The government shutdown is best understood as an elaborate staring contest. The real losers are the furloughed federal employees who can’t afford to wait for their next paycheck. But among the Republicans and Democrats playing this game, someone will eventually blink.
Each party enters the stalemate with a different set of assumptions. Many Republicans believe that a shutdown hurts Democratic interests and constituencies more than it hurts theirs. If Democrats do not wish to reopen a predominantly liberal government, so be it.
Most regulatory agencies are closed. More than 90 percent of Environmental Protection Agency employees are deemed non-essential. Many Republican budget priorities—save the program that verifies the legal status of immigrant workers—continue to function. On top of this, Republicans rest assured they can persuade the country that President Obama and the Democrats have shut down the government to forcibly impose Obamacare on a reluctant populace.
By contrast, the Democrats simply look back to the shutdowns of 1995-96 and hope for a replay. Those episodes caused Bill Clinton’s approval ratings to rebound, paving the way for his death-defying reelection, while Newt Gingrich’s tumbled, never to recover.
Congressional Republicans fared well enough in the 1996 elections—they lost only two House seats while picking up two Senate seats—but the showdowns clearly broke their resolve. Republicans never again insisted on the abolition of any significant federal agency, became much slacker on spending, and even agreed with Clinton on a new health-care entitlement.
President Obama has tried to remain above the fray, according to the axiom frequently attributed to the Chinese military writer Sun Tzu: When your enemy is destroying himself, stay out of his way. But he hasn’t been able to resist taking occasional shots at his opponents, and went so far as to suggest that the markets should find the current impasse more troubling.
But the government shutdown, like sequestration before it, may be a nonevent to many Americans. Changing that dynamic will require a bit of political theater. Gingrich’s insistence that Clinton snubbed him during the flight home from slain Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral was the turning point in the ‘90s shutdowns, convincing the country the fiscal impasse was the result of Republican petulance.
This time around, the Democrats have had their own Gingrich moments. CNN’s Dana Bash asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about funding the government piecemeal: “But if you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn’t you do it?” Reid replied, “Why would we want to do that? I have 1,100 people at Nellis Air Force base that are sitting home. They have a few problems of their own.”
That exchange may not be the fairest or most complete summary of Reid’s views; surely he would argue helping children with cancer is one of his reasons for supporting Obamacare. But as a soundbite, it approaches a Todd Akin level of political malpractice.
Republicans have also made hay with the administration’s closure of the World War II memorial, which resulted in the spectacle of wheelchair-bound nonagenarians “storming” the government barricades. While Democrats insist this is merely the consequences of what the Republicans have wrought, images of forlorn tourists whose vacations were ruined may do more to turn people against the shutdown than stories about distant bureaucrats.
The Republican strategy at this point is to pass miniature appropriations that reopen the more popular parts of the government, such as national parks and National Institutes of Health clinic trials. These miniappropriations are already winning dozens of Democratic votes while putting others on the defensive. But party leaders don’t want to let the Republicans separate Obamacare from the funding the rest of the government.
Meanwhile, Republicans face a different dilemma. For weeks, the Ted Cruz faction insisted to conservatives that a shutdown could be avoided and Obamacare implementation could be blocked. Precisely the opposite has happened. How do they avoid letting the right down ahead of the 2014?
Perhaps conservatives will settle for repeal of the medical-devices tax, which has bipartisan support, or forcing lawmakers and their staffs to pay more out of pocket for their health insurance under Obamacare. But neither move defunds, delays or materially changes the health-care law.
If the government shutdown begins to take a toll on Hill Republicans, the party leadership—which never liked Cruz’s defund strategy to begin with—can offer wobbly members a way out: Let us work with Democrats to reopen the government with a clean continuing resolution and live to fight another day, perhaps as soon as the debt-ceiling extension.
In this case, survival may be a victory in itself.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Florian Hirzinger. CC BY-SA 3.0.