Momentum shifts toward Democrats in PR battle over shutdown

Momentum in the partisan messaging battle over who’s to blame if the government shuts down has shifted in recent weeks to favor Democrats, according to political experts.

Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats have hammered on the theme that Republican leaders have agreed to compromise number for spending cuts and only a Tea Party revolt could derail the emerging compromise.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters at a brief news conference Friday that there is no final agreement, but he did not go so far as to deride Biden’s statement on Wednesday evening that negotiators are working toward a common goal of $33 billion in spending cuts. And in Saturday's Republican address, Boehner said it was "important for Congress to get moving."

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Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is in charge of the Senate Democrats’ public relations operation, said in a telephone call with reporters on Friday that Boehner has agreed to that target even though he won’t confirm it publicly.  

“We’re on the doorstep of a deal as long the speaker resists the Tea Party Republicans in the House who are against any compromise. You’ve heard them say it, if they don’t get their way, they want to shut down the government,” he added.

Schumer has repeatedly emphasized this portrait of tension between Boehner and conservative members of his caucus over the last ten days, delivering three speeches on the Senate floor and appearing twice on MSNBC.

Political experts say it’s an effective message.

“I think the Democrats have a message strategy which is if the shutdown occurs, it can be blamed on the lunatics in John Boehner’s attic rattling their cages and the Republican party has become the captive of a cult,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

Baker said Democrats have the advantage of President Obama’s bully pulpit and the public perception that the Tea Party wouldn’t mind a government shutdown.

“Some feel a shutdown inevitably favors the president because of his ability to frame the argument,” Baker said. “On the Republican side, there are the Tea Party people who are Jeffersonians and who think a revolution once in a while is a good thing."

Baker said a shutdown would underscore the contention of many in the Tea Party that society can thrive with much less government intervention.

The Democratic messaging strategy was helped on Thursday when Tea Party activists held a rally outside the Capitol. Chanting “cut it or shut it”, a group of 150 to 200 activists urged House Republican leaders to push for deeper cuts to the federal budget. 

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who spoke at the Tea Party rally, said Friday that a government shutdown may be justified if Democrats refuse to accept nearly $60 billion in spending cuts.

“If liberals in the Senate are unwilling to embrace this modest step toward fiscal discipline in Washington, D.C., then I say shut it down,” Pence said during an interview on MSNBC. 

Political experts say the outspoken role of the Tea Party will influence the blame game if there there’s a government shutdown. 

“The easiest targets in terms of blame are legislators who sympathize with the Tea Party,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies as the Brookings Institution. “Those are the individuals who are at risk for being blamed for torpedoing a deal.”

“The group that is the largest and most cohesive is the Tea Party,” West said. “It’s always easier to stereotype one side based on the extreme elements within that party. There are very liberal people in the Democratic Party who have fought this, but they don’t have the same media presence that make them as big a target as the Tea Party.”

Former Republican Sen. David Durenberger, who has watched the public relations battle unfold from his home in Minnesota, however, thinks both parties would receive equal blame. 

“It’s a pox on both their houses. I don’t think anyone thinks going to blame one party or the other party,” said Durenberger.

Durenberger said liberal elites may see the Tea Party as extreme but argued many people outside the Beltway share its concerns over the federal debt. 

“The public is on the side of cutting spending, but they don’t really understand what particular issues are involved,” he said.

But Durenberger warned that Republicans could alienate independents by insisting that a spending deal include controversial policy riders, such as amendments to defund Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio.

“If you’re one of those right or left of center independents, you don’t buy that. You don’t want whether or not we have government to be contingent on that stuff. That’s the Republican downside,” Durenberger said. 

Some polls show public opinion has begun to shift toward Democrats in the debate over who’s to blame in case of a shutdown.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll from late February showed that the public was evenly split over who to fault for a shutdown. Thirty-six percent said Republicans would be to blame and 35 percent said the Obama administration would be the primary culprit.

Opinion has since shifted, according to two recent polls.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll from mid-March found that 45 percent would view congressional Republicans as mainly responsible for a shutdown while 31 percent would blame Obama.

A CNN poll released the same week showed that 46 percent of the public would blame Republicans for a shutdown and 37 percent would hold Obama primarily responsible.

Stan Collender, an expert on public communications and the congressional budget process at Qorvis Communications, noted the recent polling.

He said Republicans have played to their base this past week by introducing a balanced budget amendment in the Senate and passing legislation in the House that would implement H.R. 1 — the $61 billion House-passed package of spending cuts — if negotiators fail to reach a deal by April 8.

Collender questions whether this strategy “gets them any points with anyone beyond their base.”

He sees the conservative base as a liability for the GOP if the government shuts down.

“Given that the Tea Party has been saying since October that a shutdown is needed, if a shutdown happens, it’s blamed on them,” he said.

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