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Shutdown threat a bad idea — again

Republicans are once again careening toward shutting down the U.S. government.

I feel a bit lame adding my voice to the mix of those decrying the insanity of this move, with GOP pollsters and Karl Rove already having led the way. You can hardly find a professional political operative who thinks this will be good for the GOP — and they’re sacrificing their professional advice on the altar of ideology.

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However, on the theory that everything has been said but not everyone has said it, I’ll add my two cents. To quote Mel Brooks’s immortal paraphrase of the Roman philosophers in his 1981 “History of the World: Part 1” comedy, “It’s N-V-T-S, nuts.”

Few Americans think this is a good idea. 

The latest CNBC poll addressed the issue head on and found only 19 percent who favor defunding ObamaCare if it means shutting down the government. A somewhat earlier ABC/Washington Post poll posed a more circumscribed question and found just 27 percent in support of “shutting down major activities of the federal government in order to try to prevent implementation of the health care law.”

Indeed, most Americans oppose defunding the Affordable Care Act even if a government shutdown were not a consequence. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found only 36 percent approved of “cutting off funding as a way to stop some or all of health reform from being put into place.” A 57 percent majority opposed defunding the law.

Going even further, by a 6-point margin, Americans told NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters that “Republicans in Congress ... should stop trying to block it and should move on to other priorities,” even if they feel the law “is harmful and will have negative consequences for individuals, small businesses, and the economy.” 

In short, voters don’t want a government shutdown, they don’t want to defund ObamaCare and they want the GOP to move on instead of continually re-litigating this battle. It’s good advice, and precisely the opposite of the strategy that out-of-touch Hill Republicans have adopted.

While, as I have described before, voters are hardly positive about the healthcare reform law, they are not nearly as invested in the issue as Hill Republicans because they are not at all certain it is a bad bill. 

The ABC/Washington Post poll tells the same story as many other surveys. Nearly two-thirds of the public admits it doesn’t have enough information to understand what reform will do. Hence, while 36 percent expect ObamaCare to make healthcare worse, nearly two-thirds think it will make the system better, have no effect or won’t guess. Only 33 percent say it has made their healthcare costs worse; just 22 percent say it’s worsened the quality of care; and only a quarter believe it has made their health insurance coverage worse.

These folks don’t love ObamaCare, but unlike Republicans in Congress, they don’t hate it either. Thus, the GOP venom does not make sense to voters except as a partisan political exercise.

And that’s exactly how Americans have viewed other crises and shutdowns fomented by Republicans.

Let no one tell you the GOP wasn’t hurt by the 1995 shutdown. Though they are missing some important months, CBS News polls tracked feelings about the two parties in 1995 and early 1996. From January through August of 1995, between 53 percent and 54 percent of Americans held favorable views of the Republican Party, while 37 percent to 40 percent offered unfavorable opinions. By March of 1996, a few months after the shutdown, just 41 percent were favorably disposed toward the GOP, while 50 percent were unfavorable. That’s a roughly 25-point net shift against the Republicans.

Could it have been something else? Sure, but private polling we did during and after the shutdown confirms the damage. Democrats’ ratings during that period were unchanged.

Ignoring public opinion once again will be another blight on the Republican brand, but an even worse tragedy for our country.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.