House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, speaks to reporters on...

House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington after a closed-door strategy session. (Sept. 26, 2013) Credit: AP

President Barack Obama cancelled a planned Asia tour so he could deal with the government shutdown and looming debt ceiling fight. That's just as well. It's hard to sell American democracy overseas when it is working so unpredictably at home.

It's hard to imagine how anyone overseas can figure out why the mighty U.S. government has been brought to a partial shutdown when even its participants don't seem to know.

At first it seemed to be all about the Affordable Care Act, popularly or unpopularly known as "Obamacare." In fact, the confusion begins with the name. As a CNBC poll found, Americans were more likely to be opposed to "Obamacare" than to the "Affordable Care Act," even though they're the same thing. That's a tribute to the Republican side's rebranding skills, which by some measures have been more successful against Democrats than in favor of Republicans.

Yet the poll also showed Americans were more likely to answer "don't know" when asked how they felt about the ACA. In total, 46 percent of those polled were opposed to "Obamacare" and 12 percent said they didn't know what it was. But when asked about the "Affordable Care Act," only 37 percent opposed it, but 30 percent were unaware of what it was.

That's a strike against the president's marketing of his own signature health care program. He may have overestimated the intelligence or, at least, the interest of the American people.

Fortunately for the White House, their Republican opposition turned an advantage against themselves. Encouraged by polls that showed most of the public opposes Obamacare, they gave us something the public opposes even more: a government shutdown.

Speaker John Boehner and other House Republicans refused to approve a resolution to keep the government open past the Sept. 30 end of the old fiscal year unless Obamacare was repealed or scaled back.

When President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, stood firm against the Republican-controlled House, the impasse triggered the first shutdown of "nonessential" government operations in 17 years.

Amid the impasse, disarray opened up among Republicans as to what to do next. "We're not going to be disrespected," said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana Republican, revealing perhaps more than he should have to the Washington Examiner. "We have to get something out of this -- and I don't know what that even is." Neither, it seemed, did anybody else.

But a new clarity emerged by the end of the week. Talk of Obamacare suddenly faded away as understandable jitters rose over a bigger looming concern: the nation's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling.

The Treasury Department says it must be raised by Oct. 17 to avoid a default on the nation's credit card.

Now we're talking real money. The nation can weather a shutdown more easily than it can survive a reputation as an international deadbeat.

As talk of ending the shutdown blended with talk of the debt ceiling, the real goal of the shutdown came clear. It's not about Obamacare. It's about leverage. Republicans are looking for leverage to get their way on a variety of budget matters, not just Obamacare.

And Speaker Boehner is looking for leverage against his own maverick all-or-nothing tea party factions.

So what's his game now? Chicken or chess? Fortunately, various sources tell reporters that the speaker of the House is not crazy. That's reassuring. Boehner was willing to let the federal government drift like a crippled space station through a partial shutdown. But he will not, we are told, risk the full faith and credit of this country's government by allowing it to go into default.

Yet, Boehner by all indications already has more than enough votes in the House to pass a budget continuation or a debt ceiling increase. His problem is that most of them are Democratic votes. His own right wing is threatening him with losing his seat if he passes anything with a minority of Republican votes.

The real battle in Congress these days is not between the two parties but between two factions in the GOP. Boehner's way out may be the "grand bargain" that he and Obama tried to put together earlier, before the tea partiers got in the way. Now Boehner has some leverage. Our fiscal future depends on how he uses it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for The Chicago Tribune.


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