- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Conservatives who are dissatisfied with the budget compromise have forgotten what happened last time this drama played out. Fifteen years ago, a liberal Democratic president was able to exploit a government shutdown to resuscitate his wounded presidency and pave the way for his eventual re-election. The issue presently at hand may be the fiscal 2011 budget, but the subtext is the 2012 election.

The deal the parties reached trims very little from the overall government debt and makes fractional reductions in the size of government. Realistically, it’s the best Republicans could get under the circumstances. With Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House, GOP leadership has few cards to play. Republicans could have forced a government shutdown, but that would be a political catastrophe for elephants. Polls taken before the budget deal showed blame for a shutdown would be spread equally between the various parties. This, however, was the conventional wisdom before the 1995-96 shutdowns as well, and it didn’t turn out that way.

President Clinton went into that budget battle with low public-opinion ratings, but they were higher than during the 1994 midterm elections that swept Republicans into power. Likewise, Mr. Obama’s numbers have recovered somewhat from their trough in the fall of 2010. While both parties took a public-approval hit during the 1995-96 shutdown, Mr. Clinton’s numbers quickly rebounded while public approval of Congress did not. The consensus among historians is that this battle rescued Mr. Clinton going into the 1996 election season, staving off internal party challenges and setting the groundwork for his re-election.

The open secret about government shutdowns is that not much of the government is actually shut down. Most entitlements are still paid. Wars continue. Contracts are deferred but not cancelled. Workers are furloughed but not fired. The essential aspects of government continue.

The Obama White House would have exploited shutdown symbolism the same way Mr. Clinton did, with press reports of disappointed school children being denied the opportunity to visit national monuments. Mr. Obama’s “spontaneous” visit to the Lincoln Memorial would have been the occasion for an “impromptu” speech to those same kids about the irresponsibility of the Republican leadership. The Department of Veterans Affairs might direct press attention to a wounded warrior made to wait for a new prosthetic limb. The scenarios are endless but the message is the same: heartless Republicans unreasonably standing in the way of the necessary and legitimate functions of government. You can’t defeat that story line with a spreadsheet.

In the coming budget battles - over the debt ceiling and the fiscal 2012 budget - Republicans will feel renewed pressure from some in their coalition to use the shutdown option as leverage. That leverage is illusory. Shutting down government only hands the initiative to the executive branch to frame the story. It wouldn’t save money, reduce the size of government, halt entitlements or stop wars. It might guarantee Mr. Obama’s second term.

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