Why Democrats Are Winning the Government Shutdown Messaging War

Independents want compromise, not the hard line.


Republicans and Democrats have been working mightily to put their frame on a prospective government shutdown in the hopes of directing voter wrath at the other party if worse comes to worst. I think Democrats have the stronger position.

[See editorial cartoons about the budget and the deficit.]

Democrats argue that the disagreement isn’t over spending but rather over policy issues; they’ve narrowed that line to focus on federal funding for Planned Parenthood: Republicans want to shut down the government, Democrats say, so they can undermine women’s healthcare.

The Republican frame is about spending. “When will the White House and when will Senate Democrats get serious about cutting spending?” House Speaker John Boehner asked this morning … and seemingly every other time he’s appeared in public in recent days.

[See 10 effects of a government shutdown.]

If the Democratic spin prevails, the GOP will get killed. But I’m not sure the converse is true.

Consider that national polls show most Americans want leaders to compromise in order to keep the government running. The problem for GOP leaders, specifically Boehner, is that most Republicans take a starkly different view: According to a Gallup poll released this week, a majority of GOPers would prefer to shut the government down than to compromise, which is why Boehner has had to take a hard line saying that the GOP is fighting for as many spending cuts as they possibly can. Democrats, on the other hand, have let it be known that they have made concession after concession, first exceeding the GOP’s original $31 billion in cuts figure, and then making successive other concessions to get the number up to $38 billion.

[Check out political cartoons about the GOP.]

To sum up, Democrats look like the compromiser, which will infuriate some portion of their base who fulminate at their trying to accommodate the Republicans even as the GOP keeps moving the goalposts. Even those partisans will understand at some level the need to keep the government open. Republicans, on the other hand, are playing directly to their base by trying to look as tough as possible. But independents remain the prize, and judging by poll numbers they won’t find the hard-line stance appealing--especially when Democrats start ginning up ads with Tea Party crowds chanting “Shut it down!” [Take the poll: Who would you blame for a government shutdown?]

One other way to look at this is not through a partisan lens but distinguishing between branches of government. There is at least one persuasive school of thought that says that legislators of both parties will suffer in a shutdown while President Obama comes out the winner.

Time, which is running out, will tell.

  • See 10 effects of a government shutdown.
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons about the budget and the deficit.
  • Vote now: Will the government shut down?