COMMENTARY | In the mid-1990s, voters blamed House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga., Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kans.) and Republicans more than President Bill Clinton by nearly a 2:1 margin for the government shutdown. And voters rewarded the Arkansas Democrat with another term in office later that year in 1996.
This year, more voters (by a nearly ten point margin) say Republicans are more to blame, with another 16 percent contending both sides are to blame. Both polls come from a CBS article.
It’s not fair, but in a situation where both sides should share some blame, the GOP bears the brunt of voter wrath. The question is why.
Republicans are apt to blame the media as well as moderates. Castigating the media as liberal bias doesn’t explain why the GOP wins half of the elections. And there really aren’t enough moderates among Republicans to make a realistic culprit.
No, the problem comes from the ideologically inconsistent message that put both Gingrich loyalists and the tea party in a bind.
When Gingrich announced shortly after winning the House and Senate that he would shut down the government to force concessions from the Clinton White House, it was hard for him to show that Clinton was the one who was really to blame for the mess.
In the same way, it’s hard for the party who has a faction that says “government is the problem” to tell the American people it really wanted the government open.
It’s not for a lack of trying. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tried telling Fox News Sunday “we are not shutting the government down.” And House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told the Associated Press “If the Senate stalls until Monday afternoon instead of working today, it would be an act of breathtaking arrogance by the Senate Democratic leadership. They will be deliberately bringing the nation to the brink of a government shutdown .”
But Boehner forgot to mention that much of the stalling came from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose lengthy filibuster against Obamacare brought the spending flap to the brink. Cruz blamed Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), omitting the details that it was Cruz and Reid who negotiated the former’s lengthy speech in order to bolster the Texas Senator. Sen. Cruz was jealous of Sen. Rand Paul’s own filibuster against drones and CIA Director John Brennan that enabled the Kentucky Senator to open up a 6:1 margin over Cruz in a recent straw poll, and wanted similar publicity. Sen. Reid was happy to give it to him, knowing how far out of the mainstream the Texas Senator is.
But we know that regardless of how people feel about Obamacare (some opposition to it comes from liberals who want more government involvement) they oppose shutting down the government over defunding Obamacare by a 3:1 margin in a CNBC poll.
Sure Democrats should receive some of the blame, by refusing to compromise, cutting a bipartisan deal that would allow the GOP to save face before its most conservative constituents. And Reid’s bargain with Cruz is a Faustian one for both.
But the party that rails against government is at a clear disadvantage in convincing the American people it really wanted government open. At the same time, it is hard for them to show that the Democrats, who they label “the party of government” during election time, are really trying to shut it down.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. The poll in the graphic comes from CBS.