Who gets blamed for a government shutdown?

Now that the partial shutdown of the federal government has become the ...

Posted: Jan 11, 2019 1:06 PM
Updated: Jan 11, 2019 1:06 PM

Now that the partial shutdown of the federal government has become the longest in American history, and with no end in sight as President Donald Trump and House Democrats dig in over his proposal for a border wall, it's worth revisiting who is likely to pay a political price.

Who would own the shutdown has been a point of contention between the two parties. In early December during a televised Oval Office meeting about the shutdown, Trump said, "I'll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. So, I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it."

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Schumer has seized on that declaration by Trump even as the President has sought more recently to shift blame to Democrats.

"The President made clear he wants a shutdown," said Schumer after the meeting. And a shutdown we've got.

Starting with the mid-1990s clashes between President Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich's Republican majority in Congress, there have been seven government shutdowns or close calls that were the subject of polling. While each situation was unique, Republicans have been blamed for most of them, although Democrats took the blame for the most recent, a short affair back in January, even though Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House at the time. The President hasn't been blamed in any of the previous shutdowns.

The shutdowns in late 1995 and 1995-96 were clearly blamed on the Republicans, who controlled the House and Senate at the time even though a Democrat, Clinton, was in the White House. There was a partial shutdown in November 1995 and a full shutdown from December of 1995 into January 1996. Seven polls were conducted prior to, during and after those shutdowns asking who was to blame -- Clinton or the Republicans in Congress -- for their lack of compromise. A plurality of respondents said Republicans were more to blame than Clinton in every single poll. Between 43% and 51% blamed Republicans and between 25% and 34% blamed Clinton, depending on the poll.

In 1998, the government almost shut down when Clinton and the Republicans struggled to find compromise on a budget deal. Only one poll was taken on the possible shutdown, by Gallup/CNN/USA Today, and 56% of Americans said they would blame the Republican leaders in Congress if the government had to shut down.

Fast-forward to the next Democratic President, Barack Obama, who was working with a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-led Senate. After days of budget battles in Congress, a shutdown was avoided at the last minute in 2011. Thirty-seven percent said in an NBC/WSJ poll that they would blame the Republicans in Congress over Democrats in Congress (20%) or Obama (20%).

A shutdown in 2013 and near-shutdown in 2015 tell similar stories. In the six polls that asked who would be blamed for the 16-day shutdown in 2013, more people -- between 38% and 53% -- attributed the blame to the Republicans in Congress. In 2015, when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, two polls found the blame would go to Republicans and one poll showed a torn public, with some blaming Republicans and some blaming Obama and the Democrats.

While these shutdowns (or close calls) all carry the blame for Republicans, they also share similar circumstances. In 1995, 1996, 1998, 2011, 2013 and 2015, there was a Democratic president in the White House and at least one chamber of Congress controlled by the Republican Party (in four cases, both chambers were controlled by Republicans). So while this could be about blaming Republicans, the shutdown in 2018 shows it may be about blaming the opposite party of the President.

In early 2018, Democrats, despite holding neither chamber of Congress nor the White House, caused a brief shutdown over the plight of the children of undocumented immigrants Trump had stripped of protected status. Seven polls asked who should be or was going to be blamed for the shutdown. Three polls were torn between blaming Republicans and Democrats, two found a plurality who attributed responsibility to the Republicans, one poll went for the Democrats and one was torn between Democrats and Trump.

So Americans seemed to blame everyone that time around. Fewer blamed Trump (between 16% and 31%) than Democrats (between 29% and 34%), but both parties were, in the end, held responsible for the gridlock that caused a shutdown. But that's a change from the past four almost or actual shutdowns.

And now, in early 2019? The showdown is over Trump's demand for funding for his wall at the border with Mexico, and Democrats are balking at additional border security money because they say more than $1 billion allocated in January was not entirely spent. Trump holds the presidency, but Democrats newly hold the majority in the House. This blame could be placed on the Democrats, as the opposing party to the President (and would fit with the 1998-2015 trend) or it could be seen as everyone's fault (fitting with the shutdown in early 2018).

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