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.