Even as Congress and the president took the first tentative steps toward a debt-ceiling deal last week, the press was already declaring who won the budget showdown (Obama) and who lost it (Republicans). That could well turn out to be the case, but a look at the previous federal shutdown should dissuade us from reaching snap judgments.
I was a member of the new Republican majority of the U.S. House of Representatives during the winter of 1995 -1996 when parts of the federal government were shut down. Our Speaker Newt Gingrich was not just negotiating every day with President Bill Clinton. He was also trying to preserve the unity and resolve of a diverse Republican caucus.
Even though we were then at the dawn of the era of the 24-hour news cycle, we Republicans were getting pounded incessantly by the media and by many of our constituents as a result of President Clinton’s constant repetition of his poll-tested message that he was only fighting to protect “Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.”
Newt, the history professor, insisted that we take a longer-term perspective. He brought in GOP Governors Bill Weld of Massachusetts and John Engler of Michigan to explain to the Republican Conference how they had been vilified for their spending cuts in the early years of their administrations and how their blue states reelected them four years later.
But unlike governors, U.S. representatives were given two-year terms by the Founding Fathers, who wanted all the members of one house to be perpetually terrified of being cashiered by their constituents. And senators, despite their six-year terms, have also learned how to read public opinion polls. In the end, it was Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who declared that the shutdown had gone on long enough. Not coincidentally, Dole was preparing to run for President in 1996 (possibly against Gingrich).
Even though Gingrich thought he had the upper hand by playing the long game, he was outfoxed in the short run by President Clinton and his overnight polling.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. By the time the 1996 elections took place, the shutdown had been overtaken in the public mind by a host of other issues. Republicans lost only three seats in the House, reelecting their majority there for the first time since 1928. And the GOP actually picked up two seats in the Senate.
To be sure, the drama of the shutdown enhanced the image of President Clinton and weakened the electability of his challenger Bob Dole (who was invariably paired with the more recalcitrant Gingrich in Clinton’s TV advertising). And the shutdown helped hasten the political polarization that resulted in New Jersey’s shift in 1996 from being a presidential swing state to being a reliable part of the Democratic base.
As this is written, there is still plenty of opportunity for the Republican Party to misplay its hand so badly that it will forfeit its opportunity to win a majority in the Senate and even imperil its entrenched majority in the House — particularly if the government actually defaults on it debt obligations. But if the GOP gets this crisis behind it, whether or not it is seen as winning in the short run, it will allow next year’s election to be what off-year elections almost always are: a referendum on the incumbent president. And, historically, elections in a president’s sixth year are almost always very bad news for his party.
Of course, only politicians would see a single year and a single election as “the long run.” What would constitute a truly durable victory for the Republican Party (and everyone else) would be a negotiated solution that not only reopens the government and allows it to pay its bills but also begins to address the runaway entitlement obligations that imperil not just the fortunes of our political parties but also our nation’s future viability.