The Government Shutdown

10.01.13

Don’t Listen to Shutdown Predictions

Pundits are taking it on faith that Obamacare will be a success and the government shutdown will damage the GOP. But previous shutdowns make clear that no one knows for sure who the winners and losers will be.

There seem to be three basic assumptions governing much of the coverage of the ongoing mess in Washington: (1) that Obamacare may have implementation problems but is good for the country and will prove popular; (2) that Republicans will greatly suffer for any shutdown; (3) to support a shutdown confrontation is a near clinical sign of insanity, temporary or otherwise.

It may very well be that 1 and 2 prove correct and emerge as prime evidence of the third. But history tells us that, more often than not, this sort of media-reinforced groupthink proves wrong.

Obamacare is the ultimate consumer product. More than almost any government program, it will touch a huge number of Americans. If people feel that it is improving their lives, that positive reaction will likely trump any ideological concerns. Likewise, if the experience is negative, supporters will turn into critics, as we’ve seen with the unions unhappy with various aspects of the plan.

Like any new consumer product, no one can accurately predict how the public will react, but so far, those who said that the more you got to know the plan, the more you’d like it have not proven prescient. That could change, but assuming Obamacare will be a great success is a leap of faith, not logic.

That same uncertainty should apply to the ongoing shutdown mess. Anyone who says they can predict accurately winners and losers is just guessing.

We’ve seen plenty of sure political bets go sidewise—Hillary in 2008 is inevitable, Nate Silver’s 2011 prediction that Obama had 17 percent chance of victory, the sequester will be a disaster—to know that whenever the conventional wisdom is tilting heavily in one direction, it’s time to give pause and consider an alternative.

For the president who was elected promising to ‘bend history’s arc’ and transform Washington, this is likely to be a moment he wishes had not happened.

The current mess is understandably compared with the government shutdown of 1995, which proved negative for congressional Republicans and presidential nominee Bob Dole. But it seems forgotten that the dominant prediction pre-shutdowns (and there were two) was that Clinton could be seriously damaged and Republicans benefit.

Even The New York Times cautioned President Clinton to compromise: “The President had less compelling reasons to veto the continuing budget resolution,” the Times editorialized on November 14, 1995. “His chief stated reason—to protect Medicare patients—is purely political.”

But betting against Bill Clinton in a big political moment has always turned out to be a losing game, and Clinton masterfully turned public opinion against Dole and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Today Barack Obama is more popular than any congressional leader, but to paraphrase a famous debate moment, he’s no Bill Clinton. Astoundingly, everyone in this drama, including the president, is more disliked than liked. The president currently sits at a near all-time low in his popularity.

There is nothing about this fight that Barack Obama seems to be enjoying. Clinton loved these mud fights and indeed still does. All you have to do is compare his recent interview with former staffer George Stephanopoulos with President Obama’s Monday-night White House press room appearance. Clinton was eager, excited, equipped with a prepared phrase that seemed spontaneous. Republicans “are betting against America” Clinton scolded. By contrast, Obama, as lately he often has, seemed tired and slightly annoyed, clearly not eager to seize the moment.

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It's the battle that's destroying Washington: John Boehner vs. President Obama in the fiscal face-off.

So will this be a repeat of 1995? It seems highly unlikely. That shutdown took place in the middle of a presidential race and the Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole, embodied Washington and the U.S. Senate. No surprise that public anger with Congress gravitated to the man who had been in Congress since 1960.

Now we’re three years from a presidential race and there is no Dole-like figure. If this blows up on Republicans, it’s likely Ted Cruz would face the most “blame,” though it’s hard to know how Republicans would react. It could help him with the hard core, but if these events were seen as costing Republicans seats, Cruz could possibly suffer damage with Republican primary voters in 2016.

But so what if Ted Cruz ended up damaged? Another Republican, possibly a governor, will emerge, and by 2016 this will likely seem like ancient history.

In these situations, the greatest risk and reward lies with the most dominant player—the president. I expect his lack of enthusiasm for the fight—see this piece by Michael Tomasky—is in part due to his innate caution. He likely sees Republicans like Cruz as overreaching and he doesn’t want to be likewise exposed.

There is always the chance the president could emerge as a hero with increased support and renewed personal passion. But it’s more likely this will play out like the debt-ceiling fight in August of 2011 and the recent sequester squabble.

Some players will have better-than-worse moments, but at the end it will be seen by the majority of the public as a muddled mess and further proof of Washington dysfunction. Everyone will emerge a bit smaller (though to Republicans, Cruz could emerge enhanced). For the president who was elected promising to “bend history’s arc” and transform Washington, this is likely to be a moment he wishes had not happened.

Regardless of the outcome, this is not the kind of political fight I relish. It’s easily confusing to the public and lacks a clear path to victory, more congressional trench warfare than shock and awe. Were I a Republican on the Hill, I’d be looking for a way to declare victory and pull out. In the end, that’s most likely the tact both sides will take, if only because the risk is greater than the reward.