Your faithful blogger has fond memories of the 1995 government shutdown: furloughed without pay, catching a matinée of Waterworld, wondering when/if the next paycheck would arrive. Like the inhabitants of Kevin Costner’s over-budget epic, Republicans and Democrats were at war with each other, and hopelessly lost at sea.
As Congress and the White House barrel towards another potential shutdown Friday at midnight, both sides are prepping their spin on why the other side will shoulder the blame. But history – and common sense – suggest that Republicans have the most to lose, in the short run, at least. Here’s why:
1. They control government. During the previous two shutdowns (1995 and 2013), a Democrat sat in the White House. This time the GOP controls both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s a lot easier to spread the blame when both parties have a finger on the button. And while it’s true that Senate Democrats can prevent a funding bill from getting 60 votes, the voters see the Republicans are ultimately in charge.
2. They are viewed as more hostile to government. Republicans make no secret of their desire to shrink government and criticize the size and scope of the federal footprint. In fact, some conservative commentators are making the argument that a shutdown will show the public how irrelevant Washington is to their lives. When you’re caught with the murder weapon and an MO, it’s hard to pin the blame on the other guy.
3. They are viewed as more hostile to compromise. Since the Tea Party wave of 2010, Congressional Republicans have shown their stubborn streak, dismissing compromise as a four-letter word and demonstrating an unwillingness to negotiate. Hell, they basically overthrew their last House Speaker because he wasn’t hard-line enough. Democrats, meanwhile, have a hard-won reputation as, let’s say, more ready to cave when the pressure is on. It may be true that the Democrats’ spines have been stiffened by pressure from DACA supporters, but the take-no-prisoners reputation the GOP has cultivated over recent years will be hard to overcome.
4. They always get blamed. Republicans tried the “See? We don’t need government!” tack before, and it failed. Miserably. In both 1995 and 2013, images of shuttered national parks turned the public sharply against the party they believed was behind the shutdown. Although Republicans will attempt to pin the blame for a shutdown this time on Democrats’ demands for a resolution of DACA, old perceptions tend to stick.
5. The President is unpopular. Gallup currently pegs Donald Trump’s approval rating at 39 percent. Numbers as low as those create a sort of reverse Midas touch, making everything the White House touches turn sour. It will be hard to convince voters that a President they dislike is the good guy in a prolonged shutdown battle.
In short, a combination of history, reputation, and precedent all suggest that Republicans would get more of the blame for a shutdown if it takes place. Then why go through with it?
Besides their Lucy-won’t-yank-the-football-away-this-time cockeyed optimism that Republicans show every time the possibility of a shutdown rolls around, there is another reason conservatives may be hungering for the government to close: Shutdowns reduce public trust in government. And if you want a smaller government, gaining broad support for the notion that government is incompetent is a good way to go.
As P.J. O’Rourke once said, “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.” A third government shutdown in 20 years reinforces the notion that Washington is dysfunctional and out-of-touch. Despite the short-term political fallout, that perception is a long-term win for those who want a smaller government.
Of course, a shutdown is not inevitable. Both sides could finds a way to avoid this fiscal cliff and pass a short-term continuing resolution. But even then, all they do is delay a crisis to another day.
So buckle up. Find Waterworld on Amazon. And get ready to party like it’s 1995.