It may well be that Democrats will benefit politically from a government shutdown; indeed, that’s what the polls say, and it’s what has Speaker of the House John Boehner frightened. And more than Boehner. It’s striking that this morning, the staunchly pro-life Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania counseled his one-time colleagues in the House to “move on, because there are other bigger battles we can be fighting.” One of the major sticking points for House Republicans is the defunding of federal grants for Planned Parenthood. If Toomey is saying “move on,” that’s a very big deal.
But the politics here in the long run are unpredictable, actually. If Washington is seen by the electorate as completely dysfunctional, that will not redound to the benefit of Barack Obama or the Democrats. The situation differs from 1995 in that it’s not a showdown between a Democratic president and a Republican Congress—because only one of the two chambers in Congress is controlled by the Republicans.
Perhaps even more important is the fact that Speaker of the House John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich was a synecdoche for the resurgent Congressional Republicans whom he led to their smashing midterm victory in 1994, and by the time the shutdown rolled around, he had become a major public figure. In addition, he had been widely caricatured and was widely disliked. When the shutdown became a Clinton vs. Gingrich battle, Gingrich and the Republicans didn’t have a chance. Gingrich and his supporters (I was one at the time, I confess) seemed to have forgotten that 45 million people voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 nationwide, while Gingrich garnered 119,000 in the suburbs of Atlanta in 1994; the newly minted House Speaker had no national constituency, in other words, while Clinton had an enormous one.
No one is successfully making this shutdown an Obama vs. Boehner fight, in part because Boehner isn’t rising to the bait and in part because Boehner just doesn’t occupy that kind of space on the American cultural and political landscape. He’s more likely to be made fun of for his propensity to choke up and spill a few tears than he is for musing grandly a la Gingrich about how liberalism led a South Carolina woman to drown her children so she could run off with a boyfriend.
Without a unifying negative symbol to represent them, Republicans are unlikely to provoke the degree of anger they did as a result of the 1995 shutdown. It won’t be good for them, but the long-term lasting political damage could be to both parties. Which is to say, the net effect by the time the election rolls around would be a wash.