(Providence, Rhode Island) – Here we go again! Another partial government shutdown looms – this time the Department of Homeland Security. We’ve dissected shutdowns before - since I have been through a few - so as President Reagan might say, “There you go again!” Some of my commentary is adapted from previous shutdowns in 1995 and 2013. Let’s brunch on that this week:
“The History” – The U.S. government closed from November 14 to November 19, 1995. When it reopened, the truce did not last long. The government shut down again from December 16, 1995, through January 6, 1996. As a reporter in Washington, DC, at the time, I found it surreal. You could have fired a cannonball through the capital city and not hit a soul. It was a ghost town. The Metro rail system was largely empty. I remember interviewing a little boy outside the Smithsonian museums which suddenly closed, and his birthday visit was cancelled. It was weird seeing such a bustling city at a standstill.
“Political Fallout?” – The government shutdowns of 1995-96 did little to help Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole. Dole was a deal-maker and power-broker in Washington, DC, not a confrontational type like then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Yet, Dole was dragged into the shutdowns as an unwitting participant. He lost the election to Bill Clinton in November by a decisive margin. Republicans also lost eight seats in the U.S. House, but maintained a solid majority. The GOP actually gained two seats in the U.S. Senate. A shutdown can have political risks – and potential benefits - for both parties.
“What’s Different Now?” – The difference is ISIS. If Homeland Security is dialed back and there is a terrorist attack, Republicans are in big trouble. As I have said before, the public has been very unforgiving over the past generation (which is 25 years). The swings in power in both the White House and Congress tell you that the public is not interested in political BS as usual. The GOP is taking the biggest risk in this standoff; and if it gambles and fails, 2016 could be a crushing backlash – not only in the race for the White House, but the race for Congress, too!
“It’s Not Just the GOP’s Fault” – In politics – as in dance – “It Takes Two, to Tango!” Republicans are blocking the Homeland Security funding because many in the party object to President Obama’s Executive Order on not deporting certain illegal immigrants. Democrats don’t think Republican objections belong in the current budget battle. But the fact that the Department of Homeland Security now oversees the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), means the GOP concerns are relevant. It’s up to the third branch of government – the Judiciary – to determine to what extent. Bottom line: It’s not just the GOP’s fault.
“The Dynamics of Washington” – There are 535 Members of Congress. There is only one President. While much of the press coverage (and public opinion) blamed Republicans in 1995-96, in truth the Democratic White House was an equal partner in the shutdown. So why did Congress get blamed? Well, it’s the dynamic of the two institutions. Congress always looks like chaos and appears unruly. A President – sitting in the Oval Office all alone – appears under siege, but also looks more sympathetic and dignified compared the chaos down the street. Ronald Reagan knew this better than anyone else in my lifetime, and he was a master at leveraging it to shape public opinion for his own advantage.
“It’s All Relative” – Politics and public service is a “What have you done for me lately?” business. People - whether Democrats or Republicans - want whatever services are being promised. It’s called “constituent service,” and it’s one of the main advantages of incumbency. More than anything after 9-11, people want to feel that their government is protecting them. They didn’t that day, and have been jittery ever since. Anything that either party does to shake public confidence is done at its own peril. Elections are often about perceived results and public approval. Election 2016 could be a real roll of the dice!
“Boehner Banished?” – The most immediate question in all of this concerns the future of House Speaker John Boehner (photo above). At this point, there is rebellion in the party, as he is unable to reign in his own troops for a long term Department of Homeland Security budget. How long will he be Speaker? Stay tuned!
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Photo courtesy: ABC News