[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” – from The Art of War, traditionally attributed to Sun Tzu
Trick your enemy into believing that you are strong where you are weak and weak where you are strong, and he will attack you at your strongest point rather than your weakest. Even better: Trick your enemy into believing that he is strong where he is weak and weak where he is strong, and he will attack you with his weakest forces rather than his strongest.
That’s why the Big Lie about the 2013 government shutdown is so important.
Today, Congress is in the hands of Republicans and the White House is in the hands of Democrats—specifically, a Democratic president who has no intention of letting the Constitution or the statutory law or the people’s representatives get in his way as he pursues the fundamental transformation of the country. (“We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” — Barack Obama, October 30, 2008.)
President Obama claims nearly absolute power—that, any time Congress does something he doesn’t want or fails to do something he does want, he can simply put policy into effect by executive action. What are they gonna do to stop him, shut down the government?? We all know how that government-shutdown idea worked out last time around—you know, in 2013 when that lunatic Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) shut down the government in a last-ditch effort to stop Obamacare.
Yeah, I know, it’s really the President who shuts down the government, but that doesn’t matter because Republicans are blamed, and the American people get incensed, and it all ends up as an utter disaster for the GOP.
Here, for example, is part of a panel discussion on Fox News September 18 (http://www.foxnews.com/transcript/2015/09/13/john-kasich-on-rising-in-new-hampshire-polls-sens-ron-johnson-and-chris-murhpy/):
CHRIS WALLACE: House Republicans sharply divided about whether to threaten a government showdown . . . . And we have got this [question] from Karen Margrave on Facebook. She writes, “The GOP cowered on preventing the deal with Iran. Does anyone think they will actually defund Planned Parenthood? The GOP is a total disappointment.”
Brit, how do you answer Karen?
BRIT HUME: I would say that Karen speaks for legions of disappointed Republicans. I think she is wrong that they cowered on Iran. There is a widespread believe that actually, if they wanted to, they could have made this executive agreement into a treaty. The idea that defunding Planned Parenthood against the wishes of a sitting president with enough vetoes to sustain, and the vetoes he might cast, even if it leads to a government shutdown, there is a path to victory is crazy.
Every time that we get down to this, the government closes, and it’s always only a partial shutdown, the Republican Party gets blamed because people want the government cut down perhaps, but not shut down. The party’s standing in the polls begin to sink like a rock. Disaffected Republicans like Karen would argue, oh if they had just stuck to their guns they would win in the end. There is no evidence to support that [any] government shutdown . . . has ever led to anything good for the Republicans. So it’s a suicidal – suicide mission.
Ten days later, on the Fox News program The O’Reilly Factor with Bill O’Reilly, Hume reiterated his belief—the belief held universally by members of the Washington establishment—that Republicans were horribly damaged by the shutdowns of 1995 and 2013. In his comment, he responded to those, like me, who have pointed to subsequent GOP electoral success as evidence that the shutdowns did no harm and may have been of great benefit to the party. (https://archive.org/details/FOXNEWSW_20150929_000000_The_OReilly_Factor )
O’REILLY: If you are a person who understands the branches of government and that you have to pass a law in the Senate, and the House and then a President has to sign it and the Senate is hard because you have got to get 60 votes to overcome the filibuster, you know Obamacare wasn’t going to get repealed, didn’t you?
HUME: I did. And what these — what some of these voters will say to you — and I have communicated with a number of them or they with me, I should say, they are not crazy about me — is that the Republicans should have run these thing up the flag pole anyway, even if a veto that would be sustained was a certainty.
O’REILLY: Well, there is some wisdom to that though. . . . but you don’t threaten to shut down the government or do it when you know you are going to lose.
HUME: Well, their view is look, you have got to understand is, Bill, you and I look at those government shutdowns that have happened and we see the Republican Party getting blamed every time.
O’REILLY: Right. That’s what the polling shows.
HUME: The image of the party taking a tremendous nose dive in the polls you just suggested. These people look at what happened in ’95 when there was a shutdown that the Republicans got nothing out of really and they see Republicans retaining the House the next year. They look at 2013 and they see a shutdown that didn’t last and didn’t achieve its goal of getting Obamacare defunded, but then they see a tremendous Republican victory in the next election and they say, look, these shutdowns are worth a fight and the Republicans don’t lose anything.
O’REILLY: And I respect that somewhat.
HUME: I don’t. I think it’s wrong. It’s wrong because if you look at the polling contemporaneous with the shutdown you see the Republican Party is plummeting. It gets killed and then the shutdown ends. People basically forget about it and they’re on to other things and the election happens a year later. It’s not much affected by it. But it’s still, if you keep it going, it’s going to be plenty affected by it.
O’REILLY: But I do believe that John Boehner’s main mistake was he didn’t show enough passion. He didn’t stand up and say this is wrong. He didn’t pound the table enough. And I think Republicans want a leader who will do that.
HUME: Well, I think that — I will say. This I can’t think of a speaker of the house whoever did that effectively.
O’REILLY: Well, Gingrich was pretty flamboyant.
HUME: He was. But that was some time ago. And after he became speaker, that wasn’t the image you had of him particularly. And he had an unsuccessful speakership.
