Government Shut Down? Boehner Will Blink Or Republicans Will Lose

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on February 28, 2011

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It seems like every day is Groundhog Day in Washington, DC.

Heading into the healthcare debate in early 2009 with Democrats riding high in the polls warned that the apparently strong support for health care reform in public opinion surveys would likely prove illusory by detailing how and why support for health care reform collapsed in 1993.  While some Democratic strategists continued to insist health reform had strong popular appeal in 2009, by 2011 many Democrats on Capital Hill realized that their vote for health reform would likely cost them support from voters – and to their credit, they voted for it anyway.  This is true leadership.

We called our analysis of health care polling in 2009 and 1993 “Groundhog Day” referring to the 1993 Bill Murray movie, and these days it seems we are still locked in repetitions of the battles of the early 1990s.  After Democrats pushed through health reform despite declining public approval, the election of 2010 reminded all commentators of the 1994 Republican landslide.  The number of seats changing from blue to red in the House of Representatives was indeed greater in 2010 than in 1994 although the Senate did not change hands in 2010 as it had in 1994.

Then in 1995 the Republicans over-interpreted the degree to which the public supported their agenda to reduce government spending and shut down the government, twice, in their efforts to force dramatic budget cuts.  Many people are making the case that 2010 would be different, but they are wrong.  A 2011 government shutdown would be just like 1995-1996, and Speaker John Boehner already knows this.  The two week budget deal offered by House Republicans on Friday is likely to be the first of many extensions as negotiators realize Republicans have less leverage in these negotiations than the President and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Just as there were structural reasons behind the drop in support for health care reform that were common to 1993 and 2009 – strong agreement that health care needed reforming but no consensus on the shape of reform, conflicting goals of increasing coverage and reducing the cost, high public satisfaction with their current health coverage, and strong suspicion of government and of complexity – there are also structural reasons, many common to 1995, why the public will move sharply away from Republicans if they stay on their current confrontational course on budget issues.

The center of the American electorate is decidedly moderate and uncomfortable with both conflict and dramatic policy changes.  A recent Gallup survey finds the public favoring compromise over conflict on the budget by a 2 to 1 margin.

  • The Republicans are sending a clear message that, just like the Democrats in 1993 and 2009, they have priorities that are higher than fixing the economy and creating jobs.  Shutting down the government and changing public employee union work rules does little to create jobs.
  • The President is, and all Democrats should be, sending the message that they too support deep reductions in government spending, especially reforms to the big programs over the longer term.
  • The public may hate “government spending” but they strongly support Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, national defense, the National Parks, education – and when you list it out, just about everything the government spends money on.

The public wants the security of knowing someone is inspecting the meat they feed their families and they would rather see more, not fewer, meat inspectors working for the USDA.  The public is hopeful that cures for major diseases will be found and global epidemics will not spread illness throughout this country, so they would like to see spending for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control increase rather than decrease.  They certainly will not want to see these health workers off the job on a furlough.

A recent PEW survey listed 18 categories of spending and did not find majority support for decreasing spending in a single one.  By 62% to 11% the public wants to increase rather than decrease spending for education (the spending category at the center of the Wisconsin dispute).   The only category of government spending where meaningfully more people want to decrease spending (45%) than increase spending (21%) is foreign aid, a very small budget category that most people incorrectly believe is far larger than it should be.  In yet another low for petty partisanship, last weekend, with popular uprisings spreading across the Middle East some Republicans even criticized Obama for having reduced spending on democracy building programs in Egypt.

Time for Leaders on Both Sides to Lead – Intelligently and Collaboratively

Of course the public is contradicting itself in consistently calling for a lower deficit, and lower spending in general, but at the same time opposing any tax increases that fall on them as well as opposing cuts in nearly every specific category of spending.  In a world where the rules of mathematics apply, it is not possible to cut spending without cutting any specific categories of spending, and it is not possible to reduce the deficit without cutting spending or raising taxes or both.

In the budget negotiations Democrats are constrained by the public’s belief that cutting spending is the best way to get the economy going.  Republicans are constrained by economists, including former economic advisor to John McCain, Mark Zandi, who are warning that deep budget cuts in the short term could mean a major reduction in employment and slowing of the economic recovery.

Political leaders are going to have to ignore the polls to solve the very real long term fiscal challenges we face, and for this reason the Republicans should be praised for finally putting specific proposals on the table.  But it is crossing the thin line between bravery and stupidity to make this an issue of confrontation rather than cooperation when many Democrats including President Obama are willing to join Republicans in serious efforts to address the long term budget problem.

A group of six senators are working on their own proposals, many based on those of the Presidential Bi-partisan Commission, on the Budget to walk this confrontation back toward sanity, and a set of compromises that would avoid government shutdown.  This will include a lot of cuts that in any normal environment neither side would want to take full responsibility for due to their unpopularity.  Whatever the two parties can agree to cut in a “we all jump together” deal in the Senate, should be seen as about the best we will get in 2011, the first year of many where we will be addressing the long term deficits.

Regardless of the merits of their position, it was the most liberal Democrats who were the most frustrated and in conflict with moderates in their own party during the health care battles of 2009 because structural factors of the electorate limited their bargaining leverage.  Now it is the far right’s turn to experience the frustration or having far less bargaining leverage than they may have believed following the last Election Night.  We can expect Tea-Partiers to howl in frustration, but we can also expect the House leadership to be supportive this kind of bi-partisan approach if it emerges from the Senate.

There is some discussion going on about whether Tea Party Republicans could buck the Republican leadership and hold a harder line on budget cutting, but it is folly to imagine that they could, as a block standing against the House leadership and more moderate senators in their own party, shut down government, slowing or reversing the economic recovery, sending thousands of public and private sector employees onto the unemployment lines, and dramatically increasing the deficit.  This kind of a government shutdown would place Tea Party Republicans way on the wrong side of that bravery/stupidity line.

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