Initially, the American people’s verdict on the government shutdown appeared to be “a pox on both their houses.” Republicans received plurality blame, but Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and both major parties took something of a hit in the early polls.
But as the shutdown has continued, public opinion is beginning to look as one-sided as it did in 1995-96, if it isn’t worse. The Republican Party’s favorability rating is at a record low, falling 10 points since September to just 28 percent. That’s the lowest for either major party since Gallup started asking the question in 1992.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found even worse results for the GOP. Most telling, approval of Obamacare—though still low—has risen since October 1 despite a rocky roll-out. This does not bode well for efforts to use the shutdown as leverage to defund Obamacare.
Polling is ephemeral and the 2014 elections are the political equivalent of a lifetime away. But none of the falsifiable predictions made by the proponents of this tactic have come true. They said that the Democrats would make major concessions to avoid a shutdown. But the Obama administration is trying to implement the Obamacare exchanges and the government is still shut down.
It was argued that the country would rise up and demand the defunding of Obamacare in response to this confrontation. There is no evidence of such a popular revolt, and some reason to think the shutdown is actually hurting opposition to Obamacare. It was said that President Obama and the Democrats would take the blame for shutting down the government over an unpopular law. Nearly every major poll shows the blame running in the other direction.
The problem the defunders were always going to run into was this: Obama himself would have to agree to defund Obamacare. Failing that, the defunders would need to win over enough other Democrats to form veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress.
Needless to say, neither outcome was ever very likely. What’s more, the end game depended on producing an impasse so protracted and painful that the Democrats would be forced to reconsider. But that would require creating conditions just as likely to turn public opinion against Republicans.
Yet the leading proponents of the government shutdown are more popular with key portions of the conservative activist base than Republicans who are skeptical of this approach. These conservatives don’t care what the polls say, and even after the 2012 election, aren’t sure that the numbers haven’t been skewed by the liberal media.
What these conservatives want is to see their elected officials fight. They are tired of hearing Republicans make excuses as to why government spending cannot be cut. They don’t believe Republicans who say they will work to undercut or fix Obamacare later any more than they believe the Democrats will secure the border after passing an immigration amnesty.
In a very real sense, the Texas Republican who is most responsible for the current stalemate may not be Ted Cruz, but George W. Bush. In 2005, Republicans held the White House. They held both houses of Congress. Republican appointees entered the Supreme Court. The GOP enjoyed a 55-45 Senate majority.
Aside from the confirmation of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, conservatives have very little to show for this period of unified Republican control of the federal government. And after the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare with Roberts’s vote, that confirmation has begun to look like a mixed blessing at best.
Even before Bush, the Republican Congress was more interested in pork barrel, earmarks, and K Street favors than cutting government spending. After Bush, discretionary spending grew faster than it did under Bill Clinton. The biggest new entitlement program since LBJ’s Great Society was added to the federal budget. Another Cabinet-level department was created.
Level-headed Republicans would counter that the worst of this happened a decade or more ago. (Indeed, that is the timeline for No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and worst of all the Iraq war.) Denny Hastert and Tom DeLay are gone. Why take it all out on John Boehner and Mitch McConnell?
But the Wall Street bailout wasn’t ten years ago. Neither was the decision to renege on the $100 billion in spending cuts Republicans promised in 2010. It was fairly obvious that many Republicans hoped the Tea Party would follow past waves of conservative activism: it would help the GOP win elections and without being overly concerned about the process of actually governing.
But the Tea Party activists were not satisfied. Instead they made an ever-growing list of demands that the Republicans—controlling just one house of Congress—were in no position to deliver on. In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich demonstrated the limits of trying to govern the country from the House. And he had a Republican Senate and a Democratic president willing to play ball on some conservative issues.
As the Republicans produced fewer meaningful conservative policy outcomes, they spoke in ever shriller tones about the stakes of each election. Large parts of the base believed them, but then did a surprising thing: they began to ask questions when Republicans didn’t govern accordingly.
So when even so conservative a Republican as Tom Coburn says the Obamacare defunding gambit is unlikely to work, conservatives see another sellout on the way. When Cruz wants to fight, no one has the credibility to argue that avoiding this battle is a matter of prudence, not surrender.
When Republicans had power, they did little for conservatives. Now conservatives expect much from Republicans, even when they have little power.
The good news is conservative activists are keeping Republicans from repeating the Bush-league mistakes of the past. The bad news is they are making a whole set of new ones.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?