[An aside: As the senior researcher for Gingrich for President 2012, I should note that that “unsuccessful” Speaker Gingrich led Republicans to their first House majority in four decades and forced President Clinton to sign welfare reform and a balanced budget.]
Regarding the shutdowns in 1995 and 2013, keep in mind what happened afterward. Republicans in 1996 re-elected their House majority for the first time since 1928. In 2014, they had their best election nationally since the party was founded in 1854. Clearly, someone had pointed that record out to Hume, yet he dismissed the argument. Repeating Hume’s comments: “These people look at what happened in ’95 when there was a shutdown that the Republicans got nothing out of really and they see Republicans retaining the House the next year. They look at 2013 and they see a shutdown that didn’t last and didn’t achieve its goal of getting Obamacare defunded, but then they see a tremendous Republican victory in the next election and they say, look, these shutdowns are worth a fight and the Republicans don’t lose anything. . . . I think [that argument’s] wrong. It’s wrong because if you look at the polling contemporaneous with the shutdown you see the Republican Party is plummeting. It gets killed and then the shutdown ends. People basically forget about it and they’re on to other things and the election happens a year later. It’s not much affected by it. But it’s still, if you keep it going, it’s going to be plenty affected by it.”
When you think about it, it’s a pretty unusual line of reasoning. It’s like you’re watching a football game in which a coach who’s a prohibitive underdog tries some seemingly crazy strategy and pulls off the upset of the decade, and then you say, well, if he hadn’t used that crazy strategy, he would have done even better.
I don’t mean to pick on Brit Hume, but, as the dean of Fox News and as someone who’s considered a conservative thinker, his views carry weight. And his views, as expressed above, are held by the vast majority of Republican strategists and by the pro-Boehner/pro-McCarthy wing of House Republicans.
Those views are nonsense. The polls—those polls they’re always citing—show it.
I went to RealClearPolitics at http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/generic_congressional_vote-2170.html , where they archive the polls on party preference for Congress. Here’s a chart showing the result of the so-called “generic vote” question—“Will you vote Republican or Democrat for Congress in 2014?” or words to that effect.
Keep in mind that the RealClearPolitics average of polls runs slightly behind real time. For example, a poll released October 11 might have been conducted between October 3 and October 8—with the midpoint at October 5 or 6. Therefore, in the RCP average, there’s a delay of at least five or six days between a public event and a clear picture of the public’s reaction to that event. Sometimes the delay is longer, depending on how far back RCP must go to get enough polls to include in its average. For this discussion, let’s use an adjustment of five or six days.
The 2013 shutdown was from October 1 to October 17. Adjusting for a delay of five or six days, let’s look at the period from one month before the shutdown to six weeks after the shutdown.
Zooming in closer, let’s look at the RCP average from October 6 to October 23, which roughly covers the period of the actual shutdown (adjusting for the delay).
Hmmm. We see a little bump for Republicans, then a little dip (during a period in which GOP leaders like Mitt Romney sharply criticized their own party), then a little bump for both parties, then a flat line. Republicans lagged behind Democrats, but they had been behind the Democrats the vast majority of the time since the 2012 election.
And now, the period immediately following the shutdown.
Wait – what??
The Democrats’ lead reached 6.5 to 6.6 points during October 27 to November 3 (which, adjusted for the delay, was roughly the time of the shutdown or the week afterward). Afterward, during the period November 11 to November 25, Democrats’ raw number fell from 46.3 percent to 41 percent—a huge drop.
On the “net” vote, the difference between the Republican and Democratic vote, Republicans between November 3 and December 2 gained 9.1 points.
How big is a 9.1 point shift? On the generic ballot, that’s the difference between a cataclysmic defeat and a once-in-a-lifetime victory. (Consider: The GOP had only a 2.4 point lead in the final RCP average before the 2014 election, which was GOP’s biggest congressional win in 86 years and the biggest up-and-down-the-ticket win in history.)
I did two more calculations using the polling data from RCP. First, looking at the period from six weeks before the shutdown to six weeks after, I recalculated the RCP average with an adjustment for the dates the polls were taken, and I got this.
The graph above looks a little jagged, which is common for such things. (Individual polls have a natural rate of error due to mere chance, which is why we average different polls to even things out and get a clearer result.)
To make things ever more clear, I smoothed the graph out by averaging seven polls at a time, and looked at the entire campaign from December 2012 to November 2014.
I was astounded by what I got.
Here is the major-poll average from late November 2012 up until the November 2014 election, adjusted to reflect the actual dates on which the polls were conducted.
Do you see it?
Let’s zoom in on the key period around the shutdown, from six weeks before the shutdown to six weeks after the shutdown.
Given all the rhetoric about that disastrous-for-Republicans shutdown of 2013, the result is astonishing.
The polls show that Republicans, on the net generic ballot for Congress, were losing ground prior to the shutdown and continued to lose ground during the shutdown… but, as soon as the shutdown was over, Republicans rose quickly, achieving an advantage in late November 2013 of between 1.14 and 2.14 points.
