The Politics of the Government Shutdown

The Politics of the Government Shutdown

By Sean Trende - October 1, 2013

With the government having lurched into its first shutdown since the 1990s, many commentators are focusing on the potential ill effects that it might have for Republicans. Almost all of these analyses use the shutdowns of 1995-1996 as their starting point. While I don't think this development will be great for Republicans, many of the concerns are likely overwrought. Here are four points to ponder:

1. While the GOP’s tactics are similar to those employed in the mid-’90s, the goals are different. The earlier budget debates were broad in nature and dealt with the scope of government. The 104th Congress, led by Newt Gingrich, believed that they were the culmination of the realignment supposedly begun by Ronald Reagan, that Bill Clinton’s election was a fluke caused by Ross Perot’s candidacy, and that they had been elected with a mandate to shrink the size and scope of government dramatically.

They entered the shutdown believing that the public would rally to their side, that Clinton’s job approval would fall in the wake of the shutdown, and that he would ultimately cave on their demands. Despite the lore that has since sprung up, this wasn’t a completely harebrained view of the underlying politics: An earlier shutdown, in 1990, did play an important role in persuading George H.W. Bush to abandon his famous “no new taxes” pledge a few weeks later.

Of course, that isn’t how it played out at all in 1995 and 1996; Bill Clinton was widely viewed as having held the line against the Republican onslaught, although he actually did give substantial ground on taxes and a number of other issues. The budget fight became the focal point of Democrats’ attempt to take back the House and Senate in the 1996 elections.

But the Democrats didn’t actually use the shutdown itself as their main line of attack on Republicans. It was part of it, but the real attacks came over the Republicans’ motivation for the shutdown. Because of the expansive nature of the GOP’s cuts, the Democrats were able to focus on several unpopular portions of the GOP budget: the so-called M2E2 strategy. They commenced a mantra-like repetition of their opposition to Republican attempts to gut “Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment” in favor of a “risky tax scheme” that benefited the rich.

In other words, in evaluating 1996 as an illustration of what will happen to the GOP today, we probably have to separate the tactic of a shutdown from the substance of what motivates it. And today, the GOP is focused on defunding Obamacare, a law that isn’t particularly popular. For the analogy to 1995-96 to really stick, the GOP will probably have had to try something along the lines of shutting down government to implement the Paul Ryan balance-budget plan.

While public opinion might be against the shutdown tactic, there probably won’t be the same level of outrage against the underlying policy motivation, which is what 1995-96 was mostly about. If Obamacare turns out to be the train wreck some conservatives predict (I have no clue whether it will or won’t), the tactic itself might be viewed as less of a negative.

2. John Boehner is not Newt Gingrich, and Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton. This is a fairly minor point, but Gingrich’s public persona did play a part in bringing the shutdown to an unhappy end for the GOP. He was polarizing from the start, and the media didn’t bend over backwards to help him out. Case in point: The Daily News cover depicting him as a crybaby who shut down the government because he had to sit in the back of Air Force One. Boehner, on the other hand, has kept a much lower profile, and while he isn’t all that popular, he isn’t a lightening rod either (although Ted Cruz seems to be inching toward filling Gingrich’s shoes in that regard).

At the same time, Obama is not really Clinton. The current president’s ability to present himself as a cautious centrist in political face-offs with Republicans to date have been mixed at best; his strength has always been energizing the liberal base for elections rather than tacking to the center. Clinton might be the most successful president of my lifetime when it comes to publicly framing a debate in a way favorable to his side (see, for example, the M2E2 strategy above). There are actually few examples, if any, of Obama rallying the public to his side in the various battles he’s fought; there are plenty of failures, with the fight over sequestration being the most recent case in point.

3. The net effect of the shutdown was small in the 1990s. For all the talk of the sustained damage the Republicans suffered, the actual evidence for this is pretty weak. In 1994, Republicans won 230 seats in Congress. Five party switches and a special election victory later, they entered the 1996 elections with 236 seats.

They emerged from those elections with 228 seats, for a loss of eight total (including the open seat of one of the Democratic Party switchers). So while Republicans lost seats, it ended up being something of an empty victory for Democrats: Americans elected a Republican Congress back-to-back for the first time since the 1920s. Republican candidates won the popular vote for the House, albeit very narrowly (Democrats won the vote only if you split up votes cast for candidates running on multiple party lines, e.g., a Republican also running on the Conservative Party line in New York). Republicans even gained a seat in a special election held in a Democratic-leaning district in between government shutdowns, and only narrowly lost a Senate seat in Democratic-leaning Oregon immediately after the shutdown (Republicans proceeded to win another open Senate seat in the same state by four points in November).

Those Republican House losses weren’t terribly surprising. Republicans were overexposed as a result of the 1994 “wave election” that swept a number of weak members into swing-to-Democratic-leaning districts. Losing representatives like Andrea Seastrand, Michael Flanagan and Fred Heineman was more a part of regression-to-the-mean than any wholesale rejection of Republicans.

Of the 21 House seats that Democrats claimed from Republicans in 1996 (it was actually 22, but I don’t have presidential data for Louisiana’s 7th District), Clinton had carried 18 in 1992. The other four seats were all something of special cases: Bob Dornan in California, Gary Franks in Connecticut, David Funderburk in North Carolina, and Toby Roth’s open House seat in Wisconsin.

