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Countdown to Shutdown

Think 1996 was bad for the GOP? This time will be much, much worse

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The year 1996, the last time the GOP took its toys and went home rather than fund the government, hasn’t loomed so large in Washington since it actually was 1996. Democrats, the media, and a not insignificant number of Republicans are convinced the looming shutdown will be just as disastrous for today’s GOP as the previous one was for Newt Gingrich’s. Meanwhile, the Tea Partiers in the House, at whose behest the shutdown is being instigated, have spent the weekend insisting this time will be different because … well, the why isn’t entirely clear, but it has something to do with the fact that Obamacare is involved.

There is, of course, much to be said for the 1996 analogy given that it’s our most recent example. But I’d argue that the more relevant case study is the payroll tax fight of late 2011, which involved the same players as today, the same internecine Republican dynamics (Tea Partiers versus Speaker John Boehner and a number of Senate Republicans), and the same media environment. The bad news for Republicans is that 2011 was every bit the rout 1996 was—arguably much more so. Republicans were able to hold out for a respectable 21 days back then. The 2011 fight was over in 48 hours.

The payroll tax fight essentially began that September, when Obama proposed a stimulus package that included an extension of an existing payroll-tax holiday. Throughout the fall, Obama traveled the country touting the importance of that provision, so that workers wouldn’t face higher taxes when it expired in January. The House GOP spent most of that same time resisting the extension, notwithstanding the party’s traditional tax cut stance. But as it became clear that the pure rejectionist position was untenable, they adjusted it somewhat: By late fall, House Republicans were no longer opposed to extending the tax cut in principle; they just wanted to offset the cost with spending cuts elsewhere.

As Christmas approached, the two sides were stalemated, and so Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid struck a deal with his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, to extend the payroll tax for two months while they sorted out a longer-term agreement. (The deal would have also extended unemployment benefits and prevented Medicare reimbursements to doctors from abruptly dropping.) The White House blessed the arrangement, which passed the Senate by an 89-10 margin. It looked for all the world like the House would approve it too—McConnell’s conversations with Boehner led him to believe the Speaker was on board—until Boehner presented the deal to his caucus by way of conference call on Saturday, December 17. In a ritual that has become tediously familiar since then, the Tea Partiers went ballistic and Boehner promptly backpedaled. The following Tuesday, December 20, the House passed a bill that extended the payroll tax for a year but offset the cost by cutting spending elsewhere in the budget, and attached a variety of unrelated initiatives, like a draconian reform of the unemployment insurance system.

It was less than a smashing success. Two days later, the House was in full retreat and accepted the Reid-McConnell compromise. Boehner was so eager to stop the public repudiation of his party that he kept his rank-and-file on mute when he announced the reversal via conference call: it was no longer up for discussion. Then, in February of 2012, a few weeks before the end of the two-month payroll tax cut extension, Republicans quickly accepted the yearlong duration of the holiday, without the cockamamie add-ons they’d previously insisted on, and with no offsetting spending cuts. The victory for Democrats was nearly total.1 “[W]hat I've come to realize is that in divided government you don't always get what you want,” bleated Sean Duffy, one of the freshman Tea Partiers involved in the original rebellion.

The reasons for the lopsided outcome help explain why this week’s anticipated shutdown is likely to be punishing for the GOP. First, the overarching narrative for these confrontations tends to be set long in advance. Republicans have scrambled over the weekend to present themselves as reasonable and to attack Reid and Obama as obstructionist. “If we have a shutdown, it will be because Harry Reid holds that absolutist position and essentially holds the American people hostage,” Ted Cruz announced on Sunday. Other Republicans are insisting that they’re simply combining two popular positions—extending government funding and opposing Obamacare. (Never mind the defunding Obamacare is actually unpopular.)

