Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is ready for an ugly showdown that may very well shut down the federal government at the end of the month, as are dozens of House Republicans. Meanwhile, GOP leaders in both chambers are pushing as hard as they can in the opposite direction.
But no one in Republican politics is more resistant to this strategy than vulnerable GOP incumbents worried about their re-election bids next year. Politico reported this week on one of these lawmakers:
In an interview, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said it’s “obvious” Cruz is only making this his latest cause to boost his visibility in a presidential campaign. And Ayotte, who withdrew her name from Lee’s 2013 letter on Obamacare, said she will “absolutely not” sign onto Cruz’s latest missive.“There are not enough votes to even get (to) 60 in the Senate. But even if you could get by that (hurdle), the president is going to veto it and we certainly don’t have 67 votes,” Ayotte said. “So I guess I would ask: What’s the strategy for success?”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), another blue-state Republican incumbent facing a tough race next year, is also reportedly urging his colleagues to avoid a shutdown at all costs – for his sake, if not theirs.
All of which raises the question: are Ayotte and Johnson correct? Would another government shutdown hurt them and their party?
Reader B.G. emailed me last night to suggest the nervous senators’ concerns are misplaced. I’m reprinting the reader’s note with permission: “The GOP paid no political price in the 2014 election for shutting down the government in 2013. As much as I loathe Cruz, it is not irrational for him to think that shutting down the government will be a cost-free endeavor (from a GOP political perspective). I am sure he is betting, and not without evidence, that any government shutdown will be long forgotten by the time the 2016 election rolls around.”
After House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told Fox News this morning that “the American people will punish you if you are just playing politics or making a point that can’t be achieved,” reader B.G. added in a follow-up email, “Well, no, not based on recent history…. In fact, if I were Ted Cruz, I would be making the point publicly that the 2013 shutdown worked. ‘Look, we did it, and the American people rewarded us.’”
As a practical matter, Cruz and his allies are doing exactly that. For all the hand-wringing among Republican leaders, the Texas senator and his allies routinely make the argument on Capitol Hill that the hype is wrong and the risk of an electoral backlash from shutdowns is vastly overstated. These are, Cruz & Co. insist, consequence-free gambits.
To which I say, maybe.
First, it’s worth remembering that there are qualitative differences between midterm cycles and presidential election years. In the latter, more people, especially Democrats, actually bother to show up. There’s no denying the fact that Republicans had a great year in 2014, despite shutting down the government in 2013, but the national electorate will look far different – larger, more diverse, etc. – in 2016.
Second, for some of these vulnerable incumbents, the national landscape isn’t nearly as relevant as the prevailing political winds in their own home states. And in a state like Wisconsin, where Johnson is an underdog anyway, there’s simply no upside to having the public get angry with his party all over again.
Third, don’t discount the possibility of a cumulative effect. Republicans faced no discernible punishment for the last shutdown, but there’s no real precedent for a party being responsible for two shutdowns over the course of 24 months, and it’s no surprise that GOP leaders don’t see value in pushing their luck.
Finally, there’s the broader context of the 2016 cycle to consider: Republicans are going to ask the American mainstream to give the GOP power over the House, the Senate, and the White House, simultaneously, for the first time in a decade. Democrats will respond that an unhinged, radicalized Republican Party with a right-wing agenda hasn’t earned, and cannot be trusted with, that much power over the federal government.
Will another shutdown make the Democrats’ argument easier or harder next year?