Earlier this week, the federal government shut down for the first time in 17 years, marking the beginning of an ideological battle waged through one of Congress’ key constitutional duties – passing a budget to fund the government.
The last time a government shutdown occurred was in 1995, when President Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress failed to pass a budget due to disagreements over funding levels for a number of education and healthcare programs.
Today, the game is the same, but the players are different. And so far, this budget battle that pits President Obama and Senate Democrats against Speaker of the House John Boehner and Tea Party Republicans has closely mirrored the one fought 17 years ago.
This week, House Republicans have insisted that Congress pass an appropriations bill that includes provisions that would defund or delay the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (colloquially known as Obamacare). Senate Democrats refuse to accept or pass any such legislation, which they believe would strike a harsh blow against what many deem Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment. As a result, Congress failed to pass an appropriations bill and the budget show down quickly turned into a shut down Monday night.
Five days into the budget impasse, many are wondering if it will last as long as the 21-day shutdown in December of 1995 that stretched into the early part of the following year. Although the impetus of the 1995 and current shutdowns differ, both parties’ strategic political maneuvering is relatively the same and may provide insights into how the shutdown will resolve.
Democrats and House Republicans are currently engaged in what Grosclose describes as “blame-game politics,” where one party makes a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer to the other in an effort to appear moderate and make their opponent appear extreme. In this case, House Republicans are demanding the delay or defunding of Obamacare. Obama and Senate Democrats are demanding that Boehner bring a “clean” budget bill, free of any Obamacare language, to a vote.
This “blame game” results in a strategic disagreement, where House Republicans and the President refuse to budge because they know the political advantages of maintaining their disagreement (causing the public to blame the other party for the shutdown) outweighs the potential benefits of either of them compromising. In blame-game politics, each side’s confidence in winning the public relations battle becomes central to their success (Grosclose).
Tea Party Republicans appear confident in their ability to win this public relations battle, but a look at the 1995 shutdown should give them pause to reconsider.
In his paper on the power of the veto in divided government, Richard Conley lays out two key reasons why Clinton prevailed in the 1995 government shutdown.
First, Republican leadership overestimated public support for their “Contract with America,” on which they based their refusal to budge on the budget. The contract only resonated heavily with the Republican base. On the other hand, Clinton was able to rally the core of his constituency and the more moderate members of the electorate to label the Republicans as “extreme” and himself as working to save beneficial programs (Conley).
It’s possible that Tea Party Republicans have also fallen into this trap, overestimating public support for their efforts to use a shutdown to defund Obamacare. Polls indicate that the GOP may have chosen an unpopular issue over which to shut down the government, with 59 percent of Americans opposing defunding Obamacare if it means the government will shut down. However, some polls have shown that Americans oppose the law in general. Fully focusing their narrative on the merits of Obamacare, rather than the budget gridlock itself, could have worked in the Republican’s favor (Nather).
Second, Conley posits that the GOP lost the public relations battle in 1995 because they “underestimated the effects that negative coverage of the shutdown would have on their party, and the inherent media advantages of the White House.” The Republican Party is led by a fragmented public speakership, while the presidency has a unified public presence vested in one person (Conley). As a result, Republicans then and now face an uphill public relations battle.
The current shutdown directly coincided with the launch of the new health care exchanges, offering the Tea Party Republicans fodder to craft a narrative about the merits of Obamacare, especially given the glitches that the exchanges experienced on opening day. However, Republicans failed to perpetuate a unified narrative with this focus and, as a result, media coverage negatively fixated on Republicans’ role in the shutdown (Scheiber). This allowed Obama to continue to focus on the Republicans’ role in the shutdown and label the Tea Party as one faction of one party waging an “ideological crusade.” This rhetoric doesn’t veer far from Clinton’s accusations that the GOP was “putting ideology ahead of common sense” in 1995 (Lerer). As a result, the front page headlines of most major national media outlets on Oct. 1 focused on the shutdown, while only those media outlets specifically catering to conservatives focused their coverage on issues with the health insurance exchange rollouts or other, unrelated stories (Kearney).
In comparing the current and previous government shutdown, it is clear that Conley’s argument that “inter-branch relations [are] a poker match with public support or condemnation for the government shutdown the product of a winning hand,” still holds true today. Republicans, especially those aligned with the Tea Party, would be wise to revisit these two GOP mistakes from 1995 if they hope to regain control of the narrative and come out on top.
Conley, Richard. “President Clinton and the Republican Congress, 1995-2000: Political and Policy Dimensions of Veto Politics in Divided Government.” Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, CA. 2 September 2001. Accessed 1 October 2013.
Groseclose, Tim and Nolan McCarty. “The Politics of Blame: Bargaining before an Audience.” American Journal of Political Science 45, 1 (2001): 100-119.
Kearney, Ryan. “The Top Story on Conservative Websites Is Not the Shutdown.” The New Republic, 1 October 2013. Accessed 1 October 2013.
Lerer, Lisa. “Obama in Shutdown Politics Channels Clinton Who Scored Win.” Bloomberg, 1 October 2013. Accessed 1 October 2013.
Nather, David. “GOP goes off-message on Obamacare.” Politico, October 2013. Accessed 2 October 2013.
Scheiber, Noam. “Conservatives Have Already Lost Control of the Shutdown Narrative.” The New Republic, 2 October 2013. Accessed 2 October 2013.