Shutdowns Always Backfire—Especially on Republicans
A look back at three recent major shutdowns shows they always fail—and they’ve hurt Republicans more often than Democrats.
President Trump and House Republicans have shut down part of the government in hopes of forcing Senate Democrats to accept $5 billion in border wall funding.
This mistake will almost surely backfire on the GOP.
I say this not as a gleeful liberal, but rather as a conservative federal budget economist who has spent the past 17 years in the Washington DC trenches fighting for spending restraint.
This is the fourth significant government shutdown in 25 years. During the three previous shutdowns, the party that held government funding legislation hostage to additional demands experienced a nasty public backlash that inevitably led to a humiliating surrender.
Despite those past failures, Republican voters support the current shutdown by a 2-to-1 margin. As in past shutdowns, many conservatives—egged on by talk radio and aggressive television personalities—hope that shutting down much of the government can force Democratic lawmakers to capitulate to their ends.
Instead, shutdowns backfire for four reasons:
First, they never succeed at winning the demand in question. The 1995-1996 “Gingrich shutdown” was intended to force President Clinton to accept significant spending reforms. The 2013 “ObamaCare shutdown” was meant to pressure President Obama to repeal his signature law.
The early-2018 “Dreamer shutdown” saw Senate Democrats filibuster government funding legislation in hopes of forcing Republicans to re-open immigration policy. In all three cases, an intense public backlash weakened the aggressors’ hands, until vulnerable members decided to stop committing political suicide. There is no reason to believe the latest shutdown will end differently.
Second, shutdowns alienate moderates and independents. While the party’s base cheers their lawmakers’ “fighting spirit,” moderates and independents see a temper tantrum and a government held hostage. As national parks close, passports are delayed, and federal loans go unprocessed, the party shutting down the government alienates the swing voters who decide elections. Approximately two-thirds of independents oppose the new shutdown.
Third, failed shutdowns disillusion party activists. During the 2013 ObamaCare shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other Republican lawmakers convinced many conservatives that they could force Democrats to repeal ObamaCare if only they show the requisite backbone. This was absurd. No level of congressional Republican unity could change the fact that Democrats controlled the Senate, and President Obama was never going to repeal his signature law—especially with the public firmly opposing the shutdown.
When the gambit inevitably failed, many conservative activists concluded that Republican lawmakers must have lacked the promised backbone. This sense of betrayal fed the chaotic 2014 Senate primaries that ended up costing the GOP several winnable Senate seats, and that feeling of betrayal continues to feed the Republican activist base’s distrust of its congressional leaders. Over-promising and under-delivering is a recipe for political disaster.
Fourth, the backlash against shutdowns sabotages their initial policy goals. Back in 1995, the new Republican congressional majority enjoyed strong public support in its effort to rein in spending and balance the budget. Yet by foolishly overplaying their hand and shutting down the government for 26 days, Republicans fed the stereotype of heartless budget-cutters willing to burn Washington to the ground to get their way.
Gingrich became the least popular politician in America, while a previously vulnerable President Clinton coasted to re-election in his new role as the defender of key spending priorities and policy stability.
The national backlash against the 1995-1996 shutdown pummeled congressional Republicans so badly that they subsequently went on a 10-year spending spree (later encouraged by a “compassionate conservative” President who distanced himself from the party’s congressional wing) just to rehabilitate their “mean-spirited” image.
But don’t take my word for it. Conservative activists should look up and see who else is cheering their government shutdowns: Democratic leaders who enjoy baiting the GOP into these unforced errors.
Back in 2011, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean admitted that “[f]rom a partisan point of view, I think it would be the best thing in the world to have a shutdown… If I was head of DNC, I would be quietly rooting for it. I know who’s going to get blamed. We’ve been down this road before.”
During the 2013 shutdown, the Obama Administration was accused of encouraging policy disruptions to maximize the anti-GOP backlash. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) openly admitted as much when a CNN reporter asked if he would accept a Republican offer to reopen the National Institutes of Health to help children with cancer. “Why would we want to do that?” Reid snapped back, before berating the reporter for even entertaining such a possibility.
Two years later, Senator Reid threatened to block all appropriations bills—and thus shut down the government—until Republicans agreed to bust the statutory spending caps. Reid presumably figured he could blame Republicans for his own shutdown, given their past record. Nervous Republicans, fearing Reid’s cynical tactic would succeed, caved on the spending caps.
Even in early 2018—when Senate Democrats shut down the government over the dreamers—a significant portion of the population still blamed Republicans as the traditional party of shutdowns. The public eventually realized the Democrats were blocking the spending bills and then pushed for their surrender.
Over the past decade, several Republican bills have been introduced to ban government shutdowns—with Democratic lawmakers opposing these bills almost unanimously. Perhaps Democrats concluded that if Republicans crave occasional self-immolation, then the best move is to ensure their continued access to the gasoline.
My fellow conservatives are intensely frustrated that control of the Presidency and Congress has yielded few major policy victories, due in part to Senate Democratic filibusters. Yet government shutdowns have proven to be a disastrous strategy for achieving their policy aims. I wish I could provide a more optimistic path, but there is no shortcut to overcoming gridlock.
Brian Riedl is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on twitter @Brian_Riedl.