Blame-Game Lessons From the Last Government Shutdown

Shutdowns usually hurt the reputations of both parties in Congress, but in 2013 it temporarily hurt Republicans more. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The odds of a settlement of outstanding issues — the most notable being the fate of Dreamers — between Democrats and Republicans and between Congress and the White House are fading rapidly. So there really is a good chance that the federal government will shut down on Friday, January 19, when the current spending bill expires.

In looking at that prospect, the big — and to a surprising extent imponderable — element is which party or subset of a party will get the primary blame if the government does shuts down, which is never a popular proposition among Americans. One school of thought is that Republicans will inevitably be blamed because they control the entire federal government. Another is that the party perceived as precipitating the shutdown will be blamed, regardless of power or actual responsibility. And it’s also unclear whether the “blame,” however it is assigned, will matter by this November when voters get a chance to weigh in.

In answering these questions, it may be helpful to look back at the last actual government shutdown in October of 2013. Then, partisan control over Washington was divided, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House. The precipitating cause of the shutdown at the time was reasonably clear: House Speaker John Boehner, with angry House conservatives at his back, refused to move any funding bill until such time as Democrats agreed to major changes in — or a delay in the implementation of — the Affordable Care Act. And despite divided government and partisan finger-pointing, the persuadable portion of the public did indeed seem to blame Republicans more, according to this assessment in the midst of the shutdown:

By a 22-point margin (53-31 percent), the public blames the Republican Party more for the shutdown than President Barack Obama, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. That’s a wider margin of blame for the GOP than the party received during the last shutdown in 1995-96.

In both the 2013 and 1995–96 shutdowns, Republicans were making high-profile demands to redeem long-standing conservative policy priorities (hobbling Obamacare in 2013 and cutting Medicare and Medicaid in 1995–96).

So the belief of some Republicans today that they can pin a government shutdown on Democrats who are blocking a spending deal because of an insistence on going to the mat for Dreamers and Hispanic advocacy groups is not entirely without foundation (though it would have been much easier if the president had not made inflammatory comments in the middle of negotiations that will help Democrats immensely in making him appear to be the Bad Guy in this saga). It is true that with united GOP control of the federal government it’s harder to blame Democrats for anything. But then again, it’s not exactly clear what percentage of Americans are aware of the GOP “trifecta”; at the height of the midterm-election campaign in 2014, Gallup found that only 36 percent of Americans could identify the party controlling the two congressional chambers.

The clearest lesson from 2013 is that a government shutdown hurt Congress’s popularity generally: The public’s job-approval rating of Congress dropped into single digits for the first time ever. It’s possible that the shutdown contributed to an anti-government mood that ultimately damaged Democrats more in the November 2014 midterms, mostly by dampening turnout, despite contemporary perceptions that Republicans were more to blame. The reason we can’t really know, however, is that intervening events blurred and possibly even obliterated the shutdown’s impact almost immediately.

The same day the federal government shut down on October 1, 2013, the online portal for enrollment in Obamacare was opened, and almost immediately crashed. In the ensuring weeks, additional problems with the website and the enrollment process continued to emerge, and Republicans relentlessly publicized them via congressional hearings and sheer repetition. By mid-November, Obama’s approval ratings — and for that matter, Obamacare’s — were reaching historic lows. The shutdown became something of a distant memory overnight.

It’s almost impossible to sort out temporary from long-term public-opinion trends in the stew of discontent that simmered throughout the country at the end of 2013. But it’s worth noting that prior to October with its twin disasters, Democrats had been consistently leading in the congressional generic ballot for 2014. After the shutdown and the rollout, the polling became much more mixed before resolving itself into a small pro-GOP wave by the next fall. Ultimately, Republicans made modest House gains and managed to retake control of the Senate, in what was a pretty typical midterm trend.

So the bottom line for those creating or trying to avoid a 2018 government shutdown is that these events are rarely good for either party, but the blame can be pinned primarily on one party with enough resolve and evidence. In the end, though, their effect can be ephemeral. At present, Democrats are headed toward big midterm gains barring some big turnaround in Trump’s approval ratings. His inability to control his foul mouth spewing racist sentiments is going to be a problem for his party no matter how it affects the Blame Game of a potential government shutdown. And Republicans should keep that in mind before they roll the dice in helping to bring the federal government they control into even greater disrepute.

Blame-Game Lessons From the Last Government Shutdown