The PJ Tatler

Nate Silver: None of This Shutdown Noise Will Matter Much Next Year

It’s rare that Nate Silver says what I’m thinking, but he has. Silver argues in his latest post that despite the media’s breathless, “game changer” coverage of the government shutdown, it’s not likely to change any games or even matter a whole lot to next year’s mid-terms.

Remember Syria? The fiscal cliff? Benghazi? The IRS scandal? The collapse of immigration reform? All of these were hyped as game-changing political moments by the news media, just as so many stories were during the election last year. In each case, the public’s interest quickly waned once the news cycle turned over to another story. Most political stories have a fairly short half-life and won’t turn out to be as consequential as they seem at the time.

Yep.

But what about the pair of government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996? It’s common to find articles asserting, without qualification, that they were a major factor in prompting President Clinton’s reelection.

However, the empirical evidence for this claim is thin. Clinton’s approval ratings were somewhat higher a few months after the shutdown than a few months beforehand — but this was part of a relatively steady, long-term trend toward improved approval ratings for Clinton, probably because of solid economic growth.

Nor was Clinton’s victory over Bob Dole in 1996 anything unexpected. Incumbent presidents generally win reelection even under marginal conditions (as Barack Obama did last year) — and they’re overwhelming favorites during peacetime elections when the economy is robust, as it was during 1996. Furthermore, Clinton did not have much in the way of coattails: Democrats gained just two seats in the House that November, and wouldn’t win back the chamber for another decade.

Yep. I’ve written a piece or two on how the 1990s shutdown had a far less dramatic effect than the current media lets on. It didn’t actually change very much in the next election. It did play a role in forcing Bill Clinton to agree to the Republicans’ balanced budgets. (It also introduced him to Monica Lewinsky.) No shutdown now, however, is likely to have much effect on Barack Obama’s policy or strategy. He’s just a very different political animal from Clinton. He doesn’t want any real budget at all. A strategy that worked on Clinton is not guaranteed to work on Obama or change much in Congress.

Even if the shutdown were to have a moderate political impact — and one that favored the Democrats in races for Congress — it might not be enough for them to regain control of the U.S. House. Instead, Democrats face two major headwinds as they seek to win back Congress.

First, there are extremely few swing districts — only one-half to one-third as many as when the last government shutdown occurred in 1996. Some of this is because of partisan gerrymandering, but more of it is because of increasingly sharp ideological divides along geographic lines: between urban and rural areas, between the North and the South, and between the coasts and the interior of the United States.

So even if Democrats make significant gains in the number of votes they receive for the House, they would flip relatively few seats because of the way those votes are distributed. Most of the additional votes would come in districts that Democrats were already assured of winning, or where they were too far behind to catch up.

Consider that, between 2010 and 2012, Democrats went from losing the average congressional district by seven percentage points to winning it by one percentage point — an eight-point swing. And yet they added only eight seats in the House, out of 435 congressional districts.

In 2014, likewise, it will require not just a pretty good year for Democrats, but a wave election for them to regain the House. But wave elections in favor of the party that controls the White House are essentially unprecedented in midterm years. Instead, the president’s party has almost always lost seats in the House — or at best gained a handful.

Again, yep. The real action next year will be in the Senate. That fight won’t be won or lost in this shutdown. Obama wants Democrats to re-take the House, but that isn’t likely. He may have engineered the shutdown to scramble the signal, but it’s unlikely to do that, even with the current bad polls for Republicans. We’re more than a year away from the election.

It may be that Obama has engineered the rolling budget fights to give himself handy battles to use strategically and to win himself total power over spending. It may be that he wants default to give him some room to maneuver and amass more power within the chaos, but chaos is by its nature unpredictable, and defaulting will have consequences that he does not foresee — for him. In an environment in which Congress no longer passes real budgets, a “clean” CR and a “clean” debt ceiling hike would probably accomplish his goal of having unprecedented power over spending, at least as long as the debt ceiling isn’t breached again. That’s a big goal that does change a lot. He can’t be allowed to achieve it.

The repetitious nature of these spending fights, and the sheer futility of following every single move, 99% of which turn out to be irrelevant to the outcome, leave me agreeing with Silver again.

The folks you see on TV are much too sure of themselves. They’ve been making too much of thin slices of polling and thinner historical precedents that might not apply this time around.

Yep. Humility is a good thing. Politics is allergic to humility;there is almost none of it on TV and even less of it on the Internet.

It seems to me that it’s reasonable to disagree over strategy without calling people on our own side names, saying that they’re “pro Obamacare” because they haven’t yet figured out how to get rid of it, etc. I haven’t been entirely sure of the right path to take to get Obamacare done away with in the current environment. The Democrats won’t do it absent some kind of cataclysmic shock to their system. Obama will never sign a repeal or any serious rollback of it. It’s the one thing he can point to as a legacy — a horrible legacy, but hey, it’s his and he actually likes it (mainly because it grants his side power and he won’t have to live under it). Republicans had the chance to take the Senate in 2010 and 2012 and failed, and had the chance to oust Obama in 2012, and failed that too. That’s just reality. Perhaps we should stop nominating moderate candidates and candidates who are prone to say things the media will amplify to hurt them, but that’s water under the bridge now.

It seems to me, now, that getting rid of that law is going to take a while since the courts didn’t stick to the Constitution and kill it. You have to pick off the weak Senate Democrats next year and then use the power of the purse where you can, recognizing the reality that Obama still sits in the White House basking in media glorification of him, and hammer away at the law wherever possible. You encourage efforts to challenge aspects of it in court, like the Oklahoma suit against the exchanges. You highlight how it’s hurting Americans and strangling job creation. You force Obama to defend his law and his lawless exemptions. That won’t be easy, but it will be easier to do if he no longer has Harry Reid backstopping him in the Senate and at least faces a whiff of a threat of discipline if he continues to behave as if the law doesn’t apply to him. One of the reasons that Clinton was forced into doing things he didn’t want to do was because the Republicans held both houses of Congress.

The flaw with this strategy is that it takes unity, cunning and patience, and two of those things are in as short a supply as humility. There is currently no living figure who unifies Republicans. Maybe one will emerge in due time.

One final thought. The shutdown fight has accomplished at least two things beneficial to Obama in the short term. One, it has provided enough noise to obscure just how bad the Obamacare rollout has been. The media is covering some of that, so the low-info voter out there is hearing and experiencing some of it, but its true magnitude may be getting lost in the noise. Two, it has taken Obama’s other scandals off the front burner for a while. The media didn’t need another excuse to fail to cover the IRS and Benghazi and the rest, but the shutdown fight sure has given then a handy one.

Which isn’t to say that the GOP’s current path, whatever it is, is totally doomed to fail. I’m looking at things from a strategic analysis point of view at this point. There are down sides to every strategy followed, and things you could have won had you stuck to a strategy, or adjusted it according to circumstances, once it was launched.