WASHINGTON -- The plane hasn't taken off, let alone crashed, but the pilot and co-pilot are already on the intercom blaming each other for catastrophe.
That's what's going on as President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner maneuver toward a March 4 deadline for extending or changing this year's federal budget. They are issuing preemptive "I told you so"s, hoping to insulate themselves from blame if no deal is reached and the government shuts down.
The president moved first. He rarely issues veto threats, never mind carrying them out. But he ordered his Office of Management and Budget to issue one on his behalf last Tuesday. In essence, he said that if Congress sent him a deep-cut bill like the one House Republicans are gleefully crafting, he'd veto it. Having warned them in advance, he was saying, he couldn't be blamed if the GOP went ahead.
On Tuesday, Boehner -- eager to stay ahead of his Tea Party Republican Guard -- answered back. For his part, he said, he would refuse to consider a plain bill to temporarily extend the existing budget in its current form past March 4. Having warned the president in advance, he was saying, he couldn't be blamed for the shutdown.
So, if there is one on March 4 -- and we seem headed almost inexorably in that direction -- who will suffer the most politically?
History is not really a guide. The last big shutdown, in 1995, ended up being a clear winner for then-President Bill Clinton, but primarily because of the hubris and overreach of the then-Republican Speaker (and potential 2012 presidential candidate) Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich managed to make the whole drama look like a matter of personal pique. Go back and look at the famous -- and, for Gingrich, devastating -- front page of the New York Daily News. It showed Newt as a baby with a bottle; politics is a game of comparison, and he made Bill Clinton look mature.
Boehner is no Gingrich, which is a good thing for Republicans. Obama, for that matter, is no Clinton, which may also be a good thing for Republicans. The current president, for all his earnestness, doesn't have Bubba's desperate, savvy sense of quick public maneuver. The president is not as good at spur-of-the-moment survivalist spin.
(If you want to see Clinton's shrewd skills in action, check out my MSNBC colleague Chris Matthews' hour-long documentary Monday night at 10 pm. It's about Clinton's successful effort to become a "global" leader in his post-presidency.)
Still, the likelihood is that the Republicans will lose politically if there is a shutdown. First, it's clear that many of them want one, whatever their leaders say. Some of them will celebrate it on the floor of the House if it happens. They won't be able to help themselves.
The 80 or so first-year Tea Party types in the House are as eager as college protesters taking over the Ad Building a generation ago. They want to shut the place down as an act of protest against what they regard -- not entirely without reason -- as a runaway, run-amok government.
But you know they are way out there when Rep. Michelle Bachmann -- yes, her -- says shutting down the government would be a bad idea.
And they would be shutting things down in the name of some cuts that it will be easy enough for the president and his Democratic allies to cry havoc about: cuts to the FBI, state and local law enforcement, and the Food and Drug Administration, just to name three.
Nor will the Republicans be operating on favorable political terrain.
To be sure, Obama is not popular: his approval rating is 47 percent in Gallup; his "reelect" against a generic Republican is only 45 percent. People take a dim view of his handling of the economy, and remain gloomy about where the country is headed economically, even if they feel a little better about their own situation.
But the Republicans' approval rating is 47 percent, too, and that of Congress as a whole remains a starkly anemic 25 percent. That doesn't suggest the Republicans are dealing from strength.
More important, even though people say they care about balancing the budget, polls show that they care much more about unemployment and maintaining their government benefits. If the GOP is shutting down the government in the name of fiscal responsibility -- and that will be the claim -- they will have to answer for the immediate disruptive consequences of doing so. It'll be a hard sell. And if a million or more federal workers are suddenly sent home, that looks like more temporary unemployment, no matter who the employer is.
Republicans have decided to make enemies of public employees, but it is hard to demonize them when they have suddenly been told to stay home.
And other consequences will be real. Forget the hyperbole and focus on the one thing that matters most: Social Security. The last time there was a shutdown, in 1995, the distribution of checks was disrupted. This time, there are more people involved and fewer of them will have to wait for the mail before voicing their displeasure.
Some 60 million Americans now receive Social Security payments of one kind or another. According to the Social Security Administration, some 80 percent of them receive their money in the form of a direct deposit. And keep in mind that, in 2008, voters 65 and older went heavily Republican, voting by a 52-to-44 margin for Sen. John McCain over then-Sen. Barack Obama. Does the GOP really want to risk its rep with one of its own constituencies?
The first wave of Social Security deposits after a shutdown -- to about 12-15 million people -- is scheduled to go out on March 10.
That's the date when the plane really does crash.
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