So it’s October … or maybe it’s six or ten weeks later, after a short-term continuing resolution has come and gone. The clock strikes midnight, Congress has failed to fund the government, and the next day it shuts down.
What happens next?
There’s been plenty of talk about the possibility of a government shutdown, along with the potential ways it could be avoided. But what happens after the shutdown? I don’t mean how the government operates or doesn’t operate; the Congressional Research Service has a good explainer on that. I’m talking about how the bargaining situation changes. Because remember: Government shutdown or not (I'm on Team Probably Not, for those counting at home), sooner or later a deal will be reached.
1. It’s Getting Hot in Here
People will be inconvenienced, directly, by a shutdown, whether it’s vacations ruined (thanks to national parks closing), Social Security applications postponed, or government grants and contracts not awarded. Which side of the bargaining table will feel more pressure? It’s probably true that members of Congress, who are closer to their constituents (and who, unlike the president, are not term-limited), would feel somewhat more pressure.
Another way of looking at this is that any good politician would have already anticipated all of this and wouldn’t have reached an impasse unless she was ready to accept it—which suggests that those who will be particularly affected by increased pressure would be politicians who honestly didn’t think a shutdown would be a big deal. I’d suggest that House Republicans, overall, would then be most affected; the current crop of congressional conservatives is unusually inexperienced, and their ideological zealotry might lead them to overlook ways that their constituents use government services.
2. Small-Batch and Artisanal Budget Fixes
Expect some early skirmishes around proposals to partially fund certain government services—something that might be possible by presidential directive but certainly can be done through legislation. Which services? Presumably the ones that spark news stories and the ones that members are feeling the most heat over. If Republicans are blamed for the shutdown, as seems likely, then expect them to be proposing such measures. The recent history of the Democrats shows that they may not hold out long against them. However, while passing such fixes (if it happens) might take a bit of pressure off, it won’t change much.
3. The Blame Game
Next, and this is perhaps obvious, but expect the partisan press on both sides to claim that their side is winning. And remember, among the extreme partisans who get much of their news from Fox (or MSNBC) are … members of Congress and their staffs. Also, remember that Republicans are more likely to do that than Democrats. Effect: Republicans, all else equal, are more likely to believe that they are winning than Democrats are. Indeed, part of why they may find themselves in this position is because of a mistaken belief, based on fantasies in the GOP-aligned press, that the Affordable Care Act is collapsing and Democrats are ready to get rid of it.
4. Throwing the Press into the Mix
The “neutral” press, however, is extremely likely to adopt an interpretation that Democrats are winning and that Republicans are at fault.
The supposed partisan bias of the “neutral” press is hard to find in empirical studies, but that doesn’t mean that it’s really neutral. Lots of biases are allowed, even substantive ones; for example, the press allows itself to believe that budget deficits are bad. The biggest substantive biases generally favor the status quo, however. What that means, with regard to a shutdown, is that the press will have a strong bias in favor of “the government open for business” over “the government shut down.” The press will surely consider Republicans more responsible for the shutdown, especially if it’s over defunding the Affordable Care Act … because Republicans have just conducted a public campaign to shut down the government over Obamacare. That’s the kind of dead giveaway that even the most dedicated “blame both sides” reporters can pick up on.11. And no, it won’t help that some Republicans have openly said that the plan was to shut down the government over Obamacare but then blame the president for it.
That’s not all. In many ways, this plays as a president vsersus Congress showdown, and everyone always hates Congress. This Congress, in particular, has record-low approval ratings. John Boehner and other Republican leaders enter the fight, too, with low approval ratings. There’s also a tactical advantage for Obama; it’s a whole lot easier for the White House to speak with a unified voice than it is for a congressional party.22. Moreover: There’s a chance that one or more House or Senate Republicans will say something to reinforce that sense. Indeed, there’s simply an excellent chance that one or more Republican politicians will say something really foolish in the middle of the fight; that’s been the record of Republican politicians over the last few years, but during a shutdown more people will be paying attention.
Put it all together, and it’s likely that the press will lean toward blaming Republicans. I should note that I think that’s absolutely correct in this instance, again assuming that they’re shutting down the government over the Affordable Care Act, but the point is that it mostly doesn’t matter; the general dynamics of a Republican House and a Democratic president are what is most important here.
However: Don’t expect Barack Obama’s approval ratings to improve, at least not for some time. Bill Clinton’s approval ratings had recovered from his earlier lows by the time of the 1995-1996 showdown, and during the second and longer government shutdown that year, his approval ratings fell. Gallup has him at 51 percent just as the shutdown was beginning in December 1995, and at 42 percent at the end of the battle in early January—before rebounding and resuming the generally upward path he had been on since spring 1995. If there’s a prolonged government closure, the best guess is that everyone but the most partisan will blame all sides, even if they blame one side more. Expect polling to show that everyone’s approval falls but that more people blame House Republicans for the impasse.
5. Moving to the Bargaining Table
All of which gets to the bargaining. All of the above suggests that it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who will at some point find their position untenable. While there’s always some uncertainty, the final deal won’t end Obamacare. It probably won’t even be as good for Republicans as whatever their best deal would have been before a shutdown, and it might even be better than the status quo for Democrats. Not only that, but it’s highly likely that the end game will feature public Republican infighting and chaos, while the White House will probably do a pretty good job of concealing any internal divisions.
Which leaves the aftermath.
6. After the Fall
Part of what probably helped Clinton after the 1990s shutdown was that everyone judged him the winner on substance. That’s going to be even more the case this time around. As long as Obamacare survives intact, it’s going to be easy for everyone to declare the president and his party the winners—even if a close look at the details complicates the picture (which, to be sure, it might not).
Meanwhile, don't expect a "break the fever" reaction from Republicans in which the party suddenly wises up and stops listening to the Crazy Caucus. Instead, expect a "knife in the back" story: “If only John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and the other RINOs in leadership had held on a little longer, they would have won a famous victory that would not only have ended the dreaded Obamacare but would have led to certain 2014 and 2016 victories and a fulfillment of all of Ronald Reagan’s greatest wishes!”
How certain is all of this? Well, in politics, you never know; there’s always the possibility that Nancy Pelosi says something ugly a week into the fight, or that Barack Obama proves to be an even worse negotiator than his harshest critics suspect. But the fundamentals of the situation, as it were, are heavily stacked against the Republicans once the doors of government close and lock. Which is why John Boehner is probably working very hard right now, just as he’s worked hard every time we’ve reached the brink, to avoid a shutdown—and why there’s probably a good chance he’ll succeed. The bottom line: No Republican who remembers it wants to go through 1995-1996 again.
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