Adam Graham
The real lesson of the government shutdown
By Adam Graham
July 16, 2011

In light of the debt ceiling debate, many are warning that a failure to raise the debt ceiling which leads defaults or to a partial government shutdown would be a political catastrophe for Republicans and call to mind the . Indeed, back in April when facing the issue of the FY2011 budget, Speaker Boehner and several grizzled veteran house members warned the GOP caucus that a government shutdown would be politically devastating for the GOP, just as it was in 1995.

The problem with these stories of the horror, woe, and doom of 1995? They're not true.

In the 1996 elections, Congressional Republicans lost nine house seats, but picked up two senate seats. The Republican losses in the Houses were to be expected after the landslide 1994. Any time a party has a national wave, here will be districts that the party wins that they can't possibly maintain as well as members who lack the political skills and judgment to be elected without the aide of political tsunami in their party's favor.

Then there's the argument raised by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that the 1995 Government shutdown "helped" Bill Clinton get re-elected. This is a quaint idea that disregards the role that nation performance plays in American presidential elections. When voters decide on a President, they ask questions about how the country is doing.

Looking back to 1996, what reason did swing voters have to throw President Clinton out of office? The economy was doing well with the dot com boom serving as a political windfall for the President and unemployment was moving down. President Clinton had struck a grand bargain to reform Welfare and at the same time raise the minimum wage, fulfilling a key campaign promise that wouldn't have been possible if Democrats had kept control of Congress. The deficit was smaller than when Clinton took office with a growing GDP. Outside of Clinton's early misstep in Somalia, the U.S. was in a relative state of peace with only peacekeeping deployments to a few trouble spots. He'd even joined social conservatives in support for the Defense of Marriage Act.

Conservative activists had plenty against President Clinton including his appointments, his stance on social issues and gun control, esoteric scandals that the electorate either didn't understand or didn't care about, and the fact that he had raised taxes on those making more than $127,000 per year. None of this resonated with the American people or provided the high burden of proof that voters demand to remove an incumbent President, particularly in good economic times.

With President Obama, many of these situations are reversed. Unemployment is higher than when the President took office and the economy is stagnating. Rather that shrinking deficits, the President offers us a future with trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. Unlike Clinton, Obama has no unfulfilled moderate impulses that can be parlayed into a major popular policy achievement with the Republican House. All he has to credit is a highly unpopular health care bill that was cobbled together in the last Congress and led to electoral disaster for his own party.

Are there lessons to be drawn from the period? Sure, but not the doom and gloom being concocted by pundits and DC politician.

In the first place, Republicans in 1995 lost the PR battle. Some of this was personality driven with Newt Gingrich's complaints about his Air Force One seating on a trip to a state funeral. But there was also a policy articulation problem. That the event is referred to universally as "the Republicans shutting down the government," shows how badly the GOP mismanaged its communications. Technically, the GOP didn't shut down the government. President Clinton did. He vetoed a continuing resolution that would have kept the government running and force changes that would lead to a balanced budget in seven years. The GOP ought to have been on the air with ads slamming the President for shutting down the government and touting the Republican Majority as doing what it promised to do in reigning in fiscal profligacy. Instead, there was none of that. President Clinton and the media got to define what had happened, so they won the debate. Republicans need to be prepared for a PR war as the debt ceiling deadline looms.

The second lesson is the danger of timidity. Then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole the government shutdown by passing a continuing resolution that met President Clinton's demands. The Republican Revolution of 1994 was effectively over. The GOP determined to go along to get along and became the party of earmarks, big spending, and the preservation of political power. The new boss became the old boss. In 2005, then-House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Tx) best exemplified this new establishment attitude when he declared the budget had been "pared down pretty good."

They maintained their majority for eleven more years but they failed to address the serious fiscal issues with entitlements that were always there, other than making them worse by expanding into Medicare Part D. The Republicans failed to advance any Conservative health care plan that could have headed off Obamacare-style reform. The Republicans failed to reform the U.S. Tax Code. Tentative attempts were made at some of these items, but under media fire, the GOP always wilted as retreat seemed to be easier than explaining their program to the American people.

The GOP Majority of 1996-2006's timidity in the face of big issues played large role in creating the crisis we're in right now. In this debt ceiling debate, one cannot help but hear echoes of that wasted Congressional decade in nervous voices of those who warn about the dangers of the 1995 government shutdown. If America's fiscal problems are going to be addressed, the GOP needs to act in the spirit of the old Latin proverb, "Fortune Favors the Bold" rather than the GOP motto of recent years when facing tough issues, "Duck and Cover."

© Adam Graham


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Adam Graham

Adam Graham was Montana State Coordinator for the Alan Keyes campaign in 2000, and in 2004 was a candidate for the Republican nomination for the Idaho State House... (more)

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