Thousands of workers and the American economy stand to lose if the government shuts down next week, but some political leaders might see their hands improved by such a crisis.
Nearly every economist warns of negative repercussions for the U.S. economy should Congress fail to forge an agreement to fund the government’s day-to-day operations past Sept. 30. But a handful of Republicans – and even President Barack Obama – are among the select few Americans who have something to gain should negotiations fail and a shutdown come to pass.
The fact that it’s in the political best interests of some people (or groups) to force a government shutdown has actually contributed to the fiscal impasse, which shows no sign of resolution with little more than a week to go until all but the most essential government functions cease.
Virtually no lawmaker in either party has openly said he or she wishes for a government shutdown. And if one happens, its length and the manner in which it plays out could warp the politics of the issue.
But with that in mind, here’s a look at who could benefit from a government shutdown.
A year removed from his re-election, Obama isn’t the most popular second-term president ever, and his signature health care overhaul law still engenders deep skepticism from the American public.
But if Obama has at least one thing going for him heading into his battle against Republicans, it’s that poll after poll has shown that Americans don’t think that eliminating “Obamacare” is worth the cost of a government shutdown.
Republicans complain that it’s been Obama – not them – who is being inflexible in fiscal talks. But if the numbers are to be believed, a shutdown could reinvigorate Obama politically, and thereby likely decrease his willingness to cut a deal that is more favorable to Republicans. It could also strengthen his hand heading into next month’s fight over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
President Bill Clinton enjoyed a similar windfall in 1995 during his showdown with a Republican Congress, which led to a government shutdown. Voters largely blamed the GOP Congress for that instance. Thanks to a flurry of messaging efforts, Clinton eventually prevailed over his GOP opponents. The boost helped propel Clinton to a successful re-election effort in 1996.
And though Obama’s numbers took a dip during a similar standoff in 2011, he still could emerge as a better alternative than his opponents.
“I think the real fear is that a government shutdown feeds into some kind of standoff over the debt ceiling, and that hurts the economy in ways that could really hurt everyone politically,” said Brad Woodhouse, the president of the liberal group Americans United for Change. “But I don't think there's any doubt that the American people will blame the Republicans more.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz
Perhaps no figure in Washington has hitched his political fortunes to the fate of this fall’s spending battles more than the hard-charging, first-term senator from Texas.
Though other high-profile conservatives have joined Cruz in vowing not to fund the government unless spending for “Obamacare” was eradicated, Cruz has emerged as the effort’s figurehead. He did this by traveling the country throughout the August recess, turning up the heat – not on rival Democrats, but on fellow Republicans to make good on their campaign promises to fight health care reform.
If the government reaches a shutdown, it will no doubt be because Cruz managed to convince enough fellow Republicans to stand pat on the issue of Obamacare. Though this scenario would likely have wide-ranging (and largely negative) implications for the broader Republican Party, a shutdown would serve as a validation of Cruz’s influence in Congress after only nine months on the job.
“He’s going to emerge somewhat bloodied, because he’s going to have critics not only from the Democratic Party, but also some from within the Republican Party,” said Craig Shirley, the conservative PR man who’s penned biographies of both Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, the latter of whom was another polarizing conservative involved in a government shutdown. “But I think he’s going to be enhanced as a force within the Republican Party and American politics.”
Israel is just an obscure congressman from Long Island, N.Y., to most Americans who don’t closely follow politics. But he plays an important role inside the Beltway, serving as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – the political group charged with helping Democrats win election to the House every two years.
So perhaps no member of Congress would be more elated than Israel about the political fallout from a potential government shutdown.
At this stage, few political prognosticators expect Democrats to make a serious dent in Republicans’ 33-seat advantage come 2014, partly due to the advantageous manner in which a number of GOP-dominated state legislatures redrew congressional districts’ boundaries after the 2010 Census.
Democrats believe, though, that a shutdown could put them in contention for control of the House in the midterm elections. Republicans tallied two disappointing showings in the 1996 and 1998 congressional elections, due in part to the damage done to their brand during the shutdown.
“For House Democrats who are trying to win back the majority, if Republicans are hell-bent on shutting down the government, then this will be helpful to them,” said Doug Thornell, a former DCCC official. “The public may have its problems with Obamacare, but they don’t believe it should be a bargaining chip for funding the government or paying our debts. So I think Republicans are really playing Russian roulette with their majority.”
The Tea Party
If the rise of Obamacare was the catalyzing moment for the Tea Party, then a shutdown could give insurgent conservatives an upper hand in their protracted struggle against the GOP establishment for control of the Republican Party.
“Win, lose or draw, the Tea Party and the conservatives have routed the establishment wing of the party,” said Shirley, pointing to House Republican leaders’ decision to pursue legislation that defunds Obamacare after having shelved a more modest proposal.
Conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action – while not strictly Tea Party groups, per se – will have demonstrated a commanding degree of influence over the modern Republican Party if they manage to hold enough GOP lawmakers together to prevent party leaders from reaching an agreement to avoid a shutdown.
That situation might send House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on a hunt to find Democratic votes to help win approval for any eventual compromise. But that might further undermine Boehner’s already-shaky grip on the speaker’s gavel, prompting a possible challenge to his reign by conservatives in his conference who more closely align with the Tea Party.
And if the Tea Party gains, so might Democrats, too.
“The inability for the Republican leadership to deliver for the Tea Party is possibly what will dictate the political outcomes more than anything,” said Woodhouse. “Democrats, in that regard, benefit if the other side is hurting.”
The 2016 election is years away, and any number of variables could shape the trajectory of American politics before then. But as the early favorite for the next Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton could benefit from any damage done to the Republican brand by a government shutdown.
For starters, since Clinton is out of office following a four-year stint as secretary of State, she won’t have to carry the baggage of the ugly negotiations between Congress and the administration over government funding and the debt ceiling.
But if Republicans end up forcing a shutdown, it could do collateral damage to the GOP brand such that it hurts the party’s chances of retaking the White House come 2016.
“This isn’t damage just for the next election,” Thornell argued. “This could continue to damage the Republican brand that’s yet to recover from the last election.”
Of course, that damage could benefit any number of Democrats who win the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, should Clinton pass on running. But the former first lady is acutely aware of the politics of government shutdowns, given the fights her husband endured in 1995 – and the political windfall he won as a result.
Moreover, a shutdown could further imperil other legislative initiatives like immigration reform, a priority which many Washington Republicans regard as essential to reversing the GOP’s slide with Hispanic voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election.