Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
At 8:45 pm Wednesday night, President Obama will sit down with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to try and hammer out a last-minute budget compromise before the government shuts down on Friday.
A shutdown would mean furloughing thousands of government employees, delaying Social Security payments to seniors, and closing national parks, among other things. Freezing federal business is also more expensive than business as usual. With all these negative consequences looming beyond this Friday's budget deadline, nobody wants a government shutdown...or do they?
Seems like a silly question, but with all the finger pointing on Capitol Hill, it's worth asking. Back in February, Republicans claimed that Democrats were the only ones in the Senate talking shutdown, suggesting it was what they wanted to happen. Meanwhile, Democrats have blamed the stalemate on the Tea Party and their hold on the Republican freshman class, which is asking for too much all at once, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Fact is, both sides have also made remarks in public about their desire to see a government shutdown. Democratic Senator Howard Dean went off message last week when he told the National Journal Insider Conference that he would be "rooting" for a shutdown if he were the DNC chairman. "From a partisan point of view, I think it would be the best thing in the world to have a shutdown," Dean said. "I know who's going to get blamed. We've been down this road before."
Dean was referring to the government shutdown of 1995-96, which occurred under nearly identical circumstances as the ones we see today. A Republican Congress sought budget cuts to significant pieces of a Democratic President's agenda; when they didn't get them, neither side budged, and everything ground to a halt.
The prospect of a shutdown has turned our attention back in time, reviving an old battle in the message war. Democrats like Howard Dean are eager to cast the '90s shutdown as a policy and PR clash that they won. Republicans say the same for themselves—especially former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who presided over Congress at the time.
"When we stood firm against liberals, all of our base said, 'You know, these folks are different, they're not normal politicians.' We became the first re-elected republican majority since 1928," Gingrich told Fox News last December.
But it was a victory for conservative principles, Gingrich continued, not just conservative politicians. "The shutdown convinced President Clinton that we were serious about balancing the budget," he said in the same interview. "As a result, we controlled spending at 2.9 percent a year, the lowest rate since Calvin Coolidge was president in the 1920s. We got to a balanced budget by cutting taxes to increase economic growth, and the result was a balanced budget for four straight years, and we paid down $5 billion in debt. They had to believe Republicans were genuinely serious in order for them to have that kind of negotiation."
To a degree, "winning" a government shutdown is an exercise in spin. Fifteen years later, Republicans and Democrats are still jockeying to claim they came out on top, both in terms of policy victories and public image.
"Each side can make an argument," said Dr. Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political science professor at the University of North Texas. However, he said that the bottom line in American politics is usually no more complicated than who wins the next election. "What you saw out of [the '90s shutdown] was re-election for Bill Clinton, and the eventual ousting of Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House," Eshbaugh-Soha said, adding that balanced budgets and deficit reduction were goals shared by both parties, and therefore a tough sell from Gingrich. Post-shutdown, the pendulum swung in Democrats' favor.
This time around, there are at least a few members of the GOP betting on a brighter outcome for Republicans.
"If we need a jolt, if we need the government shutdown for a few days for us to really get serious, I think the American people are with that," Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) told CBS last week.
Similarly, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) went on MSNBC Friday to say, "If liberals in the Senate are unwilling to embrace even this modest step toward fiscal discipline in Washington, DC, then I say shut it down."
Is there any silver lining to a government shutdown? Professor Eshbaugh-Soha said that a brief one might be good because it could force politicians to compromise in ways they've avoided thus far. But he cautioned that it wouldn't be an open-ended opportunity.
"Americans generally don't trust their government, but I think the longer [a shutdown] lasts, the more people will worry how it's going to affect them, and the more people realize that they actually use government and government services quite regularly," Eshbaugh-Soha said. "That's when we'll begin to see more deviation, who they're going to blame for this, and who it might benefit politically in 2012."
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released today showed that 37 percent of Americans would blame Republicans for a shutdown, while 20 percent would blame President Obama and another 20 would blame Democrats. Perhaps rightly, the party poised to take the most blame is the party that's been most vocal about a shutdown.
Of course, Republicans are also in a position to make the biggest gains. A short shutdown that ends with the GOP getting all or most of its budget cuts could play extremely well now and in 2012. If that happens, the shutdown cheerleaders will be able to apply even more pressure to Republican leadership in future debates.
And it's not just Representatives Mike Pence and John Walsh (both Tea Party favorites). Remember, that Newt Gingrich interview with Fox News took place in December of 2010. There was even talk of a shutdown before the November elections. Conservative organizer Dick Morris appeared at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation Conference back in August, where he said, "There's going to be a government shutdown just like in '95 and '96, but we're going to win it this time."
The Tea Party's hand is evident throughout; they started petitioning for a government shutdown as early as December—that's why Gingrich was answering shutdown questions on Fox News at the time. Tea Partiers were promised $100 billion in budget cuts by House Republicans; compromise has never been on their radar. It's an open question whether or not we'd still be facing a shutdown if Speaker John Boehner didn't have to appease this particular constituency.
Indeed, last Friday, when Rep. Mike Pence wasn't speaking with MSNBC, he was attending a Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill. Protesters had gathered to say the concessions offered by Democrats still weren't enough.
“Nobody wants a government shutdown," Pence told the crowd. "But if we don’t take a stand we’re going to shut down the future for our children and grandchildren.”