Saturday, November 28, 2015

Flashback, November 1995: GOP Forces Government Shutdown

Twenty years ago this month, the Republican Party, given the upper hand in the prior year’s midterm elections, did something it would resort to repeatedly in the following two decades: badly overplay its hand. In refusing to come to terms with President Bill Clinton, they forced the U.S. federal government to shut down.

Americans in prior generations would have been astounded that for five days starting November 13, approximately 40% of the nondefense workforce went on “furlough”—the inevitable result when Congress sent Clinton a continuing resolution that would have raised Medicare premiums, forced him to balance the budget within seven years, and curtailed environmental regulations, among other provisions. The President, backed into a corner, came out swinging. His veto triggered the shutdown.

But even that wasn’t the truly amazing part.

This was: the GOP, having decided they had not really gotten the better of the President (even though he had agreed to their demand for a seven-year target for a balanced budget), refused to compromise again in December. Their continuing resolution passed in November to keep the government going lasted only a month. Their insistence that the President use budget projections by the Congressional Budget Office rather than the more optimistic Office of Management and Budget forced another shutdown.

Only this time, the mad act of destruction lasted 21 days, not just a weekend, as had occurred other times in the past. Unless someone was deemed “essential,” no government worker would pick up a phone or receive visitors at offices. This had immediate consequences, as Social Security checks weren’t mailed and national parks and landmarks couldn’t be toured.

(This threw a bit of a monkey wrench for my own plans for vacation in San Antonio that month. Although I was pleased that the Alamo—operated by the “Daughters of the Texas Revolution” rather than the federal government—would remain open, several of the San Antonio Missions founded in the Spanish colonial period were unavailable for touring.)

When the dust cleared, the party discovered that the American public blamed them, not the Democrats, for the disarray and disruption.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who had held the threat of a shutdown like a cudgel over the President’s head since the spring, was forced to back down. His capitulation damaged the GOP leadership in two ways.

First was the impact on Gingrich, who, as a bumptious back-bencher five years before, had helped trash a budget deal that many in the administration of George H.W. Bush were sure he had agreed to. That act of perfidy might have made him persona non grata with the Bush White House, but it had surely raised his stock among restless party members.

His prestige with the incoming GOP “Class of ’95” Congress was enormous: his political action committee had fed them favorite buzzwords like (e.g., "sick," "pathetic," "cheat," "corrupt," "radical," "traitor"--you get the idea), returning the GOP to power on Capitol Hill for the first time in 40 years. His “Contract With America” not only provided these candidates with a coherent national platform, but also invited comparison, as a blueprint for legislative governing, with the “American System” proposed in the 19th century by Henry Clay, another Speaker with ambitions for higher office.

All of this was catnip to Gingrich, who thought of himself as a conservative revolutionary. "A president who knows how to use the media is in fact President of the World,'' he had told Bush’s surprised OMB Director, Richard Darman, back in 1990. That arrogance came out again as he posed for Time Magazine’s KING OF THE HILL cover story in January 1995.

The 1995 government shutdown demonstrated that, when it came to undermining established leaders, he was not quite the Newt Guevara he saw in the mirror. He made three mistakes:

1) He predicted that Medicare would “wither on the vine,” allowing Clinton to claim that eliminating this popular program was part of the GOP’s real agenda;
      2) He guessed that Clinton would roll over without a fight, not understanding that the President was far better politically attuned to what the public wanted in this instance than he was; and,

      3)  He complained that, on a 25-hour plane flight aboard Air Force One for the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Clinton had not talked to him about a possible solution to the shutdown—sparking a famous New York Daily News front-page cartoon of the Speaker in diapers, wailing, with the headline, “CRY BABY: NEWT'S TANTRUM: He closed down the government because Clinton made him sit at back of plane.” The image made Gingrich a national laughingstock.

While he survived in his post for another three years after his disastrous shutdown miscalculation, Gingrich was forced to bank on residual credit from the party rank and file for returning them to power. In the meantime, he made Clinton—who had been forced to argue to a skeptical White House press corps after the midterms that as President he remained “relevant”—look like a giant killer, boosting his reelection campaign the following year. Gingrich’s own aspirations for the Oval Office were checked—as it happened, we now see, permanently.

The second way that the shutdown damaged the Republicans was the immediate fallout for the Presidential hopes of  Robert Dole. In vain did the Senate Majority Leader argue privately with Gingrich and the House leaders that a prolonged shutdown was not a desirable “endgame.” Before long, the Democratic Party was assailing the presumptive GOP nominee in devastating “Dole-Gingrich Monster” ads.

In the shutdown battle, the President employed the political version of Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy against George Foreman in Zaire two decades before. Declining poll numbers had left Clinton metaphorically against the ropes. The GOP, like Foreman against Ali, believed that there was no way he could endure the full pressure of a government at a standstill, not to mention their own constant threats and unconcealed contempt (House Majority Leader Richard Armey and Senator Don Nickels simply didn’t want to deal with Clinton in meetings at the White House, press secretary Mike McCurry recalled in Michael Tariff’s oral biography of the President, A Complicated Man)

Clinton’s endurance of the GOP’s game of budget chicken marked the beginning of the turnaround in his fortunes. That, and an opportune lift from the economy, proved decisive in his triumph over Dole the following November.

(Clinton being Clinton, though, he squandered the advantage given him by the Capitol Hill Republicans. With paid staff sidelined during the shutdown, only volunteer interns could man White House phones and staff functions. On the second day of the November shutdown, one of them. Monica Lewinsky, flashed her thong at the President. To his dying day, Clinton will rue that he reacted positively to the sight.)

Capitol Hill Republicans learned nothing from their 1995 shutdown debacle. Two years ago, they shut down the government again, for 16 days, over Obamacare. This year, the Department of Homeland Security was almost forced to close because the GOP wanted to have it out with Obama over his immigration policies.

Now, the Senator who infuriated the GOP establishment—in much the same way that Gingrich did in the 1990s—with his grandstanding in the 2013 budget standoff has been rising in the GOP Presidential polls. But it wasn’t until I saw an exhibit over a week ago on Bob Hope and political satire at the Library of Congress that I saw a character similar to Ted Cruz. It was the vicious wildcat Simple J. Malarkey of Walt Kelly’s midcentury comic strip “Pogo.”

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