WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says the health-care defund detour may hurt the Republican Party for years to come. The polls show that the damage from the government shutdown has certainly been acute. The Gallup poll that tracks the approval rating of Republicans in Congress looks like the bend of a hockey stick. At 28 percent approval, it is the lowest since the organization started measuring and down 10 points from last month. The Wall Street Journal poll has an identical finding: The GOP has never been less popular. By a margin of 22 points, the public blames Republicans over President Barack Obama for the government shutdown, a bigger gap than the last major shutdown in the mid-1990s. Seventy percent say that Republicans are putting their "political agenda" ahead of the good of the country.
Whether this is a permanent condition or a temporary one depends on getting Sen. Ted Cruz off the stage and Rep. Paul Ryan on — substituting a bristly champion of an unpopular strategy that divides the party with a congenial representative of the GOP's traditional views on taxing and spending. That's why House Republican leaders are trying to craft a deal with the White House to reopen government and start budget negotiations where House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan will be the key player.
There is obviously a premium for Republicans getting something from the White House related to what they call Obamacare, but for now the White House isn't offering much. Obama's negotiators probably won't concede anything other than a promise to talk about the health-care plan until after the spigot funding government is turned back on. This debate on sequencing is akin to the debate over the shape of the negotiating table that precedes the debate over what's on that table. Whatever deal allows the larger budget talks to begin will further mark the end of the health-care push. Even an agreement to remove the medical devices tax used to fund the Affordable Care Act — an item Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked for in her proposal to end the partial government shutdown — is a tinkering within the framework of the law that accepts the reality that the larger law is here to stay.
Agreeing on the conditions to end the shutdown is not a small hurdle, but once it is cleared, the GOP has a chance to start healing. That's where Ryan can come into the spotlight. He will be at the center of negotiations over spending and taxes, issues where the GOP has a better case than the one it had over defunding Obamacare.
As one of the authors of the current calamity, Cruz will have no formal role in the next stage. And his colleagues are eager to push him under the rug to show that he doesn't define the party. They have plenty of ammunition. It's not just that his health-care misadventure has tanked the party's popularity. It also has failed to change opinions about health-care reform, except to marginally improve them. In the latest Wall Street Journal poll, public attitudes about the legislation appear unmoved. Forty-three percent think it's a bad idea, and 38 percent think it's a good idea. That's about where those numbers stood three years ago. To the extent they have shifted recently, the movement is not in Cruz's favor. Those who strongly support the law are up to 31 percent from 24 percent. The number of Americans who oppose defunding health care has increased from 44 percent to 50 percent in the past month. Cruz predicted a tsunami of grass-roots support. It has not materialized.
Forty-four percent of the country doesn't know who Cruz is, so it's too soon to talk about the Cruz Curse. But he causes upset and infighting within his own party. Ryan doesn't. Indeed, there are also lots of inside-game reasons Ryan is a good choice to take the lead. He is trusted by both conservatives and establishment types. Though Ryan's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal signaled the final step in the GOP's movement away from the crusade to defund health care, Ryan nevertheless has credibility on the issue. Ryan voted against the Simpson-Bowles commission because it did nothing about the Affordable Care Act. He'll need all the credibility he can muster since there's likely to be a lot of grass-roots disappointment with whatever deal is struck with Obama.
When Cruz faced criticism during the shutdown fight, many lawmakers who disliked health care were uncomfortable defending his strategy — because they thought it was nuts. (Some saw him sinking and just wanted to throw him an anvil.) If Ryan gets in hot water in debates with the White House, Republicans will rush to his defense. They know the language of the fight: taxes bad, spending cuts good. Ryan operates within predictable guidelines, and he's worked tirelessly to implement conservative ideas while showing he puts party first. (He did run with Mitt Romney after all.) He's the kind of team player Cruz is not.
Ryan can help the Republican Party with its political problems and its unity problems, but his involvement in larger budget talks doesn't mean they'll be successful. (This is similar to the savior role he played in the Romney campaign. Great news for the base, but that's it.) Ryan has a fine personal relationship with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, but they've never really negotiated anything together, and they are far apart on the substance. Ryan's highly partisan convention speech undoubtedly torched any good will he may have had with Democrats. During the general election, Ryan's presence inadvertently helped Democrats turn out their voters in his home state of Wisconsin. His approval rating isn't very strong, which will limit his ability to set the terms of any national debate in a faceoff with the president. In a March Rasmussen poll, Ryan's favorable rating was 35 percent, and his unfavorable rating was 54 percent.
The biggest impediment to success, however, is that both sides are still just as far apart as ever on taxes and spending. To remind you of the essential fix: The White House is reluctant to embrace benefit cuts to entitlements unless Republicans contribute to shrinking the deficit by allowing some tax hikes. Republicans don't want to agree to raise taxes unless the president embraces big spending cuts on entitlements. It's instructive to look back at this summer's so-called Diners Club, a series of informal meetings between Republican senators and the president's senior aides, where even under the best circumstances the two sides could not cross these familiar bridges.
In Cruz the White House got a foil that it never really had in House Speaker John Boehner. "Every day I imagine the president wakes up and thanks God for Ted Cruz," said one GOP senator. For the party to recoup and rejoin, it needs a healer. That's a process Paul Ryan can guide. But given how far apart Republicans and Democrats still are, there's little reason to hope for much more.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of "On Her Trail." He can be reached at email@example.com.