The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans usually lose shutdown fights. So why are they going there again?

Over the past decade Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned against defaulting on the national debt. Now he is threatening to oppose a debt hike. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Republicans are threatening to withhold the votes needed to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government funded ahead of a crucial deadline in two weeks, putting the country on course for yet another fiscal crisis and government shutdown.

And they do so despite seemingly having full knowledge that these kinds of things have rarely panned out for them before.

The last quarter-century has featured an increasing number of such standoffs, with Republicans generally seeking something from a Democratic president to rein in spending. In almost every case, though, Republicans wound up bearing most of the blame, and they rarely got much in the way of concessions to show for it.

The first big showdown came in 1995 and 1996, when newly ascendant congressional Republicans led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich demanded that President Bill Clinton agree to their proposal for a balanced budget. The government shut down briefly twice.

Eventually cracks formed in the GOP, with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) taking to the Senate floor on New Year’s Eve and saying: “We ought to end this. I mean, it’s gotten to the point where it’s a little ridiculous as far as this senator is concerned.”

By the end, as The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler recounted, “the Republicans meekly gave up and eventually cut a deal with Clinton that was not much different than what they could have gotten before the shutdown.”

And not only that, but they paid a price in public opinion. A Post-ABC News poll conducted at the end showed 50 percent of Americans blamed congressional Republicans for the shutdowns, while just 27 percent blamed Clinton. A December Gallup-CNN-USA Today poll showed 62 percent said the fight was making them view Republicans more negatively, while 49 percent said the same of Clinton.

Clinton played up the GOP’s gambit as he launched his reelection campaign, and he wound up winning handily over Dole (who seemed to recognize the political peril of it all). When the dust settled, a pollster for the Republican National Committee cited the shutdown among the GOP’s messaging failures, saying it helped “produce the symbolism that said [the GOP was] unwilling to cooperate, not willing to meet us halfway, not willing to take … a common-sense road.”

A similar scenario played out in 2011, with Republicans again emboldened by a big win at the ballot box in the preceding election. The new tea party wing demanded big cuts to the federal budget in exchange for keeping the government funded, with the two sides eventually agreeing to smaller cuts and Republicans dropping a demand for defunding Planned Parenthood.

Arguably the bigger battle came a few months later, though, when Republicans opposed raising the debt ceiling for similar reasons, with the two sides ultimately agreeing on a package of future spending cuts, known as the sequester.

As the deadline approached, 77 percent of Americans said the GOP was not willing to compromise enough, while 58 percent said the same of President Barack Obama. Other polls also showed Americans more skeptical of the GOP approach.

And again the cracks in the GOP resistance seemed to undercut the exercise. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was pushing an alternative compromise, conceded at the time that the GOP would bear the brunt of a potential default.

“We knew shutting down the government in 1995 was not going to work for us; it helped Bill Clinton get reelected,” McConnell said. “I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy.”

There was yet another fight in 2013 — this time with the GOP refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless the Affordable Care Act was defunded.

The standoff ended in October, with Republicans again not getting what they desired. GOP leaders effectively admitted that they were just humoring their more extreme members, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who pushed the idea. “We fought the good fight,” then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) conceded. “We just didn’t win.”

And there is plenty of evidence that it lost. According to a Post-ABC poll, the party hit record lows in public opinion:

There was little in the findings for the GOP to feel good about. The party’s image has sunk to an all-time low in Post-ABC surveys, with 32 percent of the public saying they have a favorable opinion and 63 percent saying they have an unfavorable view. Almost four in 10 Americans have a strongly unfavorable view of the GOP.
The tea party fares just as badly. Barely a quarter of the public has a favorable image of the movement, the lowest rating in Post-ABC polling.

The 2019 government shutdown — which became the longest in history — was a little different, in that it didn’t pit congressional Republicans against a Democratic president. President Donald Trump demanded funds for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, with Democrats declining to provide the votes for it.

But the result was altogether familiar: Trump didn’t get what he demanded, and a majority of Americans (53 percent) blamed him and congressional Republicans, while just 29 percent blamed Democrats — identical to the split in 2013. Again, the gambit was something many Republicans didn’t really support and seemed to know was doomed to fail, but they went through the motions anyway.

The question from there is why Republicans are going down this path again, and the answer lies in just how many actual consequences lie ahead. Even as the GOP is almost always judged more harshly in these showdowns, there are disagreements on precisely how much that ultimately mattered in the following elections.

While in 2011 McConnell echoed the conventional wisdom that the 1995-1996 shutdowns hurt the GOP efforts to defeat Clinton in his reelection bid, not everyone subscribes to that. Also, the GOP’s “defund Obamacare” effort in 2013 ultimately preceded an election in which they took over the Senate — though that appeared to have plenty to do with other factors, including the botched rollout of the health-care law.

There’s also the fact that the GOP did at least seem to get something for its trouble, albeit mostly in 2011.

But one message is pretty inescapable from these past examples, and that’s that the GOP ultimately had relatively little leverage in these standoffs precisely because the public didn’t support their position and generally disapproves of this kind of brinkmanship. And in each case it was pretty clear which side was pushing things to the brink.

The dynamics of the new standoff are a little different in that Republicans aren’t seeking cuts to existing spending or some kind of tangential concession; instead they’re trying to draw a line in the sand over the trillions in new spending President Biden is proposing. But polls also suggest that spending is quite popular, and raising the debt ceiling is about paying the bills Congress has already racked up. The GOP is essentially saying that if Democrats want to raise the ceiling to pay for that agenda, they should do it themselves.

But despite Democrats having majorities in both the House and Senate, that’s not the way Washington works. The filibuster means around 10 GOP votes are needed in the Senate, and Democrats have routinely provided those votes to raise the debt ceiling when spending was added under GOP presidents such as Trump.

There are lots of moving pieces and intricacies in the process, in other words, but history suggests Americans are skeptical about using this as leverage. That might not ultimately affect the 2022 election, but it does mean Biden and the Democrats will probably feel good about how letting the situation play out might strengthen their hand.