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Shutdown as Campaign Issue? That Was So Last Year

Dems Shutdown 7 100913 445x295 Shutdown as Campaign Issue? That Was So Last Year
Democrats campaigned against the government shutdown. What a difference a year makes. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Even before the government started shutting down, one year ago Tuesday night, it seemed a sure bet that throughout the coming campaign congressional Republicans would be made to rue the political consequences of their showdown strategy.

Ample evidence to support that theory cropped up all over the country by the middle of October, a barrage of attack ads that started airing right after the GOP sued for peace and normal federal operations resumed.

But, five weeks before Election Day, that budget standoff has all but vanished as a polarizing issue. Democrats — once giddy at the prospect of riding a wave of voter antagonism toward the Republicans for pushing their confrontational approach so far — are now counting on an almost entirely different set of issues and arguments to drive their base to the polls and hold off gains by the other side.

“The government shutdown cost America $24 billion,” declared the narrator in a TV spot shown across Arkansas last fall by Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who was already gearing up to defend his seat against an intense challenge from Rep. Tom Cotton, a freshman Republican. “Cotton and a small group of reckless congressmen took our country to the brink of default. His irresponsible actions weakened our credit and damaged our economy.”

But these days, that line of attack is wholly missing from Pryor’s multifaceted campaign playbook. Recent ads have explained the senator’s support for the 2010 health care law, touted Democratic efforts to spur job creation, chided Cotton for backing “tax cuts for billionaires.” He even has lambasted Cotton for a tangential budget vote two years ago “against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola.”

As of the end of last week, at least, the shutdown also was missing from the quiver of attack ads created by the other two Democratic senators at great risk of losing their seats to incumbent House Republicans.

Both Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Cory Gardner of Colorado voted to maintain the regular flow of federal money to departments and agencies only on the condition that Obamacare be delayed, defunded or repealed — positions that also pushed the government close to a default on its debt. But neither of their opponents is mentioning the issue on TV these days. Sen. Mark Udall’s campaign spent a day in August talking about how Gardner’s support for the shutdown delayed flood relief to their state, but in his advertising, the senator has focused on the Republican’s opposition to abortion rights. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu has been taking Cassidy to task for his votes on immigration and taxes.

For the House Republicans in the most re-election jeopardy at the moment (there are only 14, all of whom joined the budget blockade), the shutdown has become fodder for their opponents in a handful of early candidate forums. But it’s only been featured prominently in one race — and in a way that’s distinct from the expected Democratic thrust about GOP hostage-taking and obstructionism.

Although Rep. Lee Terry’s vote “delayed the opening of a new veteran’s hospital in Omaha,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in an ad that began airing in Nebraska last week, there’s an even bigger reason he should be denied a ninth term and replaced with state Sen. Brad Ashford. “When asked if he’d take his government salary during the shutdown, Terry replied, ‘Dang straight . . . I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college.’”

The shifting emphasis is remarkable given how, just after the budget impasse ended, polling showed that congressional Republicans were bearing most of the blame — with 75 percent of adults saying that, in evaluating their lawmakers’ suitability for re-election in 2014, “his or her position on the debt ceiling and government shutdown position” would matter somewhat or a great deal.

The reason for the change appears driven by the public’s short attention span, which fuels the peripatetic nature of political campaigns, combined with a Congress that long ago sealed its reputation for doing nothing better than gridlock.

Given how congressional approval ratings have been at record lows for most of the past four years, it may be little surprise that voters seem minimally interested this fall in debating the blame for a somewhat abstract and distant crisis that was manufactured at the Capitol and didn’t seem to do much harm to everyday people.

The electorate has made clear it’s turned up its collective nose at legislative gamesmanship-as-usual, so it stands to reason voters are way more interested in arguments about issues that have more recently grabbed big chunks of the national mindshare and could have a tangible impact on their lives. That’s the economy and job creation above all else, but also the next step in the health care law’s implementation, the broken immigration system, the newest terrorist threat and the steps toward yet another war.

“The public is totally turned off to all this ‘crying wolf’ talk,” retiring Democratic Rep. James P. Moran of northern Virginia said just before the House started its pre-election recess. “The only people hurt a year ago were the federal workers like my constituents, and even they’re not scared anymore.”

Democratic Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, whose race for a 20th term in West Virginia is a Tossup, said he has never considered trying to connect his challenger, state Sen. Evan Jenkins, to the budget brinkmanship policies of the House Republicans. “I don’t need to do that to convince my voters he’d be another one of those guys if he got here — a right wing extremist paid for by the billionaires.”

There is at least one Republican whose campaign has spent general election advertising dollars to conjure up memories of the shutdown. This month Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been airing an ad across Kentucky in which TV news commentators describe his deal-making skill — with particular emphasis on his work to end the showdown. McConnell “was the adult here,” Lou Dobbs of Fox Business says in the final clip. “What would have happened here if he hadn’t been there?”

But would even an impasse that lasted much longer than 16 days be motivating the voters now? The best guess, given everything else on their minds, is probably not.

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