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Jewish World Review
Feb. 25, 2011
21 Adar I, 5771
The stuff of bluff: There won't be a government shutdown
Those of you who are looking forward to a government shutdown because it will release your inner self, punish lazy bureaucrats or cause general chaos will be disappointed.
It’s not that I think a shutdown is unthinkable. It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future (hat tip: Yogi Berra), but I predict the U.S. government has at least a fair chance of shutting down in either March or September, if House Speaker John Boehner agrees to extend the agony to the latter date and Democrats go along.
President Barack Obama and Congress must agree on a spending plan by then or large parts of the government will shut down. But that won’t be the real story. The real story will be who gets the blame.
A shutdown will not lead to paralysis. The military will continue to fight in Afghanistan, transportation security officers will continue to make you take your shoes off in airports, air traffic controllers will continue to make sure planes don’t bump at 30,000 feet, the IRS will continue to check those zany deductions you took off your taxes, and federal prison guards will make sure Bernie Madoff stays locked up. And you will still get your mail; your bills always have a way of finding you.
Obama said recently that during a shutdown, “people don’t get their Social Security checks.” But in 1995 and 1996, when there were two shutdowns, people did get their Social Security checks, and the government has become more automated since then.
What I remember from those shutdowns are stories of people who were inconvenienced: tourists who couldn’t get into federal museums or national parks, government workers who had their paychecks delayed and people who couldn’t apply for passports. I am sure there were other — perhaps worse — stories, but nobody starved and there was no rioting and nothing even close to panic.
People treated it as more Washington shenanigans, just another reason to hate politics. At the time, however, there was the great unknown: Who would the public blame for the shutdown, Democrats or Republicans?
The Democrats were represented by Bill Clinton, who vetoed a Republican spending bill, causing the government to shut down. This was the persuasive and charismatic Clinton of 1995. Revelations about Monica Lewinsky and lying to his family, his Cabinet, Congress, federal investigators and the American people were still a few years down the road.
The Republicans were represented by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Back then, Newt was not the dazzling charmer he is today. At the time of the crisis, he complained that he was insulted by being forced to fly in the back of Air Force One with Sen. Bob Dole for the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
In any case, the public blamed the Republicans, Clinton was reelected and the Democrats won a net gain of eight seats in the House in 1996.
In retrospect, that was predictable. The Democrats had one compelling figure — Clinton — around whom to rally support, while the Republicans had the frosty Gingrich and 229 other competing Republican voices to sell their program.
But would the results be the same this time?
The speaker of the House is now John Boehner, and while he does not exactly ooze personality, he avoided the trap of flying on Air Force One (going so far as to refuse to go to the memorial service for those killed in Tucson in January rather than fly on the president’s plane). And much more important, he and his party have come to represent an issue that is much more significant now than it was in 1995-96: slashing the budget and cutting the deficit.
The Republicans have long portrayed Democrats as “tax and spenders,” while they claim to be the party of “fiscal responsibility” (a trait often not shown by GOP presidents).
But this year, cutting the deficit has become nearly a mania, and the tea partiers and Republicans are well positioned, while the Democrats are forced to defend spending on groups that are not always popular: the poor, the underprivileged and the needy — the last a category that includes kids who want to go to college on Pell Grants.
OK, but here is where the single, forceful personality, with great powers of oratory and a huge bully pulpit comes in: Barack Obama.
Is he really capable of playing the role Clinton played during the earlier government shutdowns?
Obama’s Gallup approval as of a few days ago stood at 48 percent. Clinton’s approval in November 1995, just before the first shutdown, stood at 52 percent.
But the numbers don’t tell the story. What has Democrats worried is that not only are they on the unpopular side of a national argument over spending, but their chief spokesman and leader sometimes appears to disengage when the battle gets the hottest. Democrats mumble and grumble over his giving up the fight for a health care public option and not standing up to the Republicans over tax breaks for the rich.
“So much is at stake if this great government shuts down,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said recently. But she is one of the few people who would attach the adjective “great” to the noun “government” these days.
Government is unpopular, spending is unpopular, and the 2010 election indicated Democrats are unpopular.
But Republican leaders are worried. They don’t want to blow their popularity on a risky shutdown in 2011. They want to save their popularity for the critical elections of 2012.
And that is about the only thing that might scare them into a compromise with Democrats.
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