Menus Subscribe Search
closed-sign

(PHOTO: CLAUDIO DIVIZIO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Who Actually Won During the Last Government Shutdown?

• September 24, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(PHOTO: CLAUDIO DIVIZIO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

It’s mostly the younger members of Congress who are pushing for a shutdown of the federal government this week. Do they need a history lesson about what happened in the winter of 1995-96?

Once again, the federal government is on the brink of a shutdown. As in 1995-96 and 2011, the House of Representatives and the President cannot seem to come to terms about a budget that will keep the government running, and time is running short.

But there are a few new wrinkles this time around. First is that House Republicans have a very specific request—would the President please agree to destroy his premier legislative accomplishment? If so, they’d be happy to provide plenty of funds for everything else. Second is that there is a very public rift among congressional Republicans about whether a government shutdown would be good or bad for their party. This disagreement stems from wildly divergent views about who “won” the lengthy shutdown in the winter of 1995-96.

Molly Ball has an excellent piece on this intra-party struggle, noting that it seems to be conservative activists and younger members of Congress who weren’t around in the mid-’90s who are pushing for a shutdown now. Those who were there at the time seem to regard it as something to be avoided.

Clinton’s approval ratings actually declined somewhat during the shutdown, but they improved markedly several months later. How should we interpret this?

So what actually happened? It wasn’t like there was an official moderator who declared President Clinton the victor. Who really won?

The polling on this matter is not terribly conclusive. As John Sides notes, Clinton’s approval ratings actually declined somewhat during the shutdown, but they improved markedly several months later. How should we interpret this? Did it take the public several months to render a decision about the shutdown, after which they decided in Clinton’s favor? Or did the public quickly forget about the shutdown after it ended and just gave Clinton higher marks thanks to an improving economy in 1996? It’s hard to say.

It does seem, however, that Washington opinion leaders who were there at the time of the last shutdown widely viewed it as a loss for House Republicans. The dominant images emerging from that time were of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich throwing tantrums and President Clinton standing firm on party governing priorities. Indeed, Charles Krauthammer says the shutdown “marked the end of the Gingrich revolution.” The GOP ultimately acceded to most of Clinton’s budget demands, and as my colleague Peter Hanson is finding in his book research, the memories of that shutdown defined future negotiations between Republican congressional leaders and the White House. Before the shutdown, they thought they could roll Clinton on everything; after, they were scared to cross him.

It may well be that modern political observers are misreading what happened during the mid-’90s shutdown. Perhaps the idea that Clinton “won” is largely perceptual, and that maybe with a more disciplined Speaker than Gingrich (it’s a low bar, but Boehner more than fits the bill), a shakier overall economy, and a President defending policies that are less popular than the ones that Clinton was defending, this round might not obviously go to the White House.

Perhaps. Nonetheless, it still seems like a pretty severe gamble. Obama and the Democrats would have a united message, while the Republicans would have a wide range of messengers with various degrees of commitment to this particular tactic. It won’t be hard to portray the Republicans as having given in to Tea Party extremists who are more obsessed with undoing a law that passed years ago and was upheld by the Supreme Court than with actually getting the government to live within its means.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.