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Government Shutdown No Longer a 'Train Wreck'

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Sometimes you get an idea of the way opinion is headed by the phrases you don't hear. Case in point: In all the discussion and debate these past weeks about a possible government shutdown if Congress and President Obama fail to agree on funding bills, I don't recall having heard the phrase "train wreck."

I think that's significant, because back in the 1990s, when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republicans and President Clinton failed to reach agreement and the government actually did shut down, "train wreck" was a common term.

And, of course, a derogatory one. The implication was that a government shutdown was a horrifying mess. In fact, the country weathered the 1990s shutdowns pretty well. And so did Gingrich's House Republicans, who lost only nine seats in the next election -- a lot fewer than the 63 seats Nancy Pelosi's Democrats lost last November.

Which is not to say that voters view a shutdown as an unalloyed positive. But you're not hearing it described as a train wreck, either.

House Republicans passed a stopgap funding bill Tuesday that Obama and Senate Democrats have signaled they will embrace, which will keep the government open after the March 4 deadline. But that would just postpone the prospects of a shutdown for two weeks. If the government is shuttered then, who would the public blame?

Both sides equally, say the pollsters in surveys over the past two weeks.

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, says 41 percent would blame Republicans and 39 percent would blame Obama.

Gallup says that 42 percent say Republicans are doing a better job of reaching a budget agreement, while 39 percent say Democrats are.

The Hill says 29 percent would blame Democrats for a shutdown and 23 percent would blame Republicans.

The Washington Post says 36 percent would blame Republicans and 35 percent would blame the Obama administration.

It's a general rule that people have more favorable feelings toward individuals than they do to groups -- that's why the president, any president, almost always has better ratings than the Congress. You might want to keep that in mind in interpreting polls pitting the individual Obama against the group congressional Republicans.

Also keep in mind that opinion is not where it was during the Clinton-Gingrich struggle 16 years ago. The Washington Post helpfully notes that its polling then showed 46 percent blaming Gingrich and the Republicans for the shutdown and only 27 percent blaming Clinton.

We're in a different political environment now in two important respects. The first is the media. There was no Internet or blogosphere in 1995; Fox News Channel did not start until October 1996; talk radio was in its infancy, with Rush Limbaugh already an important national voice but with few other conservative hosts on the air.

In that environment, liberal-inclined media were able to tell the story and frame the issue the way they liked without much dissent. ABC's Peter Jennings could compare voters who supported Gingrich Republicans to infants having a tantrum. Such voices don't have a monopoly today.

The second significant difference is that in the mid-1990s the economy was growing and it was not clear why we needed to limit government spending. We could afford more for this, that and the other thing.

Now we're in straitened circumstances, just out of a severe recession (though many voters don't think it's over just yet) and in a very restrained and anemic recovery. We've seen that a substantial increase in government spending -- from 21 percent to 25 percent of gross domestic product -- hasn't done much to stimulate economic growth. And we've seen that government kept growing even as the private sector suffered.

In that setting, pollster Scott Rasmussen reports that 58 percent of likely voters would rather have a government shutdown until both parties can agree on spending cuts, while only 33 percent would prefer spending at the same levels as last year.

Liberal poll critics may say, correctly, that the question frames the issue the way Republican politicians would like. But that's the point. Republican politicians today have a much better chance to persuade voters to view issues the way they do than they did in the Clinton-Gingrich days.

All of which explains why Obama and congressional Democrats seem more willing to make concessions than Clinton was. And why we're not hearing the phrase "train wreck" much anymore.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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