The Fleshy Part of the Budget

How Democrats and Republicans are already spinning a government shutdown.

John Boehner and Eric Cantor. Click image to expand.
John Boehner (right) and Eric Cantor

In “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh,” one of the last episodes of The Sopranos, Bobby Bacala approaches a rapper with an idea: For a fee, he’ll shoot him in the aforementioned body part. The hitman gets a payday; the rapper gets cred. It’s win-win.

This is a useful way of understanding the budget debate in Congress this week, which will end either with a government shutdown or with another cost-cutting, face-saving compromise. There’s no point in compromising before the very last second. President Obama has to promise not to sign a one-week funding measure, because he can’t look like he’s caving—liberals had their fill of that when he signed the tax cut deal last December. House Speaker John Boehner has to repeat, again and again, and again, that he’s trying to get the “biggest cuts” he can, and will accept no deal that lacks the support of 218 Republicans.

As the White House says no deal, it sets up meetings—there’s another one with Boehner Wednesday night. As Republicans say no deal, they take meetings and revisit one-week stopgaps. In the prisoner’s dilemma playing out right now, it’s important that everyone act as obstinate and offended and inflexible as he or she possibly can. There are fights coming on the debt ceiling and the new Republican budget, so for now, the players get to pick which battles they get scarred in. (In The Sopranos, Bobby doesn’t get his whole fee and he shoots the rapper in a different body part, so the analogy is admittedly imperfect.)

And this is why the fight over the shutdown has become so predictable. Become might not even be the right word—it’s been predictable for months, ever since Republicans and Democrats mused about the apocalyptic gridlock that would come if Boehner became speaker. Nothing has changed the basic fact that voters are more likely to blame Republicans if the government closes down for a while. The weeks of pre-buttal and pre-spin haven’t changed anything.

There have been four basic arguments, two for each party.

Republican Argument I: Shut it down. Before Republicans got their message right, at some point in March, this was the standard GOP line. It was gold on the campaign trail. In September, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., told a conference organized by Ralph Reed that a shutdown was on the way, and basked in the applause.

“They’re going to come and say, ‘Daddy can’t go to the V.A., the national parks are closed,’ ” Westmoreland warned. “We need to make sure you’re going to be with us.”

The shut-it-down argument comes in two flavors. Westmoreland focused on the first one, assuming that the shutdown would be painful. In February, Mike Huckabee summed up the second one: A shutdown would not be that bad, not that “draconian.” Not everyone who pulls out this argument goes into detail. But since Republicans and Tea Party activists occasionally use it, they’ve set themselves up as the black hats of a standoff. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday found that 37 percent of voters would blame Republicans if the government shut down, 20 percent would blame Obama, and 20 percent would blame congressional Democrats. * Compare that with the poll that was conducted in October 1995, the last time the government shut down. Sixteen years ago, 43 percent of voters said a shutdown would be Republicans’ fault, and 32 percent said it would be Bill Clinton’s fault. And that was the high watermark for Republicans. They lost ground once the shutdown started.

Republican Argument II: It’s not our fault. Republicans and Tea Party activists have been remarkably on message since the shutdown became a real possibility. Last week, at a rally that was watched for signs of Tea Party fervor, organizers and Republicans assured the crowd that any shutdown would be the Democrats’ fault. This week, Republicans have underlined, highlighted, and memorized the script.

“I believe very firmly that Harry Reid and Barack Obama have planned to shut down this government, for political purposes,” Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., said yesterday. “It’s a diabolical plan of trying to re-elect Barack Obama, put Nancy Pelosi back in the speaker’s chair, and give Harry Reid a bigger majority so they can continue their socialist takeover.” This was boiled down by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “They are rooting, rooting for a shutdown!”

There are some helpful facts behind this. Democrats did not pass a budget in 2010, and this impasse would have been avoided if they had. It’s also true that Democrats have blinked on enough spending measures that, as one GOP aide told me, there’s a real path to an agreement. All that Republicans need to do is abandon some policy riders, like the bans on funding for Planned Parenthood and NPR, and voila—Democrats will cave. And that’s where things look like they’re headed, so it’s important for Republicans to go into a deal sounding like the victims.

Democratic Argument I: Let them shut it down. This is similar to GOP Argument I, but meant more as a taunt than a demand. This isn’t the best argument Democrats have, which is why none of the ones who have votes in Congress are making it. Howard Dean handed the GOP a delicate gift last week when he said, if he ran the DNC, he’d be “rooting for a shutdown.” But since he said it, remarks like Broun’s are tethered to reality.

Democrats are increasingly convinced—depending on how much something can “increase” in a day—that the launch of Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget is adding more helpful noise to the shutdown debate. Voters who are not closely following the difference between 2011 fiscal year outlays and 2012 budget projections are hearing about a document that does all sorts of unpopular things, like means-testing and privatizing Medicare and broadening the tax code while cutting the top tax rates. They won’t say this. But when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks like he did this morning and says that “the Tea Party is screaming so loudly” at the Republican Party “that it can’t hear what the country demands,” he’s taking advantage of an electorate that doesn’t completely understand what’s happening.

Democratic Argument II: We’ll do whatever it takes. If there’s a compromise to avoid a shutdown, Republicans will tell the base that they did whatever they could and got the best possible deal without falling into the Democrats’ dastardly trap. Democrats have a similar plan, but it’s even easier: They like government. They want it to keep working. If they can come off as the sensible adults who keep the place running, they “win,” no matter how deep the cuts Republicans get away with. That’s what Reid seemed to be setting up in his final floor speech of the day on Wednesday. “We meet them halfway, they say no,” said Reid. “We meet them more than halfway, they say no. We meet them all the way, they still say no.”

Translation: The other guys are impossible; Democrats just want a deal. The other guys are convinced that a shutdown is good for Democrats and that Democrats are rooting for it. All the Democrats have to do is avert a shutdown, and they’ve got a surefire win.

Correction, April 7, 2011: This article originally misstated the percentage of poll respondents who would blame Republicans as 40 percent. It was 37 percent. (Return to the corrected sentence.)