Government shutdown: Is it making red and blue states more purple?

With the federal government shutdown suspending services and closing facilities, state leaders of both parties are moderating their positions to help constituents through this challenging time. 

Mike Fender/The Indianapolis Star/AP
Gov. Mike Pence talks to reporters, Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, in Indianapolis. Mr. Pence said his former colleagues in Washington should look for compromise on areas like repealing the medical device tax.

Red and blue may dominate Washington politics as the federal government shutdown grinds on, but across the country, where local politicians are facing reelection in the next few years, the color of practical politics is turning downright purple.

From New Jersey to California, Republicans and Democrats are taking pages from each other’s playbook.

Indiana’s Republican governor, Mike Pence, said Tuesday the state will fund food stamps and welfare checks through the shutdown. And in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who received national attention for his battles with public sector labor unions, removed barriers to a federally supported boat launch on the Mississippi and said the state will fund state parks that were ordered shut down because they receive some federal money.

In California, meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, who has appeared openly reluctant to announce any plans to help out Californians hit by the partial shutdown, is being hailed for his fiscal conservatism.

As the shutdown drags on, “there will be more and more purple ground at the local level,” says David McCuan, political science professor at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.

“It’s no longer the suburbs versus the cities, it’s delivery of services to the people,” he says, adding, “there is an old adage that when it comes to the streets, there are no Democratic or Republican streets, there are only American streets.”

Over the long term, if the shutdown is not resolved, Professor McCuan says, this tone will rise to the national level as well. “There will be increasing calls from the moderates in the party to find common ground,” he says.

Of course, politics play into all these decisions, points out government policy attorney Leonard Wolfe, from the law firm Dykema in Lansing, Mich.

“Politicians who are up for reelection want to show that they are in control of their state,” he says, adding that the average voter does not make distinctions about where the money comes from for their government services.

“People want to know why they can’t get into their parks or get their benefits check,” he says, adding that they are not interested in partisanship. “They expect their local politicians to be able to help,” says Mr. Wolfe. Consequently, he notes, politicians are making gestures that say, “I am in control here.”

“They are separating themselves from what is going on in Washington,” he adds.

Attuned to this grassroots mood, Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey just released a campaign ad with the slogan, “compromise is not a dirty word.”

There are limits, however, to how much local politicians can “bail out” the federal government, even when they are so inclined, points out Christine Kelleher-Palus, associate professor and chair of Villanova University’s Department of Public Administration in Philadelphia.

The recent economic downturn has left states in a very difficult position, she says via e-mail, and they are struggling in many areas because of the shutdown.

“States are doing a lot of analyses and contingency planning – trying to figure out how individual programs are affected, and for how long they can be sustained,” she says.

New Jersey’s Governor Christie has been unpredictable for a while, points out political analyst Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

“He terrifies Republicans because they can’t count on him to toe the party line,” she notes. But, she says, with the safety net being threatened for an ever-widening group of constituents, “we are facing an interesting dynamic with politicians. There are more and more willing to do the helpful thing.”

She points out that in California, Governor Brown has also been a source of unexpected moves, a course she expects to continue.

“Remember that he is a Jesuit who lived with Mother Teresa” and might be expected to take a progressive party line, yet he has held the line on expenses and been touted for his frugality.

The bigger question, she says, is how more extreme politicians will respond as the shared pain spreads among constituents. “It’s an interesting drama and we don’t know how it will play out.”

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