Shutdown: ‘A pox on everybody’s house’

Greg Nash

Democrats have the advantage in the government shutdown debate, but it’s not the rout that many anticipated. [WATCH VIDEO]

While polls show that more people blame Republicans than Democrats, the margin is not so lopsided that GOP leaders feel compelled to back down.

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Democratic strategists confidently predicted last month their party would trounce the GOP in the court of public opinion in the event of a shutdown. But a week after government funding expired, some Democrats have a tough time reading the scoreboard.

“I don’t think anyone comes out of this looking better than when it started,” said former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). “It’s kind of a pox on everybody’s house.”

Democrats have had their share of missteps over the last week, including the World War II Memorial controversy, the interruption of the Amber Alert government website and a gaffe by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Republicans haven’t been flawless by any means, but the GOP has aggressively seized on Democratic mistakes. They also forced Democrats to shift strategy following GOP attacks that the White House was refusing to come to the negotiating table.

Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign, said, “Right now it’s a net negative for the GOP, but the sky isn’t exactly falling either.”

Former Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), a centrist Republican who compiled a long record of working with both sides of the aisle, said most voters will view the Tea Party as responsible for the crisis.

But she said Obama and GOP leaders will also be held to account for not intervening to stave off what she called a “belligerent minority.”

Dorgan said he thinks the political dynamic will change as the shutdown drags on, and predicted Tea Party conservatives would ultimately get blamed: “It’s not lost on the American people that the more extreme fringe on the Republican side have won the day by getting the government shut down.”

Former Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) said he’s uncertain which party will come out ahead after the shutdown.

“My initial response is that I’m not sure because Congress is held in such low esteem that the reaction you hear is, ‘I’m voting against any incumbent,’” he said. “I do think that the downside for the Republicans is greater.”

Bryan, who served a dozen years in the upper chamber alongside Reid, said, “President Obama hasn’t necessarily helped the case. Giving all of these [ObamaCare] waivers I think has tended to weaken his position. [Critics say,] ‘What’s wrong with one more waiver, he’s given everybody in the world a waiver?’ ”

One of the stopgap funding measures passed by the House would have delayed the implementation of the individual mandate, a core component of the healthcare reform law.

The political fallout has been muddled enough that both sides have claimed victory thus far.

“We’re winning the argument,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who led the strategy to link ObamaCare and government funding, in a Sunday interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford University, said the current crisis has played out differently from the last government shutdown in 1996, when Democrats were judged the clear winners.

“It’s probably very hard for the average citizen to figure out exactly how much blame to put to one party versus the other, but they get the sense at this point that it’s more the Republicans’ fault,” he said. “There’s a lot of confusion out here about that and I think Republicans have done a pretty good job of fighting back and making it seem like the intransigence of the Democrats” is to blame.

Republicans in Congress have seen disapproval of their role in the shutdown negotiations jump from 63 percent at the end of September to 70 percent in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday.

But other polls have shown voters blame all sides. A new CNN/ORC International survey shows that slightly more people blame Republicans than Democrats for the shutdown.

Meanwhile, Obama’s numbers have hit historic lows.

The lack of an overwhelming public backlash has encouraged Republicans.

Democrats predicted Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would crumble, but instead he has dug in.

“At the end of the day, they’ll blink,” Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democratic leader, told reporters 10 days before the shutdown. “All of the Republican leadership knows that doing this is a disaster for them.”  

Boehner has scoffed at the notion of “winning” the debate, saying last week, “This isn’t some damn game.”

But when Boehner has gotten beat badly in the past, he has caved. That happened during the 2012 student loan and “fiscal cliff” debates. On the shutdown, he hasn’t thrown in his cards yet.

A private conversation caught on a live mic between Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) shows Republicans think their position is better than many pundits assumed before the shutdown.

 “I think if we keep saying, ‘We wanted to defund it. We fought for that and now we’re willing to compromise on this,’ I think they can’t — we’re going to, I think, well I know we don’t want to be here, but we’re going to win this, I think,” Paul was overhead saying.

O’Connell said the shutdown will make it more difficult to win Senate races in Democratic-leaning states such as Iowa, Michigan, Colorado and Minnesota. He said the primary GOP targets, however — Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina — would be unaffected.

The political calculus becomes much worse for Republicans if the shutdown fight morphs into a stalemate over the debt ceiling that forces the country into default.

“If the default winds up tanking or seriously hurting the economy then the Republicans will get the lion’s share of the blame,” he said. “I think that’s why you’re seeing some of the scare tactics from the White House, why they’re ginning up the notion of default.”

The administration warned Thursday it would not be able to prioritize debt payments over other government obligations if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling in time.

Snowe said it is not legitimate for Republicans to insist on using the stopgap spending measure or debt limit to make a major policy change, such as defunding or delaying ObamaCare.

“If they want to try it through the normal legislative process, then obviously that’s their right,” she said. “To condition it on the basis of the operations of government or on our full faith and credit as a nation at a time we’re beholden to foreign investors, it’s not even realistic.”

Jonathan Easley contributed.