With only a few hours before the congressional standoff leads to a government shutdown, Democrats are in the awkward position of having to publicly declare their sorrow and disgust about the situation while inwardly celebrating. After more than two years of dueling with the GOP over budgets and debt-ceiling rises and daring them to do something like this, the president and his party have finally fished their wish today. Their assumption all along has been that, like the government shutdown of 1995, the public will blame the Republicans while Democrats can pose as the voices of reason. That’s the way it will be played on most broadcast networks and newspapers and there’s very little the GOP can do about it.
This strikes most conservatives, even those who disagree with the strategy of threatening a shutdown unless ObamaCare is defunded or delayed, as unfair. They’re right. It is unfair. The president and the Senate Democrats are being just as unreasonable and ideological as the Republicans when they say they won’t compromise and throw the GOP even a bone in exchange for a continuing resolution from the House funding the government. But who said life had to be fair? Anyone who hasn’t already figured out that the liberal mainstream media ensures that the D.C. battleground is not a level playing field isn’t smart enough to be in Congress.
But even though polls appear to vindicate the conventional wisdom about the blame for the shutdown tilting against the Republicans, Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky about any of this. A shutdown will work in their favor, but perhaps not as much as they might have thought. A lot will depend on how the coming days and weeks play out politically and which party blinks or makes a grave tactical error. But as much as they stand to gain from goading the GOP into making an almost certainly futile last stand on ObamaCare, there are dangers for the Democrats that they may be ignoring in their jubilation.
Let’s specify that any attempt to completely discount the advantage Democrats will gain for this is pure spin. By demanding that the president pay a high price in order to fund the government, Republicans make themselves look like hostage takers. Again, this is mostly unfair, especially since Democrats have tried the same tactic in the past without being labeled as terrorists. The dynamic of the confrontation is that by asking for government funding without any conditions, the president places himself in a position where he can play the grown up in the room, even if that is a distortion of the truth. Even if most Americans oppose ObamaCare, using that issue to create a deadlock that causes a government shutdown is political poison. Letting someone like Senator Ted Cruz, whose personality is easy to skewer and positions are perceived as extreme, be seen as the face of the party makes it harder for the GOP to evade responsibility for the mess.
But Democrats shouldn’t be too cocky. The same polls that show Republicans being killed by the public for their involvement in the showdown also show Democrats and the president getting low marks for their role in the shutdown. In fact, today’s Washington Post poll on the subject showed that although 46 percent of Americans would blame the GOP more, 49 percent either blame the Democrats more (36 percent) or say both parties deserve the blame (13 percent). That’s an edge for the Democrats, but not enough in itself to change the political equation in 2014 when a new Congress will be elected.
It should also be understood that President Obama could lose this advantage as easily as the Republicans can make it worse by what he does in the next few days. If the president were acting as if he was really trying to avert a shutdown by working hard to compromise, he would be in a powerful position. But as everyone knows, while the nation spent the weekend worrying about the impact of a shutdown on the economy, he was playing golf.
The problem for the president is that by digging in his heels in this manner and contemptuously refusing to move an inch toward the Republicans, he has undermined his pose as the man who eschews petty partisan warfare. Nor does having Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as their lead spokesman help the Democrats. Reid’s angry and confrontational tone is every bit the match of Cruz’s snarky contempt for the left.
Despite having worked so hard and waited so long to get to this moment, Democrats and their media cheerleaders are also showing a bit too much satisfaction about the way things have gone. They’re so sure that a shutdown is a political bonanza that they’re getting sloppy. The more they crow and issue partisan demands or act as if the world is coming to an end, the less they will gain from the shutdown.
While the shutdown is a more serious problem than the sequester that we were also told would be the end of civilization, Democrats may also find that many citizens won’t be fazed by this development–and not all of them will be Tea Partiers.
There is also the very real possibility that the ObamaCare rollout, which will begin tomorrow whether there is a shutdown or not, will undermine the Democrats’ position rather than enhancing it as they’ve believed all along. The impact on the economy and the rising costs of health care may prove to be more of a liability for the left than even conservatives have believed possible. Nor is there any reason to believe that any of the Republicans who have engineered the confrontation will suffer next year when they face the voters again. But those members—principally Democrats—that insist on giving themselves federal health-care subsidies that the general public is denied may well have good reason to regret their votes next year.
Nevertheless, any competition between a president and a divided Congress is one in which the politician with the biggest megaphone tends to win, and that is President Obama. As much as ObamaCare should be repealed, it isn’t going to happen and threatening a shutdown is going to hurt Republicans. However, the assumption that a presidential position of shut up and simply pass along the money will work indefinitely is untested. Barack Obama is entering the lame-duck portion of his presidency. Democrats who assume they don’t have to compromise may find that this stand is as unproductive for them as the shutdown is for the GOP.