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What the 1996 Government Shutdown Should Teach the GOP


After the 1996 shutdowns, Republicans surrendered and lost their nerve on fighting big government. And it appears as if they are about to repeat history.

If we lived in a sane country, a colleague recently told this writer, the case for delaying Obamacare would be self-evident. The president has already selectively waived and delayed various parts of the law to benefit his cronies. Why shouldn’t the rest of America get some relief?

When you look at it that way, it changes the appearance of the whole budget stalemate in Washington. Both houses of Congress have passed continuing resolutions that would keep the federal government open. President Obama and the Democrats want to shut the government down to jam Obamacare down our throats.

Conservatives on Capitol Hill believe we live in such a sane country. The Democrats are betting we don’t. Already we are hearing about “terrorists” and “hostage-takers” who will shut down the government if they don’t get their way. Hint: they don’t mean the party that won’t delay Obamacare.

While conservatives are supposed to have a healthy respect for the past, here it is the liberals who are relying on history. For over twenty years, Republicans have always been blamed for government shutdowns, no matter their context.

When President George H.W. Bush said he didn’t want to violate his “read my lips” pledge against tax increases, it was said that he was shutting down the government by refusing to accept the congressional Democrats’ budget. But when President Bill Clinton resisted the congressional Republicans’ budget, which contained spending cuts, this time Congress was blamed for the shutdown.

Ted Cruz and company may argue that with better messaging, things will be different this time. But the media outlets most likely to carry this message reach those who already agree with conservatives. The persuadable middle still consumes media outlets that will blame the Republicans, from the major networks to Comedy Central.

Moreover, some conservatives actually do believe a government shutdown is required to give them leverage to force any concessions on Obamacare from the president. But it will have to be a long one.

“The guy already lost the House so that he could get Obamacare—do you really think he’s going to cry uncle one week into a few embassy closures?” asked the conservative journalist David Freddoso. “Obama cries uncle only when tens of thousands of government employees start having their homes foreclosed because they’re not being paid.”

Some conservatives would welcome even this scenario. After all, it seems logical that supporters of big government would have more to lose from a shutdown than government-cutters. Here looking at the past would also be helpful, but some conservatives are peddling revisionist history on this front.

Chief among them is Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House during the 1995-96 government shutdowns. “We were able to extract a great deal from the shutdown and could’ve gotten even more had we pressed further,” Gingrich said in a recent interview. The newly christened “Crossfire” host pointed out that Republicans only lost two House seats and actually picked up two Senate seats in the 1996 elections.

Others observe that after the government shutdowns, Clinton came to an agreement with congressional Republicans in 1997 that balanced the budget and cut taxes. But some important details are missing from this account.

First, the shutdowns were a major reason Republicans were dealing with a recently reelected President Clinton rather than a newly elected President Bob Dole. After the 1994 elections, Clinton was on the ropes. Even the hapless Dole candidacy looked formidable. The shutdowns helped reverse that momentum.

Clinton’s approval ratings rose after the shutdowns were over and generally stayed high. By contrast, Gingrich’s numbers tanked and generally stayed low. Gallup concluded, “The public appeared to turn particularly strongly against the Speaker after his budget confrontation with Bill Clinton and the resulting U.S. Government shutdown in late 1995.”

Gingrich has good reason to want us to forget that history because his behavior is a major reason Republicans lost the shutdown showdown at the time. Gingrich complained that Clinton wouldn’t discuss the budget with him on the flights to and from the funeral of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Gingrich claimed Clinton made him exit from the back of the plane.

The New York Daily News ran a front-page cartoon of Gingrich as a chubby baby in diapers, crying and holding a bottle. The headline read, “Cry Baby.” The summary was: “Newt’s tantrum: He closed down the government because Clinton made him sit back of the plane.” It was both bias on the part of the liberal media and an unforced error on the part of Gingrich.

Let’s also consider the substance of the balanced-budget agreement with Clinton. It contained an expensive new health care entitlement that would later be expanded to include many middle-class families and was a forerunner to Obamacare. Before the shutdowns, Republicans were trying to abolish government programs and agencies, not create new ones.

In fact, before the shutdowns Republicans were trying to reform — and restrain the costs of — Medicare. They did nothing of the sort afterward. By 1998, congressional Republicans were proposing budgets that outspent Clinton’s. By the time George W. Bush was president, discretionary spending was growing faster than it ever did under Clinton, despite a Republican Congress.

After the shutdowns, Republicans surrendered and lost their nerve on fighting big government. It took until 2010 for the party to regain it. It would be a shame if they repeated the same mistake and lost their government-cutting zeal again.

But that’s what they say about people who don’t learn from history. They are doomed to repeat it.

Feature Photo Credit: Dennis Cook/AP

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