Cheer up: The shutdown backlash might not be as bad as you think

I figure I owe you at least one non-eeyorish post a month. Might as well take care of October early. (Kidding, kidding.)

If you feel ill from that toxic Quinnipiac poll this morning, take your medicine by reading Sean Trende at RCP. Even if you think the 1995 shutdown was a major loss for the GOP, there are sound reasons to think this time might be different. A sluggish economy, a less divisive Republican speaker in Boehner, and a widely disliked law in ObamaCare — all of those factors will hopefully conspire to blunt whatever advantage Democrats think they’re getting from the lights going out.

Democrats didn’t actually use the shutdown itself as their main line of attack on Republicans. It was part of it, but the real attacks came over the Republicans’ motivation for the shutdown. Because of the expansive nature of the GOP’s cuts, the Democrats were able to focus on several unpopular portions of the GOP budget: the so-called M2E2 strategy. They commenced a mantra-like repetition of their opposition to Republican attempts to gut “Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment” in favor of a “risky tax scheme” that benefitted the rich.

In other words, in evaluating 1996 as an illustration of what will happen to the GOP today, we probably have to separate the tactic of a shutdown from the substance of what motivates it. And today, the GOP is focused on defunding Obamacare, a law that isn’t particularly popular. For the analogy to 1995-96 to really stick, the GOP will probably have had to try something along the lines of shutting down government to implement the Paul Ryan balance-budget plan.

While public opinion might be against the shutdown tactic, there probably won’t be the same level of outrage against the underlying policy motivation, which is what 1995-96 was mostly about. If Obamacare turns out to be the train wreck some conservatives predict (I have no clue whether it will or won’t), the tactic itself might be viewed as less of a negative.

That doesn’t mean the GOP might not lose a few seats in the House over this, but as Trende says, red-state Democrats like Pryor and Landrieu who have gone face-first into the tank to protect O’s pet boondoggle might end up losing their seats too. A downturn in Republicans’ national polling doesn’t much matter when most House GOPers are running in heavily red districts and most Senate battlegrounds are being fought on conservative turf. In fact, despite the legend of shutdown-driven GOP losses in the 1996 elections, it’s an open question whether the shutdown had much to do with that. Harry Enten attacked that conventional wisdom last week by analyzing polling during and after the 1995 shutdown. As it turns out, Democrats did about as well in the 1996 elections as you would have expected given the state of the economy at the time.

Just this morning, Gallup posted its own snapshot of Clinton’s and Gingrich’s polling from that year. Note only did both men rebound to pre-shutdown levels afterward, they did so fairly quickly:


So there you go, a reason not to sweat quite as much. Of course, Gingrich’s GOP didn’t have a history of fiscal-deadline brinksmanship at the time of the ’95 shutdown, and they never tried anything as risky as refusing to raise the debt ceiling as leverage for policy concessions, and Congress wasn’t as remotely as disliked as it is now, all of which could make the fallout from this worst than we expect. Hopefully that’s just my eeyorism talking, though. Hopefully.

Exit question: Which national politician is the biggest winner from all of this? Charlie Cook argues that it’s Rand Paul, who might now appear semi-acceptable to the centrist donor class because he’s way more conciliatory towards establishment Republicans like Mitch McConnell than Ted Cruz is. That jibes with what I said last week about Paul potentially positioning himself between Cruz and whoever emerges as the centrist champion in 2016. I think Matt Lewis is closer to the mark, though. I don’t know if Christie’s the winner, but governors certainly are. Good news for him, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush.

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