Monday, April 11, 2011

Comparing Shutdowns

I haven't seen a whole lot of ink comparing the results of the 1995-96 government shutdown with those of last week's almost-shutdown, so I sought out the opinions of Jonathan Bernstein, Sarah Binder, and Peter Hanson. The following are some reflections, informed by their input, on two key questions I keep asking:

Why was Obama apparently so eager to make a deal?
The conventional about the 1995-96 shutdown is that the event helped Bill Clinton and hurt congressional Republicans. We can certainly understand the logic of that: the president has the bully pulpit, he is a single voice facing off against numerous congressional leaders who don't always agree, he was defending popular programs, etc. And yes, the Republicans made a number of policy concessions to Clinton to end the shutdown. And Hanson tells me that veteran Republicans staffers on Capitol Hill widely regard the 1995-96 shutdown as a colossal screwup on their part. So why wouldn't Obama see a shutdown as his best friend? Why didn't he say, like Josiah Bartlett, "Shut it down."?

Well, part of the answer is that the shutdown didn't necessarily help Clinton as much as is generally believed. As John Sides shows, Clinton's approval ratings dropped during the shutdown and did not improve until roughly two months after it ended. Maybe that later rise was the result of the public processing the details of the shutdown, or maybe it had nothing to do with the shutdown at all. Obama can read polls and might be aware of this.

Second, John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich. To the extent the earlier shutdown was considered a Clinton win, that may have been entirely the result of Newt's antics, in which he whined about his seating assignment on Air Force One on the way to Yitzhak Rabin's funeral and wore unforgivably awful sweaters. While I don't envy Boehner's position, he certainly has more discipline as a politician and seems to be a better negotiator than Newt.

Third, the economy in the winter of 1995 was on surer footing than that of spring 2011. A multi-week shutdown now could have a much bigger impact on economic growth next year than $40 billion or so in budget cuts. Obama understands the relationship between economic growth and presidential vote shares and took this seriously.

Fourth, somewhat surprisingly, Obama does not seem impressed with the power of his own oratory. As with the tax cut deal late last year, Obama eschewed bully pulpit tactics and engaged in a ton of inside negotiations with congressional Republicans. (Bill Clinton, conversely, was happy to demonize Republicans publicly while still negotiating more privately, presumably to "go public" and enhance his negotiating hand.) Why is Obama, of all people, not using the bully pulpit? Well, it might be because he knows how to read a poll and understands that going public doesn't necessarily work in such a simplistic fashion. We have a lot of beliefs about how the president can change the public's mind and thus force Congress to do what he wants, but it's hard to point to many examples of this actually happening. Speeches, as Obama will surely tell you, can inspire people to service, encourage them to vote, rally your base, and many other things. But can they actually change your mind? Can they change the mind of a member of Congress? Not often.

Did Obama get more or less than Bill Clinton did?
This is really hard to answer. In some sense, they had similar outcomes from their respective moments of budgetary brinksmanship: they accepted certain levels of spending cuts while still protecting key priorities (Medicare in Clinton's case, health reform funding in Obama's, etc.) and kept most policy riders off the budget bills. We still don't know the entirety of the deal Obama struck, and it hasn't been approved by all the key people yet, so it's hard to assess everything. It's also worth restating that the 1995-96 shutdown did not have much of an effect on Clinton's approval rating, and while he may have been publicly labeled the "winner" of that round, within a year he would sign welfare reform and adopt deficit elimination as a goal, both of which were Republican priorities at the time.

One key difference is that Republicans emerged from the 1995-96 showdown terrified of another one. That strengthened Clinton's hand in future budget negotiations. This doesn't seem to be the case this time around, although it's still early. Republicans could again threaten a shutdown and just keep using it as a negotiating tactic. Perhaps actually having a shutdown would force them to reconsider that strategy, but it's difficult to know how that would affect them.


Peter Hanson said...

Good post. Another case to consider here is Ronald Reagan. In 1981, he prompted a temporary shutdown by vetoing a continuing resolution that he claimed did not sufficiently cut spending. Interestingly, that CR had been passed by a Republican Senate and Democratic House.

Workers were sent home, the Statue of Liberty closed, and the White House put on a recorded message saying no one was available to answer phones. The result was that Congress scrambled to pass a new CR and ultimately moved toward the president.

I haven't looked at the polling data, but commentary at the time suggests the president's strategy played well with the public. In any case, this is an example of how a shutdown strategy combined with effective use of the bully pulpit seemed to have worked for the president.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

It is worth recalling the Obama managed to get a "clean" budget deal that was largely free of repeals of environmental regulations or women's health care mandates. Yes, he gave in some on the amount of the line items for particular non-discretionary program spending for a year. But, keeping those issues out of the budget context where the bill is "must pass" and in the rest of the legislative process, where he is much stronger, is a plus for him.

Matt said...

I think your last point is key, Seth. Even if Clinton's public approval ratings didn't go up because of the shutdowns (as John Sides and others have noted), congressional Republicans still believed they suffered great political cost from them (particularly the second shutdown). It's worth considering what public opinion polls can and can't measure with respect to how political players actually view the costs and benefits of certain actions.