With a government shutdown tonight now pretty likely, it’s as good a time as any to consider how Americans may react: not to a theoretical event, but to the real thing.
Yesterday Nate Silver had an important post on that subject, based in no small part on surveys showing that Americans are not thinking about politics much at all right now, and will experience a government shutdown as a nasty shock:
Washington is a political town 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, and the hamster wheel keeps turning even when the nation’s attention is focused somewhere else. When the public is less engaged with day-to-day politics, Washington acts as even more of an echo chamber, and politicians may conflate winning the support of elites with popular opinion.
This is mostly a warning, I suppose, to Paul D. Ryan and the Republicans. His proposed budget for 2012 includes a number of politically risky changes, including to entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
Mr. Ryan is probably not feeling that opposition in a visceral way yet — most voters don’t know who he is, let alone what his budget says. (Most voters don’t even know that Republicans control the House but not the Senate.) But the further Mr. Ryan and the Republicans take this proposal, the greater the risk of a backlash.
In particular, most voters are not expecting a shutdown, so if one were to occur, the political winds could go from being nearly still to gale-force in a hurry.
And those winds will not necessarily be driven by the sorts of micro-tweaks in political messaging coming out of Washington today, with both parties trying to deflect blame based on spinning every development.
The big picture this week is that Republicans, with the Tea Party folk howling at their back, are pushing big changes in the role of government in national life, including elimination of Medicare and Medicaid as they’ve traditionally operated. Democrats are resisting, though not that loudly. The government is shutting down over it all.
If I were a Republican, I would be very nervous about how this is going to play out, not in the news media but among Americans who have not been following any of the back-and-forth at all.