Paul Waldman wrote a good article yesterday, How Republicans Are Learning to Love the Shutdown. He isn’t alone: a lot of people have been reporting about the increasing zeal that the Republican Party has for shutting down the government. Right now they are talking about doing it over the president’s expected announcement of executive action on immigration. But it doesn’t much matter; they have increasing zeal for shutdowns, breaching debt ceilings, and impeachment. They’re Republicans!
What no one seems to be discussing is why this is. I’m afraid that this was always going to happen. The only question is whether the Republican leadership can somehow divert this trend. The way it works this is. When the Democrats had complete control in Washington, the Republican position was quite rightly, “So what?! We’re still going to fight you with everything we have.” But when the Republicans gained control of the House, the Republican response was, “We won the last election: now you have to do everything we say!” The leadership had to point out that this was not, in fact, how things worked. The Republicans only won one chamber of Congress. They didn’t have the Senate and they didn’t have the White House.
Now that the Republicans have won both chambers of Congress — but before actually getting into power — the base is again acting out like children, “Can we do everything we want now?!” Although this behavior is typical of conservatives, it doesn’t only affect them. Whenever a court overrules some democratically approved law, people normally complain, “But it’s what the people want!” I have to remind them that 51% of the people might want to enslave the other 49%, but that hardly makes right.
The question now is whether the Republican leadership will be able to quiet the masses. It’s actually kind of hard. When they had the House from 2011-2012, the Republicans didn’t shut down the government. The leadership could rightly argue that if the new Republican Representatives were good little boys (and a tiny smattering of girls), they would have the White House in short order and all their dreams would come true. That’s why we did get the shutdown in 2013. I question whether “We’ll win the White House in 2016!” will be all that compelling an argument.
Right now, the Republicans are making the argument that the last time they shut down the government, it didn’t hurt them. In fact, it might have helped them, by causing liberal and moderate voters to just give up on democracy. These people are forgetting an important point, of course. The 2013 government shutdown hurt the Republicans enormously at the time. But they were saved by the website debacle that was all anyone was talking about as soon as the shutdown was ended. By January, everyone had forgotten about what the Republicans had done and were still thinking that the government couldn’t do anything right, as was clear thanks to the Obamacare website. I don’t think they are going to have that good fortune again.
Just the same, as long as the Republicans don’t shut down the government within three months of the next election, I wonder how much it would matter. The truth is that Americans don’t much pay attention to politics. A September poll found that over 40% of Americans said they didn’t know which party controlled the House and the Senate. And that doesn’t even include the ones who said they knew but were wrong. Although 38% knew that Democrats controlled the Senate, 20% said the Republicans did.
Given all this, it is amazing that Americans blame the Republicans for shutting down the government even at the time. They certainly aren’t going to blame the Republicans a year later. And as I indicated, in the long run, Republicans are probably helped by government shutdowns. It is a great way to push their philosophy that the government is incompetent. That not only increases the number of conservatives who show up to vote, it decreases the number of liberals who bother to vote.
So I won’t be cheering if the Republicans shutdown the government. The harm done to the people of the United States will be for nothing. And the best outcome will be that it will have no effect at all in 2016. And it might result in the people deciding that the way to get things done in Washington is to put the people who have obstructed for the previous eight years into power. Because Americans are just brilliant at that kind of anti-logic.