Saturday, September 4, 2010

Train (Wreck) in Vain

Steve Benen has a really smart post up today about the logic of a GOP-forced government shutdown in 2011.  As he notes, I had previously argued that a shutdown would be a bad strategy for the House Republicans, and for John Boehner in particular; the dynamics would likely be similar to the 1995-1996 budget battle, which was widely seen as a victory for Bill Clinton. 

Benen makes two points.  First, he's not sure that Republicans believe that they lost against Clinton.  If that's the case, then they certainly might charge ahead.  Second,
Republicans have already backed themselves into a corner -- they've made the president out to be the devil; they've all but ruled compromising; and they've committed to a path that almost certainly ends in a government shutdown. GOP leaders may have even deluded themselves into thinking that they're more popular than Obama (they're not), and that if a shutdown hurts the economy, they'll avoid blame (they won't).
In other words, Benen says, it may already be too late for Boehner; he's doomed if he avoids a confrontation, and he's doomed if he looses a confrontation.  Given those options, his rational move may be to risk a shutdown, even if he's fully aware that it's a low-percentage play.

I'll add one thing to that: the even more tricky part for Boehner is that it's very possible that many conservative activists want the confrontation more than they want the underlying substantive policy.  That's a marked contrast with 1994.  No one, at least in my memory, was talking about a shutdown in fall 1994; there was a increased recognition in that fall, winter, and on into the next spring and summer that both sides were playing chicken, with a train wreck coming if neither side blinked (yes, that's a three-way mixed metaphor.  Sorry), but while plenty of Republicans talked about forcing Clinton to back down, I don't recall many who were advocating a shutdown as a positive for its own sake.  In 1995, Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole were perfectly willing to take yes for an answer, or perhaps 90% of yes; the problem for them was that Clinton was unwilling to give them that much.  If this time around Tea Party activists will consider any agreement, no matter how much the Republicans achieve, as a sign that Boehner and the rest have sold them out (and if they have a solid number of allies in the House and Senate who will reinforce that belief)...well, that's an even more impossible hand to play. 

The other thing I'll point out is that, as always, numbers matter.  Boehner will have a lot more flexibility (assuming that he's Speaker, which of course is not a done deal, but it's what we're talking about here) if he has 235 Members in his conference than if he only has 220.  That's not just true because the 200 might include a couple of moderates who would tilt the median preference against dramatic cuts in spending, but (and probably more so) because of the larger group of potential rejectionists who might attack a compromise from, well, call it the right, although it's more properly thought of as radical than conservative. 

I should add: I think John Boehner is far more capable of handling internal negotiations within his conference, external negotiations with the president, and the public relations aspects of the battle than was Newt Gingrich.  And it's worth remembering that this is all pretty speculative at this point, since we don't even know that Republicans will win the House, nor do we know what the politics of anything will look like a year from now.  But I agree with Benen that Boehner's position may be a very difficult one.


  1. Agree with everything here, but I'll add one more thing. The fact that we're already talking about this now is probably an indicator that this gambit will not work, because it robs the GOP of the necessary "reacting to shocking and terrible events" dynamic that they will need to sell this crap to the American people. It's essential that they appear to be forced into this unpleasant alternative by the intransigent president or the horrors of the budget, or whatever -- it can't be premeditated (or appear to be such).

    And the same is true of impeachment. In my view Democrats (meaning regular voters speaking informally, not institutional Democrats) should be talking up the likelihood of a government shutdown AND impeachment right now. (As you have been doing.) If we can get those two themes to be more or less boring CW by November, then of necessity it will make it impossible for the Republicans to play the role of the reasonable party overwhelmed by the preponderance of the shocking evidence; they're pre-overwhelmed. It's not going to help them.

    Let's practice. You're talking to an independent voter or a moderate Democrat who isn't feeling too inspired: "The Republicans are probably going to shut down the government, and they're probably going to impeach Obama on flimsy evidence. If you like the sound of that, you should vote for the Republicans. If not...."

  2. Jonathan Bernstein:

    . . . while plenty of Republicans talked about forcing Clinton to back down, I don't recall many who were advocating a shutdown as a positive for its own sake.

    Are there 'many' now?

    Alaska Senate nominee Joe Miller explicitly says 'if we have to'.

    Dick Morris seems to take it for granted that Obama will veto, and so doesn't bother to say if he would prefer that Obama back down. Christina Bellantoni tries to insinuate that 'Morris and other Republicans . . . think a shutdown would be a good thing', but that isn't supported by quotes from Morris himself, much less the unnamed 'other Republicans'.

    That leaves Erick Erickson, one of those fringe clowns who gets attention by throwing rhetorical stink bombs. MediaMatters seems to think Erickson, all by his lonesome, constitutes 'the right-wing media'.

  3. I'm old enough to remember Reagan shutting down the government. It's interesting that many liberals seem unable or unwilling to recall that earlier precedent.

    It worked for Reagan. Along with the air traffic controllers' strike, it cemented the perception that his toughness was for real.

    Taking the Reagan and Clinton precedents together, we might draw the lesson that such confrontations tend to favor the president. But I would say it's just too few data points.

  4. "the problem for them was that Clinton was unwilling to give them that much"

    Aye. There's the rub. Obama has ALREADY caved with a substantial majority in the House and a working majority in the Senate. Clinton was a fighter. Obama is not. In the face of a GOP majority Obama will blink and give them what they want so government is not "shutdown".

  5. It seems to me that Republicans in general have become more spiteful, petty and vindictive in the last ten years. Is it because their president was petty, vindictive and spiteful? Look at John McCain, their candidate. Petty, vindictive and spiteful.

    I don't think they care so much about governing as they do about rubbing someone's face in something; the current crop of republican politicians reflects this.


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