Republican Threat to Shut Down Government Over Obamacare is a Bluff They Can’t Win


Congress has adjourned for August and won’t reconvene until September 9. Back in March, the House easily passed legislation to extend federal funding through September 30 by a vote of 318-109, which sailed through the Senate 73-26. That leaves Congress three weeks to come up with a resolution to extend federal funding again or risk a partial government shutdown (I say "partial" because nothing critical – Social Security checks, military, FBI, etc. – gets affected. In fact, less than 25% of federal workers would stay home in a “government shutdown”).

What’s grabbing national headlines lately is a threat from a minority of congressional Republicans (12 Senate Republicans and 71 House Republicans, to be exact, or 12% of the Senate and 16% of the House) to “shut down the government” if they can’t pass a measure to defund Obamacare in the upcoming spending bill.

While I’m sure the media will love dramatizing this for the next eight weeks, this will all be hype without much action, for three simple reasons: 1) The minority of Republicans threatening this don’t have the votes to do it; 2) Many other Republicans rightfully understand that this would backfire on the GOP if it became a reality; and 3) It would ultimately prove futile anyway since the measure wouldn’t get passed by a Democratic majority Senate or President Barack Obama (like the 40 other attempts to repeal the law).

Despite the fact that Obamacare has been widely unpopular with a majority of the public since the day it was passed (with disapproval hitting a fresh two-and-a-half year high in the latest Real Clear politics average), there is something in it that specific demographics can manage to find and like about it. Millennials like the provision that allows them to stay on their parents’ health care coverage until they are 26. Single women like the “free” subsidies for birth control. Latinos seem to be under the impression that they will now have health insurance under this law (Latinos have the highest uninsured rates of any racial or ethnic group within the U.S., according to the Office of Minority Health). These were all demographics that broke hard for Obama in 2012.

As I was watching Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint speak on Fox News Sunday’s panel, I waited to hear what his plan would be in the event of a partial government shutdown. For starters, he claimed that if it were to happen, it would be viewed as “the president’s government shutdown.” Really? And how does he suppose the media will reinforce that? The partial government shutdown of ‘95/'96 sure wasn’t remembered that way. He then claimed that Heritage would “take the fight to the public” and inform them by “hosting town hall gatherings.”

Listen, I’ve been to lots of town hall gatherings. They’re filled with middle-aged to elderly white people who, in likelihood, are voting Republican anyway. There are no millennials, single women, or minorities at these things, so let’s not kid ourselves.

It’s a basic illustration of what this effort is really all about: appealing to the hardcore conservative base. My question is this: Why? The GOP has already tried to repeal this thing 40 times. I think 100% of America has gotten the message loud and clear that the GOP don’t like this law and want it gone. So who else do they need to convince at this point?

“But, John, no entitlement ever gets pulled back once it’s funded and implemented! That’s why we have to cut it now!” I get that, but again, how do you expect to practically pull it off when you still only control one sixth of government? The voters had their chance to give the GOP all the support it could ask for to repeal this law in 2012 and 51% of America chose not to do so. So again, where is this supposed to go?

Naturally, there is also debate about how this would affect the 2014 Senate elections. Since the 17th Amendment establishing the direct election of U.S. senators by popular vote was passed 100 years ago, the sixth year of every two term administration has always seen its party lose seats in the Senate during midterm elections, with 1998 being the only exception (it was a draw in terms of seat changes). Some like to think that the partial government shutdown of ‘95/'96 cost the GOP the 1996 presidential election as well as any potential Senate gains in '98. That’s something Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) kept in mind during the budget showdown in 2011, so he did everything he could to avoid one then – and the GOP still lost in 2012.

To set the record straight, presidential elections go way beyond partial government shutdowns. The personalities, likability, and relatability of the candidates matter with low information voters. In fact, as this graph illustrates, midterm election voter turnout has hovered around 40% for the last 40 years (mostly high information voters who show up to vote every two years), while an extra 15% to 20% of (mostly low information) voters will show up every four years to vote for their national icon.

The GOP actually gained two Senate seats in '96, after the partial government shutdown, despite losing the presidential election. The reason why it was a draw in '98 (thus bucking the historical “sixth year curse”) was because the GOP lost popularity with high information voters after the witch-hunt to impeach President Bill Clinton that year, which victimized the president in the eyes of the voters.

The bottom line is the vocal minority of congressional Republicans pushing for this “shutdown” over defunding Obamacare is simply that: a vocal minority. They don’t have the votes. While there’s plenty of room to campaign against an unpopular law that has seen nothing but bad news all year, all that this effort will end up accomplishing is taking the media’s attention off all the problems with the law and focusing it on yet another impractical effort to eliminate it as well as the divisions within the GOP to go about doing it.

In other words, it’s a counterproductive distraction that will have the opposite effect of what the hardcore conservatives want for the simple reason that it’s a desperate bluff they can’t win.