Are Americans Scared Of a Government Shutdown? The Answer Will Surprise You


With a government shutdown only four days away, the American public’s reaction is a collective shoulder shrug. According to recent polling, only 18% of Americans believe the government will actually shut down. At first glance, it seems like they’re wrong. Public opinion polls are notorious for being at odds with reality. For example, most Americans believe the deficit is getting larger when it is actually getting smaller. Since the House GOP just rejected a short-term deal, a shutdown looks more likely than ever.

This time though, the American people have it right. There might be a technical shutdown for a few hours, but government operations won’t be disrupted. Expect a lot of puffery, loud bloviating, and empty threats leading up to it, but a deal will be reached at the last minute to avert the shutdown.

Democrats and Republicans both have incentives to take the government to the edge of being shut down, and then suddenly agree on a deal at the last minute. Arriving at a deal before the last minute would allow hardliners in both parties to criticize the party leadership for caving in.

This is how conservative Republicans reacted to budget deals before the first debt-ceiling showdown, and their anger caused lots of problems for the GOP leadership, who won’t want to make the same mistake again. Speaker Boehner, Minority Leader McConnell, and the rest of the Republican leadership are better served by waiting until the last minute in order to salvage some conservative bona fides.

Liberal Democrats are less vocal than hardline conservatives, but they too criticize President Obama for budget deals, arguing that he could have gotten more by standing firm. After the fiscal agreement in January, liberal columnist Paul Krugman wrote, “Obama has to be aware just how much is now riding on his willingness to finally stand up for his side. If he doesn’t, nobody will ever trust him again, and he will go down in history as the wimp who threw it all away.”

Politically, Democrats benefit the longer the shutdown fight goes on. Going into the midterm elections, Democrats plan on blaming Republicans for the widely unpopular dysfunction in Washington, and the shutdown flight plays perfectly into that narrative. Swing voters love the idea of compromise, and the American public is firmly on the Democrats’ side. Sixty percent of Americans think a government shutdown would hurt the economy and only 11% think it would help. With the polling so one-sided, Democrats are happy to follow the old saying about giving someone enough rope to hang themselves.

But while both sides have incentives to go to the brink, neither has an incentive to actually let the government shut down. Although Republican hardliners are as steadfast as they have been on previous fiscal fights, this time the leadership is unified in its willingness to reach an agreement. In the original debt-ceiling fight, back in 2011, some members of the Republican House leadership felt that the brinksmanship was an effective political strategy. Now, they know it isn’t.

Since many in the Republican rank-and-file do not share the leadership’s opinion, and everyone is afraid of a primary challenge from a more conservative candidate, Republicans will go through a lot of theater to avoid looking too reasonable. Right now, the House leadership is rejecting a deal and threatening the Senate, but less noisily, the Senate will remove the budget provision that defunds Obamacare. Then the House will bring up the revised plan and it will pass. Most of the votes for it will be Democrats, but a few safe Republicans will join in. Then, the crisis is over and the government is funded.

That’s the best case scenario. It’s also possible the House passes a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government, and the Senate passes it. That adds some time to the clock, and the shutdown fight starts all over again. The end result will probably be the same, but it will take longer and further remind Americans that modern Washington exists in a state of perpetual crisis.