If it appears to you that Democrats are approaching the Friday sequestration deadline with greater poise than the GOP, you’re not mistaken.
Democrats enjoy a massive public relations advantage over the GOP. Voters are prepared to blame Republicans. The Democrats have an unusually steady message. Republicans are lurching from message to message as they try futilely to blame Obama for sequestration’s very existence, while contending that its consequences won’t be so dire (except when they contend it will hollow out the military) and to argue just as futilely that Obama’s revenue demand is an act of duplicity.
But Democrats are also confident because they have an institutional memory of winning a similar fight, when Republicans shut down the government in 1995.
“Before the government shutdown it was very much an open question in most people’s minds which party would win,” recalled Paul Begala, a Clinton White House veteran, and an insider at the time of the shutdown, in a telephone interview Friday. “Republicans were very confident at the time that the government would shutdown and people’s lives wouldn’t change. They were wrong. … [W]e all saw that theory proved in ‘95 and ‘96 and it’s going to happen again.”
Sequestration is different from a government shutdown in some key ways. It won’t bring myriad government services to a halt, but it will delay them and complicate them and make things more expensive and less convenient for ordinary taxpayers. It will also lead to layoffs and furloughs.
This week, the Obama administration is taking steps to publicize these costs, including the president himself, who will deliver remarks at a shipbuilding facility in Virginia on Tuesday.
“If you live in Newport News or Pascagoula or any other of a hundred Navy towns — San Diego to Portsmouth — you know this is going to hurt because this is going to stop construction on ships,” Begala predicted. “So I don’t think it’s going to last very long.”
The harder part is explaining how and when Republicans relent on revenues. If they hold out through the month of March, the government really will shut down, just like it did in 1995, and the pressure on them to cave will amplify. But if they hope to end the standoff before then, it will likely require a party leader — or perhaps a GOP governor or two — to drag the rank and file in a more sensible direction.
“Bob Dole said enough is enough,” Begala recalled. “He stopped it. I may be selling Mitch McConnell short, but he’s no Bob Dole. He’s terribly smart, but he’s more worried about his political hide. … There’s always these gangs that form in the Senate so that’s a good thing. In the House, there’s Paul Ryan, but he’s done nothing.”
These leaders will feel additional pressure if the cuts disproportionately impact their districts or states. (To that point, a regional airport in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisc., might be one of dozens that will be shutdown for months because of sequestration.)
But the White House isn’t really able to target these cuts, either politically or under the terms of the law.
“The pundit in me would like to see a targeted sequestration. So if the two senators from Kentucky don’t want to fund the government, then let’s shut down Fort Knox and move it to San Francisco,” Begala joked. “But the former government official in me knows you can’t and this president won’t. That’s way beneath him.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.