Would a Government Shutdown Really Be All That Bad for Republicans? Yes

Conservatives now argue that the political consequences of stopping funding have been overstated. Survivors of the last major closure beg to differ.

John Boehner looks over the shoulder of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a 1998 press conference. (Leslie Kossoff/Associated Press)

Go ahead, shut it down! That's the new cheer from the conservatives pushing to defund Obamacare. To their lily-livered compatriots who worry that the Senate will reject the defunding gambit, resulting in a shutdown when the federal government runs out of money at the end of this month, they claim that wouldn't actually be so bad: Americans, they say, would cheer the Republicans for sticking to their principles and opposing the unpopular health-care legislation.

It's a case increasingly being made by activists on the right, who cite polling data and a revisionist view of the 1995 government shutdown. But under close scrutiny, the claims don't hold up.

The contention that Americans would cheer a shutdown rests on a new Rasmussen Reports poll that supposedly shows a majority of Americans favor shutting down the government to defund Obamacare. It was emailed to me by a conservative activist, Scott Hogenson, who wrote, "RE: Obamacare and the prospect of a government shutdown. Seems a majority of Americans would be okay with that."

Rasmussen isn’t a very reliable pollster -- in last year’s presidential election, the company’s polls consistently overestimated Mitt Romney’s chances. But leaving that aside, the poll doesn’t quite show that the public wants defund or nothing. The pollster asked, “Would you rather have Congress avoid a government shutdown by authorizing spending for the health care law at existing levels or would you rather have a partial government shutdown until Democrats and Republicans agree on what spending for that law to cut?,” and 51 percent picked the second option, which suggests a partial trimming of health-care spending. Another recent poll by a respected Republican pollster found that a large majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, oppose “shutting down the government as a way to defund the president’s health care law.”

Yet another recent poll found that a majority of Americans would blame Republicans if a shutdown happened. But the idea that the GOP would suffer dire political consequences from a shutdown is another point the shutdown cheerleaders have taken to disputing. In an op-ed published on FoxNews.com on Tuesday, Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots and Brent Bozell of ForAmerica write: “After the 1995 shutdown the Republicans added two Senate seats in the 1996 elections and lost only two in the House. Claims that Republicans will suffer massive defeat at the polls after a government shutdown are ignorant of the historical record. Or dishonest.”

There’s one obvious problem with this argument: It ignores the biggest thing that happened at the polls in 1996 -- Bill Clinton’s landslide reelection. In 2014, if Republicans win just two additional Senate seats and lose two seats in the House, it would be considered a massive triumph for Democrats. But Martin and Bozell aren’t the first to argue that we’re remembering 1995 wrong. Ted Cruz also recently argued at length that “The sort of cocktail chatter wisdom in Washington that, ‘Oh, the [1995-96] shutdown was a political disaster for Republicans,’ is not borne out by the data.”

When the 1995 shutdown began, Cruz had just graduated from Harvard Law School and was clerking for a federal judge in Richmond. He was about to turn 25. Since I, like Cruz, was not in Washington at the time, I thought I’d ask someone who was. In 1995, Steve LaTourette was a freshman Republican congressman from Ohio. (After serving nine terms, he retired from Congress this year and has become an outspoken critic of the far-right wing of the House GOP.) When I asked him if we’re all misremembering and the shutdown actually benefited Republicans politically, he said, “Oh, God, no.”

LaTourette remembers the shutdown as a chaotic time for the House Republicans, due partly to the improvisational leadership style of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. “There was no map for it. Nobody knew what the rules were,” he told me. “It was a little like the dog catching the car.” In meetings that went till 2 or 3 a.m., members agonized over how to resolve the standoff.

While the shutdown was under way, it wasn’t immediately clear who the public would hold responsible. Subsequent accounts, LaTourette noted, reported that the White House was just as worried as the Republicans in Congress about suffering political consequences. But in the end, he said, independent voters concluded from the crisis that the GOP couldn’t be trusted to govern. “We took the worse end of the public backlash -- [it was] ‘Why can’t you guys play nice?’” LaTourette said. Gingrich was famously depicted as a tantrum-throwing toddler on the cover of the New York Daily News, under the headline, "CRY BABY."

Other contemporaneous observers agree with LaTourette’s account. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote last month that the 1995 shutdown “effectively marked the end of the Gingrich revolution,” an important point: The loss of confidence Republicans suffered from the shutdown doomed the rest of their policy agenda. “Nothing could better revive the fortunes of a failing, flailing, fading Democratic administration than a government shutdown where the president is portrayed as standing up to the GOP on honoring our debts and paying our soldiers in the field,” Krauthammer added.

Nor did the GOP win the shutdown in policy terms, as Cruz claims. As the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, who covered the shutdown, recalled recently, Clinton had already angered Democrats by giving in to many of the GOP’s demands for spending cuts, but Republicans wouldn’t quit while they were ahead; they demanded Clinton agree to all of their terms. The deal they finally accepted to end the shutdown was essentially the one they’d refused at the beginning. And “when a balanced-budget agreement was finally reached a couple of years later, it was almost entirely on Clinton’s terms.”

Prior to the shutdown, Clinton had been viewed as politically wounded by the Gingrich revolution. After it, his approval ratings rebounded and he took a commanding lead in the presidential race. As Kessler recounts, Clinton was merciless in taking Republicans to task for the shutdown. One particularly ruthless moment came in his 1996 State of the Union speech:

During the speech, Clinton singled out for praise a man seated next to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton — Social Security Administration worker Richard Dean, who had survived the Oklahoma City bombing and rescued three people from the devastated Murrah Federal Building.

As Republicans stood and applauded Dean’s heroism, Clinton pulled out the knife, recounting how Dean was forced out of his office during the first shutdown and had to work without pay in the second one. “Never, ever, shut the federal government down again,” the president scolded.

(Then-House Minority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was so upset at Clinton’s gambit that he rewatched the speech on C-SPAN at 1:30 a.m. and literally screamed at the television, according to the 1997 book “Mirage,” by George Hager and Eric Pianin.)

Conservatives rooting for a shutdown may believe things would be different this time around. But history suggests that if a shutdown comes to pass, Republican leaders would spend a lot more sleepless nights yelling at their televisions.