President Obama is hoping he'll emerge the winner in the current government shutdown, just as President Clinton did back in the 1990s.
In a game of chicken, one side or the other is supposed to cave at the last second. If that doesn't happen, both sides will go off the cliff together.
That about sums up the politics of Tuesday's partial shutdown of the federal government, a result brought about by the House Republicans' insistence on legislating changes to President Obama's Affordable Care Act and the refusal of Obama and Senate Democrats to discuss the matter.
From the standpoint of public opinion, there will be a winner. Democrats are convinced they'll enjoy a soft landing and that it's the Republicans who will crash and burn. That's what happened in 1995-96 when a budget fight between the Republican Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton resulted in a 21-day standoff. That's why Democrats aren't really upset about the latest turn of events.
Democrats are convinced, and they may well be correct, that it's the GOP that will be seen as unreasonable and intransigent. For its part, the GOP hopes to score points by emphasizing its effort to avoid some of the more distasteful consequences of Obamacare, Obama's signature health care plan that took effect Tuesday.
Most people probably don't know it, but government shutdowns are nothing new in Washington, D.C. The last one was in 1995-96, but there have been 17 since 1977, according to the Congressional Research Office.
But for the histrionics, they generally don't make a big impression because core government functions continue uninterrupted. Mail service will continue, the military is still on duty, Social Security benefits remain in place, as do meat inspections, law enforcement and disaster relief.
If it's true that nothing could be finer than a crisis that is minor, government shutdowns aren't that big a deal — except in the abstract. They represent a failure by the responsible parties to oversee a fully functioning government, the result being an unnecessary disruption of many people's lives.
There's no doubt that millions of Americans share the distress of House Republicans over the fallout of Obamacare, which is in many respects a government takeover of the health care system.
Then again, Obamacare was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. Holding only one-half of one of the three branches of government — the U.S. House of Representatives — the Republicans don't have the clout to dictate to the Democrats. They can block the spending authorization needed to keep the entire federal government running, but they can't pass anything without Democratic votes. That's one reason their efforts would be better directed to the November 2014 elections.
Republicans have attempted to draw public attention to the substance of their stance. They want President Obama to delay by one year Obamacare's mandate requiring individuals to purchase insurance, just as he did the employer mandate. They also want to reinforce the limit on government subsidies of health care premiums for members of Congress and congressional staffs so that they will be in the same boat as private citizens. Democrats refuse to discuss either proposal.
In the hyperpartisan atmosphere that exists, that's probably the smart political play. A public focused on a shutdown of national parks, the Smithsonian and the National Zoo isn't going to pay much attention to the intricacies of the unfathomably complicated Obamacare legislation.
At least, that's what Republicans fear and Democrats hope as long as the shutdown continues.