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Assessing the GOP’s Shutdown Blues

If Washington conventional wisdom is right this morning, Republicans are about to start walking away from the ledge onto which they climbed with the government shutdown. Indications are that the House Republican proposals for a short-term extension of the debt ceiling will be the starting point for talks that will end the shutdown as well as ensure that the U.S. doesn’t default. It’s far from clear what the GOP will get in exchange for giving up their leverage over budget negotiations, but no one expects it to be much. If so, President Obama’s stonewalling tactics in which he dared the Republicans to shut down the government will be vindicated. And hardly a soul is talking about the fate of ObamaCare, the defunding of which was supposed to be the whole point of the exercise.

Why is it ending now if indeed that is what is happening? Part of the reason is a sense on the part of House Speaker John Boehner that he’s played all the cards in his hand and that brushing up against the artificial debt ceiling deadline would be a political error as well as bad for the country. But the negative fallout from the shutdown can’t be ignored as an explanation for why the GOP leadership has decided to cut its losses. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released yesterday had the worst results yet for Republicans, with the gap between those who blame them for the shutdown and those who blame the Democrats now at more than 20 percent. While President Obama and everyone else in Washington looks bad too, the Republican Party’s approval ratings are now at almost historic lows. Given the rapid dive in the GOP’s numbers in recent weeks, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that this is the result of the shutdown that was forced on the party by Senator Ted Cruz and other hard-line conservatives over the objections of Boehner and others.

This gives those of us who have said all along that it was a mistake to force a confrontation over defunding ObamaCare, which was never going to happen, a chance for an “I told you so” or two. But any such recriminations on the part of conservatives who were derided as RINOs by Cruz’s suicide caucus and their devoted followers are being drowned out by the near-hysterical triumphalism emanating from MSNBC and other liberal bastions over the NBC/WSJ poll. But before Democrats start making plans for what they will do when they take back control of the House next year, a moment of perspective is in order. As bad as this looks for the Republicans right now, it’s not likely that anything that happens this week will affect the composition of the next Congress.

For a sober analysis of just how much the Democrats have gained from this episode, it’s instructive to turn to a liberal voice that has been silent for much of the last year: Nate Silver. Silver, the liberal statistician who rocketed to fame as the New York Times’s peerless blogger/prognosticator left the Grey Lady for what will presumably be further fame and fortune at ESPN (he started out as a baseball analyst before he began handicapping elections). But until his new sports site goes up, he’s resurrected his blog and weighed in on the shutdown impasse yesterday with some insightful comments about recent events that should give liberals proclaiming victory some food for thought.

His half-dozen bullet points about the partisan confrontation may be debated, but I think they are largely right.

First, is his belief that the media is overhyping the impact of the shutdown. In a 24/7 news cycle, every big story seems like World War Three but, as Silver points out, other huge stories have already come and gone in the past several months like Syria, the IRS Scandal, Benghazi, or even last winter’s fiscal cliff showdown, and if you watch cable news or read the leading dailies, it’s almost as if they never happened. The notion that anything that happens this week or next, short of a real U.S. default (which is not going to happen no matter how the negotiations go) will have much of an impact on November 2014 is simply unfounded.

Just as interesting is his pointing out that the inspiration for President Obama’s decision to dare the GOP to shut down the government shouldn’t give Democrats much comfort. The 1995 government shutdown is widely believed to have badly damaged the Republicans and strengthened President Clinton. As Silver correctly notes, the GOP was not really hurt by the shutdown, as they held onto Congress the next year. There may be some who think it was a major factor in re-electing Bill Clinton in 1996 but count me among those who, like Silver, believe Bob Dole never had a prayer of being elected president, shutdown or no shutdown.

Third, Silver reminds us that the chances of the Democrats winning the midterm elections next year are very low. Given the paucity of competitive House seats (the Senate is very much in play with Democrats standing to lose seats) it would take a wave election for President Obama’s allies to succeed. But such a victory would be virtually unprecedented since it is virtually impossible for an incumbent president’s party to gain seats in the middle of his second term.

Silver also debunks the notion that this is purely the result of Republican gerrymandering since the allocation of seats is more the function of the way the two major parties have split along geographical lines as much ideological ones. For an excellent analysis about why blaming political extremism on gerrymandering is a myth read Sean Trende’s piece in today. As Trende notes, gerrymandering is an effect, not a cause, of partisanship. But the bottom line is that no matter how much bad press Republicans are getting today, the impact next year is likely to be minimal if not overwhelmed by subsequent events that may not be as favorable to Democrats.

Last, it is way too soon to understand what the result of this latest showdown will be and looking to ephemeral poll numbers (especially since they also have bad results for Obama and the Democrats) is a fool’s errand.

Republicans would do well to ponder how little was accomplished in the last two weeks as well as the responsibility of Cruz and others who are now in the process of walking away from the train wreck that Boehner will have to clean up. But while Obama and the liberals may be getting the better of the tussle today, there is no reason to believe any of it will help them unseat House Republicans.

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