10/01/2013 11:36 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2013

Don't Call It Gridlock: The Biggest Difference Between This Government Shutdown and the Last


Well, so much for having a functional representative democracy. The U.S. government shut down last night on the basis of tea party demands that any continued funding include scrapping President Obama's signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act. Any hopes that the "adults" in the Republican Party would reassert control and actually participate in governing have been dashed once again.

This isn't the first time a Democratic president has endured a government shutdown due to an intransigent Republican House Majority. The previous time was during the 104th Congress (1995-96), which gave Newt Gingrich the Speaker's gavel. (Maybe this whole episode is a surreal advertisement for the return of Crossfire!)

But there's an important difference between this shutdown and the last: In the last shutdown, Republicans could genuinely assert that the public was on their side.

It may seem like ancient history now, but the Republican landslide of 1994 ended a Democratic House majority that had lasted for 40 years. The last Republican Speakership had ended in 1955. President Clinton had only been elected in 1992 with 43% of the vote (due to Perot's third party bid attracting 19 percent). Gingrich and his fellow House members had run on their "Contract with America." They had won decisively. They spent the next two years fighting tooth-and-nail to enact that agenda.

The 1995/96 government shutdown was evidence that Gingrich and company had overplayed their hand. But, looking back, we can at least reasonably understand why they could think they had so much support.

No such luck, this time.

If this shutdown was happening in 2011, then we would have a direct analogy to the 1995 shutdown. Democrats win presidential election --> Republicans win midterm election in a landslide --> two parties battle hard and come to a complete standstill. But what is happening right now is far more bizarre. President Obama was just reelected. Democrats gained seats in the House and the Senate. Democrats even received 1.36 million more votes in the House, but partisan gerrymandering ensured an enduring Republican House majority. The Republicans lost the last election while campaigning on the repeal of Obamacare. Now they've decided to shut the entire government down unless Obamacare is hamstrung, regardless.

Republicans controlled the redistricting process in most states post-2010. They carved up the map to ensure a continuing majority. David Weigel ran the numbers, and points out that in 2014, "If Democrats swept the table and won all the districts currently rated as tossups or "leaning" Republican, they'd win 213 seats, five short of a majority." It doesn't particularly matter whether most of the country dislikes their current hissy-fit. It doesn't particularly matter that most of the country just voted for the other guy. They've assembled districts full of Republicans. They've assembled a partisan media echo-chamber that assures them what they're doing is right. They've assembled wealthy hyperconservative backers who will reward them for standing against majority rule.

The last time the government was shut down, you could reasonably label it "gridlock." Two parties could genuinely lay claim to having the will of the people on their side. They pursued their agendas to a standoff. This time, the Republican Party no longer has that rationale. They simply don't care about governing anymore. And they righteously believe that no one can make them.

The scariest thing is, they might not be wrong.