Politics & Policy

No Retreat, No Surrender

Republicans know they must avoid looking weak in the shutdown fight.

Republicans have partially planned and partially blundered into a government shutdown, and they appear to have no clear exit strategy. For now, many of them think it has become a test of their manhood. If they blink and pass a “clean” spending bill, they will lose face and enter talks over the looming mid-October debt-ceiling fight in a weakened position.

“We’re not going to be disrespected,” Representative Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana Republican, told the Washington Examiner. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” That kind of thinking doesn’t inspire confidence.

Timing is everything. For now, Republicans are holding together, but in about a week the financial markets are likely to go down, putting immense pressure on Republicans to abandon the shutdown fight. In 2011, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than 15 percent over a three-week period during that fall’s budget and debt-ceiling fight.

Deeply ingrained in the psyche of every congressional Republican is the government shutdown of 1995, for which Republicans were blamed. While many Republicans now believe the shutdown was a mistake, more think the problem was that the party lost its nerve.

Former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, now host of ABC’s This Week, has validated that view. In his memoir, he wrote that Democrats, until then holding out against the Republicans’ budget-limiting efforts, were close to blinking. “Clinton was grumpy, the rest of us were grim,” until suddenly news came that Senate majority leader Bob Dole and House speaker Newt Gingrich were blinking first. “Whether the cause was hubris, naïveté, or a failure of nerve,” Stephanopoulos explained, “the Republicans had blown their best chance to splinter our party; from that point on, everything started breaking our way.”

Dick Morris, then a top Clinton strategist, agrees with Stephanopoulos’s analysis. In his book Behind the Oval Office: Getting Reelected Against All Odds he writes, “We were greatly surprised when the Republicans surrendered by offering to reopen the government without getting a budget deal and without any commitments from us other than to balance the budget in seven years based on [Congressional Budget Office] numbers. We all knew this was GOP surrender.”

“What was frustrating about it is, is that we were this close,” Ed Gillespie, a top aide to then-House majority leader Dick Armey, told Fox News years later. Republicans were on the verge of “winning the government shutdown fight. In my estimation, if we’d have hung in there 48 hours more, the worm was about to turn. . . . If we’d had the strength to hang in there another two days, we would have done it on our terms. But we didn’t.”

President Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid have read that history and are determined to wait until the markets, or angry constituents or poll numbers, drive the Republicans into another surrender. But Obama knows the longer the shutdown continues, the more he stands to lose.

The same is true of Senate Democrats, many of whom are up for reelection in GOP-leaning states in 2014. They have already had to take a series of votes that make them vulnerable to attack ads claiming they voted for exempting Congress from part of Obamacare and against reopening popular parts of government such as national parks.

As Charlie Cook, an analyst with the National Journal, points out, Obama’s approval rating among Democrats in now only 77 percent, and among independents only 37 percent. “Republicans are greatly exposed, and could come out of this badly damaged,” he writes. “But as we saw in 2011, in a fight like this one, everyone can end up looking bad.”

Obama and his fellow Democrats know they could wind up losers in this fight, which may explain why they have sometimes sounded defensive and petulant in their public statements. Majority Leader Reid has railed against the “tea-party anarchists” leading the House Republicans. Obama has characterized GOP leaders as “reckless and irresponsible.”

Obama has been sounding that theme for months. In January, Major Garrett of CBS News asked Obama why, if previous presidents had negotiated agreements over the budget and debt ceiling, he was refusing to even consider any compromise with House Republicans.

“What Chuck [Todd] and I think many people are curious about is this new adamant desire on your part not to negotiate when that seems to conflict with the entire history in the modern era of American presidents in the debt ceiling and your own history on the debt ceiling,” Garrett said to Obama at a news conference.

Obama replied that he refused to discuss any terms with obstinate members of Congress who wanted to “blow up the economy” if they did not get their way.

“What’s different is we never saw a situation as we saw last year in which certain groups in Congress took such an absolutist position that we came within a few days of defaulting [on the debt],” he said.

When Garrett tried to ask follow-up questions, Obama interrupted him, saying, “No, not whatever Congress sends me. They’re going to have to send me something that’s sensible.”

As Garrett attempted to ask another question, Obama interrupted again. “This is the United States of America, Major! We can’t manage our affairs in such a way that we [can’t] pay our bills?”

So it appears that the fiscal affairs of the world’s largest economy are being held hostage to a test of manhood. Both sides instinctively realize that whichever one blinks first will be declared the loser and be weakened in future negotiations.

That’s why, having started this unfortunate adventure, Republicans are better off not blinking. Whether or not they can keep up the staring contest is debatable. Democrats, remembering their experience during the 1995 shutdown, are betting everything that Republicans can’t.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.


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