Remembrance of Shutdowns Past

by Stuart Rothenberg February 27, 2015 · 9:00 AM EST

Republicans scored big gains in the 2010 and 2014 elections because both of those midterms were about President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Democrats had successful elections in 2006, 2008 and 2012 primarily because they made those elections about the GOP and George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

You might think politicians from both sides of the aisle would understand that a political party does best when it makes the national political discussion about the weaknesses, failings and shortcomings of the other party.

But some politicians (these days mostly Republicans) seem to have problems appreciating that.

Right after the 2006 elections, I talked with a senior Democratic senator and a key House Democrat (who is no longer in Congress) about the results and asked each, separately, where the party was headed after taking over both houses of Congress.

Both officeholders said the same thing: The party’s job over the next two years was to prove to Americans it could govern and it understood the concerns of the middle class. If it didn’t, they warned, the party would lose the White House yet again in 2008.

The responses were surprising to me. After most elections, the winners beat their chests and say they won because the voters agreed with them on issues a, b and c. And then they push issues a, b and c, no matter the cost.

That, of course, is what Republicans did when they tried to undermine the Affordable Care Act following their victories in the 2010 elections, eventually leading to a government shutdown in October 2013.

But after another huge midterm election for the GOP last year, the Republican leadership in Congress seemed to have learned the correct lessons.

“When the American people elect divided government, they’re not saying they don’t want anything done. What they are saying is they want things done in the political center, things that both sides can agree on,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told CNN’s Dana Bash in January.

McConnell and Speaker John A. Boehner clearly understand that unless one party holds the White House, a majority in the House and a supermajority in the Senate, compromise is always a necessity.

It’s fine, of course, to employ legislative strategies to encourage the other side to compromise or to score political points and curry favor with the voters.

But the trick is to hold out for the best deal possible while at the same time looking serious, thoughtful, measured and reasonable. Looking unreasonable, extreme and delusional usually is not the best approach.

Yet, once again, some Republicans seem more interested in turning lemonade into lemons, this time involving the funding of the Department of Homeland Security and their efforts to undo the president’s immigration plan.

It’s true that congressional Republicans can’t expect any favors from the national media, but that doesn’t mean they can ignore the political realities of their situation. Republicans have once again started to put the national microscope on themselves, and that’s almost never good.

The president is not in a negotiating frame of mind, and Republicans can use that to their advantage if they pick the right fights, as they did on the Keystone XL pipeline. They have scored plenty of points on that issue and can score more in the weeks ahead.

But allowing themselves to look unreasonable by threatening to withhold DHS funding — thereby empowering Democrats to charge that the GOP is gambling with America’s national security, especially after threats to the nation’s malls — is not the way to look adult or serious.

To his credit, McConnell has proposed de-linking the funding of Homeland Security and the president’s executive order on immigration.

Blinking late in the game will avoid the worst damage for the party, at least as long as the House cooperates. But it won’t roll back the president’s unilateral actions on immigration, and even the chatter about a “shutdown” may well remind some voters why they have doubts about the GOP’s ability to govern the country.