Shutdown Blame Usually Runs in One Direction

(Bloomberg View) -- Who would Americans blame for an extended government shutdown? 

To begin with: Some 20 to 30 percent of the population on both sides are intense partisans, and they will fully support their side no matter what happens. They get news at least in part from partisan sources, and they'll absorb whatever talking points their party is pushing, no matter how illogical or transparently fraudulent they may be. 

For everybody else -- 40-60 percent of the nation, that is -- a variety of factors will determine who they blame for the shutdown. Most voters will tend to agree with the party they support or lean towards, but they aren't always convinced. Their opinion of the president matters. Trump has rallied, but still stands at only about 40 percent approval, which suggests that few true independents or weak Republicans, and hardly any Democrats, will automatically believe whatever spin he puts on it.

The other big factor will be news coverage in the "neutral" press -- that is, the portion of the national and local media that, whatever their biases, does not align with either party. Traditionally, they report government shutdowns are inherently bad, and that whomever is responsible should be portrayed as villains.

Mainly because they have majorities in Congress and the presidency, Republicans are most likely to be framed as the antagonists if the government shutters. That's going to be particularly true if the House fails to pass a short-term funding bill (or in the less likely event that a Trump veto closes government doors). The story will be more complicated if Senate Democrats successfully filibuster a House-passed bill. I've seen some pundits already say that Republicans "own" whatever happens given their majorities, but a Democratic filibuster will (and perhaps should) complicate that story. 

Evidence that one side actively sought a shutdown will be very important, as it was in 2013 when Senator Ted Cruz and House radicals said they forced a shutdown in order to push President Barack Obama to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Failure to bargain matters, too. In 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich's refusal to speak to President Bill Clinton generated tons of negative coverage for Republicans. That Trump at one point said we need a "good 'shutdown'" will be a factor in this; so might Democratic demands for a DACA fix even at the cost of a shutdown. Some Democrats seem to be spinning already with this idea in mind.  

Presidents normally have one big advantage over their opponents during these types of conflicts. They are able to speak with one voice, while Congressional opposition is far less clear. In this case, however, the president is allied with Congressional leaders, increasing the chances they'll send mixed messages. Then there's Trump himself, who has never managed to go more than a few days without undermining whatever theme White House strategists are trying to promote, and who has also built a reputation for dishonesty. 

There's more to public opinion than just who gets blamed for any shutdown. Intensity matters. At first, only a handful of people will be directly affected by a government shutdown. If it only lasts two or three days, it's mainly an issue for those planning visits to national parks. If it lasts a week, government workers bear the brunt of the pain. Over time, however, a lot of people have to postpone normal interactions with government, and it goes from being a story in the news to a story in their lives, meaning that they're likely to remember it and hold it against politicians in the long run. 

It can also take a while for the blame to set in. During the 1995-1996 two-part shutdown, Bill Clinton's approval ratings fell even as polls indicated that more people blamed Gingrich and the Republicans for the impasse. When Clinton was eventually declared the winner by the media, his ratings rapidly recovered.

And then there's the possibility of indirect effects that can change elections. Extended government shutdowns, for example, can hurt the economy, although the amount is disputed among economists. Economic downturns are always bad news for incumbents, no matter the causes.

Overall, the incentives here are good ones: Incumbents stand to lose when the government can't function, so they should work hard to prevent it from happening. That's probably why there have only been two significant government shutdowns in U.S. history -- the two-part episode in 1995-1996, and the one in 2013. It's one of the reasons why the odds still favor a short-term extension by the end of the day on Friday. Or, to put it another way, it's why it takes something truly dysfunctional to get funding for government agencies to expire without an easily-passed extension, which is why many analysts are worried that it might really happen this time. 

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

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. 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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