Off to the Races

GOP Needs to Keep Focus on Tax Cuts and the Economy, Not a Shutdown

The last thing Republicans need in a tough election year is to make voters think they can’t handle running the government.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Jan. 18, 2018, 8 p.m.

Democrats and Republicans are playing a game of legislative chicken over government funding, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and the border wall as well as the Children’s Health Insurance Program—with a shutdown deadline of midnight Friday. The problem with the “game of chicken” metaphor is that it implies a fair fight, which this isn’t. When one party has all of the power, the White House as well as majorities in the House and the Senate, that party has total ownership of the government.

Put simply, the GOP would “own” any government shutdown.

As a practical matter, given that there have only been three government shutdowns in the past 25 years (November 1995, December 1995-January 1996, and October 2013), the odds of having a real shutdown of more than a few hours—maybe a few days, or a week at most—are not that high. But that doesn’t mean such an event is harmless to the country, for the markets but most especially for Republicans, whose House majority is extremely tenuous and their Senate majority is now in some jeopardy as well. The GOP was already on thin ice, and this adds considerably more weight.

Whether there is a shutdown this weekend or not, there is one central message that Republicans should want to be front and center in public discourse—and two that they definitely should not.

Republicans desperately need people to focus on the fact that their tax bill passed, and that with President Obama out of office and Congress is Republican hands, businesses no longer feel under siege. Instead, they feel confident enough to hire, expand, invest and compensate their employees better, and voters shouldn’t jeopardize that by electing a Democratic Congress. The past three quarters showed economic growth of about 3 percent, and if the economy continues on this pace through the midterm elections, it is plausible that enough voters—even those who may not like President Trump or approve of much of what he says, does, or tweets—will decide that they like where the economy is enough to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt.

The two things the GOP should want to avoid at any cost is contribute to a sense that the Trump administration and Hill Republicans are a) too incompetent or b) too irresponsible to be trusted running the federal government, and so a Democratic majority in the House and/or Senate is needed.

For Democrats, the job is much simpler: Stay out of the way, and don’t screw it up. As this column noted a week ago: Democrats, no offense, but this election is not about you. By their very nature, midterm elections are referenda on the party in power, usually the party holding the White House, occasionally about the party controlling Congress, in this case, both. To the extent that this election becomes about Democrats, that is probably not a good thing for the Blue Team. When the other party is busy hanging itself, why get in the way? The last thing Democrats should want is to be seen as obstructionist, trying to exacerbate an already-bad situation.

One of the biggest challenges for congressional Republicans right now is that there is a large number of GOP representatives and senators from solidly conservative, Republican states or districts, and they do not need the support of any independents, moderates, or Democrats to get reelected. As a result, they are not motivated to temper their strongest ideological urges or seek compromise because they couldn’t lose a general election even if they tried. Those states and districts are largely not the ones that will determine the GOP’s majority status in the House and Senate, but the members from those places can surely jeopardize things.

All of this seems pretty basic and obvious, but tuning into the various cable news networks and listening to voices from both parties suggest that it isn’t. There is a tendency on both the right and left to view things totally myopically, to see things through a straw, oblivious to how something will sound or play among swing voters and in states and districts unlike their own. If your goal is to avoid a partisan-fueled government shutdown, that’s bad news.

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