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Why Republicans would have lost the government shutdown fight

Yesterday, an eleventh hour deal spared the nation from another government shutdown, which is most likely good news for the Republican Party. For Republicans, waging a government shutdown battle means fighting in a Democratic vacuum. 

Tempting as President Biden’s low polling numbers seem to make another try, Republicans should not have expected to win. The reason is that the fight has nothing to do with popularity. Instead, it has everything to do with the ability of a focused minority to prevail even over the majority opinion. 

Splintering into contending groups is nothing new in America. James Madison called them “factions” in “Federalist Paper Number Ten.”  

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed (sic) to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Nowhere is this power of being “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest” on fuller display than during a government shutdown fight. Virtually every government program affected was created by a “faction.”

Since fiscal year 1977, there have been 20 government shutdowns. Fourteen of these have occurred since the modern era of the shutdown began (following Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti’s series of legal opinions that formalized stricter enforcement of the Anti-deficiency Act’s restriction on agencies’ ability to operate during a lapse in their funding). Of these, just seven lasted more than two days; and of those, just three longer than one week — the longest being the last that ran 34 days from December 2018 into January 2019. 

Despite these episodes’ variability, there has been one commonality: Republicans lose.

Why?

The parties’ differing views of government are a starting point. Republicans see government in Madisonian terms: It is necessary to prevent a greater evil. Democrats see government as promoting the greater good. Broadly simplified, it is the last resort versus the first recourse. 

To appreciate the distinction, apply it. What government actions would each be willing to sacrifice in a funding fight? Recent examples for Democrats would come from many blue cities’ defund the police movements, the call to abolish Immigration, Customs and Enforcement and the administration’s restrictions on fossil fuel energy permitting. Throw in defense and entitlement programs and Republicans’ example would be that pretty much the rest of government could take its place in the shutdown line. 

With many “essential” services already protected under current shutdown procedure rules, Republicans appear to have the shutdown battlefield tilted decidedly in their favor. The old admonition to “not take a hostage you’re not willing to shoot” applies to them, while Democrats see a hostage they don’t want to be shot at all costs. 

However, Republicans’ continual mistake is believing that “overly concerned” equates to “overly exposed” in a shutdown fight. In the public sector’s corollary to “too big to fail,” the federal government has become “too big to close.” Republicans’ leverage is diffused across this immensity. More importantly, their message is equally diluted. Ask the average American what the shutdown fight was about, and they could not say; ask even pro-shutdown Republicans and you get varying answers. 

Republicans’ message dilution allows Democrats to write a shutdown’s narrative. In disseminating it, they have no shortage of allies. Every shuttered program is one: each created, continued and expanded by a coalition of congressional champions, employed bureaucrats and benefiting organized interests. Then there are program participants. And helping relay their message is the establishment media — flagships of which are NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting both government programs themselves. Democrats’ coalitions already exist, so rallying them is easy. 

Conversely, Republicans have few allies ready for action. Republicans will claim majority support, either at home or in the country at large. But as all generals know, it’s not the size of the army on paper, but the size of the force in the field that determines outcomes. 

Like actual battles, shutdowns are rarely products of carefully considered strategy. Instead, they are happened upon, driven by circumstances rather than strategists. For Republicans, a strategy would mean identifying a limited program and targeting it by funding everything else around it. 

All too often, Republican shutdowns are a default outcome that ill-defined hope will be successful. Their nebulous goal allows Democrats to craft the shutdown’s story and tell it with allies’ help. Absent Republicans’ coherent message, something beats nothing every time. 

So, time and again, the result is a concerted minority prevailing. The outcome is not surprising. What is surprising is some Republicans’ expectation of a different outcome. 

J.T. Young was a professional staffer in the House and Senate from 1987-2000, served in the Department of Treasury and Office of Management and Budget from 2001-2004 and was director of government relations for a Fortune 20 company from 2004-2023.

Tags 2018–19 United States federal government shutdown Government shutdown in the United States House Freedom Caucus James Madison Joe Biden Politics of the United States

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