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Things are different this time.
Yes, there’s plenty of blame to go around Congress and the White House as our cynicism about dysfunctional Washington is validated with each passing day. But to those who think congressional Republicans will be the only ones to take the brunt of the backlash, think again. It’s not that clear-cut.
Remember November 1995, the start of the last shutdown? President Clinton was in his first term and about to kick off an aggressive re-election campaign. The nation’s economy was surging, with unemployment around 5.5 percent and dropping. America wasn’t at war. Clinton’s approval ratings were in the low 50s and trending up. He was also a masterful politician who could take lemons from something like a shutdown and make electoral lemonade.
To those who think congressional Republicans will be the <i>only</i> ones to take the brunt of the backlash, think again. It’s not that clear-cut.
This picture is quite different from the snapshot of President Obama today. Beyond working to save some of the accomplishments of his first term, Obama’s second-term strategy remains murky at best. The economy has limped along badly for nearly five years, the chasm between America’s higher and lower economic classes is as bad as it’s ever been. The nation hasn’t yet emerged from the spiritual and material drag of two wars. The public has grown weary and skeptical. And as a result, Obama’s approval rating is about 10 points lower than Clinton’s was when the last shutdown began.
In other words, Obama did not enter this standoff in a position of political strength.
Whether fair or not, the public expects more from the president than it does from Congress. This is especially true of a president elected on the wings of soaring rhetoric about unity and healing.
As Bob Woodward commented on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” earlier this week, Obama has “got to lead. He’s got to talk … the absence of discussion … is a baffling element.”
Woodward is right. Obama’s refusal to rise above partisanship and talk with GOP leaders before the shutdown is baffling. (Obama may have finally gotten this message, as he is now scheduled to meet with congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday evening.)
For its part, Congress as an institution — that’s Republicans and Democrats — is as unpopular as ever. A new CNN/ORC poll shows Congress’ approval rating has dipped to all-time lows.
However, this indicator — at this time — is a bit misleading.
Voters still differentiate their own member of Congress from the morass of the broader body. And through gerrymandering, the parties have essentially instituted a congressional employment-protection plan.
During the last shutdown for instance, almost 35 percent of Republican House members came from districts won by Clinton in his first campaign. Now, 7 percent of House Republicans are from districts that backed Obama. As such, members of Congress today see far less risk in a standoff than their predecessors.
These dynamics are compounded by the lack of Republican leadership in the House. There’s no one to whip them into line to vote on a compromise. As is well-documented, the standoff is driven on the congressional side by a mobilized subset of House and Senate Republicans. In football speak, House Speaker John Boehner has lost the locker room.
In the State of the Union address that followed the end of the last shutdown, Clinton exclaimed, “The era of big government is over.” At that moment, Clinton and congressional Republicans, who had worked together to forge policies like welfare reform, weren’t in fundamental disagreement over the role of government. Today, although we lack the benefits of hindsight, it does appear that such a core disagreement exists. And it’s unclear how it can be resolved, or even managed, by the co-equal branches.
This is troubling when you consider how long the standoff could continue. The debate now is not merely about spending, as it was in 1995. This disagreement is darker, and deeply ideological. And very soon it will bump up against debt-ceiling negotiations. It remains to be seen whether both sides are reckless enough to play a game of chicken with the nation defaulting on its loans and perhaps triggering a severe global reaction. But nothing should be surprising by now — it’s that bad.
The jury is still out on whether the shutdown will ultimately affect Obama’s legacy, or the mid-term elections for Republicans. For the Democrats, failing to negotiate the debt ceiling in time may cripple the administration as Obama will be forced to spend his time responding to a new economic crisis. Similarly, should Republicans panic, splinter, and decide to fold, their risky tactic could backfire. They’ll be seen as weak and feckless, having tarnished our global reputation, and imposed untold economic pain, all without having anything to show for it.
The debate now is not merely about spending, as it was in 1995. This disagreement is darker, and deeply ideological.
It begs the question: With so much at stake, how much room is there for compromise?
Regardless of the outcome, the Republican brand may suffer in the short-term. But over the long-term, the GOP will be defined by its 2016 presidential candidate, as the party is undergoing an internal struggle much like the Democrats of the 1980s. The shutdown follies would seem to bode well for a Republican presidential candidate who comes from outside the Beltway — a governor, perhaps.
As of today, though, both sides have failed in their responsibility to the citizenry and both sides have embarrassed the nation. It’s difficult to imagine a winner emerging when both sides look like such losers.
This program aired on October 2, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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