An influential band of conservatives is pushing congressional Republicans to risk a government shutdown as leverage to block Obamacare, but most in the GOP worry the strategy could backfire politically. The worriers have a point.
Nearly two decades ago, Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate during a 28-day government shutdown over federal spending that began at the end of 1995 and spilled over into January 1996. Even so, they lost the public-relations battle to a Democratic president who was on the political ropes. In November 1996, President Bill Clinton won re-election by a landslide.
Today, with Congress and the White House just weeks away from a similar showdown, a Democratic president whose popularity is on the decline still holds important advantages over his Republican foes in Congress.
The executive branch controls the government agencies that would be shut down, and has the power to shape — for maximum political effect — how voters experience the disruption. And the president has the bully pulpit from which to blame Congress for forcing him to cut off popular services and shutter popular attractions like national parks while hundreds of members of Congress tend to drown each other out in a cacophony of competing protests.
“The executive, in budget fights, always has more cards to play,” said former Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds, who experienced government-related service shutdowns during a career as a local, state and federal legislator.
Republicans who served on Capitol Hill during the 1995-96 shutdown offer variations on how and why it all went wrong for Republicans just a year after a historic 1994 election gave them control of the House for the first time in four decades and bolstered their popularity among voters.
Some blame the polarizing leadership style of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, atypical of most congressional leaders, was well known nationwide but not well regarded — and he proved no match for Clinton’s charm. Others point to the folly of the shutdown strategy itself, arguing that even a party in control of both chambers could never prevail over a president in a contest in which he was both player and referee.
In the heat of the shutdown, voters blamed Republicans over Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin, according to polling collated by the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies. Three-quarters of the public thought Republicans needed to compromise more, and only 22 percent approved of Gingrich's handling of the situation, the polling shows.
“If President Obama is able to paint House Republicans as ‘mean,’ he wins the battle hands-down,” said a former House GOP leadership aide who experienced the Clinton-era shutdown.
Congressional Republicans and conservative activists are urging House GOP leaders to pass spending legislation that defunds Obamacare but otherwise funds the government beyond Sept. 30. They argue that the unpopularity of Obamacare would put the president on the defensive when the Democratic Senate, backed by the his veto threat, rejects the defunding of the health plan and forces the government to shut down on Oct. 1.
But polls show people are just as likely to blame Republican lawmakers for a shutdown as they were nearly two decades ago.
Americans are wary of Obamacare, fearing that full implementation will undermine the nation's health care system, polls show. But they also oppose Republicans' defund-or-shutdown strategy. Voters say it's obvious that a Democratic Senate and president would never go along with the defunding of Obama's signature legislative initiative, and so Republicans would deserve most of the blame if a budget impasse shutters the government.
The political calculus for Republicans is further complicated by the fact that, unlike 1995, their approval ratings are near record lows, and their own internal divisions over fiscal issues will make it difficult to maintain a united front against the White House.
“There has to be definable and winnable argument,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster who has researched this issue. “If you’re going to go down a path that could end at this location, nobody wants to hear that this is where you’re going to end up. People want you to overcome this and govern."