Mutually assured destruction

    The warring parties in Washington have cut a deal, signed yesterday by President Obama, to postpone a government shutdown for at least two more weeks. Yo, break out the Champagne! Given the current political climate, this agreement qualifies as a major legislative milestone.Naturally, however, the two camps remain far apart on how to fund federal operations through the end of the fiscal year in September – which likely means that, two weeks from now, they’ll be lurching toward another shutdown deadline and debating our fiscal priorities with all the calm rationality of Charlie Sheen.But even as they continue to kick the can, there is an upside: Neither side really wants to risk a government shutdown – and all the attendant inconveniences, such as a stoppage in Social Security checks – for fear of being punished politically by the public.Most Democrats generally assume that the GOP would take the hit for a shutdown – a la 1995, when the government’s lights were extinguished for roughly four weeks and Bill Clinton bested Newt Gingrich in the court of public opinion – but the truth is, nobody really knows. It’s just as easy to envision a scenario in which the Democrats would get the blame.For starters, Obama isn’t as supple and clever a politician as Clinton was, and John Boehner isn’t nearly as petulant, strident, and hubristic as Gingrich was. Second, Obama promised to change the tone in Washington (granted, all presidents make that vow), and a shutdown could be spun as his failure to deliver that new day. Third, the ’11 Democrats run the Senate and thus share the power on Capitol Hill – unlike in 1995, when the GOP controlled the Senate as well as the House. Fourth, Republicans have largely framed the overarching political narrative; it’s all about spending cuts, and if the Democrats balk and a shutdown ensues, Republicans might successfully spin that as a disaster precipitated by the opposition’s refusal to address our fiscal ills. Fifth, the Democratic senators who are mapping ’12 re-election races in swing states may well be mindful of reason number four.In other words, the Democrats have ample motivation to step back from the precipice and keep the government open – but so do the Republicans, notwithstanding all the aforementioned reasons. Among the GOP’s potential pitfalls:First, Obama is still the guy with the biggest megaphone, the Republicans don’t have anybody who can contest him on equal footing in the event of a shutdown, and, indeed, the new bipartisan NBC-Wall Street Journal poll confirms that Obama has no serious Republican rival in 2012. Second, even though Boehner is not a Newt-style lightning rod, his zealous freshmen certainly fill that role; if these ideologues push too hard and force a shutdown, the GOP would risk a backlash from the landslide share of Americans who view the tea partiers as too extreme.

    As Bill McInturff, the GOP pollster who co-runs the NBC/WSJ survey, warned fellow Republicans yesterday, “It may be hard to understand why a person might jump off a cliff, unless you understand they’re being chased by a tiger. That tiger is the tea party.”Third, the polls show that roughly 60 percent of Americans oppose a government shutdown; indeed a Quinnipiac poll released yesterday shows that, in the wake of a shutdown, 47 percent of registered voters would pin blame on the Republicans, while only 38 percent would fault Obama. (The NBC/WSJ survey says that blame would be equally distributed; nevertheless, McInturff yesterday warned Republicans that they’d likely take big hits from independents, seniors, and suburban women. Two-thirds of those folks say they’re concerned that major cuts to government spending could adversely hurt their families.)    Fourth, as conservative political analyst Ryan Sager argued in his ’06 book The Elephant in the Room, the GOP has an inherent handicap on the shutdown issue. After recounting what he called Gingrich’s 1995 “monumental strategic miscalculation,” Sager concluded: “What Gingrich didn’t understand…was that, in actuality, Republicans get blamed for government shutdowns. They’re the ones who hate government, they’re the ones who want to slash government – the public knows this, and assigns the blame accordingly.”

    So there you have it. Apparently we’ve devolved to the point where lawmakers feel compelled to fund the government for only two weeks at a time. In fact, I’d bet on another two-week continuance, two weeks from today. The federal lights will likely stay on, and the Social Security and unemployment checks will continue to reach the people who need them most in these dire economic times, simply because both parties have their respective reasons to fear the political consequences of doing otherwise. Rather than risk the unknown, they’ll likely refrain from going nuclear. Perhaps this is the 21st-century version of the de facto Cold War peace pact known as Mutually Assured Destruction.——-Ah, Arizona. Have you heard that the lawmakers down there are readying a bill that will allow college professors and students to bring guns to class? What a wonderful idea, one that I explored (with tongue in cheek) in a newspaper column today.

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