Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Which side of the shutdown mess gets most of the blame?

Published: Sunday, Oct. 6 2013 12:00 p.m. MDT

The Capitol in Washington is seen under an overcast sky at dawn, Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. The government shutdown entered its second week with no end in sight and ominous signs that the United States was closer to the first default in the nation's history as Speaker John Boehner ruled out any measure to boost borrowing authority without concessions from President Barack Obama.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

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Politics this week is all about the partial government shutdown. Our thoughts:

Which side gets most of the blame?

Pignanelli: “I am glad the government is shut down ... for the first time in years it’s safe to talk on the phone and send emails without anybody listening in!” — Jay Leno

In this political wrestling match the GOP is ignoring or decimating every fundamental rule of public relations strategy. For example, they are fighting something (Obamacare) with nothing. If there was a solid alternative Republicans could rally around, the battle cry would be “Replace Obamacare” instead of the weak current theme of “defund Obamacare” and the resulting public perceptions would be very different. A substantial percentage of Americans are suspicious of the president’s health care reform, yet don’t understand most of the details and impact to them. They perceive a government shutdown to be a greater threat to their livelihood.

Four weeks of government inaction in 1995-96 transformed perceptions of Bill Clinton as a clueless, irrelevant doofus into a competent statesman that oozed presidential grandeur. If the stock market tanks — along with consumer spending — in the next several weeks, “no drama Obama” will be rehabilitated from his current problems, as Americans will crave his steadiness. The Affordable Care Act was passed by Congress, signed by the president and upheld by the Supreme Court. So the measure can only be killed by starving government — jeopardizing 401(k)s and a struggling economy — which the country will not tolerate. Both parties deserve blame for the government strangulation, but because the GOP lacks a coherent strategy — they suffer the most. Republicans are fulfilling Gov. Bobby Jindal’s observations that they are the stupid party.

Webb: Republicans are going to lose politically because, thanks mostly to rigid ideologues, they’re using foolish and illogical strategy to fight Obamacare and big government.

I appreciate the fact that some Republicans feel they are taking a principled stand. I’m sure General Custer felt he was making a principled stand before he and his troops were massacred. Fighting Obamacare and long-term deficit spending is a lengthy war. In a war you sometimes lose a skirmish, sometimes retreat, save your ammo, and wait for reinforcements instead of charging headlong into a firefight seriously outgunned and outmanned with no hope of winning — however strong your principles.

Republicans have (or had) realistic hope of gaining reinforcements by winning control of the Senate in 2014 and the presidency in 2016. Then they could really attack the size and expense of government and win the real war. But they won’t take either the Senate or the presidency if they continue to alienate mainstream voters all over the country.

President Obama and the Democrats are certainly taking the country in the wrong direction. Their big-government, budget-busting policies threaten economic disaster. But let’s fight them smartly. Let’s use solid strategy.

What are the political ramifications for Utah’s members of Congress?

Pignanelli: Leftist Democrats will harp on Jim Matheson for his pragmatic support of the House resolution. Sen. Mike Lee is a perfect example of what challenges the GOP faces. While I abhor the stall of legislative process, Lee is acting out of deep personal convictions beyond tea party nonsense the loonies are screeching. His well-written ebook “Why John Roberts Was Wrong About Healthcare: A Conservative Critique of The Supreme Court’s Obamacare Ruling” articulates these concerns. For whatever reason, Lee is not elucidating what I believe he feels: Chief Justice Roberts was more worried about his legacy than constitutional principles by performing an atrocious act of judicial activism to keep the ACA alive. But Lee’s public remarks do not reveal this thought process, so his arguments are dismissed as right-wing tripe. Many lawmakers share Lee’s deep passionate intellectual offense to the expansion of government through Obamacare, but are delivering a message that sounds partisan and petty — incurring the wrath of serious Republican business leaders.

Webb: As I’ve previously written, we have an interesting habit of thinking Congress, as an institution, is a disaster. But we like our own members. The danger for Utah’s congressmen, especially Sen. Lee, is that mainstream voters will decide they’re part of the problem and look for alternatives. A lot of Utahns, including many business and community leaders, are upset at Lee. He could face a robust intra-party challenge. Utah is a conservative state, but it isn’t Texas or the deep South. In the minds of many voters, Lee is flirting on the fringes of extremism. Utahns don’t like extremists.

Is continued federal government dysfunction inevitable?

Pignanelli: Political experts explain the partisan configurations for House seats, along with extremist influence on Senators, offers little hope for mainstream action in the near future.

Webb: It is utterly insane that the leaders of the greatest country in the world can’t lead, can’t govern, can’t provide simple stability and predictability so businesses can invest and jobs can be created. The economy wants to take off. Never have business and economic opportunities been so great. But we suffer a crisis of governance, creating great uncertainty, and it’s not going to end any time soon.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D’Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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