Newt Gingrich was the face of the last federal government shutdown, the fiery House speaker who led his Republican revolution headlong into a confrontation with a Democratic president.
Now, 15 years later and with another federal shutdown looming, Gingrich is trying to use the budget crisis in Washington to his advantage and, perhaps, rewrite history as he embarks on a presidential campaign.
"The lesson for today's House Republicans is simple: Work to keep the government open, unless it requires breaking your word to the American people and giving up your principles," Gingrich wrote in a recent newspaper column that detailed his rosy version of the 1990s budget fights. He urged the GOP majority in the House to force President Barack Obama either to accept a bill with deep spending cuts or veto it, even if that leads to a shutdown.
It was a message that Gingrich delivered personally last week when he popped up on Capitol Hill to meet with GOP House freshmen, casting himself as a sage veteran of the budget wars to a new generation of rabble-rousers. A number of them are tea party adherents pushing for the deep spending cuts that have tied budget negotiators in knots. Without an agreement, the government could shut down on Friday.
"It's good for us to hear from someone who's been there," said Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgian who is president of the new GOP class. "There's a lot of respect for Newt in that room."
Among other things, a shutdown would delay pay to military troops, slow the processing of tax returns, cancel Washington's National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade and close national parks across the country.
The talk of a shutdown comes with both political peril and opportunity for Gingrich. It stirs memories of a showdown that ultimately was seen as having disastrous political consequences for him and his House Republicans. But it also could endear Gingrich to tea party ideologues who favor smaller government, less spending and, maybe most of all, standing firm against compromise.
On a broader level, it highlights an ongoing challenge for Gingrich: To run as the battle-tested candidate of experience, he must embrace his legacy, warts and all.
Gingrich rose to power following the 1994 elections, when Republicans took control of the House as the country delivered a sharp rebuke to a first-term president, Bill Clinton. Over the next two years, the new House speaker led the party in a confrontation over spending with Clinton that resulted in two government shutdowns.
The work stoppages inconvenienced millions of people. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers were furloughed. National parks closed. Health and financial services were delayed for military veterans. And thousands of applications by foreigners for U.S. visas went unprocessed every day the shutdowns lasted. The first, in November 1995, lasted six days, and was followed by a 21-day closure that ran from late December into the new year.
They wound up damaging the GOP politically. The stalemates ended in a Republican retreat, and Clinton emerged the political victor. He used the 1995 shutdown to depict Gingrich and his followers as irresponsible radicals, resurrected his presidency and cruised to re-election a year later. The GOP held onto its majority, but Gingrich saw his approval ratings plummet. He stepped aside as speaker two years later.
Building a likely presidential bid for 2012, Gingrich is recasting the 1990s budget showdowns as a victory for the GOP that drove down spending by paving the way for a balanced budget agreement and welfare reform a few years later. He also argues that it was Clinton's 1995 budget veto that was to blame for closing down the government.
He leaves out the detail that, as part of the deal that ended the shutdowns, conservative Republicans were forced to create a new government benefit program _ health care for millions of lower-income children _ that Clinton demanded.
Gingrich declined to be interviewed for this story. Republicans who served with him in the House say his behavior during the standoff helped swing public opinion against the GOP.
Former Rep. Robert Walker, R-Pa., said it was a mistake for Gingrich to complain that he was slighted by Clinton during a long flight aboard Air Force One, which at the time Gingrich said led Republicans to adopt a tougher line in the budget battle. It also prompted the media to portray Gingrich as petulant; a New York Daily News cover depicted Gingrich in a diaper pitching a tantrum.
"We made some public relations mistakes in the course of that," Walker allowed in an interview.
Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler conceded that the speaker's camp lost the public relations battle in the 1990s to Clinton. But Tyler argued that Gingrich prevailed in the war, saying the shutdown laid the groundwork for lower spending over the next few years.
"Clinton won the personality contest, but Gingrich won the policy contest," Tyler said, pointing to the eventual passage of welfare reform and four years of balanced budgets as evidence.
Would Gingrich count the creation of the establishment of a health care program for low-income children as part of the victory?
"The victory was getting to the balanced budget," Tyler answered. "That was the objective of the Republicans and they achieved that goal." Gingrich has worked for decades to ensure that Americans have choice and convenience when it comes to health care coverage, he added.
Health care and leadership were the primary issues Gingrich talked about when he spoke privately to GOP freshmen on Capitol Hill last week. Participants said the lone question on the shutdown came at the end of the hour-long session.
Afterward, Gingrich told reporters that Republicans shouldn't let the White House blackmail them with the threat of a shutdown. He said he told the freshmen that they should stick to their principles but work to keep the government open.
Not that Gingrich needed to say much on the topic. His presence alone spoke volumes.
Associated Press writer Ray Henry contributed to this report.
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