The problem with this is that it’s at odds with the storyline that’s hardened over the last few months, which is that Democrats wanted a simple bill to extend government funding at the level of the previous year, while Republicans are so determined to defund Obamacare they deem it more important than keeping the government open. During the payroll tax fight in 2011, Republicans also arrived at a seemingly reasonable formulation of their position once they took their final confrontational step: They wanted to fund the payroll tax for a full year, they argued, whereas Democrats only wanted to fund it for two months. It didn’t matter by that point. They’d spent the entire fall leading up to the fight dumping on the payroll tax cut. No one was fooled by the last-minute spin.

Second, Americans become deeply suspicious when one party tries to use a debate over an urgent piece of legislation (funding to avoid a shutdown in this case, an extension of an expiring tax cut back in 2011) as an opportunity to win unrelated concessions. In the same way that Republicans tipped their hand when they insisted on upending the entire unemployment insurance system as the price of allowing the payroll tax cut and merely extending unemployment benefits, they have tipped their hand this time by insisting on defunding Obamacare as the price of keeping the government open. (That’s why opposition to defunding Obamacare rises from 44-38 to 59-19 when it’s tied to a shutdown threat.)

Third, the mainstream media coverage of these showdowns tends to be withering because reporters who cover Congress and the White House all know Boehner himself thinks the conflict is pointless and almost certain to backfire. Back in 2011, reporters knew Boehner had wanted to accept the Reid-McConnell deal but was forced to reverse course when the House lunatics erupted on that Saturday conference call. It gave these reporters an imprimatur to describe the House position as deeply misguided. Same goes this time around: Every reporter in Washington knows Boehner has been trying to avoid a shutdown for months. This gives them the cover they need to suspend the usual norms of even-handedness and describe the move as irrational and self-sabotaging.

Finally, and most damaging of all, unrelenting criticism from fellow Republicans and conservatives is inevitable in these episodes, and it is completely crippling. When House conservatives rejected the Reid-McConnell payroll tax deal in 2011, it instantly created 39 Republican antagonists (the number who had voted for the deal in the Senate), many of whom were willing to criticize their House counterparts on the record. This isolated Boehner and his troops, but was only the beginning of the pile-on. By the following day, practically every conservative pundit in Washington was panning them. Karl Rove said Republicans had “lost the optics on it.” Charles Krauthammer groused that, “The Republicans have been entirely outplayed.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page said Republicans had “thoroughly botched the politics” and proclaimed their payroll tax gambit a “fiasco.” The writers on National Review’s influential blog The Corner had taken to referring to the situation as “The Payroll Tax Mess.”

Some commentators have pointed to the fact that, in the weeks leading up to the likely shutdown, Republicans senators and pundits have already been scathing in their opposition to the Tea Partier strategy—Senate conservatives like Tom Coburn and Richard Burr, among others, have been deriding it as idiotic. If this didn’t dissuade the House Republicans, these commentators argue, it’s hard to imagine them being dissuaded post-shutdown.

To which the proper response is: Are you kidding? As 2011 showed, the pre-showdown and post-showdown worlds bear almost no resemblance to one another. Before the two parties plunge into an all-out confrontation, the story mostly resides inside-the-Beltway, followed primarily by well-informed, politically engaged voters. These are the people who would know that Republican Senators like Coburn and Burr (and their reliably anti-Tea Party colleagues, like John McCain and Bob Corker) have been critical of House conservatives. But once the battle is joined—once we’re officially into the payroll tax standoff or the shutdown—the media covers it breathlessly, and like a national story, not a political one. It leads the evening news (both national and local); it seizes newspaper headlines across the country; it works its way into late night talk-show routines. The amount of damage you sustain when members of your own party are sniping at you amid this sort of media glare is simply impossible to imagine beforehand. 

So go ahead, Tea Partiers. Shut down the government. But when you do, just keep in mind that 1996 is the favorable scenario. The throttling you’re now courting is likely to be a whole lot worse. 

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber

  1. Republicans did manage to extract a few minor concessions in the longer-term deal. For example, Democrats agreed to pay for extended unemployment insurance benefits, which were also under debate, by skimming from federal employee pensions.