Five Reasons Democrats Should Fear a Government Shutdown

Beltway wisdom suggests a budget stoppage would be a boon to the Democrats and a disaster for the GOP, but David A. Graham says not so fast—Boehner is no Gingrich, and Obama's no Clinton.

President Obama and John Boehner. Credit: Ron Sachs / Landov; Mark Humphrey / AP Photo

Although Democrats and Republicans have eked out a deal to prevent a budget shutdown for the time being, there’s a Beltway consensus forming around two basic ideas: The government is going to shut down sometime in the next few months, and when it does, it’ll be a boon for President Obama and a catastrophe for the GOP.

The first assumption is simple enough to understand. Although Republican leaders such as Speaker John Boehner insist a shutdown won’t happen, hardliners in his party are so adamant about cuts to the federal budget and opposed to an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling that the speaker may not be able to marshal his troops, regardless of his own views. And each temporary measure makes cuts that Democrats are most willing to accept, setting the stage for ever fiercer battles in the future.

But what about the political winners and losers? The assumption is that everything will play out much as it did in 1995, when a standoff between Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton shut the government down for some four weeks, with a brief intermission. After Washington ground to a halt, agencies stopped sending out benefits checks, and a slew of federal services were suspended, Gingrich came to be seen as petulant, obstinate, and unreasonable, while Clinton appeared willing to compromise. Within a year, Clinton had rebounded from horrific political standings to win reelection, while Gingrich’s career was in decline.

That’s how it’s remembered, at least, and those memories seem to be driving both sides’ approach: Boehner furiously deals to prevent a shutdown, while Democrats work to avoid what they say would be a disastrous disruption but also rub their hands in glee at the prospect. But they might be getting ahead of themselves. “If I were a Democrat, I would be much more cautious about assuming that this is going to benefit them based simply on what they saw in 1995,” warns Vin Weber, a former Republican representative from Minnesota who’s now a strategy consultant. While Democrats might be justly wary of taking advice from their opponents, here are five reasons things might play out more to Republicans’ advantage than expected.

1. The public is thirsty for cuts.

It’s tough to quantify, but even Democrats acknowledge that the desire for cuts to the federal government is strong. That’s why moderate Senate Democrats—notably Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, who faces a tough reelection campaign in 2012—have been leaning on their leadership to make concessions. But liberals maintain that while voters may voice support for cuts in the abstract, they won’t feel the same way when those cuts become concrete (a January Gallup poll, for example, showed a majority of Americans backed cuts to foreign aid, but not seven other areas of discretionary spending). Democrats have to hope that Republicans are seen as overreaching—which is entirely possible. “There’s a very real chance that Republicans overplay their hand,” says Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar and Congress expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “If that’s the case, then it’s going to be easy for Democrats to say, ‘We wanted to cut, but look at these lunatics on the right who wouldn’t negotiate.’”

“If I were a Democrat, I would be much more cautious about assuming that this is going to benefit them based simply on what they saw in 1995.” —Vin Weber

2. There’s no Newt Gingrich.

After he led Republicans to victory in 1994 midterm elections, Gingrich came out against Clinton with guns blazing. By the shutdown, the public had already begun to see him as petulant. Boehner, by contrast, has consciously avoided styling himself as the chief of the opposition, as Peter Boyer reported in December. What’s more, he enjoys a much higher favorable vs. unfavorable rating. Boehner’s low-key demeanor and repeated opposition to closing the government would make it hard for Democrats to pin a shutdown on anyone in particular. "The only thing that's missing right now is the Newt Gingrich-type foil,” says Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Gingrich's petulance is what drove it the last time around. The Tea Party could play that role—too strident for the American people." But pinning blame on a diffuse group of lesser-known representatives isn’t easy. Of course, it cuts both ways. Gingrich had total control, Ornstein says, and if Boehner had that kind of discipline in his ranks, there’d be no serious discussion about a shutdown.

3. Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton.

Asked why a shutdown might play to Democrats’ advantage, strategists on both sides of the aisle boil it down to two words: “bully pulpit.” It’s easier for the president to get his message out than it is for anyone else. The Obama administration has sometimes appeared reluctant to use that platform—witness, for example, its passive posture for much of the health-care debate—but has also sometimes stepped up, as it did in cutting a deal to extend the Bush tax cuts. One would expect Obama would make a strong case in the event of a shutdown. But would that help him in the longer term? Political scientist Brendan Nyhan points out that the shutdown didn’t really have much impact on Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign, contrary to popular recollection. But also contrary to popular recollection, nearly half the public felt more negative about him because of the shutdown. Luckily for him, six out of 10 felt more negative about the Republicans, too. Vin Weber argues that Obama does best when things are happening—as in the lame-duck session, when the president irked conservatives (with repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) and liberals (with the tax-cut deal) alike—so a screeching halt to the work of government might be uniquely bad for him.

4. Democrats Control the Senate.

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Republicans held both chambers in 1995, but Democrats have the upper hand—however small the margin—in the Senate now. While the Senate didn’t play a major role back then, there are 23 Democrats up for reelection in 2012, and they’re already pressuring Harry Reid to make concessions. Manley, Reid’s former spokesman, says that will serve them well in negotiations. “The Democratic leadership did a nice job of staking out a line,” he says. While their House counterparts are badly outnumbered and have little voice, Senate Democrats “have got some skin in the game. They're going to have a seat at the table to argue for particular programs.” That, too, could just as easily be a drawback, though. If they’re deeply involved in the process, they’re also more likely to be blamed. One thing to watch in the days ahead: Will the White House try to kill cuts in the Senate, or wait for them to get to the White House and veto them?

5. Polls Say So.

Do Americans want a shutdown? It depends who you ask. A Gallup poll shows that six out of 10 Americans want politicians to compromise, rather than stick to their guns even if it means shutdown. A Rasmussen poll showed the opposite, but Rasmussen tends to lean right, and there are some legitimate criticisms to be made about this poll’s questions. But more important—politically, at least—is what happens in the aftermath. And a poll from The Hill, out Monday, has bad news for Democrats. Twenty-nine percent of respondents say they’d blame Democrats for a shutdown, as opposed to only 23 percent for Republicans, with even starker differences among independents.

There’s plenty of time for the politics to shift—there won’t be a shutdown for at least a couple of weeks, potentially an eternity in such matters. And it may be who blinks rather than who shuts the government down that matters most. “One of the reasons [the 1995 shutdown] ended up redounding against the Republicans is they didn’t win,” says Weber. But the current situation suggests that Democrats may be headed for disaster if they can’t hammer out their differences with Republicans.

David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.