Have Republicans won any shutdown confrontation since Newt Gingrich lost to Bill Clinton in the winter of 95-6? I can’t think of one. Certainly the Democrats are gloating over the latest shutdown deal. Yes, they’re playing to their frustrated base, but unless Trump pulled off some impressive Kabuki regarding funding for his wall, it sure looks like they have some justification for claiming to have bested the president.
But is it possible something bigger has also been revealed, namely that Republicans are simply incapable of winning a shutdown fight for the forseeable future — won’t happen, shouldn’t expect it to happen — and that this is a new (and asymmetric) feature in our government’s structure, as much a change as the partial abolition of the filibuster or the potential end of gerrymandering?
At least four factors contribute to this phenomenon: 1) Memory of the Clinton-Gingrich showdown. Gingrich attempted to effect vast budget changes (including raising Medicare premiums) from the House Speakership. But, in what may have been the most successful episode of gaslighting in the century, he was provoked into a tantrum when asked to use the rear door of Air Force One–and partly as a result got blamed for the shutdown. The episode marked the turnaround of Clinton’s presidency, and Democrats aren’t going to give up that precious template soon. 2) The press is on the Democrats’ side. Why? Because it is. Any shutdown impact — park rangers furloughed, etc. — will be played up and subtly twisted against GOPs. 3) You’d think GOPs would have built-in leverage over Democrats, who are the party of government after all. They should most want it to stay open. But that’s not how the PR war has been playing out. When the state closes its doors — well, isn’t that what the [mean] Republicans want? Quite apart from press bias, modern ideological Republicans consistently underestimate how much government the voters — including Trump voters — prefer. Shutdowns tend to highlight this very real gap. Voters decide they’d just as soon keep Leviathan going; 4) Republicans are split between the Freedom Caucusers and the moderates — in a way Dems are not. This may change, but I don’t see the Sandersites actually shutting down the government because a budget funds Obamacare rather than Medicare-for-all, at least not anytime soon.
Note that these factors apply even when Republicans don’t control all the branches of government and therefore might not be expected to shoulder all the blame. ** They managed to lose in 1996 and 2013 despite divided government.
It’s hard to believe now that Republicans actually scheduled this shutdown back in December, thinking it would give them leverage. Who were they kidding? They need to find some other way to pass legislation when they don’t have 60 votes in the Senate. Aren’t there other must-pass bills? If government-wide funding confrontations are “the single best opportunity to make conservative policy,” conservatives are in trouble.**
** — You could even see
President Minority Leader Schumer routinely use the shutdown threat to effectively repeal victories conservatives win in the ordinary course of legislative business — e.g. ‘You know that mandatory welfare work program you passed? Well we’re shutting down the government unless it gets unfunded.’