This presents a problem for Democrats hoping to capitalize on the 2013 shutdown: The seats are much better sorted these days. Going into the 1996 elections, 79 Republicans occupied seats that had voted for Clinton in 1992. In other words, they lost 23 percent of their caucus from “Clinton seats.” Today, only 17 Republicans come from “Obama seats” to begin with. If Republicans suffered losses in unfriendly territory at the same rate as they did in 1996, they’d lose only four seats, before we start looking at the effect on Democrats from “Romney seats.”

Perhaps Republicans would have fared better had they not attempted to shut down the government in the first place. Republicans picked up 10 open House seats and defeated three Democratic incumbents in 1996; absent the shutdown, perhaps they might have gained seats. In the Senate, Republicans narrowly lost open Democratic seats in Louisiana and Georgia, while missing good opportunities to defeat Tom Harkin in Iowa and Max Baucus in Montana.

But as Harry Enten has ably demonstrated, Republicans did about as well in the House and in presidential elections as we would have expected given the performance of the economy, especially when you consider that exit polls showed Ross Perot pulling votes disproportionately from Republicans (unlike 1992, when he pulled evenly from both parties). Clinton’s comeback was likely due more to the flurry of good economic news in the run-up to the election than to anything else. Indeed, while Clinton’s job approval improved over the course of the shutdown, it had also improved in the months leading up to the shutdown at a similar rate.

Senate losses in Louisiana and Georgia look bad today, but in 1996 both states were more Democratic; Clinton had carried both states in 1992 and only narrowly lost Georgia in 1996 while winning Louisiana by 12 points. Republicans had only won two narrow Senate elections in Georgia before 1996 (and hadn’t won the governorship since Reconstruction), while Republicans had never won a Senate election in Louisiana and were burdened by a controversial candidate in Woody Jenkins. Republicans were unable to defeat Harkin, Baucus or Mary Landrieu in the good GOP year of 2002.

4. What happens to red state Senate Democrats?

Of course, the real action for 2014 is not the House, where the GOP will continue to control the agenda except in the unlikely event that it loses 17 seats. The real fight is for control of the Senate, which in turn revolves around races in eight states: West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Dakota, Louisiana, Alaska, Montana and North Carolina. Obama lost those states by, respectively, 27, 24, 23, 18, 17, 14, 14 and two points, respectively.

The politics of a shutdown in these states are very different than in the nation as a whole. We can try to estimate the popularity of a shutdown by taking as a national baseline CNN’s recent finding that 46 percent of voters would blame Republicans for a shutdown vs. the 36 percent that would blame Obama. If we adjust these numbers according to the results of the presidential election in 2012, we would estimate that the president would shoulder the blame for a shutdown in each of those states save for North Carolina, and that outright majorities would blame the president in West Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky.

The last thing Democratic candidates in these states want is a public spat over a piece of legislation that is highly controversial, that might have a problematic rollout in the coming weeks and months, and that places them on the side of an unpopular president. If there’s an upside for the GOP, this is probably it. Even after the 1995-96 shutdowns, the GOP managed to gain Senate seats, largely by making gains in reddish states.

Of course, none of this should be read as advocating the shutdown, or predicting that it could not possibly have any negative consequences for the GOP. For starters, a government shutdown is essentially lighting a fuse without knowing exactly where it will go. This is something that could easily get out of control if the shutdown stretches out for weeks and bleeds into the debt ceiling battle, which could be potentially catastrophic for the county.

Moreover, it could give Democrats an issue to rally around. Unlike 1996, the economy is weak; the president’s job approval has suffered in recent months as a result of his perceived failure to move the Democratic agenda forward, and the aborted intervention in Syria. Many of these losses have come as a result of Democrats becoming dissatisfied with the president. If the election were held with the president’s job approval at its present level, Democrats would probably lose another 10 House seats or so, giving Republicans their largest House majority since 1946 (and possibly 1928). A dustup with congressional Republicans would probably help bring these Democrats back into the fold, especially if the president emerges victorious from the fight, helping to limit Democratic losses.

Finally, we should also remember that the current weak recovery has been ongoing now for 52 months. It’s already longer than six of the 11 recoveries in the post-War era. By this time next year, it will be longer than seven of them. By 2016, only the booms of the mid-’60s, mid-’80s, and mid-’90s will have lasted longer. And, well, this recovery doesn’t much resemble those recoveries so far.

In other words, there’s a decent chance that we’ll encounter a downturn in the economy in the next year, and a very good chance that we’ll encounter one in the next three years. Obama is probably reaching the end of the time period where his predecessor can be blamed for the state of the economy. But a lengthy shutdown could conceivably give Democrats ammunition to place the blame back on Republicans.

The bottom line is this: The shutdown will probably not be a good thing for the GOP, and there’s a good chance Republicans won’t achieve their intended goal of limiting Obamacare’s reach. But at the same time, a lot of the prophecies of doom for Republicans are heavily overwrought. Unless things get too far out of control, the predictions of heavy GOP losses from a shutdown are likely overstated. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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