The Republicans Who Fear a Shutdown

They aren’t in Washington — and they’re very worried about driving away independent voters.

Playing with fire:House Republicans.  
© 2011 Charles Mann, All Right
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Sept. 19, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

Thirty-three per­cent. That’s Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing among white voters, ac­cord­ing to an ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post poll re­leased this week. The num­ber is even worse — 30 per­cent — in the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll. Those are stag­ger­ingly low num­bers for a pres­id­ent who claimed nearly 40 per­cent of the white vote dur­ing last year’s elec­tion. And Obama’s free fall is even worse for Demo­crats than it ap­pears, be­cause some of next year’s key Sen­ate elec­tions take place in pre­dom­in­antly white states, such as Arkan­sas, Ken­tucky, Montana, and West Vir­gin­ia. Obama is ex­per­i­en­cing the kind of slump that be­sets a pres­id­ent when his second term has been marred by scan­dal, in­ef­fect­ive­ness, and a lackluster eco­nomy.

Re­pub­lic­ans eye­ing Obama’s troubles should be giddy about next year’s pro­spects for win­ning con­trol of the Sen­ate and main­tain­ing their big ma­jor­ity in the House. Ex­cept, in­stead of dream­ing about ma­jor­it­ies in both cham­bers of Con­gress, they’re more fo­cused on one little, nag­ging con­cern: House Re­pub­lic­ans could screw it all up.

The House GOP’s de­cision to solder to­geth­er plans to fund the gov­ern­ment while de­fund­ing Obama­care — a pro­pos­al res­ol­utely op­posed by the pres­id­ent and Sen­ate Demo­crats — boosts the odds of a gov­ern­ment shut­down. Even if a fund­ing res­ol­u­tion even­tu­ally passes, Con­gress then must reach an agree­ment to raise the debt ceil­ing. In both cases, a quick com­prom­ise seems im­possible.

That’s what has Re­pub­lic­an Party of­fi­cials and strategists na­tion­wide wor­ried. They fear the pub­lic will blame the GOP for Wash­ing­ton’s dys­func­tion. And al­though de­vel­op­ments 14 months be­fore an elec­tion rarely mat­ter, a gov­ern­ment shut­down, which could lead to a severe dis­rup­tion of ser­vices, and a debt-ceil­ing stan­doff, which could throw the coun­try’s en­tire eco­nomy in­to per­il, have the mag­nitude to ripple un­til next Novem­ber. Enough to change the polit­ic­al tra­ject­ory of the midterm elec­tions from one that’s prom­ising for Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates to one that will blow up in their faces. “This has po­ten­tial to be something that voters no­tice,” said Glen Bol­ger, a Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster. “It could af­fect voters where they live.”

The con­cern is most acute out­side of Wash­ing­ton, where Re­pub­lic­ans tar­get­ing vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic law­makers worry they could be foiled be­fore the 2014 cam­paign even be­gins in earn­est. Shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment, they say, would re­in­force voters’ worst im­pres­sion of the party — that it fa­vors ideo­logy over prac­tic­al solu­tions. “Some of the rhet­or­ic and lan­guage com­ing out of Re­pub­lic­ans in Wash­ing­ton is con­cern­ing, be­cause those aren’t the mes­sages that are go­ing to at­tract in­de­pend­ent voters,” said Matt Strawn, former chair­man of the Iowa Re­pub­lic­an Party. “In Iowa, in­de­pend­ents are an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of our voters.”

The im­pend­ing re­tire­ment of Sen. Tom Har­kin, D-Iowa, has opened the door for Re­pub­lic­ans to fill that seat with one of their own. But while Demo­crats have ral­lied be­hind a single can­did­ate, Rep. Bruce Bra­ley, the GOP primary elect­or­ate is split among five hope­fuls. And Strawn wor­ries that in an ef­fort to court the party’s most con­ser­vat­ive fac­tions, the GOP can­did­ates will back pro­pos­als to de­fund the 2010 health care law that will ali­en­ate mod­er­ates. (One of them, former U.S. At­tor­ney Matt Whi­taker, has already cri­ti­cized his op­pon­ents for not pledging to do so.) “It is lan­guage that will lead to good re­cep­tions at party chili sup­pers throughout the fall, but it’s not lan­guage of suc­cess for the gen­er­al elec­tion,” Strawn said.

GOP of­fi­cials else­where voiced sim­il­ar con­cerns. “[Voters] are look­ing for prob­lem-solv­ers,” said one North Car­o­lina strategist, gran­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly. “They’re look­ing for people who put vi­able al­tern­at­ives on the table. If Re­pub­lic­ans don’t do that “¦ then [a shut­down] may hurt the Re­pub­lic­ans more.”

A shut­down poses risks for Obama and Demo­crats, too. A dis­rup­tion of ser­vices could lead angry voters to blame the man in charge of gov­ern­ment, the pres­id­ent. And con­ser­vat­ives hope that once the House passes its bill, the pub­lic will won­der why Obama doesn’t just aban­don his health care law, which re­cent polls have re­por­ted is at re­cord un­pop­ular­ity.

But past shut­downs — es­pe­cially the in­fam­ous con­front­a­tion in 1995 and 1996 between then-House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich and Pres­id­ent Clin­ton — have favored the man with the bully pul­pit. Voters blamed Gin­grich — and polls nev­er again showed Clin­ton trail­ing even­tu­al GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Bob Dole. “My cau­tion would be look­ing at 1995 and 1996; no mat­ter how you think things are go­ing to go for your side, the pres­id­ent has the big­ger mi­cro­phone,” Bol­ger said. “And that makes it that much it more dif­fi­cult to win an out-and-out fight.”

In fact, for a pres­id­ent strug­gling with a second term, a show­down with un­pop­u­lar House Re­pub­lic­ans might be just what he needs. Even the con­ser­vat­ive Wall Street Journ­al ed­it­or­i­al board ac­know­ledged the up­side for the pres­id­ent in a po­ten­tial fight. “With his own pop­ular­ity fad­ing, Mr. Obama may want a shut­down so he can change the sub­ject to his ca­ri­ca­ture of GOP zealots who want no gov­ern­ment,” the news­pa­per wrote, ur­ging House Re­pub­lic­ans to aban­don their plan to de­fund Obama­care. “He’ll blame any tur­moil or eco­nom­ic fal­lout on House Re­pub­lic­ans, fig­ur­ing that he can split the tea party from the GOP and that this is the one event that could re­in­stall Nancy Pelosi as speak­er. Mr. Obama could spend his fi­nal two years go­ing out in a blaze of lib­er­al glory.”

For their part, some Demo­crats wel­come a shut­down. Said one party strategist, “One could only help they give us that Christ­mas mir­acle so early.” House Re­pub­lic­ans had bet­ter hope it doesn’t come to that. At this point, they’re the only obstacle stand­ing between their party and a suc­cess­ful midterm elec­tion. 

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