Key 2020 Voters Will Remember the Shutdown

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s probably good news that the Senate will finally vote on measures to end the shutdown for the first time since funding for several departments and agencies ran out. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has scheduled two votes for Thursday: The first on President Donald Trump’s non-compromise proposal, and the second on the House-passed measures to fund the government while continuing discussions on the border wall. Democrats remain united against Trump’s offer, and it’s not clear whether any of the Republicans who have publicly said they opposed closing the doors over the wall will vote for the second measure.

Still, better to be voting than not. At the very least, it will generate some information about the scope of disagreement. But unless there’s a revolt among Republican senators, the longest-ever government shutdown will continue for a while.

Why is this taking so long to resolve? One reason might be the lesson Republicans learned from the 2013 government closure:

It’s true that most voters most of the time have very short memories. Political scientists have found that almost nothing that happens in the first three years of a presidency has any direct effect on voting decisions when the president is on the ballot. Bill Clinton’s terrible transition and first few months, which led to a Republican landslide in 1994, didn’t prevent him form winning re-election in 1996. Ronald Reagan at this point of his presidency had a miserable 37 percent approval rating. But then a strong economic recovery began, and he won 49 states in 1984. 

So McConnell isn’t nuts to believe that a shutdown now will be utterly forgotten by almost everyone by November 2020. 

But there’s more to elections than direct effects, and the shutdown could have important indirect effects on future elections.

Candidates for Congress and state offices are just now beginning to make decisions about whether to run in 2020. The office-seekers take into consideration the expected political atmosphere, just as they did in 2017 when thinking about 2018. For those decisions, the president’s current approval rating (down to about 40 percent since the shutdown) will matter. So will their general appraisal of how healthy the presidency and the president’s party seem to be. The worse things look for Republicans, the more potentially strong candidates from that party will decide not to run, and the more potentially strong Democrats will choose to get in. The same applies to the all-important decisions from incumbents about whether to run for re-election. 

That trend could be magnified if the spillover from the shutdown winds up harming the overall economy more than currently anticipated. Even a relatively small slump could hurt Trump’s approval ratings for a few months. And it could easily be game over for the president if the shutdown manages to tip the economy into a recession. George H.W. Bush couldn’t survive a relatively mild recession that technically ended in his third year in office, and Trump would enter any downturn with far worse numbers than Bush had before his downturn.  

It’s important to note that any indirect effects of that kind wouldn’t even require people to attribute the economic slump to the shutdown, or hold Trump responsible for the standoff: History shows that voters blame incumbents, especially incumbent presidents, for hard economic times, regardless of whether the president had anything to do with it. There’s no reason to believe that would be any different for Trump. And if he takes a hit in 2020, so will congressional Republicans.

I wouldn’t rule out some direct effects, too. Even if most voters will have forgotten about the shutdown months before they start thinking about 2020, a relatively small group of those who were most affected may wind up highly energized, and that can become an important resource for Democrats in the election year. 

It’s also true that Trump, who won a slim and flukish Electoral College victory in 2016 and has been unpopular during his entire presidency, probably doesn’t have a lot of votes to spare. Indeed, no Republican presidential candidate since 1988 has had an easy win. Even losing a handful of supporters might doom Trump in 2020 if all else is equal. 

The larger point might be that all of the research concluding that voters have short memories is based on events that have one thing in common: The politicians involved believed that voters would punish them for the harm they caused. If politicians stop believing that, they may begin doing things that cause far more harm, and we really can’t know how voters would then react. In other words, the correct insight that voters have short memories about specific events is in part based on the fact that normal politicians act as if voters have long memories and are therefore constrained to avoid angering them too much. Violating that assumption may entail unknown risks. And that’s what Trump, McConnell, and the Republicans are inviting as the shutdown goes on and on. 

The Trump proposal starts with the border wall and adds something for the anti-immigration side -- new restrictions on asylum -- and while it was originally pitched as giving Democrats DACA and TPS in return, the actual proposal adds new restrictions on those programs, making it unclear whether Democrats would support that part of the package if it was a stand-alone bill. In other words, the "compromise" starts with something for Trump, adds something new for Trump, and then adds something else for Trump. It's not exactly a surprise that Democrats aren't jumping to embrace it.

The Bush-era recession was dated from June 1990 to March 1991. The Reagan-era recession ended in November 1982, giving Reagan crucial extra months to put it behind him, although Reagan was also helped by the strength of the recovery.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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