Tavis: Chris Cillizza covers politics for “The Washington Post” and is the author of the paper’s column “The Fix,” which is now also a Web-based video blog. In a piece this week he asked what is now the $64,000 question in Washington – who wins in a government shutdown? So he joins us tonight from Washington. Chris, as always, good to have you on the program, sir.
Chris Cillizza: Tavis, thank you for having me.
Tavis: Let me start with the obvious – what is D-day? What is the date that we’re – we know tax day is April 15th, but what is the April date that we should keep our eyes on?
Cillizza: Well, one week before April the 8th is the day when the federal government will run out of money. Now, we’ve had six what we call continuing resolutions, Tavis. Basically, that just is a way to kick the can down the road a little bit. Rather than do a big budget proposal, Congress agrees to do these kind of mini-funding proposals to give themselves a little bit more time to figure out that bigger budget.
It looks like this is going to be the hard and fast deadline. We’ve seen some Tea Party aligned Republicans – they don’t want to continue to do these small packages. They want to do one big package of cuts. They’ve got a lot of power in the Republican Party, particularly in the House. Remember, lots of those folks who got elected to the house in 2010 are aligned with the Tea Party. They don’t want any more short-term solutions, they want a long-term solution.
So this one looks like a hard deadline and I think that’s why everyone’s starting to position about the possibility of a real government shutdown.
Tavis: So before we move on, what you’ve just said to me, in layman’s terms, is that there is a divide in the Republican Party about how to move around this date.
Cillizza: Yes, sir, 100 percent. Look, initially, John Boehner, the speaker of the House, proposed about $30 billion in cuts for the remainder of this year, fiscal year 2011. The Tea Party, which is the conservative wing of the party, very into cutting spending, reducing our debt, said that’s not enough.
John Boehner came back and said we’re going to do $61 billion. Well, now we’ve got this impasse, because Democrats in the White House seem to be okay with about $30 billion in cuts, which is what Boehner originally proposed, but the Tea Party, probably not okay with that. So there’s a lot of moving parts here, Tavis, as John Boehner tries to cobble together a compromise solution that can win enough Republicans and enough Democrats to get that majority, and then go and get passage in the Senate and get signed by President Obama.
So there is a lot, lot of moving parts, a lot of complexity and a lot of unknowns at the moment.
Tavis: Let me stand back for just a second, Chris, and ask you, because I know you can answer this, a broad political strategy question. Then we’ll come back inside the capitol to talk more expressly about the budget.
There are those who said many, many months ago that the Tea Party and their advances would become a nightmare eventually for John Boehner, they’ll become a nightmare for the Republican Party. Is this going to be, somewhere down the road, an example of the Tea Party putting a noose around its own party’s neck?
Cillizza: Well, let me first say, Tavis, you’re exactly right. In November 2010, Republicans were jubilant, they had taken back the House, they had won all these seats. But the smart strategists within the party said this could be a potential problem, because lots of these people got elected – they’re aligned with the Tea Party, not necessarily the Republican Party.
Now, there’s a lot of places where those two groups agree, but this, and we’re seeing it play out right now, this spending battle, this is one where they don’t. The establishment within the party kind of wants to get as much as they can, get the best compromise you can, don’t shut the government down, because if you do that you never know what will happen. A lot of them are haunted by what happened back in ’95.
Bill Clinton kind of won that fight with then-House speaker Newt Gingrich. The Tea Party, though, they said this is about principles, this is about standing up for what we believe in, this is what we got elected on. So the roots of what we’re seeing right now, in fact, the seeds were planted during that election when so many people who were aligned more with the Tea Party than with the Republican Party wound up getting elected.
Tavis: All right, so let’s go inside the budget battle now. There are four questions I want to ask you – actually, a four-part question. I’ll let you take them one at a time with regards to winners and losers. First, the Republicans, second, the Democrats, third, the president and most importantly, the American people.
Let’s take them one at a time with regards to winning and losing. First, the Republicans.
Cillizza: I think there’s a nervousness, Tavis. There’s absolutely a nervousness about being blamed for shutting down the government. They want to – they’re caught, in some ways, between that nervousness and satisfying their base. The base of the Republican Party wants more cuts. They want the government to shrink. They want to reduce the debt. And look, that base of the party matters.
They’re the ones with the passion, they’re the ones who turn out and vote, they’re the ones who helped Republicans win the House. But shutting down the government, on the other hand, may not be a smart or a politically astute move for Republicans.
John Boehner was in the House when Newt Gingrich shut the House down, or his stand-off with Bill Clinton shut the House down back in 1995. John Boehner knows what happened there – Bill Clinton became ascendant. He looked like a big figure; Newt Gingrich looked small. Three years later, Newt Gingrich was out of Congress, Bill Clinton was in the middle of his second term. So there’s a wariness there.
