Who Won the 2011 Government Shutdown Showdown?

By Mike Dorf

As an occasional contributor to Democratic candidates and causes, I receive frequent snail-mail, texts, and emails from various organizations.  Today's email had me dizzy from the spin.  The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee proclaimed that "[t]he Republicans blinked" and that "today the Democrats have shown that they will not be bullied by the Tea Party into abandoning our core values."  If that's true, it's only because Democrats no longer have any core values.  By seemingly any measure, "who won the 2011 budget shutdown showdown?" is a no-brainer: Republicans, of course.

1) Speaker Boehner originally proposed $33 billion in cuts; Obama and the Dems agreed to that figure; under pressure from the tea party right, Boehner then said he wanted deeper cuts--and he got deeper cuts.  The deal struck at the 11th hour on Friday night calls for $38 billion in cuts.

2) Those cuts come from programs that disproportionately benefit Democratic constituencies.

3) In an important sense, Republicans won from the moment that President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress agreed to have this fight about the size of cuts rather than about their timing and/or necessity.  As readers of Neil Buchanan's many excellent posts on this blog and/or Paul Krugman's NY Times column know--and as anybody who has been following what's happening in Ireland, the UK, and other countries that have adopted austerity measures as the means to address their economic woes can see--budget-cutting during a recession is
counter-productive, even for countries with long-term deficit and debt problems.

To address our long-term fiscal issues, we could be talking about how many signs of a sustainable recovery we need before we need to raise tax rates, cut military spending, and, most importantly, rein in health-care costs, with non-military discretionary spending--the subject of the most recent fight--playing a very small role in this debate.  A real compromise between the actual contending positions on these issues--i.e., between Keynesians and libertarians--might have looked something more like this: Republicans in the House agree to continue to fund the govt for the rest of the current fiscal year at current levels in exchange for the President and Democrats in the Senate agreeing to, say, something like the original Paul Ryan/Alice Rivlin proposal to offer health insurance vouchers as a voluntary alternative to Medicare, with growth in the value of the vouchers capped at 1% over annual GDP growth.  To be clear, I don't think this is a good plan on policy grounds--because, among other things, it does nothing to address the actual drivers of health care inflation--but at least it would have focused on what should be the real difference between the parties.  But in fact, the "compromise" we got looked more like this.

4) Despite all of the foregoing, I think it is nonetheless an open question whether Republicans or Democrats won the showdown in a political sense.  Republicans could lose by having "outed" themselves as driven by traditional ideological concerns--abortion; environmental regulation; etc--rather than simply being fiscal conservatives.  If I were in charge of Democratic political strategy for 2012, I might focus my negative ads on this point.  "Republicans SAY they want to control government spending, but what they REALLY care about is . . . etc."  I'm not sure this would work, though, because, when push came to shove, the Republicans did drop some of their ideological riders from the package.  Moreover, Republicans could flip the script, by saying that Democrats were willing to shut down the government rather than accept limits on government subsidies for abortion.  That would be dishonest, to be sure.  PP already gets no federal money for the purpose of performing abortions, so a well-informed citizen could be made to understand how extreme the Republican negotiating position was: They were apparently willing to shut down the whole govt to deny funding to an organization's non-abortion services because it uses other funds to perform abortions.  However, that's much too complicated a point to fit into a sound bite, so the average swing voter may well perceive the side-squabble over abortion as symmetrical ideological posturing.

So, bottom line: Republicans won the policy showdown.  Who won the political showdown?  As Zhou Enlai said of the French Revolution, it's too soon to tell.