Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland made news recently when he raised the possibility of a 1995-style government shutdown if, as widely expected, Republicans win enough seats in the coming elections to reclaim a majority in the House of Representatives. It would be the hardest of hard-ball politics, with Republicans apparently willing to bet that a shutdown showdown won't blow up in their faces like the spectacular failure of Newt Gingrich's gambit versus Bill Clinton.
The White House blog (part of this post-partisan administration's permanent election campaign) noted Westmoreland's comments on September 10: "...Republicans in Congress are busy telling partisans and Republican party activists to get prepared for the same stalemate and gridlock they brought the last time they were in charge."
Talking heads across the television and radio airwaves played along with the Administration's theme, casting Westmoreland's words as "a gift to the Democrats." They shouldn't be so confident.
To be sure, the wisdom of a shutdown is not a settled matter even among Republicans. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey says it's too soon to be talking about a shutdown, suggesting that "there's a tendency to draw too many parallels between the '94-'95 experience and what we think might happen here."
Armey's thinking on a shutdown was laid out in a 2006 interview in which Armey discussed what went wrong for Republicans in 1995:
Newt's position was, presidents get blamed for shutdowns, and he cited Ronald Reagan. My position was, Republicans get blamed for shutdowns. I argued that it is counterintuitive to the average American to think that the Democrat wants to shut down the government. They're the advocates of the government... Here's the other thing: You're heard saying rather boldly in June that you're going to shut the government in the fall. You've set the stage for the press to report that the Republicans are now doing in October what they said they'd do in June. Even if, in fact, they thought it was the right strategy to shut down the government, they should have kept their mouths shut about it.
In addition to fear of repeating the '95 outcome, Armey now argues that it is "premature" to discuss a shutdown because, in a somewhat tautological argument, 2011 will be different from 1995 and therefore a shutdown may not be a smart or necessary tactic.
But there is another possible interpretation of the differences between 2011 and 1995, one which increases the likelihood of a shutdown being a political winner rather than tripping over one's own landmine: 1994 gave us 4.1% GDP growth, ending the year at 5.5% unemployment. This year looks set to give us below 3% GDP growth, a particularly anemic "rebound" from the worst recession since the Great Depression, and unemployment between 9.5% and 10%, levels only seen during one other period (mid-1982 to mid-1983) since before World War II.
Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton. While President Obama's approval rating is slightly higher than Bill Clinton's after the same number of days in office, Barack Obama started his presidency nine points higher than Bill Clinton did; Obama has seen the sharpest drop in job approval of any president post-WWII president other than Jimmy Carter. Perhaps most importantly, Obama is simply not likable the way Clinton was, a fact not to be underestimated in retail politics.
Barack Obama has for over two months maintained a disapproval rating higher than his approval rating, according to the RealClearPolitics average of Obama job approval polls. And for almost all of 2010, the GOP has had a lead on the "generic ballot," that is when people are asked whether they are more likely to vote for a Republican or a Democrat in the upcoming election. A recent RCP average of a 7.6% GOP lead was a remarkable number, given that until recent months there had never been a Republican generic ballot advantage greater than 5 points in almost 70 years of Gallup polling. Republicans win elections even when the generic ballot does not seem in their favor because Republican turnout tends to exceed Democrat turnout, all else being equal. This year looks to be an extreme of that phenomenon, with Gallup measuring an astounding 25% lead for Republicans on "voter enthusiasm."
Perhaps a government shutdown is in the Republicans' political interest, common wisdom and the rhetoric of the Obama bloggers notwithstanding. But leading Democrats think a government shutdown is a winner for them:
At a Democratic Governors Association meeting earlier this month, former Clinton advisor Paul Begala said of a possible government shutdown, "[S]hould it come, you know to quote the previous president, 'Bring it on.'"
And in a moment of almost laughable hubris, Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, offered this: "While American troops are in harms' way, it is outrageous that Republican leaders would even consider shutting down the government." It remains unclear which part of fighting a war requires Obamacare to be fully funded or the Department of Education to have each and every Nanny State bureaucrat rump firmly ensconced in an office chair. Still, Holland makes clear what the Democrats' argument will be should a shutdown showdown loom: "The Republicans' plan to shut down the government would mean that millions of seniors wouldn't get their Social Security checks or Medicare coverage and America's veterans wouldn't get the benefits they earned." The sky is falling… .
The problem for Democrats is that they're turning into the boy who cried wolf, or more precisely cried Ronald Reagan's nine most terrifying words in the English language: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." Americans remember (and will be routinely reminded by Republicans over the next five weeks) of the infamous prediction by the Obama team that unemployment would stay below 8% if only they were allowed to spend almost a trillion dollars of our children's money on "stimulus."
