Paul Begala, Democratic Strategist, On A GOP Government Shutdown: 'Bring It On'

The Democratic Governors Association hosted a panel on Thursday with a group of Democratic strategists involved in the 1994 elections who argued that 2010 won't be as bad for the party as that year. They stressed that Democrats need to be more specific in portraying what a Congress controlled by Republicans will look like and pointed to the gubernatorial races as key to gaining -- and retaining -- power.

The panelists, which included Democratic strategist Paul Begala, former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, former Clinton deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, and DGA Executive Director Nathan Daschle, said that Democrats need to stay focused on not only talking about how many of the country's problems were created by Republicans but also stressing what they would do if they regain a majority.

One idea floated by some conservatives is to shut down the government in order to block President Obama's agenda. "There's going to be a government shutdown, just like in '95 and '96 but we're going to win it this time and I'll be fightin' on your side," said GOP pollster Dick Morris at a recent Americans for Prosperity Foundation conference. Right-wing CNN pundit Erick Erickson and Alaska GOP Senate candidate Joe Miller have also endorsed the idea.

Christina Bellantoni of Talking Points Memo asked the panelists at the DGA event whether Democrats should be talking more about a possible government shutdown by Republicans. Begala responded that it's too "abstract" to talk about on the campaign trail, but if it happens, Democrats should welcome it and go on the offensive. "But should it come, you know to quote the previous president, 'Bring it on,'" he said. "I think to voters right now, particularly independents, there are theoretical conservatives and operational conservatives."

Begala said that many independent voters seem to be all in favor of the theory of lower government spending, but they are also against having any of their services cut.

They're for more teachers, more cops, more firefighters. They're for Social Security, they're for Medicare, they're for veterans benefits. When it gets to any specifics, by golly, they like it. People are not running around holding up signs, saying, 'Cancel veterans benefits.' They're not holding up signs saying, 'Unemployment benefits should stop.' Right? They're just saying -- it's a general matter against spending. So Republicans win when they say, spending spending spending is bad. [...]

But then when a Democrat stands up and says, 'What he means is, abolish Social Security, abolish veterans benefits, abolish Medicare," people go, "We don't want to do that!" ... No one in Colorado saying, gee, I wish I had fewer firefighters in Boulder. ... I think we should make it operational, not theoretical.

Harold Ickes, former deputy chief of staff to Bill Clinton, said that national Republicans generally "have a much more profound understanding of governors" than Democrats do. "You see the national Republican leadership has really put its weight behind raising money and increasing the number of seats it controls. "One, they want to control state houses because they want to control state houses," he said. "But this year, they understand is not unique, but it's close to unique, because of the context of the census reapportionment and redistricting." He added that people like Republican Governors Association Chair Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) know that even if Democrats hold the House in 2010, Republicans are "confident" they will be able to take it back in 2012 if they win enough governorships and control the redistricting process.

The panelists also all argued that while Democrats are struggling this year as in 1994, the Republicans are in a far weaker position, lacking unity, specific policy proposals such as Newt Gingrich's Contract with America and general popularity. "I think one of the biggest differentiating factors is that in 1994, Democrats had been in charge for 40 years," said Myers. "We hadn't had a taste of what Republicans were going to do. That was a huge difference."