February 18, 2013

Stan Collender today remembers the government shutdown of 1995-1996 and how closed national parks put pressure on Newt Gingrich and the Republicans to cut a deal — and he suggests that something similar might happen if the sequester goes through.

One thing he doesn’t mention is that the reaction against the shutdown seems to have surprised many Republicans at the time. Of course, that alone didn’t automatically hurt them; had people blamed President Bill Clinton for the shutdown, it’s possible that pressure could have fallen more on him than on Congress. Granted, since Republicans in 1995 had planned the shutdown all year, that wasn’t all that likely, but it was possible.

But the government shutdown, and the damage from it, were intended from the start as temporary measures.

That’s not the case this time. As Greg has been detailing recently, the sequester as it is — sharp cuts to domestic spending with some Democratic priorities protected, sharp cuts to defense spending — is, for Republicans, already a compromise position from the even deeper domestic cuts they’ve advocated ever since the Paul Ryan-authored budget passed the House in 2011. And the new GOP plan to balance the budget within 10 years (still without any new revenues, and protecting many other Republican priorities) would mean far sharper cuts in popular domestic programs.

Against all that, the Republican strategy is to insist that the sequester belongs completely to Barack Obama. Leaving aside the argument over what actually happened in 2011, Republicans might stand a chance to win the spin on that one. But the problem is that most voters — most consumers of government services — are going to be a lot more interested in disrupted government services than in the past. And for that, Obama can argue that he wants to restore what’s been cut; Republicans can only offer … more cuts.

Now, in the event, Republicans will probably argue (1) that the sequester cuts were Obama’s fault; (2) that they want to restore whatever people are complaining about; and (3) they intend to do that by cutting unspecified “government spending,” leaving all actual programs people like intact. Good luck with that. After all, Obama and the Democrats can present a variety of options (similar deficit reduction with new revenues from the wealthy, or simply smaller deficit reduction) and demand back that Republicans specify exactly what they want to cut. There simply isn’t an answer for that. At least, not a popular one.

Most of the time, on most issues, the best bet is that most of the public will tune it out; the rest will react according to their partisan beliefs. That’s even true to a remarkable extent about tax increases and cuts; very large groups are capable of never knowing a change has happened, and partisans are even more capable of believing that changes aligned with their prior assumptions about the incumbent president. Sudden, dramatic cuts in government spending, however, might just be enough to get a lot of voters’ attention. And they’re even more likely to get the national press to pay attention, and to make it seem as if voters are fed up.

And it’s hard to see how the Republicans’ position here — the pro-cuts position — plays well if that happens.