If House Republicans can’t find a way to wrangle their always-fractious conference to support legislation that would avoid a government shutdown by Friday night, they are likely to bear the brunt of the blame for the closure and pay a serious political price as well.
The “why” is simple. Because a) the GOP controls all levers of power – House, Senate and White House – in Washington and b) average people are aware of a).
“Republicans control the House, they control the Senate and they control the presidency,” Vermont Sen. Pat Leahy told CNN on Tuesday. “The government stays open if they want it to stay open and shuts down if they want it to shut down.”
Yes, Leahy is a Democrat. But, smart Republicans know he’s absolutely right.
It’s why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has repeatedly said – in the face of these shutdown showdowns – that “there’s not going to be a government shutdown. It’s just not going to happen.” It’s why Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, told The New York Times that “to believe that you can successfully blame Democrats for a shutdown over the DACA debate is naive.”
History is instructive here.
Go back to the last government shutdown – in the fall of 2013. Republicans held the majority in the House, but Democratic President Barack Obama sat in the White House.
And yet, despite this split control, the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of congressional Republicans. In a Washington Post-ABC poll conducted shortly after the shutdown ended, a majority of Americans (53%) blamed Republicans for the impasse while 29% blamed Obama. In that same poll, just 1 in 3 people said they had a favorable view of the Republican Party – the lowest that number had been in the history of the poll.
(Nota bene: A year later, Republicans went on to score major gains in the 2014 midterms – a sign, some argued, that the shutdown didn’t hurt them. Wrong! The shutdown quite clearly damaged the GOP brand but distaste for Obama and Obamacare was so strong that it overwhelmed doubts voters had about Republicans.)
The “blame” numbers in the 2013 shutdown were very similar to how the blame game shook out in the twin shutdowns of late 1995 and early 1996. After those shutdowns, the Post-ABC poll showed that a majority of people (50%) blamed the Republican congressional majority for the government closure while 27% blamed then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. Most Republicans blame that shutdown – and the role then-Speaker Newt Gingrich played in it – for Clinton’s glide-path reelection victory over Bob Dole in 1996.
And, remember, those shutdowns were in eras of split control in Washington. We don’t have that right now. If anything, then, the blame for a government shutdown would fall even more squarely on Republicans this time around than in either 1996 or 2013.
People blame whoever they think is in charge. And although in the past two shutdowns that was somewhat up for debate, it isn’t this time around. Which is why tweets from President Donald Trump insisting that “Democrats want to shut down the Government over Amnesty for all and Border Security” won’t work. Sure, the base of the GOP will respond to that red-meat-throwing. But, there is no amount of Trump tweets that can overcome the fact that Republicans totally control Washington at the moment.
The overall political environment heading into this shutdown showdown also looks more toxic for Republicans than in the past two shutdowns. Democrats had an 18-point lead in the generic ballot in a December CNN/ORC poll. That same poll showed Democrats with a 17-point enthusiasm edge over Republicans about voting in 2018. And, results on the ground – from the state legislative level to the US Senate – suggest that Democrats already have the wind at their backs with less than 300 days left before the 2018 midterms.
Given all of that, a government shutdown would almost certainly have near-disastrous consequences for Republicans already on their back foot, politically speaking. Which, of course, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Just that if it does, Republicans had better start bracing for a major political impact.
CORRECTION: This analysis has been updated to correctly state the balance of power during the 2013 shutdown.