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Posted at 12:52 PM ET, 02/28/2011

Why the government won't shut down

By Chris Cillizza



What a federal government shutdown looks like -- and why it won't happen. Washington Post photo

Political Washington is consumed with the question of whether the federal government will shut down when funding for it runs out on Friday.

It (almost certainly) won't.

Senate Democrats and House Republicans started making nice with one another late last week, suggesting -- rhetorically, at least -- that a deal to push the deadline back two weeks is in the offing.

"We have a moral responsibility to address the problems we face," House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) said in a speech Sunday night. "That means working together to cut spending and rein in government -- not shutting it down."

And, while it's FAR less certain how the two sides will come together to pass a longer-term funding mechanism, there are powerful political reasons for the two sides to try and work out a compromise.

Why?

Because the politics of a shutdown are wildly unpredictable and would almost certainly play out in such a way as to make the stakes incredibly high for each side.

Let's tackle the unpredictability piece first.

Gallup released poll numbers late last week that suggested an American public deeply divided over who is doing more to balance the budget as well as the best way forward on the issue.

Forty two percent said Republicans were doing a better job on "current efforts to agree on a new federal budget" while 39 percent said President Obama/Democrats in Congress were doing the better job.

Among electorally critical independents, 37 percent said congressional Republicans were doing the superior job while 33 percent named Obama/Democrats.

And, while 60 percent of those tested said Congress should "agree to a compromise budget plan even if that means they pass a budget you disagree with", nearly half -- 48 percent -- said that the budget proposals put forward by President Obama don't go far enough.

Add those numbers up -- figuratively not literally, of course -- and you are left with a public that doesn't really know what it wants or who to blame if they don't get it.

As a general rule, politicians -- from the local level right up to the presidency -- hate uncertainty. When the public is as deeply divided (or confused) about such a major issue as the budget and the possibility of a government shutdown, politicians are left with no obvious course of action to move forward. In the face of such uncertainty, politicians typically punt -- pushing off the hardest decisions until there is more clarity in public opinion.

(We are not suggesting politicians make ALL of their decisions based on public opinion. But, when your job is dependent on getting people to vote for you, it's hard to ignore public sentiment.)

The high profile history of past government shutdowns is the second major reason why shutting it down -- Public Enemy reference! -- seems unlikely.

The last time it happened was in late 1995 and early 1996 when then President Bill Clinton and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) engaged in a political game of chicken over -- you guessed it! -- the budget.

With the country paying rapt attention, Clinton used the bully pulpit to argue that Republicans were keeping people out of work while Gingrich struggled to successfully counter the idea that he and House Republicans had simply picked up their ball and gone home.

The reverberations were massive.

Clinton, who was a year removed from a disastrous setback in the 1994 midterm elections, gained the momentum that eventually led him to his sweeping 1996 re-election.

Gingrich, who at the time was the ascendant figure in the Republican party, began a slow fade that culminated in his resignation from Congress after the 1998 election. (Gingrich, interestingly, argues that Republicans won the 1995 budget stand off. So, there's that.)

Fear of repeating Gingrich's mistakes runs deep within the Republican leadership. Poll after poll suggests that voters -- particularly independents -- want President Obama and House Republicans to work together. Obstinance, in any form, could well tip the scales in Democrats' favor particularly with Obama enjoying the benefits of the bully pulpit.

On the other hand, President Obama ran on his ability to change the tone in Washington and get government working for average people again. After the health care debate, Obama's brand was clearly tarnished on that front but his work since the lame-duck session of Congress has re-established him as compromiser-in-chief. It's hard to imagine the White House willingly risking the hard-won gains of the last few months on a shutdown.

Put simply: A government shutdown amounts to a political high-wire act without a net. And that's why it almost certainly won't happen.

By Chris Cillizza  | February 28, 2011; 12:52 PM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party, Republican Party  
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