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At some point, the Obama administration will run out of cuts that it can live with, and the Republican House will have to decide whether to shut down the government by refusing to vote for ongoing continuing resolutions. The decision will be easy: Either shut down or shut up! There is no way the GOP can have any ongoing leverage if it refuses to close things down once Obama says no to further budget cuts.
The question is: How can the Republicans shut down the government without suffering the same defeat that President Clinton inflicted on them in 1995 and 1996?
A total government shutdown is like a strike in a labor dispute. The idea is to punish the public until it forces management (in this case, the Democrats) to give in. In any strike, the key to winning public sympathy and support is to articulate clearly one’s demands and to formulate them so that they elicit a positive response.
The central problem confronting the Republicans is that they seek a panoply of cuts ranging all across the federal budget. Their desired $61 billion of reductions ($100 billion annualized) go into practically every area of discretionary spending. There is no way to describe them in a sound bite.
And, when they cannot tell voters what the cuts are about, the electorate always imagines the worst. People assume the GOP is cutting Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment benefits, Head Start and every other popular program. Republicans, helpless to describe what they are really cutting (because the cuts are so pluralistic), can only be defensive. Inevitably, the debate centers around numbers ($61 billion in cuts) rather than any substantive description of the cuts themselves.
To avoid this pitfall, Republicans should not simply shut down the government to achieve the multiple cuts in their proffered package of $61 billion in reductions. They need to scrap that agenda after the negotiations fail. Such a broad-based package of cuts is fine for negotiations, but it makes a poor message when the actual shutdown comes.
Instead, Republicans must do the opposite: concentrate their cuts on two or three vulnerable programs or agencies, while leaving all the others totally untouched. Such a strategy will let the party explain its cuts and phrase them in a broadly popular way.
For example, the federal government spends $40 billion a year on highway construction.
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