Pro-Shutdown Republicans Embrace Strategy That Failed in 2013

They insist voters will blame Democrats, but that isn't the way it worked out two years ago.

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Scaffolding surrounds the U.S. Capitol Building Dome at sunset in Washington on Dec. 9, 2014.

Scaffolding surrounds the U.S. Capitol Building Dome at sunset in Washington on Dec. 9, 2014.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Republicans who want to shut the down the federal government rather than provide $500 million in funding to Planned Parenthood insist that their party won't be punished for having the courage of its anti-abortion convictions.

They say the millions of Americans inconvenienced by the closing of national parks and delays of services (not to mentioned missed paychecks for federal workers) won't blame Republicans for refusing to pass a federal funding bill that contains money for the women's health care services provider. Instead, the theory goes, voters will blame the Democratic president, who plans to veto the bill if it doesn't include money for Planned Parenthood. (Bloomberg Philanthropies provides financial support for the group.)

“On the Planned Parenthood issue, the people who are threatening a shutdown is Barack Obama and his allies in the Senate. ... The Republicans are going to shut down the government? No, we're not. We are in support of funding the government fully, just not giving any more money to this one organization,” Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, a Florida senator, said on Sean Hannity's radio show last week. “They're the ones shutting it down.”

But the very same senator made the very same argument to the very same host two years ago, before Republicans tested the theory by shutting down the government for 16 days in an effort to defund another bête noire.

“Well, the one who’s threatening to shut down the government is the president and his Democratic allies,” the Floridian told Hannity on Aug. 1, 2013, two months before Republicans shut down the government in an ultimately futile effort to cut funding for Obama's health care law. “What they're basically saying is unless the budget funds Obamacare, they won't support it. They're basically saying that unless we fund Obamacare they are willing to shut down the government.”

In the end, Republican lost the fight. Not just because they had to cave and pass a bill that continued funding for Obamacare, but because they took the political hit for it: 81 percent of Americans disapproved of the shutdown, and the public blamed Republicans by a 53 percent to 39 percent margin, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll taken at the time. Nine days into the shutdown, Gallup found that the GOP's approval rating had sunk to an all-time low. Democrats' approval dipped more modestly.

Rubio is not alone in embracing a strategy that didn't work so well last time around. 

“If the Democrats want to shut down government over this, then it goes to Democrats,” said Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, another presidential contender, on Sept. 10 at a rally on Capitol Hill, according to a report in the Washington Examiner. “The Democrats want to shut down government, we should point the finger and say, 'If you want to shut down the government over spending money on harvesting organs from babies, so be it,' but we will take a stand.”

Two days before the 2013 shutdown, Paul was also trying to put the blame on the president. “The president is the one saying I will shut down government if you don't give me everything I want on Obamacare. That to me is the president being intransigent and being unwilling to compromise,” he said on Sept. 29, 2013, on CBS's Face The Nation.

Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a leader in the push to defund Planned Parenthood this month at risk of a shutdown, is also making the familiar argument—that Democrats will be blamed, see the light, and relent.

“I think we should stand firm and not fund Planned Parenthood, plain and simple. ... If Barack Obama and Harry Reid think it’s more important that, Planned Parenthood, after what we know about them, gets taxpayer money, they think that’s more important than funding our troops, that's a sad commentary on Obama and Reid,” Jordan told Politico last month, predicting that Democrats would shift their position after debate. He and more than 30 House Republicans have pledged not to vote for a bill that keeps funding the organization.

In 2013, Jordan told CNN that Democrats who refused to defund Obamacare would “find Jesus and do the right thing” if Republicans withheld funding for the federal government. “We've got 10 days to run this campaign.”

Shutdowns pose a unique messaging problem for Republicans, who fashion themselves as the anti-government party. In addition, political scientists note that Americans typically blame the party that controls Congress—and therefore the purse strings for the federal government—if money runs dry.

It's a point House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who sometimes becomes visibly exasperated with some of the more doctrinaire members of his own caucus, has made himself. Three months after the government re-opened, the speaker of the House was asked by Jay Leno on the Tonight Show if Republicans were to blame for the shutdown. “Yep,” he responded, calling it “a very predictable disaster.”

The one difference between 2013 and 2015 is Republicans now control the Senate. But Democrats retain the power (and determination) to kill such a bill by filibuster, meaning Republicans still have no realistic path to success. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been arguing that the shutdown strategy is doomed to fail and will hurt the GOP.

As he was two years ago, the kingpin of the shutdown strategy is Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is also running for president this year.

“I sincerely hope Senator Reid and President Obama do not choose to force a government shutdown simply to force Obamacare on the American people. That would be a mistake,” the freshman senator said during a marathon 21-hour Senate floor speech on Sept. 24, 2013, that launched his trademark hashtag, #MakeDCListen.

While the Republican Party's image may not have been helped by the 2013 shutdown, Cruz's political stock went up. Conservative members of his party—who have disproportionate influence in Iowa, where the first ballots of the presidential season will be cast in Feb. 1 caucuses—cast him as a hero and blamed Republican leaders for backing down. Now Cruz hopes to double down on that lesson.

“Republican leadership in both houses has begun this discussion by preemptively surrendering to Barack Obama and saying, 'We'll give in because Obama threatens a veto,'” Cruz said last week at the Republican presidential debate. “We need to stop surrendering and start standing for our principles.”

(Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Planned Parenthood's funding amount.)

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