Last Updated:November 28 @ 07:44 am

Harsanyi: Can Republicans Win a Government Shutdown?

By David Harsanyi

If Republicans do happen to force a shutdown in Washington, it's very possible they'll be embracing a political loser while doing the rest of us an immense favor.

With three Washington-manufactured fiscal apocalypses -- sequestration, the debt ceiling and a new "budget" -- on the docket, the idea of shutting down government to extract concessions from the iron trap sometimes known as the Obama administration has gained traction among Republicans. Or, I should say, the idea of threatening to shut down Washington has.

Pat Toomey, John Cornyn and other conservatives have said as much, though they've littered their shutdown statements with comforting modifiers, such as "partial" and "temporary," to allay the fears of Americans, who apparently can't fathom existence without the Department of Commerce. Certainly, it would energize the conservative base, and it might be effective in pressuring Democrats into genuine spending reforms. Because, despite what you may have heard, it's worked before.

As recent Washington arrival Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pointed out, "we didn't default on our debt" after the notorious 1995 shutdown battle between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. "And the result was balanced budgets -- and some of the greatest fiscal responsibility we have seen in modern times from Congress -- because fiscal conservatives stood together and said, 'We need to be responsible.'"

Gingrich, who has seemed to have some reservations about the shutdown through the years, now defends it in the context of policy, recently saying, "We would never have gotten to a balanced budget and we would never have gotten welfare reform without that fight." Can the Republicans claim political victory again? I'm skeptical.

First of all, Barack Obama isn't Bill Clinton. The level of ideological stamina in the White House, not to mention the willingness to fracture the nation to protect spending, is rather imposing. Moreover, Obama has no incentive to compromise after winning an election convincingly, and with the help of some of his friends in the media, he's been able to portray the GOP as obstructionists for failing to rubber-stamp his agenda.

Then, John Boehner isn't Newt Gingrich, either. For all we hear about the latter's eccentricities and faults, the Gingrich Congress -- for a while there, at least -- was imbued with a sense of purpose and offered Americans a cogent argument. Folks may not remember, but in the early phases of the fight, Clinton's poll numbers were dropping -- and nothing hurt the man more.

The country, too, is different. We will never -- and I mean never -- hear Obama offer America a speech declaring the era of big government over, because, well, it would be preposterous, and it's not as if the country wants to hear it.

How Republicans shut down government matters, though. Failing to raise the debt ceiling would probably trigger panic in the markets. A more politically opportune time would be to deal with this when the government's general operating budget expires. Seeing as Senate Democrats have been unable to produce a budget for years -- and not a single politician has voted for an Obama budget -- Republicans have a case to make about responsible governing.

But even if the GOP risks losing the short-term politics, no matter how fortuitous a shutdown might be for Democrats, it isn't a situation any side could live with for an extended period of time. Obama would almost surely have to concede more on taxes and entitlement reform. Without a shutdown -- or the threat of one -- however, Republicans have no other leverage to obtain anything useful from the White House.


David Harsanyi is a columnist and senior reporter at Human Events. Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.


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  1. barrymustgoComment by barrymustgo
    January 11, 2013 @ 10:28 am

    “SHUT ER DOWN”, and keep her shut down, until we have two things. 1. Massive spending cuts, and 2. a deal worked out between the House, the Senate, and the White house for a balanced budget amendment, that only requires ratification by the states. Until then, keep her “shut down” until those ends are met or hell freezes over, ….period! NO EXCEPTIONS!

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  2. JDZComment by JDZ
    January 11, 2013 @ 11:11 am

    The Republicans that take a hard line on government spending even if it goes as far as shutting down less critical government departments will be guaranteed re-election in the upcoming elections. More and more Americans are beginning to appreciate the uncontrolled borrowing and spending addiction of the Obama administration and want it stopped and the government back on a responsible set of fiscal policies.

    Congress must pay our debtors and that only requires a portion of the revenue typically collected by the government, so the scare tactic that a shutdown, or partial shutdown of the government is going to cause some worldwide financial collapse is just that, a scare tactic by the Obama administration. Honoring our debts due to borrowing money is the only part of government spending that is protected by our Constitution, as everything else is fair game for major cuts, including all of the major programs like SS, Medicare, and Medicaid.

