John Sivolella is a contributor at WBUR.org who argues in his latest column that those assuming that the blame for the shutdown will be born entirely by the Republicans should “think again.” I’m afraid I have to disagree and write a “not so fast” rebuttal to Mr. Sivolella’s “not so fast” argument. It’s not that he is off base to suggest that reality will be more complicated than the version of conventional wisdom being disseminated in the mass media regarding the political implications of the shutdown; it’s that his argument about why the conventional wisdom may be wrong is…well…wrong, in my humble opinion.
Sivolella bases his argument on the claim that the 1995 shutdown, which was blamed on congressional Republicans, not on President Bill Clinton, is not necessarily reliable evidence for the proposition that congressional Republicans in 2013 will likewise be blamed, and President Obama will not. The key and underappreciated difference between 1995 and 2013, according to Sivolella, is that Bill Clinton was a powerful and popular figure who was “about to kick off an aggressive re-election campaign.” In addition, “[t]he nation’s economy was surging, with unemployment around 5.5 percent and dropping,” and “America was not at war.” The President’s “approval ratings were in the low 50s and trending up and Clinton was “a masterful politician who could take lemons from something like a shutdown and make electoral lemonade.” By contrast, argues Sivolella, President Obama is not nearly as well situated today.
So, the idea here is that a weaker president is less likely to emerge from a shutdown showdown as well as a stronger president. To bolster his point, Sivolella reminds us that the much discussed anemic poll ratings of Congress today are not necessarily an indicator that the gang on on Hill is in the weaker political position at present because “voters still differentiate their own member of Congress from the morass of the broader body,” and, “through gerrymandering, the parties have essentially instituted a congressional employment protection plan.” The point here is that Republican Members of Congress are not as vulnerable to electoral backlash as they were in 1995 when “almost 35 percent of Republican House members came from districts won by Clinton in his first campaign.”
Despite the fact that all these points are reasonable enough (though the point about the electoral invulnerability of House Republicans seems off point since the question at hand is “who will be blamed” not “how much will the blame impact elections in 2014 or 16”), Sivolella’s argument ultimately misses the mark. He assumes that a significant chuck of the American public will blame the president because they were predisposed to see him less favorably and are thereby more likely to accept the Republican spin on the shutdown, and that these same voters will forget their animus toward the “morass of the broader body” of Congress and instead remember their basic approval of their own Representative.
I believe this amoounts to a serious under-estimation of the American public’s common sense. I don’t attribute the blame of Republicans in 1995 to having been opposed by a “masterful politician” in the White House. If this dynamic were that significant, then why did Ronald Reagan, who was certainly no slouch in the ways of “masterful” politics, get the blame for shutting down the government in the 1980s? Does Sivolella, a Republican political consultant as well as a political scientist, believe that the Gipper was no match for the Democrats in Congress back then? I doubt it.
I think the American people blame Republicans for government shutdowns because they know that the Republicans’ ideological and policy preferences best align with a government shutdown. Americans understand that only one of the major political parties loves to quote Reagan on government being “the problem, not the solution.” Republicans spend the lion’s share of their rhetorical energies tying Democrats to big government, to government bureaucrats (you know, the folks not getting paid right now). Just how “sophisticated” does a voter have to be to put two and two together here and see that one party enjoys seeing the government hobbled much more than the other party?
While Sivolella’s analysis has a logic, and is not per se unreasonable, it is weak because it distorts the larger context. Speaker Newt Gingrich himself, who also has a Ph.D. by the way, relied on a similarly weak analysis in 1995 when he calculated that President Clinton would be blamed for that shutdown. In Newt’s case, he relied too much on an “institutional” explanation. He didn’t think about the political talents of particular leaders as being decisive. –Could be that approach would have hit too close to home.– Instead, he reasoned that the public always focuses on the guy at the top, the president. Just as presidents are routinely rewarded or punished in connection with good or bad economic conditions respectively, Newt assumed that he, as Speaker, was in the driver’s seat when it came to leveraging a government shutdown against President Clinton.
Apparently Newt didn’t think anyone was paying attention to him and other Republican leaders when they droned on at every opportunity about how awful “big government” was, and how crucial it was to reduce its size and function. Ironically, Bill Clinton could have explained it to Newt pretty well, since the success of this anti-government Republican rhetoric pushed the President into a sort of “me too” position that included assuring Americans that “the era of big government is over.”
At the end of the day, creative spin, photo ops, publicity stunts, and “faux-ibusters” by Ted Cruz aside, average Americans know which party likes the federal government and which party hates it, and that’s really all they need to know to assign blame rationally and accurately for shutting it down.