My theory: Republicans’ low congressional poll numbers earlier were based on the fact that many grassroots Republicans (and Republican-leaning voters) were angry at their own side’s leaders. (Sound familiar?) The GOP had had a huge victory in the 2010 election, taking control of the House, yet had done next to nothing to stop the Obamacare that was about to cause premiums and deductibles for working-class and small-business-class people to go through the roof. Republicans had low numbers because they hadn’t done enough. Then came the shutdown—which seemed to demonstrate that GOP leaders were not, as Donald Trump might say, a pathetic bunch of losers—and Republicans moved into parity with Democrats for the first time in the two-year election cycle, stayed there until September 2014 or so, then moved into the lead and won big.
By the way, advocates of the “shutdown was disastrous” theory—including Brit Hume, who discussed this just last night on Fox News—suggest that, well, the GOP may have had a good few weeks after the shutdown, effectively wiping out the supposedly negative effect of the shutdown, but that that was the result of the Democrats’ own disaster, the Obamacare rollout. In other words, the Republicans got lucky, and the Democrats’ own muck-up made up for the Republicans’ muck-up. Now, it is true that the Obamacare rollout disaster was featured prominently in the media starting about a week after the shutdown ended, but the improvement in Republican numbers had already started by then. More important—and this is key to understanding the importance of the shutdown—is why Republicans gained so much in the polls during the period of the Obamacare rollout.
Republicans had credibility to criticize the rollout, and gained significantly when the rollout revealed Obamacare as the disaster it was and is, because they had taken a stand against it, even to the point of driving the President to shut down the government. No shutdown, no credibility.
Winston Churchill, to his great political detriment, warned the world about Hitler and was denounced as a warmonger. Ronald Reagan, to his great political detriment, warned the world about the Communists and was denounced as a warmonger. (One Establishment Republican ad warned of the danger posed if that crazy Reagan became president: “Governor Reagan couldn’t start a war. President Reagan could.”) Precisely because they had taken an unpopular stand, and proved to be correct, the people turned to them for leadership when they were proven right.
That’s the difference between leading and “leading from behind.”
Polls indicating that the public “blamed” Republicans for the shutdown were fatally flawed for two reasons. First, if a pollster asks “Whom do you blame for X?,” then asks “Do you favor X?,” many respondents are shamed into saying they oppose X even if they don’t. They know from the wording of the questions that “yes” is the wrong answer. Second, if lots of people favor X, and you ask those people “Whom do you blame for X?,” the results are useless because, to people who support X, the question makes no sense. (If you were an Obama supporter and you were asked, “Whom do you blame for Obama getting reelected?,” what would you answer? Do you “blame” the President for getting himself reelected, or do you “blame” Mitt Romney for trying to stop him?) Even if only a few people see “blame” as credit, that’s enough to invalidate the results of such a survey.
Yet another thing:
Since the modern budgeting process took effect in 1976, there have been 18 shutdowns, almost one every other year.
- 9/30/1976 to 10/11/1976 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Democrats
- 9/30/1977 to 10/13/1977 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Democrats
- 10/31/1977 to 11/9/1977 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Democrats
- 11/30/1977 to 12/9/1977 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Democrats
- 9/30/1978 to 10/18/1978 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Democrats
- 9/30/1979 to 10/12/1979 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Democrats
- 11/20/1981 to 11/23/1981 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Republicans
- 9/30/1982 to 10/2/1982 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Republicans
- 12/17/1982 to 12/21/1982 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Republicans
- 11/10/1983 to 11/14/1983 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Republicans
- 9/30/1984 to 10/3/1984 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Republicans
- 10/3/1984 to 10/5/1984 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Republicans
- 10/16/1986 to 10/18/1986 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Republicans
- 12/18/1987 to 12/20/1987 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Democrats
- 10/5/1990 to 10/9/1990 – House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Democrats
- 11/13/1995 to 11/19/1995 – House controlled by Republicans, Senate controlled by Republicans
- 12/5/1995 to 1/6/1996 – House controlled by Republicans, Senate controlled by Republicans
- 10/1/2013 to 12/17/2013 – House controlled by Republicans, Senate controlled by Republicans
Thus, in eight of the 18 shutdowns, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. In 15 of the 18, Democrats controlled at least one house of Congress. In 12 of the shutdowns, the Speaker of the House was “Tip” O’Neill (D-Massachusetts), a hero to liberals. In seven shutdowns, the chief of staff to the Speaker was Chris Matthews, who now, as a host on MSNBC, rails against Republicans for even considering actions that might lead to a shutdown.
The bottom line:
By focusing relentlessly on the supposedly disastrous consequences on Republicans of a shutdown, even a short and limited one, Obama supporters, including most of the news media, have persuaded Republican leaders to disarm themselves. Worse, because those leaders wrongly believe that they understand the politics of shutdowns, they end up responding harshly to criticism of their strategy by mainstream, grassroots Republicans. The Boehner types and the not-very-bright consultants who dominate GOP strategy sessions in Washington spend most of their energy fighting their own people rather than the Democrats and the Left.
When your adversary is waging war on his own people, you’ve got it made. To win, you don’t even have to fight.