A shutdown could help Obama while hurting both parties in Congress

at 03:34 PM ET, 03/29/2011

(Alex Wong - Getty Images)
Conventional wisdom is that Republicans fear a government shutdown more than Democrats do because they’ll take more of the blame. There are some bad memories from the mid-’90s backing this up, but it’s always seemed like a weak case to me: It comes down, essentially, to one example, and John Boehner is not Newt Gingrich.

But it turns out that there’s more than one example. A lot more. And they don’t offer much comfort for Republicans.

States can pass budgets late, and even suffer shutdowns. It happens all the time. Political scientists Asger Lau Andersen, David Dreyer Lassen and Lasse Holbøll Westh Nielsen tallied up 167 instances since 1988 alone. But then they went a step further and tried to isolate the fiscal mismanagement they had on the next election. They succeeded. Voters respond to budgetary chaos, and they do so angrily and predictably.

The big takeaway is that blame is not shared equally: “Governors are subjected to an electoral penalty only under unified government, while legislatures are always held accountable.” That is to say, if the budget process falls apart amidst divided government, the executive — in this case, President Obama — not only gets a pass from the voters, but may get a bit of a boost. It’s Congress that gets blamed. And not just one party or the other. Everyone in Congress.

“Minority party members are held accountable for delays under divided government, with magnitudes equal to those observed for majority party members.” In other words, when Congress fails to pass a budget on time, voters turn on Congress, not just the minority or majority party. The researchers calculate that a budgetary breakdown under divided government reduces the chances that incumbent legislators from either party will get reelected, though it helps the governor’s party in the gubernatorial elections. That’d suggest that a shutdown would be bad for everyone serving in Congress, but good for Obama.

That might not hold in this instance, of course. The fact that something is generally true does not mean it’s always true. But the belief that minority parties — and legislators in general — should fear a shutdown turns out to be based on a lot more data points than 1995.

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