The doomsday scenario during any budget clash—a government shutdown—is looking increasingly possible these days. “Federal agencies preparing for shutdown, White House says,” the Washington Post  reported yesterday. The House Republicans’ new “compromise” plan  offers only draconian budget cuts—$4 billion in a two-week span—which Democratic leaders are already resisting. Democrats want to fund the government at current levels until a budget for the next fiscal year is agreed upon. Republicans want the cuts to begin now, even in a temporary resolution. If the parties can’t reach a deal to fund the government, through another temporary stopgap (known as a “continuing resolution” in Congressional parlance), by March 4, it’ll be 1995 all over again.
What would be the fallout politically and who would get the blame? Last time there was a government shutdown, ascendant Republicans came crashing down to earth. I wrote about Clinton’s showdown with the GOP in recent article for The Nation, “Obama: Triangulation 2.0? ”
During his first major confrontation with the GOP Congress—over the 1995 budget—Clinton refused to cut a deal with Gingrich, pledging to resist cuts to “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.” Paul Begala recounts an oft-told story in which Clinton, during a meeting with Gingrich, pointed at the Oval Office desk (named The Resolute, a present from Queen Victoria in 1880) and told the GOP leader, “If you want to pass your budget, you’re going to have to put somebody else in this chair.”
Gingrich stubbornly plowed ahead with his spending cuts and forced a government shutdown, which backfired spectacularly and jolted Clinton’s sagging poll numbers upward.
Would President Obama be able to outmaneuver John Boehner if a similar scenario occurred today? I’m not sure the answer is that cut and dried, because of differing circumstances in public opinion and the propensity of this president to cut a deal before the battle has been waged. “The hunger for this ideal of bipartisanship is front and center now in a way it wasn’t in 1994,” former Obama campaign pollster Cornell Belcher told me recently. Belcher believes that another government shutdown would be “devastating for both parties, particularly for Obama.” The president, Belcher says, has striven to present himself as the only adult in a room of screaming children (a favorite White House metaphor); a government shutdown might make all parties involved seem pretty childish.
That’s why the framing of the budget fight is crucially important. Thus far in the budget debate, Democrats have been playing on Republican turf. As I wrote last week, the debate is over cuts vs. cuts . “President Obama has chosen to fight fire with gasoline,” former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich  said about Obama’s budget. At a time of 9 percent unemployment, neither party is laying out a roadmap for how to put people back to work and lift the country out of its economic morass.
This narrative imbalance could be changing thanks to successful protests by Democrats and unions in Wisconsin and Indiana. But even in the heartland, Democrats are simply reacting to extremist moves by GOP governors, rather than laying out an affirmative agenda of their own. After two years of urging Republicans to work with them, in certain instances Democrats now have no choice but to be the “party of no.”
But that doesn’t apply to the White House, which still has the nation’s bully pulpit. The Obama administration has failed to articulate an understandable narrative about the economy that’s forward-looking and distinct from the GOP. The threat of a government shutdown gives the administration a perfect opportunity to develop that message—last time the government went AWOL, Americans saw, in real time, what the government actually does. The Republicans endless demonizing of “big government” suddenly sounded off-pitch. Reported CBS News :
The shutdown resulted in a backlog of hundreds of thousands of passport and college applications, the closure of national parks (including the Grand Canyon), failure to process new Medicare claims and the suspension of many government services. In addition, 760,000 federal workers were furloughed during the impasse. (Their pay was reinstated when Mr. Clinton signed a measure to fund the government in early 2006.) The Office of Management and Budget estimated that the 21-day shutdown, together with a six-day partial government shutdown in November 1995, ended up costing more than $1.25 billion.
A shutdown in 2011 , during a recession, could have even harsher effects. “This is not an abstraction,” Obama said at his last news conference. “People don’t get their Social Security checks. They don’t get their veterans payments. Basic functions [are] shut down. And it would have an adverse effect on our economic recovery.”
Goldman Sachs—hardly a liberal outpost—found that the budget passed by House Republicans last week could halt growth  by 1.5 to 2 percentage points in the coming year. This is a battle not only of numbers but also of worldviews, and Democrats should have no trouble explaining why the Republican plan will only result in more pain for anxious Americans.
—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics .