A lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill are terrified of a government shutdown. Look at what happened in 1995, they say, when Newt Gingrich forced a showdown with Bill Clinton and got his clock cleaned. It was a disaster the party can't afford to repeat.
But another view is emerging in Republican circles. Perhaps GOP strategists have learned the wrong lesson from 1995. Maybe this time, while Republicans shouldn't seek a shutdown, they shouldn't fear one, either. For five reasons:
1) If shutting down the government in 1995 was such a catastrophe, how come the GOP not only kept control of the House in the 1996 elections but also remained the majority party in the House for a decade to come? The voter revenge predicted at the time did not happen.
2) Even if the 1995 shutdown hurt the GOP -- and there's no doubt the party suffered wounds inflicted not only by Clinton but also by themselves -- today's voters are in a different mood. "We have fiscal crises at the federal, state and local levels, and voters understand that," says Bill Paxon, a former Republican lawmaker and veteran of the shutdown. "Back in '95, we were whistling into the wind -- we were trying to preach fiscal discipline when voters were saying, 'Hey, there's not a problem.'"
3) Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner have learned from their mistakes. "Our goal is to cut spending and reduce the size of government, not to shut it down," Boehner said recently -- a statement he has repeated many times. Contrast that to 1995, when, Paxon recalls, "We said we wanted to shut down the government, that it was a good thing, that it would get people's attention, that it would advance our cause." Now, it's Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats who seem itching for a shutdown.
4) Today's media environment is substantially different. "In '95, there was no Internet, no bloggers, no Facebook, no Fox News," says Dick Armey, who was House majority leader during the shutdown. "The discourse of politics today is carried out in a media world that didn't exist in 1995." That doesn't mean there wouldn't be negative coverage of Republicans if a shutdown occurs, just that the overall media picture would be more balanced.
5) Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton. "In '95, Clinton was at the table working hard, sleeves rolled up, everybody knew we were having meetings at the White House and the president was engaged," says Armey. "This president is seen as disengaged and aloof from the process. Barack Obama is a rank amateur compared to Bill Clinton."
Looking back, Republicans concede that Clinton had their number. They particularly remember the January 1996 State of the Union address, when, after the shutdown was over -- actually there were two separate shutdowns a few weeks apart -- Clinton laid a trap that still makes them wince today. Praising the dedication and commitment of federal workers, Clinton pointed to a man named Richard Dean, a Social Security employee who was in the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., when it was bombed on April 19, 1995. Escaping the rubble, Dean went back into the building and saved three lives. Clinton brought him to Washington to attend the speech.
When Clinton asked the audience to applaud Dean's service and heroism, lawmakers, including all the Republicans in the room, burst into an extended standing ovation. But Clinton had more to say. "Richard Dean's story doesn't end there," he continued. "This last November, he was forced out of his office when the government shut down. And the second time the government shut down, he continued helping Social Security recipients, but he was working without pay." For workers like Dean, Clinton said, "I challenge all of you in this chamber: Never, ever shut the federal government down again."
Democrats burst into applause; Gingrich sat on his hands. Republicans knew they had been outfoxed again; ask Paxon how he felt at that moment, and he recalls a single word: "Oops." Clinton later bragged about the "zinger" that stuck it to his opponents. "I didn't think I had to worry about a third government shutdown," he wrote in his memoir, "My Life."
Could it happen again? Possibly. On the other hand, some of the veterans of 1995 believe Obama is good, but not that good.
None of this is to suggest that a government shutdown would be a good thing. It wouldn't. But Republicans are beginning to think that this time, it might turn out differently.
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