GOP finds its shutdown message
By Cameron Joseph - 10/05/13 06:00 AM ET
Republicans are seeking to paint Democrats as the "party of no" to help dig themselves out of a hole on the government shutdown.
The effort is aimed at softening the political blow of the shutdown while buying Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) time to figure out an end game.
Polls show more people are blaming the GOP for the shutdown than the White House, but Republicans think their work on a stream of bills that would fund specific parts of the government is helping them build a narrative of Democratic intransigence.
On Saturday, the House will vote to provide back pay to the 800,000 federal workers furloughed by the shutdown, another step meant to cast Republicans as the party proposing solutions to the shutdown.
“Republicans have figured out a strategy, by sending rifle-shot bills to open different parts of the government, that has put Democrats into a box of saying no. By voting no repeatedly it allows Republicans an excellent messaging opportunity of painting Democrats as refusing to negotiate,” says Ron Bonjean, a top GOP strategist.
A number of Republicans who have talked to House leadership in recent days say privately they largely stumbled into the strategy, and that there is no plan for how to end the shutdown.
But they argue that by continuing their line of attack, the GOP can prevent major damage to its brand while seeking to win concessions from President Obama and Democrats on the shutdown and the debt ceiling.
“They threw some seeds into the field and it kind of worked,” said Republican strategist Andrew Shore. “This strategy of opening up particular parts of the government and the president threatening to veto these rifle-shot bills makes him look intransigent.”
The GOP remains in a tough spot, however.
Two polls out late in the week found the public is blaming Republicans for the shutdown. A Fox News poll found 42 percent of voters blaming the GOP, with 32 blaming Democrats, while a CBS poll found the split at 44 percent to 35 percent.
But a 10-point gap isn’t necessarily disastrous, and GOP leaders seem to feel comfortable with standing firm.
“While no one can predict with certainty how the current shutdown will be resolved, I am confident that if we keep advancing common-sense solutions to the problems created by the shutdown that Senate Democrats and President Obama will eventually agree to meaningful discussions that would allow us to ultimately resolve this impasse,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a letter to his GOP colleagues on Thursday.
“The American people have elected a divided government and they expect us to work together and they will not countenance one party simply refusing to negotiate.”
The GOP strategy of passing individual funding bills seems to have put pressure on vulnerable House Democrats, and some of them have broken with their party to cast “yes” votes.
“Campaign ads are already being written every time a vulnerable Democrat votes no,” Bonjean said.
But there are no signs that President Obama and Senate Democrats are backing down from their insistence that the government must be funded in a single bill.
“I’m happy to have negotiations but we can’t do it with a gun held to the head of the American people,” Obama said Friday.
While Democrats broadly agree they have the upper hand in the fight, some strategists in the party say there is a real risk that the “no negotiation” position could backfire.
"Democrats have to be very careful of not being perceived as being unwilling to talk,” said Democratic strategist Dough Thornell. “It's a slight but important message adjustment to say they do want to negotiate around the budget, to sit at the table, and Republicans haven't done that.”
Still, Republican strategists say the narrative that Democrats are being unreasonable will only be effective for a short time, since the GOP is broadly perceived as the party against government.
“That's fine as a short-term back and forth but to most Americans it looks like the kind of partisan gamesmanship that drives everyone crazy about Washington,” said one Republican pollster who’s been in discussions with GOP leadership. “It's a short-term move to buy some time, but it doesn't address the fundamental problem.”
Kristen Soltis Anderson, a GOP pollster whose company counts Boehner as a client, agreed that the GOP’s messaging challenge is “very tough.”
“The way they soften the blow is what Speaker Boehner has been doing, continue to go through plans B, C, D, and E, that's gotten Democrats to say they won't compromise,” Anderson said.
“That's the best case for Republicans, to be saying they'll compromise and Democrats have not. But what’s the endgame?”