A poor bargaining tactic.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Shutdowns: Still a Terrible Strategy

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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Some Republicans are floating the claim that voters, after all, didn't punish them for shutting down the government. So why not do it again?

That's the argument of conservative activist Erick Erickson and others, including some in Congress. Liberal Matt Yglesias at Vox says “there's something pretty persuasive" about that logic. So not only should Republicans do it again, Erickson says: This time they should play to win. 

It's true: the government shutdown of 2013 and the one in 1995-96 didn't lead to landslide congressional losses in the next elections, as some warned.

What Republicans forget is that both the Newt Gingrich and the Ted Cruz shutdowns were failures as bargaining tactics. Gingrich has argued for years that Republicans got their way in the end because Congress eventually produced a balanced budget. But they could have achieved that through normal bargaining. They lost on everything that they believed the leverage of a closed government would give them, such as deep cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

And the Tail-Gunner Ted shutdown of 2013 was even more of a debacle. Republicans didn't kill Obamacare, and they didn't even figure out what ransom to ask for instead. On top of that, both shutdowns  curtailed enthusiasm for future offensives among congressional Republicans.

So, yes, a shutdown lasting two or three weeks wouldn't produce long-term electoral disaster. It would just end in surrender, precisely because Republicans would start looking for a way out as soon as they started to feel pressure from their districts. In other words, the  same instincts that prevent voters from punishing them much are the ones that make the strategy impossible to execute.

To win a shutdown -- that is, to get President Barack Obama to surrender and give up his immigration action or even gut the Affordable Care Act -- the radicals will need to figure out how to get everyone else to go along for an awful lot longer. And the longer it goes on, the more Congress is at a disadvantage. It won't work.

And just because Republicans did well in 2014 and didn’t do badly in 1996 hardly proves that the shutdowns weren’t a negative factor in the elections. In particular, the 2013 action may have blunted the damage to Democrats of the concurrent HealthCare.gov rollout disaster, while the rollout prevented more damage to Republicans from the shutdown. 

Do Republicans really want to march under the banner of “this stupid strategy will be a failure and a fiasco, but at least voters will probably mostly ignore it!”? It would be great for talk radio, conservative websites and Fox News. For the Republican Party? Not so much.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net