WASHINGTON — In the fall of 2013, Republican hard-liners engineered a 16-day shutdown of the federal government, implausibly insisting that President Barack Obama acquiesce to their demand that the Affordable Care Act be stripped of all funding.
The gambit failed miserably. The #Republican Party’s already low standing in public opinion polls plunged further. Mr. Obama and Democratic lawmakers were widely seen as victorious.
Then the following November, something happened that plainly informed the moves of Democrats today as they drove the government toward another shutdown: Voters handed Republicans overwhelming victories and a Senate majority — in large part because of dissatisfaction with the man in the White House. The shutdown was a distant memory.
“I don’t think anybody paid a big price for it,” Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat who is facing a competitive re-election race this fall, said of the 2014 election.
For Democrats on the ballot in many of the states that President Trump carried, the fresh government shutdown is unmistakably perilous, especially if it is seen as a strong-armed move to protect undocumented immigrants brought to this country illegally as children. And Mr. Manchin voted to keep the government open, as did four other Trump-state Democrats.
If voters had forgotten the shutdown months later in 2013, they may forget it even more quickly in 2018. In the dizzying news cycle of the Trump era, voters can hardly remember what happened a few days ago.
Mr. Trump is not just historically unpopular; he is also central to voter perceptions of the Republican Party — a lesson Republicans ruefully learned in the electoral wipeouts they suffered in Virginia and New Jersey last November.
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released Friday found that 38 percent of voters said they wanted to send a message of opposition to Mr. Trump with their midterm vote, the highest figure making such a statement since Democrats reclaimed both chambers of Congress in 2006.
The shutdown of 2013 and another in 1995 featured a deft Democratic politician in the White House who skillfully directed voter anger to the Republicans in Congress. President Bill Clinton was able to blame Newt Gingrich, the House speaker at the time, even after he vetoed spending bills that would have kept the government open.
This time around, Democrats in Congress are confident that they can rely on Mr. Trump’s inevitable outbursts to motivate their base and win over moderates. That confidence has emboldened Democrats to engage in some brinkmanship that they may have steered away from with a less bombastic figure in the White House.