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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Setting the Table 

Let's say liberal megablogger Atrios gets his way:
Frankly, I'm basically hoping that the Republicans go ahead with their "nuclear option" threat and that the Democrats follow up by making good on their signalled intent to make it a nightmare to actually get anything done. I'd be more than happy for the Republicans to stop actually passing new legislation and, oddly, this kind of showdown might actually force Republicans to engage in the lost art of compromise.
Is this really such a great idea, even from the standpoint of partisan politics? On the policy merits, as I'll discuss in a post later today, there's every reason to think that this scenario, if actually played out, would be disastrous on a host of fronts. But assuming away collateral policy damage, could a shutdown of the legislative branch redound to the electoral benefit of one party or the other?

Sure. Of course. And there's some history to get all analogical with too. Of course, as I've argued before, reasoning from historical analogy can be a big mistake.

I'm certain most of my readers remember the ill-fated 1995 GOP "government shutdown." The conventional wisdom on that one was that Newt Gingrich and his footsoldiers drastically overplayed their hand and ended up strengthening President Clinton and congressional Democrats. The conventional wisdom, moreover, is correct on this one. But lest we forget, that dogfight didn't happen in a vacuum. Gingrich was presenting himself as a revolutionary and a radical. At more or less the same time as the shutdown fight came to a boil, Gingrich made an ass of himself by throwing a temper tantrum over seating arrangements on a flight to the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. Without the popular image of Gingrich as prone to bratty tactics and his agenda as in some ways extreme, the GOP strategy might well have worked.

Are we in an analogous situation here? The most obvious difference is that instead of a powerful, popular president carrying the Democrats' banner, we have an array of poorly-known, charisma-challenged opposition leaders in the House and (more cogently) the Senate. Furthermore, in the 1995 case, the battle for the electorate's support boiled down to the question "are all government services bad things?" whereas in the potential showdown to come, the question is not so clear. Is it a fight over judicial appointments? The nature of government? Democratic norms? Who wins will be determined by who gets to set the terms of the debate. As it stands today, I think a shutdown would so clearly bite Senate Dems in the tuchus that GOP leaders are probably as gleeful as Atrios when they picture the results.

In short, Democrats and their allies need to work very, very hard right now to set the table, at the least in order to make their shutdown threats credible. Right now, I'd think the Democrats at the very least need to make preparations in case the national narrative makes this a story about judicial appointments. One way is to make Senatorial Republicans look like froth-mouthed judge-haters. This Matthew Yglesias take on the Cornyn tempest-in-a-teapot is a good start.

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