The Administration continues to talk about a few million jobs "created or saved," the latter being not accidentally unmeasurable, while -- back in the real world -- Americans know that the job market is a disaster. Furthermore, statistics covering the jobs that we know have been created show that they were no bargain: for example, in July a Government Accountability Office report said that the Department of Energy used stimulus money to create 10,018 jobs at an average cost of $194,213 per job. Not only is it hard to imagine how jobs cleaning up contaminated mining and military sites are worth an average $194,213 per employee, but it also must be noted that such jobs are inherently temporary, making the cost of these jobs even more unjustifiable. From the report:
As of March 2010, nearly one-third of Recovery Act projects were facing cost or schedule difficulties or both -- despite DOE's efforts to choose low-risk, straightforward, shovel-ready projects for funding and to increase oversight -- and overall spending was somewhat slower than expected.… Officials attributed these difficulties to technical, regulatory, safety, and contracting problems -- some of the same issues that have challenged DOE's project management in the past.
With evidence like this -- which Americans understand is the rule rather than the exception -- it's hard to see Democrats offering a compelling reason for us to fear a temporary shutdown of the federal government. Indeed, a shutdown could be just what the economic doctor ordered, offering bureaucrats and Democrat politicians that many fewer hours to commit generational theft in the interest of spreading the wealth around or fundamentally transforming the nation, two of Obama's most notorious stated goals.
A shutdown showdown would be led by likely Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), a very different character from Newt Gingrich. Although Gingrich was and remains a man of big ideas, his political style was coarse and aggressive, whereas Boehner is more polished and more willing to "play the game"; Speaker Gingrich was easier to demonize than the relatively soft-spoken Representative from southwestern Ohio will be. Given Boehner's lack of name recognition, Barack Obama's going out of his way to attack him a speech in Boehner's home state several weeks ago seemed like another rookie mistake by the Spirit-of-Saul-Alinsky-guided president, boosting the notoriety and perceived gravitas of his primary legislative rival.
If we do get to a shutdown showdown, what will be talked about -- in stark contrast to 1995 -- is how government is bankrupting our futures in a Quixotic pursuit of disproven Keynesian faith-based economics. Even the average inattentive American does or will see how Obama's economic policies are little more than an excuse to grow the size and scope of government. (A remarkable Rasmussen Reports survey last month showed that 67% of the "political class" believe the country is on the right track whereas 84% of "mainstream Americans" disagree.)
A Republican decision to force a shutdown will ultimately be an extremely difficult question of perceived tactical advantage. Will Republicans try to accept responsibility for a shutdown, calling it a pro-active step to curb the cost and intrusiveness of government? If so, they put themselves at risk of "being demagogued" with ads showing Grandma Mabel not receiving her Social Security check on time and being driven to the ICU in an ambulance because she couldn't afford her blood pressure medicine.
Republicans must blame the showdown on Obama and Pelosi, but they'll need to be clever to make that responsibility stick to the Democrats in the eyes of the public. The GOP will want to try to shut down government in a way that doesn't stop Grandma Mabel's check and emphasizes how much money is being saved with every day the Nanny State takes a furlough day. While that may be theoretically possible, it will not only require near-unanimity among the Republican caucus (more likely than usual but still not something to rely on) but might need a GOP majority Senate to pass a bill funding only those parts of government that should not and must not stop operating for both "real" and political reasons.
The Democrats will do everything they can to make the shutdown look like a heartless attack on average (and hoping-to-be-average Americans). I'd also bet lunch that they will try to characterize the shutdown as somehow increasing the risk to American soldiers in Afghanistan. Indeed, Pelosi would like intentionally stop Grandma's check and the shipment of some body armor to Kandahar simply to score political points.
In addition to these tactical considerations, any shutdown brought on by the GOP must be done with a well-articulated goal. It can't be just "we're going to gum up the works for a few weeks to save a few million [or even a few billion] dollars." Instead, they'll have to show the shutdown as a necessary ingredient in a bigger recipe for good, or at least better, government, and hope the broth isn't already too bitter for the American public to swallow.
The value of a successfully orchestrated shutdown could be as big as any political shift in this nation's modern history, showing "moderates" of both political parties that they will have the support of the voters if they stand up for limited, low-cost government. It could be a stake through the heart of the Keynesian "economics," which is little more than an excuse to grow government or, to mix metaphors, a critical nail in the coffin of Progressivism, a coffin that in the past has never been nailed shut tightly enough to keep that mindless zombie from re-emerging.
Dick Armey's words remain true that a Republican Congress, rather than a Democrat president, will be at least initially assumed responsible if there is a shutdown of the federal government. Unlike 1995, however, when that responsibility took the form of blame, in 2011 Republicans could be taking credit -- or at least assigning blame -- unless they mismanage the message, something Republicans have shown themselves particularly capable of doing.
If I were a betting man (and I am) I'd wager that a time will come when a shutdown, or at least a showdown over one, would have political advantage for the GOP and long-term benefit for the nation. But I'd bet more that the Republicans won't have the courage to do it. It's a bet I'd hope to lose.
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