Who Has Most to Lose in Shutdown?

By Roger Simon

March 9, 2011 7 min read

Those of you who are looking forward to a government shutdown because it will release your inner-self, punish lazy bureaucrats or cause general chaos will be disappointed.

It's not that I think a shutdown is unthinkable. It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future (hat tip: Yogi Berra), but I predict the U.S. government has at least a fair chance of shutting down later this month or in September, if House Speaker John Boehner agrees to extend the agony to the latter date and the Democrats go along.

President Barack Obama and Congress must agree on a spending plan by then, or large parts of the government will shut down. But that won't be the real story.

The real story will be who gets the blame.

A shutdown will not lead to paralysis. The military will continue to fight in Afghanistan, transportation security officers will continue to make you take your shoes off in airports, air traffic controllers will continue to make sure planes don't bump at 30,000 feet, the IRS will continue to check all those zany deductions you took off your taxes, and federal prison guards will make sure Bernie Madoff stays locked up. And you will still get your mail — your bills always have a way of finding you.

President Obama said recently that during a shutdown, "People don't get their Social Security checks." But in 1995 and 1996, when there were two shutdowns, people did get their Social Security checks, and the government has become more automated since then.

What I remember from those shutdowns are stories of people who were basically inconvenienced: tourists who couldn't get into federal museums or national parks, government workers who had their paychecks delayed (they got paid back after the shutdown ended) and people who couldn't apply for new passports. I am sure there were other, perhaps worse, stories, but nobody starved, there was no rioting in the streets and nothing even close to panic.

People treated it as more Washington shenanigans, just another reason they hated politics.

At the time, however, was the great unknown: Who would the public blame for the shutdown, the Democrats or the Republicans?

The Democrats were represented by Bill Clinton, who vetoed a Republican spending bill, causing the government to shut down. This was the persuasive and charismatic Bill Clinton of 1995. Monica Lewinski and lying to his family, his Cabinet, Congress, federal investigators and the American people was still a few years down the road.

The Republicans were represented by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Back then, Newt was not the dazzling charmer he is today. Back then, at the time of the crisis, Gingrich complained that he was insulted at being forced to fly way in the back of Air Force One with Bob Dole on flights to and from the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. (It may be that the real insult Gingrich felt was his being forced to sit next to Bob Dole for all that time.)

In any case, the public blamed the Republicans, Bill Clinton was re-elected, and the Democrats got a net gain of eight seats in the House in 1996.

In retrospect, that was predictable. The Democrats had one compelling figure — Clinton — around whom to rally support, while the Republicans had the frosty Gingrich and 229 other competing Republican voices to sell their program.

But would the results be the same this time?

The speaker of the House is now John Boehner, and while he does not exactly ooze personality, he avoided the trap of flying on Air Force One (going so far as to refuse to go to the memorial service for those killed in Tucson in January rather than fly on the president's plane). And, much more importantly, he and his party have come to represent an issue much more significant now than in 1995 and 1996: slashing the budget and cutting the deficit.

The Republicans have long portrayed Democrats as "tax and spenders," while they claim to be the party of "fiscal responsibility" (a trait often not shown by their presidents).

But this year, cutting the deficit has become nearly a mania, and the tea partyers and Republicans are well-positioned, while the Democrats are forced to defend spending on groups that are not always popular: the poor, the underprivileged and the needy — a category that includes kids who want to go to college on Pell grants.

OK, but here is where the single, forceful personality with great powers of oratory and a huge bully pulpit comes in: Barack Obama.

Is he really capable of playing the role that Bill Clinton played during the last government shutdowns?

Obama's Gallup approval is around 48 percent. Clinton's approval in early November 1995, just the first shutdown, stood at 52 percent.

But the numbers don't tell the story. What has the Democrats worried is that not only are they on the unpopular side of a national argument over spending, but their chief spokesman and leader sometimes appears to disengage when the battle gets the hottest. Democrats mumble and grumble over his giving up the fight for a health care public option and not standing up to the Republicans over tax breaks for the rich.

"So much is at stake if this great government shuts down," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said recently. But she is one of the few people who would attach the adjective "great" to the noun "government" these days.

Government is unpopular, spending is unpopular, and the last election indicated Democrats are unpopular.

But Republicans leaders are worried. They don't want to blow their popularity on a risky shutdown in 2011. They want to save their popularity for the critical elections of 2012.

And that is about the only thing that might scare them into a compromise with Democrats.

To find out more about Roger Simon, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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