A pox on both your houses: The political perils of shutting down the federal government

at 01:06 PM ET, 04/08/2011


How a government shutdown could wind up being a lose/lose political proposition for both parties. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
With less than 12 hours remaining until the federal government is set to close, the two sides seem to be entrenching in expectation of the political blame game that would immediately ensue if the shutdown goes forward.

Republicans insist they are fighting for more cuts to help get the country’s fiscal house in order; Democrats retort that the GOP is letting a narrow social issue -- the funding of Planned Parenthood — get in the way of doing the right thing for the American people.

The back and forth on the House floor on Thursday between House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) was indicative of the partisan-sniping, point-scoring approach the two sides have take in recent days as the budget showdown has neared zero hour.

The truth? Both parties have significant vulnerability and may be whistling past the political graveyard as they stroll toward shutdown.

Recent national polling makes the political peril for both sides readily apparent.

Asked in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll who would be more to blame if the government shut down, 37 percent said President Obama and an equal 37 percent named congressional Republicans. Another 15 percent said both parties would be worthy of blame. (Jump balls are something no politician likes and has long been the reason we have expected a deal to be cut.)

A Pew Poll released Thursday was even more revealing about the tenuous political position in which the two parties find themselves. A few troubling nuggets from that poll:

* Nearly six in ten people disapproved of how President Obama is handling the budget deficit, up six points from a January Pew poll.

* A majority — 54 percent — said that “it will be a long time before the economy recovers” — a major upward swing from the 42 percent who said the same in a February Pew survey.

* Just 43 percent of people said they were “happy” that Republicans won the House in 2010, numbers that run well behind where the electorate was in the wake of the 1994 and 2006 changeovers in House control.

* Fifty two percent said that House Republicans were not keeping their campaign promises — including 54 percent of self-identified independents.

Viewed broadly, it’s clear that the American public is restless and anxious about their own economic future and that of the country. They view Washington as overpromising and under-delivering, preferring to engage in partisan squabbles rather than taking care of business for the average person.

And that goes double for political independents who lack any strong ties to either party and tend to view partisan squabbles in general as a big waste of time.

So, while politicians and party strategists are scrambling to gain the political high ground in the event the shutdown comes at midnight tonight, the coveted independent voter is almost certainly throwing up his/her hands at the whole show.

Remember that in the 2006 midterm election independent voters favored Democrats by 18 points. And that four years later in the 2010 midterms they went for Republicans by 19 points. That 37-point swing speaks to the fact that independents are more loosely aligned with the two parties than at any time in recent history. They want government to work again for them and have little preference as to which party should be tasked with making it happen.

That ambivalence about which side (if any) has the right solutions coupled with the still-cresting anxiety about the future direction of the economy makes for a volatile political climate in which the government shutdown fight is being staged.

And it creates the very real possibility that the ultimate political winner if the government shuts down is no one as the public — and particularly independents — view the stand off as yet another sign that the political process in Washington is fundamentally broken. And that would be bad news for politicians of all partisan stripes.

 
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