In 1995 and into 1996 the government shut down after President Clinton vetoed budgets sent to him from the Republican House and Senate. The first shut down was from November 14-19, 1995, followed by a second from December 16, 1995 to January 6, 1996. The Republicans suffered politically from that shutdown, and their case was better then than it is now.
So in 1995 both houses of Congress were united in sending the President a budget to fund the government. The President vetoed the budget. The President does have veto power, but the Republicans then could make a strong case that they represented the will of the people in both houses. Moreover, the reason the shutdown didn’t start until November 14th was because a continuing resolution was passed to extend spending from October 1 to November 13th to give them time to settle differences before the shut down.
At that time it was appropriate for Clinton to negotiate. Congress was united on a budget and his veto prevented it from becoming law. In that since his veto was as much to blame for the shutdown as the GOP budget — It was a real conflict over the scope of spending, and the inability of the two sides to agree led to an impasse that shut down the government. Today’s shutdown is nothing like that, it is a small group of House Republicans trying to use it to force the President to delay Obamacare. Already it’s clear that cooler heads in the GOP have recognized that such a demand was over the top – but it’s hard to stand down from a battle once its started.
But while it may be clear why the GOP is being hurt by this shutdown, why were Republicans blamed in 1995? That shut down looks triggered by a Presidential veto, not a refusal to vote! The reason is that the GOP appeared too eager for confrontation, with Speaker Gingrich infamously saying “Which of the two of us do you think worries more about the government not showing up?” That played well to Republican stalwarts, but seemed bizarre to most people who simply wanted things to get back to normal. There was also a sense that the Republicans, and in particular speaker Gingrich, had personal motives:
While the shutdown was underway, President Clinton did not talk to Gingrich on the flight to the funeral of Yitzak Rabin. That irked Gingrich who complained that the President didn’t allow a meeting, and in fact made him exit from the back, separate from the President. This almost assuredly was not the cause of the shutdown, but it fed into the idea that it wasn’t serious – that the Republicans were just trying to get Clinton. Compare that with quotes coming from the GOP this shutdown, and if anything their reputation is worse than it was in 1996; the only good news for the GOP is that Speaker Boehner is more careful in his sound bites than Newt was.
Back in 1995 after six days of government shutdown they passed a temporary spending measure that reopened government but didn’t resolve the dispute. That led to the second shutdown, which lasted 22 days. It was settled by a balanced budget agreement that included a mix of spending cuts and tax increases (yes, the Republicans agreed to tax increases). In comparison to today’s tea party wing of the GOP, Newt Gingrich appears as a reasoned moderate.
The impact on President Clinton was clear – his approval rating dropped from 51% to 42%, even as the country blamed Republicans for the shutdown by a margin of 46% blaming the GOP to 27% blaming Clinton. During the shutdown most Americans were disgusted with both sides, especially as the shutdown occurred over Christmas.
But after the shutdown, President Clinton emerged a clear winner. He had been seen as a likely one term President in mid-1995, but after the shutdown he looked stronger and ended up gliding to an easy victory in the 1996 election. The Republican House of Representatives did not suffer much, losing only three seats.
Still, the mood of the country shifted, and Clinton emerged as a very popular President.
But think about it – that shutdown happened after both sides passed measures designed to give them more time to settle legitimate differences on the budget. It happened because the President has veto power. And the public blamed and punished the side whose message was mixed and hostile, ultimately rewarding the President. The GOP was left blaming the media.
That scenario is playing out again. The good news: Americans don’t like confrontation of a sort that disrupts our routine and is embarrassing for our political system. They’re smart enough to realize that pushing the country into shutdown mode (or default mode) is absurd. I suspect neither party will want to travel down this path again any time soon, and the extremists who pushed for this may find themselves losing political clout after all is said and done.