Shutdown Roundtable: Lessons from 1994?

Here at Rule22, we decided to try something new: we’re each going to weigh in on the looming government shutdown.  Josh’s excellent post, if you haven’t read it, suggests that the Democratic strategy of co-opting the Republican agenda, which has been so frustrating to some left-wing Democrats, may actually help their image in the event of a shutdown.  While Jordan and Will will jump in with their ideas later, mine considers the comparison between the current standoff and the 1995 shutdown.

It’s awfully tempting to reach back to 1995 and try to draw some lessons for the current situation from there.  And, on the face of things, it seems like a reasonable decision to make, but there are a few reasons that I’m not comfortable doing so.

To be sure, there are some distinct commonalities.  There’s a first term Democratic president and group of upstart conservative Republicans who have a ridden in to Congress with a pretty big majority.  The Gingrich led Republicans stuck to their guns after campaigning on the Contract with America, and cheered by pundits like Rush Limbaugh, refused to submit a budget that Clinton would sign, and a government shutdown.  During the shutdown, approval ratings for both Clinton and Congress were quite low.  However, in the days and weeks after the shutdown, the American public pretty clearly attributed blame to the Republicans in general, and Gingrich in particular, while Clinton’s numbers recovered quite nicely.

And here we are today, with a first term Democratic president and a big group of young, aggressive Republicans who, cheered on by Rush Limbaugh, are hurtling towards one another in a similar game of chicken.  But there are three reasons that I don’t feel that the outcome will be the same.

First, the manner of leadership among Republicans in 1994 is quite different from the current Republican leadership.  As Jordan established before, John Boehner has adopted a very diffuse approach to leadership.  While Newt Gingrich was quite radical in his centralization of speaker power, Boehner has been equally radical in his decentralization of power.  I’ve argued that the difference in leadership style is due, at least in part, to the ideological heterogeneity in the current Republican caucus, but there’s no denying that Boehner is less likely to give The Treatment to his rank-and-file than his predecessors were.  The fact that the Republican leadership has allowed for a more decentralized approach essentially gives them a chance to diffuse the blame a bit.  It will be harder for the Democrats to bring this to Boehner’s lap the same way that they did to Gingrich.

Second, though somewhat related, Boehner has kept a much lower profile than Gingrich did.  Further, Pollster’s Mark Blumenthal shows that opinion on Boehner has been far less negative than it was for Gingrich leading in to the government shutdown.  Whereas Gingrich did his best to stay in the headlines, Boehner seems content to take a step back. Blumenthal also shows that public opinion waited to swing against the Republicans until Gingrich threw his hissy fit about having to get off the rear exit of Air Force One.  I don’t see Boehner making a similar misstep.

Third, I’m doubtful that Obama will be able to skirt the blame as successfully as Clinton did.  Obviously, it hurts Obama that Boehner is a tougher target than Gingrich was.  Beyond that though, Clinton’s ability to point his fingers at the Republicans was pretty masterful (they didn’t call him Slick Willy for nothing).  While Obama’s been occasionally able to clear some hurdles brilliantly, he’s flubbed at times as well.  In particular, the Democratic PR team will have to do a better job of message discipline than they have been recently if they’re going to win the spin game.

We’ll see if I’m right in the coming days and weeks, but I just don’t see a government shutdown hurting the Republicans quite as much this time around.  It’ll be interesting to see.  In the meantime, I’ve almost managed to get my students interested in the budgetary process.  If the implications of a government shutdown weren’t quite so close to home, and quite so severe, I might be able to enjoy the pedagogical opportunity a bit more.

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