The Republicans Who Fear a Shutdown

Thirty-three percent. That's President Obama's approval rating among white voters, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week. The number is even worse—30 percent—in the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll. Those are staggeringly low numbers for a president who claimed nearly 40 percent of the white vote during last year's election. And Obama's free fall is even worse for Democrats than it appears, because some of next year's key Senate elections take place in predominantly white states, such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Montana, and West Virginia. Obama is experiencing the kind of slump that besets a president when his second term has been marred by scandal, ineffectiveness, and a lackluster economy.

Republicans eyeing Obama's troubles should be giddy about next year's prospects for winning control of the Senate and maintaining their big majority in the House. Except, instead of dreaming about majorities in both chambers of Congress, they're more focused on one little, nagging concern: House Republicans could screw it all up.

The House GOP's decision to solder together plans to fund the government while defunding Obamacare—a proposal resolutely opposed by the president and Senate Democrats—boosts the odds of a government shutdown. Even if a funding resolution eventually passes, Congress then must reach an agreement to raise the debt ceiling. In both cases, a quick compromise seems impossible.

That's what has Republican Party officials and strategists nationwide worried. They fear the public will blame the GOP for Washington's dysfunction. And although developments 14 months before an election rarely matter, a government shutdown, which could lead to a severe disruption of services, and a debt-ceiling standoff, which could throw the country's entire economy into peril, have the magnitude to ripple until next November. Enough to change the political trajectory of the midterm elections from one that's promising for Republican candidates to one that will blow up in their faces. "This has potential to be something that voters notice," said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster. "It could affect voters where they live."

The concern is most acute outside of Washington, where Republicans targeting vulnerable Democratic lawmakers worry they could be foiled before the 2014 campaign even begins in earnest. Shutting down the government, they say, would reinforce voters' worst impression of the party—that it favors ideology over practical solutions. "Some of the rhetoric and language coming out of Republicans in Washington is concerning, because those aren't the messages that are going to attract independent voters," said Matt Strawn, former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. "In Iowa, independents are an overwhelming majority of our voters."

The impending retirement of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has opened the door for Republicans to fill that seat with one of their own. But while Democrats have rallied behind a single candidate, Rep. Bruce Braley, the GOP primary electorate is split among five hopefuls. And Strawn worries that in an effort to court the party's most conservative factions, the GOP candidates will back proposals to defund the 2010 health care law that will alienate moderates. (One of them, former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, has already criticized his opponents for not pledging to do so.) "It is language that will lead to good receptions at party chili suppers throughout the fall, but it's not language of success for the general election," Strawn said.

GOP officials elsewhere voiced similar concerns. "[Voters] are looking for problem-solvers," said one North Carolina strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly. "They're looking for people who put viable alternatives on the table. If Republicans don't do that … then [a shutdown] may hurt the Republicans more."

A shutdown poses risks for Obama and Democrats, too. A disruption of services could lead angry voters to blame the man in charge of government, the president. And conservatives hope that once the House passes its bill, the public will wonder why Obama doesn't just abandon his health care law, which recent polls have reported is at record unpopularity.

But past shutdowns—especially the infamous confrontation in 1995 and 1996 between then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Clinton—have favored the man with the bully pulpit. Voters blamed Gingrich—and polls never again showed Clinton trailing eventual GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole. "My caution would be looking at 1995 and 1996; no matter how you think things are going to go for your side, the president has the bigger microphone," Bolger said. "And that makes it that much it more difficult to win an out-and-out fight."

In fact, for a president struggling with a second term, a showdown with unpopular House Republicans might be just what he needs. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board acknowledged the upside for the president in a potential fight. "With his own popularity fading, Mr. Obama may want a shutdown so he can change the subject to his caricature of GOP zealots who want no government," the newspaper wrote, urging House Republicans to abandon their plan to defund Obamacare. "He'll blame any turmoil or economic fallout on House Republicans, figuring that he can split the tea party from the GOP and that this is the one event that could reinstall Nancy Pelosi as speaker. Mr. Obama could spend his final two years going out in a blaze of liberal glory."

For their part, some Democrats welcome a shutdown. Said one party strategist, "One could only help they give us that Christmas miracle so early." House Republicans had better hope it doesn't come to that. At this point, they're the only obstacle standing between their party and a successful midterm election. 

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