Nobody yet knows with certainty how the government shutdown will be settled, but some lessons are evident even now. The first of these is the need for Republicans of all stripes to get over 1995. As former New York Times data guru Nate Silver pointed out this week, there is precious little empirical evidence to support the conventional wisdom that Republicans suffered immense damage from the 1995-96 shutdowns.
In some respects, the GOP’s poll standing at a similar juncture then was even worse than it is today, but when all the votes were counted in the 1996 elections, Republicans still comfortably controlled both houses of Congress and Bill Clinton easily defeated Bob Dole to retain the White House for Democrats. In other words, the 1995-96 shutdown had, at most, a minimal impact on either party’s electoral fortunes.
Second, the weak knees among Republicans are unnecessary because the shutdown is most likely another of the parade of political stories that traditional media invariably herald as potential game-changers but that are soon forgotten. “Most political stories have a fairly short half-life and won't turn out to be as consequential as they seem at the time,” Silver said. Remember the 2011 sequestration crisis that almost produced a shutdown? Silver notes that Obama and the Republicans suffered in the short-term, but the president was re-elected in 2012 and “reelection rates for congressional incumbents were close to their long-term averages.”
Third, Republican disunity cripples the party's ability to forge positive change in Washington. Obama and congressional Democrats have projected a single message from the outset of the debate -- stop the shutdown and allow no changes to Obamacare. The Republican message started out as defund Obamacare, then shifted to delaying it or making other relatively minor changes, and culminated with pleas that Obama at least talk to them. Through it all could be heard the roar of the circular firing squad that is the congressional GOP and its national campaign committees.
Finally, GOP moderates shouldn’t be surprised when conservatives (who, after all, represent “the base” without which no Republican can hope to win at the national level) assess things and conclude that the party has become terminally dysfunctional. Gallup said Friday that its latest survey found “60 percent of Americans say the Democratic and Republicans parties do such a poor job of representing the American people that a third major party is needed. That is the highest Gallup has measured in the 10-year history of this question.”
When three-fifths of the populace think a third major party is needed -- and majorities of both the two existing major parties agree with the proposition, according to Gallup -- the 2010 Tea Party revolt against Obamacare shouldn't be dismissed as merely a transitory phenomena. With Obamacare opposition likely to grow more intense in the months ahead, Republicans must wonder if 2010 previewed an electoral earthquake that, though delayed by GOP folly in 2012, could shatter the political Richter Scale in 2014 and 2016 to make America a three-party nation.