Jonathan Chait

Will Republicans Shut Down The Government?

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I think a lot of people are underrating the potential for a government shutdown. Here is the dynamic. Republican leaders in the House recall the 1995 government shutdown as a disaster and do not want to repeat it. They want to avoid exposing the party to charges of overreach, prevent any economic recovery measures, and put themselves in position to win the 2012 election, at which point they can move their agenda forward.

On the other hand, shutting down the government is the only alternative to passing legislation that conservatives find totally unacceptable, and indeed would keep in place policies that they have been railing against in apocalyptic terms. You can't convince your base that the president is destroying freedom, undermining capitalism, and threatening 1920s Germany-style inflation, and then turn around and tell them to just wait things out for two years.

What's more, it's worth delving a bit deeper into the GOP's historical understanding of the government shutdown. The Republican view of this episode -- and I remember this at the time, from my GOP staffer housemate -- was that the whole idea that Republicans shut down the government was a big lie concocted by the Clinton administration and abetted by the liberal media. Clinton, they believe, is the one who shut down the government. After all, if he had agreed to the Republican terms, there would have been no shutdown.

This is actually, as far as I can tell, a fairly unanimous belief among Republicans. The split lies between those who think it's a losing battle, and those who think this time they can defeat the Big Lie:

Norquist, however, is convinced Republicans could win the showdown this time around.

“There’s now a Fox television network. There’s now the Internet, in a way there wasn’t back then. So ... when Bill Clinton vetoed the budget and closed the government, saying the Republicans had closed the government, ... [that] is not something you could sell again,” Norquist told POLITICO.

He added: “If Obama can’t learn to be like Clinton and back off his agenda, which the American people rejected, then a clash is clarifying.”

Norquist also said Republicans have another advantage in today’s environment a new leader.

“It was able to be sold the first time because everybody thought Gingrich was running the entire country because of the way the coverage [of him] had gone and because Gingrich acted as if he was running the country. Boehner’s not going to do that,” Norquist said.

Now, substantively, they're totally wrong about this. If Republicans refuse to let the government continue running at current levels while they negotiate with Obama, then they are indeed the ones who are shutting down the government. But as a matter of political reality, it's true that the existence of Fox News and the power of other Republican organs gives the GOP a better chance to spin a shutdown as Obama's fault -- or, at least, to lose the battle for public opinion less decisively. Norquist is also right that Boehner is not acting like, and being treated as, a kind of prime minister, and that factor would also reduce the degree to which Republicans are held accountable for outcomes like the shutdown.

I don't know if it will happen, but it should be interesting to watch.

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