Obama Has a Shutdown Message Problem — Here’s How to Fix It

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A week into the federal government shutdown, the standoff has devolved into a grinding trench warfare. House Republicans remain fundamentally paralyzed. John Boehner insists he won’t reopen the government because the votes aren’t there, which is not true. Accounts of his thought process continue to emphasize his fundamental terror at antagonizing ultrarightists, leaving him unable to compromise with Democrats. The ultrarightists won’t vote for anything — they even blocked the original, implement-Romney’s-entire-agenda-or-we-kill-the-economy crazy-plan because it was too modest — leaving Boehner also unable to pass a bill without compromising with Democrats.

As everybody to the left of Ted Cruz predicted, House Republicans are losing the fight to shape public opinion over the shutdown. But they are not losing it in a total rout. Sam Wang notes that the “generic ballot,” which asks which party voters would support in House races, shows Democrats currently in the range they need to be to take back the House, but also points out that anger at the shutdown is likely to dissipate by next year. Nate Cohn notes that the public blames Republicans more than it blames President Obama, but the imbalance of blame is not (yet) as heavy as it was during the Newt Gingrich shutdown. Republicans have wounded themselves, but not mortally.

Why is the damage so mild? One reason may be that, compared to 1995, the country has grown more polarized. James Carville once defined a party base as the people who support you even when you’re wrong. In a more polarized electorate, each party has a larger base and fewer persuadable swing voters. The floor of support beneath the House Republicans is higher now.

But a second reason is that the House Republicans may have a better sound-bite message. Last night I listened to a short radio news report, and it summarized the position of the two parties as follows: Republicans want to negotiate, and Democrats refuse. The truth of the matter is that Democrats want to negotiate budget policy, and Republicans don’t — Obama has offered to reduce spending on retirement programs, while Boehner rules out any increase in revenue. But those distinctions get collapsed in a sound bite.

Obama’s message is currently complicated — negotiate this, not that — while Boehner’s is simple. The administration’s summary of Obama’s phone call with Boehner today is two long paragraphs, while Boehner’s summary is a single sentence (“The president called the speaker again today to reiterate that he won't negotiate on a government funding bill or debt limit increase.”) It has allowed Boehner to settle on a simple, reasonable-sounding plea: “I want to have a conversation. I’m not drawing any lines in the sand,” he said. “It’s time for us to just sit down and resolve our differences.” Boehner’s actual position is that he wants to keep the government shut down and threaten default in order to extract unreciprocated concessions. Yet his demand of negotiating policy while also negotiating whether he will harm America if Obama fails to meet his demands sounds amenable on the surface.

This isn’t a huge problem for Obama, but it is a problem. And the solution came along by accident. Yesterday, reporters asked Obama adviser Gene Sperling if he would accept a short-term debt-ceiling hike. Sperling replied that yes, he would. Reporters — okay, Politico reporters — portrayed this as a crack in the wall of Democratic unity. And indeed, Senate Democrats expressed some real nervousness that Obama might be bending his successful no-extortion stance.

The backdrop to Senate Democratic nervousness is that Harry Reid believes, justifiably, that Obama gave away the store in previous negotiations. The off-message note from the White House triggered here-we-go-again tremors of dismay. But agreeing to accept a short-term debt-ceiling hike is not the same thing as submitting to extortion. Obama would not be trading policy concessions to avoid default. If House Republicans want to make themselves take more and more politically toxic votes to lift the debt ceiling in return for nothing, they can do that.

What’s more, a pledge to veto a short-term debt-ceiling hike lacks credibility. Obama can credibly argue that he would rather default than pay a ransom, since paying a ransom enshrines the extortion process and guarantees a future default. He can’t credibly commit to vetoing a short-term debt-ceiling hike. If and when the debt-limit clock ticks down, the House can pass a short-term hike, and he has to sign it.

Opening up the issue of a short-term debt-ceiling hike solves Obama’s messaging problem by giving him something to negotiate over. Do Republicans want to negotiate the length of a debt-ceiling increase? Let’s talk! He’ll negotiate how much to increase the debt ceiling, he’ll negotiate when the vote takes place, he’ll negotiate what snacks are served when they meet. So much to negotiate. Just no concessions. But the point is, this is a different public message: Yes, let’s negotiate the debt ceiling itself, but let’s not hold it hostage. Sperling probably didn't mean to make news any more than John Kerry did when he proposed eliminating Syria's chemical weapons. In both cases, an unplanned offhand comment is the perfect lifeline.

Update: At his press conference today, Obama stuck to the same position he has maintained all along, though he emphasized more strongly his willingness to negotiate budget issues with Republicans. Talking points included the nineteen times Senate Democrats tried to get a budget conference with House Republicans, and the House GOP's announced plan to boycott budget negotiations and instead try to extort unilateral concessions.

As a communications strategy, Obama seems to be placing a lot of faith in the political media's ability to process complex positions on a wide array of issues. Right now, Republicans have a simple message: let's talk. Obama needs to have a simple message: reopen the government.