Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Lessons learned from the shutdown

By David MellyPublished October 31, 2013

Policy and politics have a messy relationship. In our democratic society, the two are necessarily entwined, but too often the latter supplants the former in prominence at great expense to the American people.

Policy and politics have a messy relationship. In our democratic society, the two are necessarily entwined, but too often the latter supplants the former in prominence at great expense to the American people. The most recent partial government shutdown was a painful reminder of this reality, an extreme example of the damage that can occur when those in power prefer to let conflict and discord rule, rather than coming together in the best interest of the American people. Although it was messy and destructive for both sides, the shutdown offers benefits in the form of lessons that, if taken to heart, can hopefully mean that policy can return to its rightful place of priority in the attention of those who shape it.

1. Standing your ground can work… sort of. Those observers who would declare a victor in this fight, although I maintain that all parties involved lost in the big picture, would undoubtedly give President Obama the “win.” Obama was stalwart to the point of stubbornness in his refusal to “ransom” (Jay Carney’s famous and frequent word) Obamacare in exchange for a continuing resolution. The two-week shutdown was costly, both in real dollars and public opinion, but the President emerged the grizzled survivor with his health care plan more or less intact.

2. Do not mess with the debt ceiling. A week into the shutdown, MA Senator Elizabeth Warren posted on her website declaring, “I agree with Wall Street.” The post detailed the worldwide economic repercussions of a U.S. default. The message was clear: Anyone on any part of the political spectrum with a basic grounding in macroeconomics, which is unfortunately not a prerequisite for election to Congress, could see the obvious and looming danger to a refusal to raise the debt ceiling. Economists and bankers alike warned policymakers of the calamitous scenario that would play out if the U.S. even came close to a default, and the unanimity and voracity of their warnings should be taken as a clear sign that the national debt is deeply unfit for usage as a political bargaining chip.

3. The press game only goes so far. The GOP was firing on all cylinders, both in Congress and in the right-wing media, in their attempts to blame the President and Democratic leadership for the shutdown. They made repeated references to “Obama’s shutdown” and his refusal to “negotiate” with House Republicans over changes to the ACA. Public opinion, despite registering record levels of animus toward both parties and toward Congress generally, unwaveringly assigned the lion’s share of blame to House Republicans. An NBC/WSJ poll conducted during the shutdown had 53% of Americans blaming the GOP, compared to 31% blaming Obama and the Democrats. Across the board, however, Congress was unpopular at historically high levels, with the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll placing disapproval at 85%. The war of words may be all too common for party leadership in Congress, but in this case, actions spoke far louder.

4. Madisonian construction works, but does it work too well? The preeminent framer of our Constitution was deeply concerned with the ambitions of those in government, and he was the principal architect for the system of checks and balances designed to keep any one interest from exerting its influence over the entire nation. There was, in a sense, built-in government incompetence. Madison’s position was, succinctly, that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” (Federalist #51). The proposition was sound in theory, but as we’ve seen from our increasing polarization and our second government shutdown in twenty years, warring ambitions can be too effective at preventing government work from being done. This latest round of gridlock may be a sign that there are systemic flaws that need to be restructured if we are to continue to function as a competent democracy.

5. The next President will be a governor. Historically, this isn’t exactly news. President Obama is the first sitting Senator to be elected President since Kennedy, and four of the six in between were former state governors. This trend, combined with abysmally low public opinion toward both houses of Congress, will likely result in a national aversion to elevating sitting members of the federal government to executive office. Already, many of the names being bandied about for 2016 fit the bill: Governors Bush, Perry, and Christie for the Republicans and Governors Patrick and O’Malley for the Democrats. Their independence from the taint of Washington will be seen as a refreshing change of pace, and those in Congress with higher ambitions have dug themselves an approval-rating grave from which it will be difficult to emerge.


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