely to see a completely different reality of this shutdown/debt ceiling story than if you watched a different cable channel. Indeed, this changing media landscape is one of the biggest differences between this standoff and the one from 1995-96. As the New York Times recently wrote, "a fervent group of conservatives—bloggers, pundits, activists and even members of Congress—is harnessing the power of the Internet, determined to tell the story of the current budget showdown on its terms." Of course, the same thing is happening on the left.
4) A political realignment nearly 50 years in the making: We've seen a complete geographic/demographic realignment in our politics, especially after a Democratic president (from the South) signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law and after the GOP's subsequent "Southern Strategy." So now you have a Democratic Party comprised of multi-racial voters that's based primarily in urban areas, and you have a Republican Party comprised mainly of white voters that's based in the South and rural America. That has contributed to the near-extinction of conservative-leaning white Democrats from the South and Northeast liberal/moderate Republicans. But more importantly, that realignment has become especially toxic in the era of this nation's first African-American president.
*** There's still a way out: All of that said, there still is a way out of this shutdown/debt ceiling standoff. The White House has signaled that it is OPEN to a short-term CR and debt-limit hike, which would meet the president's demand that he won't negotiate until after both are passed cleanly. After that, you could have a larger negotiation—over entitlements, the sequester, government operations for the rest of the year, and a longer debt-limit hike. Many might argue that such a short-term deal would only prolong the fight. (But isn't a cooling-off period in order?) The question here is whether Boehner and House Republicans could take this way out.
*** GOP doubts about the Oct. 17 debt-limit deadline: Meanwhile, NBC's Kasie Hunt reports that a couple of GOP senators are expressing doubts about the Oct. 17 date the Treasury Department has set for the U.S. reaching its debt limit. "To me that's all black magic. Those dates, how that's calculated in the Treasury Department," said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) though he added, "I'm not going to dispute it." Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said of the deadline: "I mean, you gotta take [Treasury Secretary] Jack Lew at his word, but from the standpoint of, does that put us in default? Technical default? No." Burr continued: "Because the federal government still has about 85 percent of the revenues that we spend coming in and all they have to do is prioritize that they're going to pay debt service first and that leaves some prioritization with federal programs. So I'm not as concerned as the president is on the debt ceiling because the only people that are buying our bonds right now are the Federal Reserve. So it's like scaring ourselves."
*** Jon Stewart vs. Kathleen Sebelius: If you're a Democrat and you've lost Jon Stewart, you have a problem. And that's exactly what happened when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius went on the "Daily Show" last night to talk about the glitches with the Obamacare website. "As the secretary sat down to begin the segment, Stewart opened a laptop on his desk. 'I'm going to attempt to download every movie ever made, and you're going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we'll see which happens first,'" CNN writes. "Sebelius admitted the website rollout 'started a little rockier than we'd like,' but said the administration had been working to make improvements. 'It's better today than it was yesterday, and it will keep getting better.'" We said it yesterday and we'll say it again: The last thing you ever thought would happen is that Team Obama would have a website issue. These were the folks who pioneered how campaigns interact with voters over the Internet.
*** Pryor fires back at Cotton: Finally, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) is hitting back at GOP Rep. Tom Cotton over his ad yesterday: In "Silly," voters say that Cotton has been "running frivolous ads at this critical time... But when Congress was debating whether to shut down the government, where was Tom? Down in Houston raising big bucks from Texas fat-cats."
—By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro and Brooke Brower for NBC News