How Political Miscalculations Led To The Shutdown Standoff

Oct 10, 2013
Originally published on October 10, 2013 6:33 pm

The standoff over the debt ceiling and the government shutdown showed signs of softening Thursday.

House Speaker John Boehner said he would bring a temporary hike in the debt ceiling to the House floor in exchange for negotiations on government spending and taxes. Democrats say if the House votes to raise the debt ceiling and reopen the government, they will negotiate.

But how did we get to this point? Through a series of miscalculations and faulty assumptions on both sides.

A 'Hard Line'

The recent movement in the budget standoff seems to have been prompted by the fear of what happens if the United States can no longer borrow money to pay the bills it already owes.

President Obama accused the Republicans of purposely flirting with default, "thinking that it would give them more leverage."

"That's not my characterization. They've said it themselves. That was their strategy from the start," he said.

It certainly was part of Boehner's strategy. He always thought the debt ceiling was the better fight to have — because it theoretically gave him more leverage with the president.

In addition, says GOP pollster Bill McInturff, refusing to raise the debt ceiling was politically more popular than shutting down the government — mostly because few people know what the debt ceiling really is.

"The debt ceiling is a symbolic issue where people are allowed to express their frustration about too much spending in Washington," he explains. "And that is very comfortable terrain for Republicans and better positioning than a government shutdown. I understand that may not be, in fact, what the debt ceiling is about, but I'm describing in a symbolic way how the debt ceiling is perceived."

But it was the speaker who was forced to agree to raise the debt ceiling because he made an assumption that turned out to be wrong. He thought that Obama, under threat of default, would negotiate. After all, Obama had done this before — in 2011 — to his and the Democrats' disadvantage.

"The surprise to the speaker, I would suggest, has clearly been ... the president coming out with this hard line that he won't talk to him until the president gets what he wants first," says David Winston, a GOP pollster who works closely with the House Republican leadership.

Public 'Ambivalence'

Democrats also made assumptions that turned out to be wrong. They assumed the speaker had a plan for what he and his members needed to make a deal.

But Boehner has been whipsawed by his conservatives, and he's had to make it up as he goes along. On Thursday, he couldn't even say what he would need to end the crisis.

"I don't want to put anything on the table; I don't want to take anything off the table," he said. "That's why we want to have this conversation."

Democrats also miscalculated the politics of a government shutdown. They assumed the pain of a government closure, along with negative public opinion polls, would make Republicans budge. Although Republicans are now talking about a temporary hike in the debt ceiling, they're still not planning to reopen the government.

That's because so far there has been little public clamor, says political scientist John Sides.

"There's a lot of ambivalence in the public. There's maybe slightly more people that blame Republicans than blame Obama or Democrats, but the blame measure is much more equivocal than it was during the last major government shutdown under Bill Clinton in 1995 and 1996," he says.

'A Different Set Of Assumptions'

The mighty fortress of redistricting, which shields most Republicans from serious re-election challenges, also insulates them from outside pressure. Sides says there's also the surprisingly widespread belief among conservatives that a default wouldn't be so bad.

"There's a great deal of skepticism that not raising the debt ceiling will create any kind of serious economic consequences for the United States," Sides says. "So I do think that they're operating from a different set of assumptions about the way the world works and what price they might have to pay or not pay in this case politically."

When it comes to the debt ceiling, Republicans have already paid a political price — they've dropped delaying or defunding the Affordable Care Act as a demand. Now they seem focused on getting a deal around taxes and entitlements.

But Obama hasn't indicated yet what, if anything, he's willing to do to help the Republicans get down from the increasingly shaky limb they've climbed onto.

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So as we've heard, today, President Obama met with Senate Democrats, then he met with House Republicans. And right now, White House staff members are meeting with their counterparts from the House GOP leadership. That's a lot of talking, where just yesterday there was radio silence between the parties.

NPR's Mara Liasson joins us now to talk about what's changed. Hi, Mara.


BLOCK: And one thing that has changed, which I mentioned earlier with Tamara Keith, is a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll out today which shows the public overwhelmingly blaming the GOP, much more than the Democrats or the president, for what's going on.

LIASSON: That's right. It's by a 22-point margin, 53 percent of the public blames the Republican Party for the shutdown, 31 percent blames the president. That's a very wide margin. And one of the things that we've been watching throughout this whole standoff is when public opinion would reach a tipping point where it would really matter.

And one of the important features of modern politics is that most of the Republicans in the House of Representatives are insulated from national public opinion because their districts are so safe and they don't have to worry about a general election challenge. They just have to worry about a primary challenge from the right.

But this is the kind of poll that really could change that. Just one other thing in the poll, 24 percent of people have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party. That is the all-time low in the history of the Wall Street Journal poll.

BLOCK: Yeah, going back, I think, to 1989. I'm struck by the comment from the Republican pollster who carried out the poll, Bill McInturff. He calls this data toxic for the Republican Party.

LIASSON: Yes. This really is toxic and it has a ripple effect. And this often happens in polls, all of a sudden Obamacare is a little bit more popular; still under water but not by as much. And all of a sudden on the basic threshold question, do you think the government should do more to solve problems or less? Used to be split right down the middle, in June, 48 percent to 48 percent. Now, it's tilted to the Democrats' argument, 52 percent to 44 percent, people think the government should do more.

So this is what Bill McInturff also called an ideological boomerang. It's a break against the Republican position.

BLOCK: If you were to compare these numbers, Mara, with the polls that were conducted during the last government shutdown in '95 and '96, what would the comparison look like?

LIASSON: Well, they're worse right now. One of the things that we've been noticing is that up until now, they haven't been as bad as the polls were in the last shutdown. In other words, they haven't been as bad for Republicans. And that was one of the reasons why you were seeing the standoff go on and on and on. But now, it has surpassed the drubbing that the Republicans took in the polls back in that previous shutdown.

The poll also showed, this is an amazing number, 70 percent of people say congressional Republicans are putting politics first. The president comes out in this poll in pretty good shape. He's ticked down a little bit, but the only thing - the only warning this poll has for the president is by 43 to 40 percent, they do think that he should negotiate with the Republicans. And you know what, he's talking to them now. So I think he's satisfying the public's demand for at least conversations between the two parties.

BLOCK: Mara, here's one of those sort of, you know, pox on both their houses numbers in this poll. Six in ten Americans say if they could, they would defeat and replace every single member of Congress.

LIASSON: Yes. But that's not the same thing as saying, would you vote against your member of Congress...

BLOCK: Yeah, right.

LIASSON: ...and naming him. I mean, it really is different. But I think this could be a political tipping point. There was a reason why even though Wall Street was not squawking at all, as a matter of fact, as soon as they heard John Boehner say don't worry there won't be a default, Wall Street was very happy. So no pressure coming there. Certainly no pressure from conservative constituents at home. But this is the kind of thing that would get Republicans suing for peace.

BLOCK: OK. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liassson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.