    The House Republicans need to do whatever it takes to get a balanced budget and the annual operating deficit removed. No more deficit spending and no increase in the debt limit without near term specific equivalent spending cuts. No more “promises” of cuts out in the future or what is commonly called “smoke and mirrors”.

    Someone in our government has to be the “adults” as it is obvious that our President and his minions are refusing to cut spending on social programs and their “handouts” to their political cronies. The President has told Boehner in a blunt manner that this country does not have a spending problem, so without some form of hard line, nothing is going to change.

    So, here are some suggestions to Boehner:

    1. Inform the President that any increase in the debt limit must be met with specific near term dollar for dollar spending cuts including cuts in the entitlement program bureaucracy.

    2. The automatic annual increases in the operating budgets of all social programs (especially SS, Medicare, etc ) are to be stopped until the financial health of the federal government is back on a rational and affordable level. I would extend this to all government departments and freeze the baseline budgets of the government across the board until a rational fiscal management program is developed and approved in Congress.

    3. I would initiate an across the board topdown streamlining of the federal government to eliminate duplication and to consolidate like departments. This effort should be led by a major consulting company like Booze Allen or Accenture who are experts at doing 6 Sigma or comparable organizational and competitive improvement programs. My guess is that major cuts in government headcount and spending are just there for the taking…what we call “low hanging fruit” and will not only cut costs but improve overall performance of the federal government. I have been involved in these kind of programs many times in the past, and they work if management is committed to the changes identified. Getting government to cut headcount and budget levels is like asking children to give up sweets. I have yet to see government at any level cut anything as it is not in their DNA.

    4. There has to be a major indepth study performed (by an outside group of experts) of all existing government subsidy programs. There are so many ways for smart citizens to qualify for some form of government subsidy that it has become an industry within itself as more and more Americans are finding ways to game these various programs and “stack” them to create free income for themselves. We now have 128 million Americans receiving some form of government subsidy. Just the bureaucracy at all levels of government that administer these programs must be huge. What were well meaning temporary safety nets in many cases has grown into a way of life for more and more people with ambiguous qualification criteria and ill defined limits of participation. A good example is unemployment benefits designed as a temporary bridge which has been extended to three years by Congress with no limit in sight. An obvious perversion of the original intent of the program.

    I could go on and on but will just say this….we need to stop this insane irresponsible management of the federal government and it is obvious Obama is not interested in taking on this charge and is actually making it worse with his policies.

    The American people need strong leadership in Washington and we are waiting for it to happen, and when it happens, we will reward those standing up for the best interests of the country at large at the polls.

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    • rzraickComment by rzraick
      January 13, 2013 @ 12:48 am

      It sounds pretty good to want strong leadership in central government, but I would suggest that what is really needed is less government. The government is not there to provide strong leadership, it is there to protect, obey and defned the Constitution, which is a document designed to protect the people from the government itself.

      What we need are people who follow the law. After taking the oath of office, it is treason to do otherwise.

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  3. NY GrahamComment by NY Graham
    January 11, 2013 @ 11:28 am

    The contrast between the current Republican leadership in Congress and the Gingrich leadership of the nineties is startling.

    The current GOP has no strategy. It has no core principles. It simply reacts to the latest crisis manufactured by Obama. They will make a mess of the debt ceiling debate as they have no plan.

    Gingrich showed during his run for the GOP nomination that he has a plan for getting Washington working again. Maybe he wasn’t right for the presidency, but he is a master legislator who understands what needs to be done.

    I know we can’t just make him Speaker (he doesn’t even have a seat), but the GOP needs to bring him in and start listening to some of his ideas. Otherwise they are just going to embarass themselves again in a few weeks.

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  4. gimmesometruthComment by gimmesometruth
    January 11, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

    The world lenders are becoming VERY nervous about America’s ability, or will, to live within it’s means. Let’s be honest with ourselves, the only thing keeping us afloat are the Federal Reserve printing presses. Americans are under the false impression that the Fed is a government agency. They are monetizing our debt because they are making obscene profits from it. Rating agencies are waiting for Congressional response to this next round of political theater, and ‘brinksmanship’ is NOT a good long-term strategy. It should be quite apparent to discerning Americans, that Obama’s goal is to ‘radically transform’ this country away from its traditional directions. I think it just may be time for Middle Americans to hit the streets, perhaps shut down some local economies, to get the attention of our “elected representatives”. The American Middle has been held captive by the extreme edges for TOO long. Enough is Enough!

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