This is probably going to be my answer for all of them, Tavis – I think there’s a win-lose proposition here. Everybody is nervous about it, but that’s the one for Republicans.
Tavis: All right, so Democrats, what do they have at stake here?
Cillizza: Look, I think Democrats – and I’ll say Democrats broadly, because I think this was really about President Obama and his brand as he moves into 2012 – Barack Obama got elected, at least in part, on his ability to make Washington work again, to be a big enough figure to heal these divides. If Congress shuts down, if the federal government shuts down, he runs the risk, certainly, of having that brand tarnished.
Now, I would say if you again go back to that ’95 example, he still has the bully pulpit. The president has the bully pulpit. If he wants to talk every day about why Republicans shut down the government, it’s going to get coverage. Republicans could get drowned out in that message.
I don’t think Obama wants the government shut down by any means, but I think Republicans are even a little bit more nervous than Democrats at the moment about it.
Tavis: Okay, since we’re talking about the president, that was my third issue. Let me play devil’s advocate. So you say the president may not want government to shut down, it may tarnish his brand. The flip side of that is if government does shut down he will rail all over the country about how Republicans are out of control and his brand may not be tarnished but may shine brighter.
Cillizza: Actually, another point to that, Tavis, is in some ways if the president goes out to the American people and says see, this, Congress, it’s just not working, now some Democrats in Congress – remember, the Senate is still controlled by Democrats – some Democrats in Congress might not like that, but it might actually kind of make him look more presidential, kind of make Congress look small as an institution and make him look like the guy who’s looking out for the average person.
Again, this gets back to there are different demands. The president wants to get reelected. Congress wants to figure out a deal. There’s a lot going on here, but yeah, this is what I say broadly about this topic – we don’t know. This is one of those fascinating, huge events where we really don’t know what will happen politically, and I think that’s what makes everybody involved nervous, because any time you put variables, X factors, unpredictable elements into a political equation, politicians start to get a little nervous.
Tavis: So finally, then, on these four different issue areas – different groups, I should say – the American people. What’s at stake for the American people if their government shuts down in the middle of an economic crisis?
Cillizza: Yeah, look, this is the clearest one, Tavis. You can take this one totally out of the political realm. The government shutting down – I’m here in Washington – would be a devastating thing, even if in the near term, for federal workers. The federal government employs hundreds of thousands of people in this area. Talk about people not being able to work all the way down to mail not being delivered, kind of more minor things.
But look, it would be a huge deal, and the other thing that I think we have to think about is what is the impact on the broad economy? What does it do to the stock market? What does it say about the possibility of economic recovery?
If Washington looks and feels broken, that has an effect beyond just the numbers. It has a perception effect, and that perception can become reality when you’re talking about the economy. So again, it’s a dangerous game. The one loser, we could say, in all this if the government does shut down is the American people. That one I don’t think is particularly debatable, and that may ultimately be why politicians decide not to shut the government down, Tavis.
Tavis: Is it because I’m not in the Beltway every day as you are that I perceive this differently? You tell me. It appears to me from the outside that the president, wisely or unwisely, I don’t know, is letting Boehner and Reid fight this out. When I think of the president for the last few days, I think of Libya, I think of his going to Central America or wherever he was a few days ago.
I have not seen, as yet, at least, the president front and center every day wrestling with the budget. His speech the other night, again, was about Libya. So is he deliberately standing back and letting them fight this out? How am I reading this?
Cillizza: No, I think you’re exactly, 100 percent right. To the extent he’s been out there talking about anything, it’s been Libya and it’s been foreign policy broadly – Japan, with the earthquake and the tsunami. Yeah, I think he’s essentially saying hey, guys, I can’t negotiate this deal. You guys know your members and where they can vote and what they’re willing to give up and what they’re not willing to give up better than I do. Try and get this done.
I will say to you, Tavis, and to what we talked about earlier, if the government does shut down you’re going to see a whole lot more of Barack Obama casting himself as the guy who’s trying to get it to work for the American people, and that, to your point, might be a winning message for him.
Tavis: I’ve got 10 seconds here – so if the president is having a hands-off approach at the moment, Boehner and his Republican colleagues are divided on this, Boehner then on top of that is fighting with Reid and the Democrats in the Senate, who can heal this divide? Anybody in Washington?
Cillizza: I do not know. I think you have to pay attention to what’s being said by Boehner and Harry Reid. Those are the two key, key people. If they start sounding more and more pessimistic I think come April 8th we may be headed to a government shutdown. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I think it’s a real possibility at this point, Tavis.
Tavis: Well, “The Washington Post’s” Chris Cillizza we’re always delighted to have on this program. Chris, as always, thanks for your insight. It’s good to have you on.
Cillizza: Thank you for having me.
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