I’m so old that I remember the last time Republican hard-liners in Congress used an unrelated pretense to shut down the government. It was two years ago. At that time, Ted Cruz led a charge to repeal Obamacare; today it’s more about defunding Planned Parenthood.
The outcome is likely to be the same: a forced vacation for hundreds of thousands of public employees for a couple weeks, followed by a face-saving compromise that gets the GOP no closer to their stated goal. And some mechanism whereby that compromise lasts through 2016, because government shutdowns only happen as far away from elections as possible. It’s enough to make you think that shutdown politics are all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But that’s not quite true. The shutdown of 2013 may not have accomplished anything substantively, but it certainly helped cement a picture in the public’s mind of a dysfunctional government that cannot do anything right. That, of course, fits with an enduring conservative narrative about bumbling politicians ruining the country for the rugged individuals out there. It’s a neat trick: make the government look feckless, and then point to that as an example of government fecklessness.
The fallout from the shutdown can be seen in a Washington Post poll out this week. When asked whether “most people in politics can or cannot be trusted,” 72 percent said they cannot. When asked whether “the current political system in the United States is basically functional or basically dysfunctional,” 64 percent said it was dysfunctional.
If Republicans in Congress have had any goal over the five years since first gaining back the majority in the House, it’s to create this impression. Their constant deadlines and ultimatums and false starts and showdowns may look like failures of leadership. But they also serve to alienate people from their government. And ultimately, that reflects poorly on the party that wants to employ government resources to solve problems, regardless of Democrats’ role in the dysfunction.
Take the current potential shutdown, which will occur in just two weeks without some resolution. House Republicans lack the votes among themselves to extend any kind of government funding past September 30 unless the bill de-funds Planned Parenthood. But that’s just an excuse, a convenient topic on which to force a shutdown. If there were no selectively edited hidden camera videos relentlessly and misleadingly hyped in conservative media, the shutdown would be demanded for some other reason, from the President’s immigration executive order to the Clean Power plan for limiting carbon emissions to Obamacare to something even more obscure. The vehicle for shutting down doesn’t matter; only that it serves the shutdown purpose.
Added into this stew is the fact that John Boehner could lose his leadership position if he attempts to pass some funding mechanism without the Planned Parenthood rider. The House will vote on stand-alone antiabortion measures this week, along with a bill that would cut funding to Planned Parenthood centers that perform abortions. But those aren’t going to pass the Senate, and the so-called House Freedom Caucus has vowed to not vote for anything that funds Planned Parenthood. So Boehner’s choice is to pass a budget extension with Democratic votes and threaten his speakership, or reject holding the vote and shut down the government.
The public doesn’t want a shutdown by overwhelming numbers, according to a recent CNN poll. But the public doesn’t watch C-SPAN in large numbers. Their awareness of a government shutdown will only go so far beyond the surface, and even awareness that Republicans precipitated the fight will fade come next year. The residue that will remain is that government can’t get its act together.
That’s the clear lesson of the 2013 shutdown. You might remember that it was supposed to ruin the midterm elections for the Republicans, putting their pointless irresponsibility on full display. But that didn’t happen, and eventually the shutdown became overshadowed by the bigger political story of the time – the early failure of the healthcare.gov website. In the end, Republicans won big in 2014, as political memories are fickle.
We know already that a shutdown would be a second-order story, compared to the 800-pound gorilla of our never-ending presidential election. But it can be employed as a convenient tool for all 2,906 candidates, all of them pointing to nondescript “dysfunction” in Washington. To the casual observer, this creates a definitive hopelessness in government writ large.
But only one party actually wants to use the leverage and power of government to achieve progress. At Liberty University yesterday, Sen. Bernie Sanders responded to an observation that the problem of racism is one of sins in our hearts by pointing out that lunch counters and schools only became desegregated through passage of a law. When you have government by crisis – and there’s more to come, with an imminent reaching of the nation’s debt limit by as early as next month – it feeds a perception that activist government is impossible and unwise.
Therefore, shutdown politics in the modern era of polarization appear to always play to a conservative benefit, even if Republicans are blamed for the crisis. Turning people off from politics has been a core goal for conservatives for decades. “I don’t want everybody to vote,” said Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority, back in 1980, at a meeting attended by Ronald Reagan. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.” That’s not just about voter suppression, but deflating hope, crushing the promise of a government that acts on behalf of its citizens.
Promoting disassociation from government works for people who want to limit it. Americans, do not appear to penalize the source of government dysfunction: they penalize the government as a whole. I’m not convinced of a strategy to counteract this, actually. But just assuming Democrats can point their fingers at Republican extremists and waltz to victory seems at odds with recent history.